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Trans people and the current feminist movement

Don't be fooled: feminism is about exploring gender, not policing it.

Supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groups
Supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groups wave a huge rainbow banner as they march at the University of the Philippines. Photograph: Getty Images

An international movement is building that links trans liberation with feminist organising. Based around activism and campaigning on grassroots issues and connected through social media, it draws on a rich history of queer and feminist theory while avoiding the binary, male-female thinking which has made some parts of the feminist movement hostile to trans people. For those more interested in the commonalities between feminist and trans campaigning, a host of Tumblrs such as the Trans Women's Anti-Violence Project and Facebook groups such as Feminists Against Transphobia and Feminist: Discuss are creating both transgender space that is explicitly feminist, and feminist space that is explicitly trans inclusive.

The need for such spaces is far from academic, and social media has given rise to street-level organising. As austerity systematically targets marginalised people and decimates the resources aimed at reducing gender inequality, transgender and feminist movements are finding common ground in campaigning around domestic violence, street harassment and reproductive rights, all issues that directly affect women and trans people. For Caitlin Hayward-Tapp, one member of the Brighton Feminist Collective, a focus on transgender was always important.

"One of the things that we were very clear on was that we wanted it to be a trans inclusive feminist space. We've worked quite closely with Brighton Pro-Choice; trans men also get pregnant and need abortions too. We organised the Brighton Reclaim the Night; trans inclusivity was a driving force behind organising that march. Street violence is a huge issue for trans people and women in general," she argues. The group takes its methodology from the second-wave feminist model of consciousness-raising and grassroots campaigning.  "We meet every week; half of our meeting is an activist session where we decide what kinds of campaigns we want to get involved in, and the other half is a discussion. People bring their own knowledge to the group and offer to lead discussions on race, or on rape culture, and we'll spend an hour thrashing out ideas as a group. We're not a women-only space, but if we were, we would be for self-defined women; the idea that trans women aren't women is hugely difficult for me. It's not feminist to say you have to have a certain kind of biology to get involved in our activism."

Ariel Silvera, feminist trans activist and writer, was born and raised in Argentina but has spent the last 10 years campaigning in Dublin's feminist scene. She addressed Dublin's enormous 2012 Rally For Choice, discussing the reproductive rights of trans men, to a rapturous reception. "I have had to do a lot of educating [as a trans woman in feminist circles] but there hasn't been resistance. I've had a long involvement with the Irish pro choice movement, it's kind of where my feminist roots lie," she says.

Though Silvera says there's not yet an explicitly trans-focused feminism in Ireland, she feels that the priorities of Irish feminism leave little room for policing trans people out of feminist campaigning. "In England in the eighties when [feminists] were having wars over kink and porn, Irish women were trying to smuggle condoms from Northern Ireland, trying not to get sent to Magdalene laundries, and trying to escape husbands they could not divorce. In Ireland divorce was illegal until 1995 and homosexuality was illegal until 1994. Who has time to be transphobic?" She laughs. "[In Dublin currently] there are more trans people who are feminists, outspokenly and publicly so, and there are more feminists who are willing to engage in trans issues."

This movement, then, is political in the strictest sense: a natural congruence of the interests and concerns of oppressed people at a time when those concerns are pressing. Trans and genderqueer people have worked within and alongside the feminist movement for more than 40 years, and though their work has too often gone unrecognised, feminist theory has at times drawn deeply from their thinking and experiences to explore non-binary concepts of gender. Although the new resources are based online, centred around the borderless world of blogs, email lists and Facebook groups, this is as much the feminism of Judith Butler or Joan Nestle as it is the feminism of Julia Serano; feminism which explores non-essentialist readings of gender and sees complex oppressions at the heart of women's experiences.

At a demonstration this week against the Observer's decision to publish Julie Burchill's scathing dismissal of trans people, people of all genders and ages gathered to protest against transphobia. "I'm here in solidarity with my trans brothers and sisters," says one older woman in the Guardian's video of the event. "Feminism is about working for equality with all minorities and marginalised people."  Hayward-Tapp agrees: "The levels of transphobia in this country and internationally are so enormous that as feminists we have a responsibility to address this. It would be completely wrong for cisgendered feminists to say "this is our space". All oppressions need to be addressed, not just gender but race and class and disability and sexuality. With that mentality it's always important to make sure that trans people are included in our feminism."

Petra Davis is a queer feminist activist and writer.