Sticks, Stones, and Others
Put simply, two – at least two – groups in society are seemingly locked in struggle with each other, and this is ironic because the groups have much in common including, I think, their ambitions for a society we can all live in. It’s an irony which disturbs me, and I’m trying, as we say hereabouts, to get my head round it. One way to do that is to write about it, but the situation is now so aggravated that it will take more than one dispatch for me to clear my mind, to achieve some perspective. You have to start, though. Every gesture towards reconciliation must count somehow.
Trans activists and feminists are engaged in conflict, a struggle mainly conducted so far in the media, and in public meetings. One of the issues concerns shared space and private space. One space I think of as private and inviolate is my waking consciousness, but the other morning I found myself lying in bed half-awake fretting about this increasingly poisonous disputation. The fret had seemed to have come out of my dreams and as soon as I reached for the realities of the day it raised its restless head and my day was infected. It just goes to show, I thought, that any space can be violated if the invasive idea is injurious or dangerous. I’ll have to sort this out.
So, being a bigger picture kind of girl I stood tall for a moment and looked around me. The historic moment is liable to strife and turbulence, I said to myself, sounding a bit like Lincoln at Gettysburg. What I was thinking about was the way a number of tendencies in society were colliding in the present. A right-wing resurgence in public debate, a “millennial” presence charged with hypercritical views and entitlement – both critical, outspoken and self-centred – and now they are joined by the awakened awareness of transgender values and qualities. It may be trans’s moment in the sun, but there were always going to be others claiming attention. It would be hard to say which elements of this conflict came first and I have failed so far to mention a new wave of feminists with their particular perspectives some of whom have started to grapple with transgender as an opposition. What, as they say, a to-do it all is.
"IT ISN’T ALWAYS HELPFUL TO SAY THAT WE HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE, BUT WE HAVE."
It isn’t always helpful to say that we have been here before, but we have. No-one can quite attribute the quote about those who can’t recall history being condemned to repeat it, but it surely applies here. In nearer times we had “political correctness” and the disputes it engendered but, more to the point, in the 1970’s and 80’s the trans community and many second-wave feminists came into a deeply unproductive relationship. The conflict still casts its shadow over the role of trans in contemporary events, and the current situation is part of that legacy. But, look, there are no easy parallels between that opposition in the 70’s and 80’s and what’s happening now. I want to explore that history for its relevance in a future post. Meanwhile we are in a bind and we need to find a way out of it.
So, - mud-wrestling? Well, the patriarchy must be laughing all the way to their front porches. It benefits them to encourage conflict and then to stand back and watch the fracas. They conserve their own power and influence while ours is dissipated. Long live socialist coalitions, I say, but they can, and all too frequently do, lapse into fragmentation, while their opponents, with no principles of their own on offer, hide in a spurious unity, dedicated to keeping power at any cost. The patriarchy, whichever sex or gender they manifest or present as, profit from dissent. We do have principles where they do not but we need to be cautious about how we apply our principles. Dedication to dogma can, and all too frequently has, descended into autocracy and oppression.
In the current altercation we can find both trans and feminist activists taking up defensive positions. So what is being threatened? And why do both sides think that the other is the most endangering force around? What’s all this about? It’s about a lot of things, but, as I said, it has come to be about space. What is being threatened is physiological and emotional space, Oh, and we can add in cultural space, and historical space. This space is about our right to exist within our chosen limits, definitions and parameters. It’s about a wish to feel safe within them.
You know, I don’t think it was by accident that I started off in my bed. The space I need most to keep safe is my head-space and it seems so easy to infiltrate headspace nowadays. With the right attitude we can be safe in a lot of spaces. But we don’t feel safe in our interiors, and so we get very defensive about our physical spaces. A heavily defended space, though, is not very open to new ideas and realities.
Well, here’s my admission. I have in my time, as a member of the trans community, shared many all-female spaces, - dressing-rooms, toilets, parties, transport – and I was not ejected or rejected. They were spaces that felt safe to all in them. There’s a lot of tolerance, acceptance and accommodation out there. What felt safe in those spaces? It was that those present were congenial company and non-aggressive and unselfish. It can also, though, be that there is a more threatening force outside and beyond the space. We also need to feel safe beyond our chosen limits, our definitions, our parameters. In those circumstances our strength is in numbers.
What threatens such spaces, and many others, is the sense that the enemy is within. That cues disunity and various kinds of “cleansing”. So where’s the enemy now? The patriarchy is out there, seemingly unified and unassailable, and that “seeming” lowers the spirits and raises the barricades. It also discourages people from questioning whether it is as unified and unassailable as it seems. Something in us has been disintegrated, defused and distressed. To the new feminists it is the trans community who have done that. And vice versa.
What is at our core? What defines us to ourselves? It seems to me that it is an idea of ourselves, one which seeks to resolve any dissonance between how we exist in our bodies and how we exist in our minds. It’s about external and internal realities and the membrane of awareness which exists between. Somewhere in there is a dimension of gender. Second-wave feminists were keen to abolish it. Most trans people are happy to keep it as long as it is fluid and open to negotiation.
Here is one among a number of voices I have tuned into recently in empathy -
“As a woman, it’s my belief that women’s reproductive rights are real live issues, that stand in the way of our social, cultural and legal liberation. For example – in Northern Ireland TODAY the law states if a woman has an abortion, she and any person who helped, can be jailed for life…….
This is a world-wide struggle over who has control over our wombs - our sex organs – the things that makes us biologically female…We are under attack!! I feel it’s dismissive of this very real struggle to be told, told, that my biological sex doesn’t matter – that my ‘cultural gender’ is more important!! I don’t want to take anything from the Trans community, they have my love and support forever but, Cis Woman – TERF!!”
There are many other words to be heard but for now these speak out of commitment. And they concentrate on a terminology – the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist tag – which has done the trans community a disservice by implying that we are all narrowing our sense of injustice to focus on a single cohort of people.
It seems to me likely that these warring factions are only actively a small number of individuals. As I said we share a sense of the society we want to live in. Trans and feminists could get on together with the much needed campaign to redress an imbalance and move away from masculinism and its related powers, if a certain level of communication were moderated. What I need to ask, as someone who does not have a mobile phone, who does not use Twitter, and who communicates as often as is possible and for preference in the physical presence of others, is how actually powerful and significant are these messages?
"ARE THEY SIMPLY AS POWERFUL AS WE LET THEM BE? DARE I EVEN SAY, WANT THEM TO BE?"
Are they simply as powerful as we let them be? Dare I even say, want them to be? Does it suit us more than we would admit to have a virtual other to oppose us? I treat virtual others with some caution. When I once came near to what we used to call an “E-Mail flamer” I logged off and went to the nearby office where the other person was cyber-fuming and settled it there and then.
And would these tweets which have swollen a very personal dispute to such a distracting immensity, would they reach half as many of the people we think are being infected by them if we ourselves did not react so extravagantly to them? I am wondering, I suppose, whether we aren’t making sticks and stones out of words, from some fear that the world is slipping away from our influence. If so, then all this is about power not gender, and it’s a fear which is debateable to say the least.
So in my first speculations about this gender-war thing we find ourselves happening around us and amongst us I have meandered far. Where I want to pick up in my next post is with some questions,-
When a person says, “I am a woman”, - what do they mean?
What happened in the 1970’s and 80’s that brought trans and feminists into conflict and what can we usefully learn from it?
What do we, as transgender people, have a right to which will also support the rights of others?
Where does radicalism feature in all this?
And I want to relate what, in my experience, all this looks like at ground level, below the social-media fizz and fuzz.