Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Moving towards activism

I have been doing a whole lot more activism-y type things lately. I marched to protest CHOGM -- well, not so much AGAINST CHOGM as FOR spending money on climate change awareness, renewable energy resources, and actual poor people, instead of, you know, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. I hung around at Occupy Perth and discussed anarchism, got shoved by a West Australian reporter (who called me a "fucking feral" when I told him to stop talking to me like a dickhead), and ate snacks. Snacks are an important part of activism. Snacktivism! You heard it here first.

While I was hanging around at Occupy Perth, some quiet ladies were seriously painting away at some signs for the Reclaim the Night march that was due to happen that evening at 5pm. I'm all in favour of drawing awareness to, and working to end, violence against women. I think the feminist fight is NOT over and won, and that feminism is an issue that affects EVERYBODY -- you there? Guy who complains about how women get to have the door held open for them and expect their date to pay for them? You're a feminist too! You there, person who thinks that it's funny to ask lesbians what they do in bed together? You're...well, maybe you're not a feminist. You might just be a jerk.

However, I have my reservations about the Perth Reclaim the Night event, primarily because last year's was run by ROAR, a staunchly anti-man feminist activist collective, who were specifically transphobic about RTN last year (this year's also seems to have been run by ROAR, although they're calling themselves the Reclaim The Night Collective). Following a longstanding global tradition of "when I feel slightly less oppressed, my solution is to oppress others", ROAR banned trans people from the event, claiming it was more important for people who had been identified BY SOMEONE ELSE as women, from birth, to feel safe. Cause, you know, identifying YOURSELF as a woman, despite being confusingly in the wrong body for how you identify, isn't scary and disheartening and needing of some support. Similarly, people who find themselves somewhere along the gender continuum, but have some woman in their identity -- those folks aren't welcome either. Never mind that EVERYONE can be against violence against women-identified people.

When I posted on the RTN page on Facebook asking a very simple question, I got a roundabout, evasive answer. Let's see what I got:
Claire Litton asked: “hey there, are transwomen welcome at this event?”
Kat Pinder replied: “The organisers have not developed a particular position, other than the event is for women and children. Analysis’s of trans politics can be divisive, time consuming and often unlikely to reach consensus, so it is not something that we have even attempted to reach a decision about this year. I know some womyn who are attending who would not welcome male to trans people and differing perspectives on female to trans people. I am aware that trans identified people, who were raised as males, have attended the event last year and the previous year.”
Interesting. That sounds to me like "we don't want to talk or think about this Very Important Issue so we haven't developed an Official Position on it, to avoid having anything in writing that says we DON'T like the trans people, but also that we DO." Many other Take Back The Night and Reclaim The Night rallies specifically include transwomen (who really should just be known as "women"), and it's a bit sad that these guys have kind of gone out of their way to not be inclusive...but not really be UNinclusive either. Guess they learned that lesson last year.

I find it grating that she said trans politics are "divisive". You know what helps make them divisive? Creating arbitrary divisions between who you think should be allowed to call themselves "women". Just a thought.

I am also unimpressed by how she sort of laid the "blame" at the feet of transwomen -- just so they know, "some womyn" attending have problems with MTF trans women, so, y'know, those transwomen should take that into account and be polite enough to stay home. So they don't offend their womyn compatriots. Who don't really want them there anyway. Because they're not women. They're men. Or something.

And let's not even talk about "analysis's."

I dislike any attempts to create a mysterious third gender consisting of all the "other" people, as we deem them. You're not a woman, MTF transwoman! You're a TRANS. You're not a man, FTM trans man! You're a TRANS. And you guys who have alternative gender identities, you don't really count at all.

So after that answer, I was really unimpressed by the Reclaim The Night ideals, but was willing to see how events unfolded and maybe consider joining them if I felt comfortable and welcome, and that everyone was included.

Until I saw the very serious quiet woman painting the following on her gigantic banner: PROSTITUTION = PAID RAPE.

Now call me a crazy feminist ("Okay, you're a crazy feminist") but I'm gonna call Andrea Dworking and all the other ladies who subscribe to that whole all-sex-work-is-oppression-and-by-the-way-any-hetero-sex-is-rape-because-penises-are-evil CRAZY FEMINISTS. Okay, maybe they're not crazy. But they're sure taking any form of agency and choice away from the women for whom they claim to speak, the women they claim to empower.

Some sex workers, which include prostitutes, are oppressed. Some office workers are oppressed. Some sex workers are in the sex industry against their will, through coercion. Some women become doctors against their will, through coercion. Implying that women who choose to be in the sex industry for their own reasons are doing it because they are sadly deluded or forced is patronizing, misogynistic, rude, and disempowering.

Furthermore, implying that a rape survivor's experience is in any way similar to what a prostitute experiences is deeply patronizing to a rape survivor. A sex worker has a choice about who she sleeps with. A rape survivor doesn't. A sex worker frequently acts like she enjoys it. A rape survivor doesn't. A sex worker uses condoms (and in some places, is required by law to both use condoms and dental dams, and get mandatory regular testing). A rape survivor doesn't usually have that option. Cheapening the experience of a rape survivor by saying it's "same-same" with sex work is shameful.

So, Reclaim The Night Collective, whoever you are, because I couldn't find anywhere on any literature anything about who you actually were, you faceless entity -- bad show. You are presenting a space where YOU are the ones who get to choose what being a woman means. Must be nice for you.

(Also, just as a disclaimer, I am a cis-woman myself, and I have attempted to use language in a way that gets my point across without implying divisivenes. I hate using "transman" and "transwoman" instead of just "man" and "woman" but I felt like it was necessary in the context of trying to explain why I was pissed off.)


Anonymous said...

(continued since there is a character limit on comments ...)

Unfortunately, your approach is not an isolated one. There is an increasing incidence of people *using* Reclaim the Night to make a name for themselves by claiming to be militant against transphobia.

And no, for the most part I don't believe this is a matter of crossed wires, since if you are really torn up about whether or not to attend Reclaim the Night, but are concerned about some of its positions, you make a point of checking with the organising group to ensure you know what's going on. And you certainly don't misreport an event that doesn't gender police as in fact doing so.

When leafletting Pride Fairday for RTN, I was told by someone that RTN "had a transphobic history", that they weren't willing to discuss RTN at all, and walked off. There was no collaborative attempt to allow me to explain our policies, they made not even a token attempt at pretending to care about misogynist violence or be even slightly polite - it was clear to me that they were intent on seeing themself as some kind of militant defender of all trans rights against evil RTN, and actual engagement would have prevented this from going according to plan.

Now, if they *were* a trans activist, then great. But using an event against misogynist violence, and relating to women organising for their rights in such a fucked way, is not how to achieve trans rights.

That actually *is* extremely divisive.

My concern is that a kind of culture is developing around this, since there haven't just been a couple of these incidents, but quite a few.

And I have spent so much time trying to run around after these rumours after the fact, since they really have the ability to adversely affect next year's event. But this isn't the kind of thing feminists should have to spend time doing.

I think we need, really urgently, to move to a place of respectful and genuine attempts at collaboration. Now, if we still end up disagreeing on some things that's not the end of the world, and maybe the best way to accommodate that is just to have more kinds of feminist activism (which would be great in any case). But at least that way we don't refrain from engaging for reasons that aren't that reality-based. And feminists don't feel that other feminists are undermining them. We really aren't large in number - actual feminist activists that is.

So let's work harder on resolving some of these issues?

Ginny Brown

Anonymous said...

BTW, re the criticism of the 'prostitution = paid rape' banner - it's a reality of feminism that there are a multitude of perspectives around analysis of prostitution. That wasn't a banner that represents the views of the collective, eg personally I think it's useful to distinguish between degrees of the coercion involved in prostitution, or we unintentionally omit to examine all the factors perpetuating prostitution. (Although I also think prostitution *usually* involves women being economically coerced for sex.) It should be noted though that there are rape survivors who have exited prostitution and don't see any value in such distinctions. So while I personally favour the distinctions, I also think we should be careful not to imply that those supporting these kinds of slogans are neither rape survivors nor prostitution survivors nor survivors of rape in prostitution (as frequently they are both). It's also important not to make assumptions about the life experience of RTN organisers (in case anyone was doing so). [I believe it's very important to the anti-misogynist violence ethos of RTN that such banners be allowed, even if the collective hasn't adopted such slogans. I think turning away a woman with such a banner on the grounds of it being insufficiently nuanced would have been pretty fucked.]

So that's why I disagree with this comment: "implying that a rape survivor's experience is in any way similar to what a prostitute experiences is deeply patronizing to a rape survivor. A sex worker has a choice about who she sleeps with. A rape survivor doesn't. A sex worker frequently acts like she enjoys it. A rape survivor doesn't. A sex worker uses condoms (and in some places, is required by law to both use condoms and dental dams, and get mandatory regular testing). A rape survivor doesn't usually have that option."

I also think it overlooks the basic dynamics of prostitution. Prostitution has historically existed as a side-effect of women's oppression within the family unit. Under capitalism, it continues to exist because women's bodies and sexuality are particularly commodified and treated as social property. And women's on-average lesser pay and conditions, and greater likelihood of needing flexible hours due to being the sole/main caregiver of children, makes us more vulnerable to prostitution. The existence of some men in prostitution doesn't change that fact, nor that men are socialised to believe they have extra special sexual needs which have to be met. And although there are a few women in prostitution who actually enjoy it, for most it is no party. The fundamental characteristic of prostitution is that it exists to provide the male customer with sexual pleasure. Only in rare cases is it about the sex worker's enjoyment, and 'choice' applies in so far as the individual woman's circumstances permit her to be very choosey - or not at all. Some johns don't allow women to wear condoms.

in solidarity,
Ginny Brown