Tag Archives: sheila jeffreys

Why I Need Feminism…….Why We All Do

I don’t remember much of my academic life. In all honesty, looking back most of it is a blur. But three things stand out for me. Reading, creative writing, and feminism. I loved them all. Two quotes stick in my brain. The first from one of my A-Level Sociology lecturers, Marilyn, which was;

“Women are a sponge to soak up all men’s inadequacies”

And secondly an accolade I am still proud of to this day.  My English lecturer Helen dubbed me as “the only male feminist she had ever taught.”

I admired Helen and Marilyn, because they were both women of passion and conviction, impact notwithstanding. The fact that I still remember their musings to this day is a compliment to them. I am proud to know, and to have known some wonderful women in my life. Women who I have cared about, loved, been inspired by, cried with, laughed with, and empathised with.

If women are a sponge for men’s inadequacies, then I have been a sponge for women’s strength. Despite never having had siblings of either sex, I have always gravitated naturally towards women, they have been my heart, my soul, and my rock when I have needed support too.

I have never looked at what I can take from a woman, but instead, what I can give to them, in the sense of  solidarity and support. Helen also said she had never met a man like me before, and doubted she ever would again. That is because the construct of a man was alien to me, and I did not, and still would not want to live up to.

Womanhood then, is not about the clothes on your body. Feminism, is about the clothes on your soul. Whether you stand up and be counted as a woman , or well, you choose to do nothing.

During my University days another thing I did was to find the poem Leda and the Swan by W.B. Yeats disgusting. Even now when reading it back, it still turns my stomach. The reduction of a female, to her mere body parts for the delight of a man is patriarchal to the extreme, and when you see it written down in the cold light of day, it makes it even more vile.

The radical feminist Catherine McKinnon argues that;

“Understanding free speech as an abstract system is a liberal position. Understanding how speech also exists within a substantive system of power relations is a feminist position.”

What this quote suggests is that speech and writing in the first instance do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in a patriarchal context to subjugate women and other minorities too it has to be said. We in the UK are a culture which privileges misogyny over mindfulness, and pornography over pragmatism. 

This is not surprising though, when a 9 year old child was subjected to a disgusting slur after the Oscars, and we are told in a week where a sex scandal is embroiling the Liberal Democrats, we are told, with all the empathy of a toilet roll, “well, he only touched her knee, it’s hardly Jimmy Savile”.

Oh. So that makes it OK and I can stop writing then? No chance! I will not be silenced now, nor ever! It is preposterous, not to mention   mocking and silencing to categorise the experiences of abused women and men, and to judge them in a quantitative, tokenistic, and insulting way.

But you know, things have changed since Marilyn’s sponge. The abuse and violence haven’t, but with the advent of social media, women are being able to voice their anger across the Internet, and to gain support, and kinship from other women, who have suffered similar pain.

Why am I angry too though? Why do I feel the fire of womanhood burn inside my heart? Why do I need feminism, and why do I care?

I never really knew my biological father well. I w0uldn’t recognise him if I saw him on the street. My mother brought me up as a single parent, and we were always so close. Mainly I think because of my disability, I depended on her for personal care. I was born in an incubator, and was lucky to survive the first few days of my life.

My father bought me with with toys  and gifts, but as for any moral or indeed financial contribution to my upbringing, it was never forthcoming. I loved my mum. She was my role model and friend.

But things changed in 1989 when she met Mike. He was horrible to her and me. Two experiences stick in my mind. He emotionally abused me relentlessly, branding me useless, and a disappointment, and a vegetable. He would never do any personal care for me. On a Saturday, initially, mum had a job in a pub as a chef. If I needed anything in the way of personal care, I would have to wait until she got home. He also wanted me to toughen up and be a man. His behaviour to me and mum alone demonstrates that patriarchy is alive.

Two more experiences for you. My grandparents bought me a gift of my first motorised wheelchair, in order that I could get about and have more independence. However they bought me the newest model of this particular wheelchair, and the wheel was prone to falling off.

One night we had been to a barbecue with mum and his friends, and on the way home the wheel feel off. What would be the natural response? To offer help and assistance perhaps. No! Not that pathetic excuse of a human being. He got angry, yelled, screamed and shouted, flexed his patriarchal muscles  and went home. Moreover, this meant my mother had to get me, plus this piece of heavy machinery home. She did it though I do not know how.

The second time that sticks in my mind was when Mum had to go to hospital and the scumbag refused to let me see her. He told me she wasn’t allowed visitors. When she got home, the one thing she told me was that she wanted to see me, and she was. She also had to give me a shower just after coming out of hospital, with an open surgical wound.

So firstly, I need feminism as a counterbalance to help dismantle male power structures in my mind that were drummed into me as a child. I need feminism to help me articulate my fears and feelings, as well as my oppression as a woman with a disability. I need women as friends for mutual support, love and kinship. Even as a trans woman, I need to help all women not to fear these power structures Mackinnon speaks of, or to farm the power out to men, but to take that power back for themselves, and to cradle it wholeheartedly, as if it were a newborn baby. The power of the collective female conscience is a wonderful thing.

Secondly I need feminism because it is a narrative for the oppressed and marginalised. I was marginalised and oppressed from birth as a person with a disability. People for the most part, can be selfish or uncaring and this shines through, and perhaps this is why I have an affinity with the female struggle, be that with such issues as rape, eating disorder s, or self injurous behaviour. Men experience these things too of course. But the first two are borne out of a search for perfection, a perfection which is idealistic, flawed and unattainable. Every woman is beautiful in her heart and soul.

Throughout my life, my friends have been women. I have grown up with them, lived with them and learned from them, hence the sponge metaphor at the top of the piece is appropriate. Feminism came for me long before transition, friendships with women came long before transition, and my studies of  feminism were deep-rooted in me long before any gender transition. The thing is, I didn’t want to toughen up and be a man. It felt alien to me, and toughness just phallogocentric.

Now to address the elephant in the room. Rad Fem 2013 is a conference taking place in London, with amongst others, Julie Bindel,  Cathy Brennan and Sheila Jeffreys. 

In the trans community, they are renowned for thinking that trans women are men, for wanting an end to gender, and are in a continual quest to abolish patriarchy.

By contrast, the trans community label them TERF’s (Trans Excluding Radical Feminists) and counter protest at most venues they speak at, and organise autonomously at.

Now I have wrestled and wrestled with my conscience over whether this post would be written, for the thoughts I am about to express may seem  like a revolution to some.

Radical feminism, at its core, is a narrative 0f pain, of trauma, and of hurt as a result of extreme violence and abuse in many cases. Furthermore, it  is a narrative of damage, and damaged people. That’s why in this feminist school of thought there are no shades of grey, only black and white.

Beyond the rhetoric and name calling, the conference will discuss sexual violence and will allow women a safe space in which to share their stories. Don’t forget, abuse is very VERY isolating and lonely, and for all I know, RadFem2013 may be the only time these sisters will have the chance to make friends on their terms.

Autonomous organisation seems to have annoyed people. Women do have a right to organise freely. I am not saying that in terms of permission, I am stating it as fact. Trans people are however, being excluded from this conference.

However, if one is organising an event, one sets its parameters. Remember what I said earlier? Radical feminism is a narrative of pain, and women are coming together to share.  

Being frank, the p*s is a male organ, and represents trauma and pain to many women. Perhaps they find trans people triggering, in the same way as they would find a man triggering, whilst at the same time having no particular beef with that person’s character?

I’ll be damn honest here. I find some straight men triggering. Due to the wheelchair, I am lower down than they are so am always looking up. Mike was tall too so this can be frightening.

I always protected my mother though, and hated it when he shouted and screamed at her, and at me.

We need feminism to allow space for such things to be aired. Another problem I think the radical feminists have around trans people is that they have entered their space, and taken on their identity, whereas they were born into that identity of struggle from time immemorial. In  a way, I understand that grievance. It is hard to see identity changing around you, and to see people claiming an identity you thought was exclusively yours, then in come the trans people, snatch it away, and parade it around like a trophy, and never mind all the years of abuse and trauma you’ve suffered. I get that, truly. But I don’t want to erase you, nor reinforce patriarchy, nor am I interested in  power. I have very little anyway, since I rely on others to accomplish most tasks of daily life. I do have personal power inside me though which ensures that I can guard against being subjugated again.

We also need feminism as a response to misogyny, as an angry response to “women being reduced to c*nt” as Kate Millett would have it.  According to the charity Rape Crisis joint statistics from the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Office for National Statistics reveal that 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year. Similarly, they show that over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted every year. Finally they show that 1 in 5 women, aged 16-59 has experienced some form of sexual violence.

These are sobering and cannot be ignored. For behind each number is a person, and behind each person, a life scarred. But hopefully through kinship, love and support scars can heal. 

Frankly though, that’s why I am a feminist. I got sick of hearing stories over the years from women who’d been touched up in clubs, to having men saying, hmm lesbian,I bet I can turn you.

This was brought home to me vividly, when I started going to my local gay club. All the women there had stories, that is why they too are fragile and vulnerable sometimes. I can assure you though, I want to defend their interests. I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with them whilst respecting their boundaries. Women deserve respect for they are beautiful, kind, caring and compassionate. I don’t know where I’d be without my sisters. So thank you all of you.

So why do women need feminism? For support, for a bridge where once before there was a deep chasm. Why do I need feminism? It gives me a voice, in a male dominant culture. It speaks to me and for me. When I hear feminism expressed it speaks to me and for me.

Before I conclude let me say this. Many trans women suffer abuse too. But there is nothing to stop us opening our own autonomous discussions about that. Julie Bindel is a campaigner against domestic violence, which to me is a laudable occupation. Sheila Jeffreys Kate Millett lecture got me through insomnia last night. I also found this interesting having spent a long time studying feminist literary theory at uni. 

I need feminism because it means I can live with pride, confidence and self esteem (recently discovered) in a world plagued by ableism. Most of all it enables me to stand with and for the people I love the most – women.

I wish RadFem 2013 the best of luck, and I hope it helps the women who attend. Meanwhile, I’ll do as Cathy Brennan suggested and be me.




So How Did It Happen?

How did it happen? That is the question on my mind today. How did it come to be whereby we have a situation where trans women are excluded from conferences, where gay people are told that civil partnerships are enough for them, and where telling someone “you look like a transsexual” is just a bit of fun. Yes that’s all. No less, no more. Just a bit of fun.

Being in three minorities, I see myself as part of a larger whole, or a continuum if you like. It gives me three points of difference from the majority, but by the same token, three different levels of understanding, and insight that others do not have.

Frankly, it is that across the piece insight which informs everything I do, everything I think, and everything I am.

As alluded to in yesterday’s piece, it can be tempting at times to view minority positions as a trade off. People have asked me in the past whether one minority group membership affects me more than the other. My answer is always no, because the truth is, they all interconnect and interrelate with one another.

If we imagine, for example that the three minority groups are three faders on a mixing desk, of course, we know it is possible to turn a fader up or down. And so it is with minority group membership. Sometimes one group is more turned up than the other, meaning that it affecting me more.

Being in minorities you also bear witness to the stupidity of the world on a regular basis. Thinking about Rad Fem 2012 again last night, I realised there were two fundamental flaws. I wondered if any of the conference organisers had seen Doctors or Coronation Street recently. Doctors has featured and Coronation Street  is featuring currently a storyline on the taboo subject of domestic violence against men. Therefore, it is an oversimplification of the truth for any minority to claim ownership of an issue, as though it exclusively belongs to them, and for it all to be dismissed as only down to misogyny. A very outdated and inaccurate view as well, a bit 18th century if you like. For in order to make radical misogyny stick, you have to believe that men are all born wife beaters. I want to be abundantly clear that I hate any form of abuse towards anyone. People say that hate is a strong word. I would suggest to them that strong words are required for disgusting things. I am merely suggesting that all sides of an argument ought to be represented.

When I was at University, we had to analyse and discuss the poem Leda and the Swan.

Now in terms of gender, there was a 50/50 split amongst the group. The poem is an allegory of rape. The lecturer, asked us which of us found it erotic and which did not. Please be careful and do not read further if you are triggered. The boys found it erotic, whilst the girls found it disgusting. This would have been a very cut and dry discussion for Dr Tiffany Stern, had it not been for a small spanner in the works, me of course. I was in the disgusting camp. Tiffany managed a feeble, “oh! an enlightened man”. However though, I think it definitely wrongfooted her and took her by surprise.

Looking back though, it does seem a little absurd. Enlightened thinking is not the province of a gender, it is the province of a person, or a group of them. To suggest otherwise is a falsehood.
Just because one group of men on one day found it erotic, does not mean that all men are misogynistic perverts. Let us remember – men suffer abuse too.The second flaw is one about what RadFem as a collective, claim to offer and stand for. They claim to offer;
“A revolutionary politics for the liberation of all women from male domination.  Radical feminists neither seek ‘equality’ with men within a fundamentally oppressive system, nor simply to extend women’s range of choices whilst leaving that oppressive system intact.  Radical feminists are engaged in the struggle to end all forms of male violence, and for the liberation of all women from patriarchal oppression.  In short, we are engaged in a struggle for total social transformation.  In Catherine Mackinnon’s phrase, radical feminism is ‘feminism unmodified’. “
Well sorry Catherine Mackinnon et al but I think quite a bit of modification is needed. How can politics be revolutionary, or even evolutionary when you exclude people intentionally from that debate, because they were not born women. They are not doing your cause any harm, nor interfering with it in any way. What if this oppression does not resonate with women, ergo, that it is something they do not experience in their daily lives. I agree with adding my voice to the scourge of domestic violence against women, and men for that matter. However, my question to RadFem is this. What is their end goal? How can they claim to be supporting all women when they will not let a trans woman, with a disability attend their conference. Let me ask a more baseline question too. How do they check? Pull down your knickers, French knickers or thong? 
Furthermore, let us suppose they did achieve their very fuzzy, vague, fancy lexical objective of total social transformation. What on Earth would they do then? Are they not oppressing women themselves by telling women they are oppressed and only their way is the right way? All points worth considering. Finally, if they achieved these vague objectives, would their movement, as a vehicle not be redundant.
I want to turn to the subject of gay, or equal marriage. Nick Herbert, the openly gay Policing and Criminal Justice Minister told the London Evening Standard  that he is rather ‘fed up’ with people suggesting that civil partnerships are enough for gay couples. He said this.
“How would they like it if I jabbed a finger into their chests and said they should put up with a civil partnership instead of their marriage? 

In my view it’s not acceptable to say to a group in society, ‘You should put up with something that is a second order institution to something that everybody else is entitled to, because we say so’. I think this is about nothing more or less than a fundamental issue of equality.” 
Firstly, I have much respect for Nick Herbert for talking about this so openly. I think some of the problem here is cisgendered ambivalence, amongst some sections of society, who it does not directly affect. So therefore you may get the usual tabloid-esque tropes trotted out. “PC gone mad. It’s all about political correctness you know”.
Secondly, the general public are aware of civil partnerships and perhaps sometimes think well they’ve got that, what’s the fuss about?
Constructing battle lines is the worst thing we can do. We should all work together. But this is what the fuss is about.
Cisgendered people would not like it if they were forced to put up with civil partnerships.
It is hard, I grant you, if you are not in a minority to understand how demoralising putting up with a seemingly indestructible status quo. But the sands and mood music, I believe are shifting, but more to the point, shifting in an encouraging direction. 
It is about equality and about rebalancing inadequate legal provision. I have two lovely friends Claire and Jess. They want to get married. Jess said to me once;
“I want to marry Claire, not civil partnership her”
Being trans myself I am a pretty open minded soul. I have to say, I cannot find any reason why they should not get married.
I tell you that it is simply not fair for this inequality to persist, and I am saddened that the private lives of the LGBTGQ community have entered the political arena. To the naysayers though, I say this.
Politics and legislation evolves. This whole debate reminds me of the mechanic of Jane Elliott’s brown eyes, blue eyes experiment. Those who want to get married, like Claire and Jess are the ones whose privileges are being witheld, constrained by a legal system that is not of their making nor design. The heterosexual community continue to enjoy those privileges freely, and it is my firm belief that gay marriage can co-exist alongside them, and will not damage or undermine the institution or value of marriage in general.
I dealt with Snog, Marry Avoid and its airing of a transphobic comment in some detail the other day, so forgive me if I do not retrace old ground, and politely ask that you read that entry instead.
However, I think that an account of Paris Lees meeting with Jonathan Ross is a telling one. He told her that he did a supposedly comedic item about ladyboys “because he thought he could get away with it”.
This is the kind of attitude we need to reverse off a cliff never to be seen again.
You see, as a minority, you need to set your boundaries, both as an individual, and a collective, of what is acceptable to you and what is not.
Also, in a minority you have to be one jump ahead. When you are trying to replace an old, accepted discourse with a new one, you have to know what the older discourse is. 
For the most part, people resist change. This ilk of radical feminists, those who oppose gay marriage, and those who think that bullying someone by using the word transsexual as an insult is okay are resistant to change. But you see, I am resistant to them too. No matter how many conferences Sheila Jeffreys and her mob organise, I will still be here as a thorn in their side forever. No matter how many MP’s oppose it, if Nick Herbert is to be believed, David Cameron is very much in favour of gay marriage. Finally too, no matter how many more episodes of Snog, Marry, Avoid  are transmitted, this will remain as a blotch on the BBC’s copybook.
Why did these things happen? Well put simply, the conflict in each scenario arises as a result of new thinking coming along to challenge the old. Historically, slightly before I was born but not much (I am 31) minorities were ambivalent, passive and submissive. You can’t beat the system was a common adage.
Well hey presto, now in 2012, people are realising you can. For the first time, people like Sheila Jeffreys, opponents of gay marriage, and blatant transphobia on TV is being challenged as never before. Through the Internet and social media, minorities are mobilising to create a collective force.
You may have seen an acquaintance of mine, Louise Hickman on Channel 4 News this week. She was charting the difficulties faced by passengers with disabilities on the London Underground in the run up to the Olympic Games.
A key plank of the bid was good accessible public transport links. As it was, Louise was unable to leave the train at many stations due to them having no step free access.
Sure, TFL came out with many platitudes, but the prevailing image viewers will have been left with is Louise stuck on the tube train, and how de-personalising that must have been. 
Through my experience in three minorities, I not only realise how the world feels about me, I realise how I feel about it. I do not want to live in a world where gay people cannot marry. I do not want to live in a world where Sheila Jeffreys and RadFem 2012 can disguise hate speech as credible theory, or where transsexual is an insult.
We have to show wider society than insulting a transsexual is just as bad as calling a disabled person a spastic, or a retard. We have to show them, and show them now.There is no spectrum here, where one insult is worse than another. All are bad.
I suspect that the reason Sheila Jeffreys and others are feeling so oppressed is because they are being challenged like never before.
My title for this piece was, so how did it happen? How “it” happened is simple. In each of the three scenarios, people thought it was acceptable to talk down to, de-humanise, and patronise and bully the relevant minority groups.
In other words, they thought they could get away with it.They did not detect or anticipate the new mood in the trans community, and others. Put simply, we are helping them, without malice, to realise they cannot.  That then, is one of the reasons why I am happier today than I have ever been.