On a visit to Northern Ireland last week, I was given a copy of PN 2612–2613 with the debate about what happened at the London Anarchist Bookfair. I am shocked about what happened – both about the content of the two flyers reproduced in PN, and about the mobbing and assault of Helen Steel.
I think reducing what happened to an issue of free speech, as PN does, does not do justice to the complexity of the underlying issues. While I do agree that free speech is crucial – and I would not advocate banning any speech or any organisation (it would also not be very anarchist) – free speech needs to be balanced with the need to create safe spaces – for women, for LGB people, for trans and queer people.
Ask yourself: would you want to tolerate misogynistic, racist or homophobe flyers at the Anarchist Bookfair? Neither free speech, nor the concept of a safe space are ‘absolute’ – they need to be balanced so that there is both safe space and debate. This is not easy and there is no ready-made answer. And some people will feel uncomfortable but, then, leaving our comfort zone is often needed to advance.
What I see in the two leaflets reproduced in PN are two things: transphobia and a complete lack of understanding of trans people and trans identities, but also fear about being questioned in their identity as women, an identity upon which they have built their political and personal lives. What is lacking in the flyers and in the reaction of (some, I’d suggest) trans activists is empathy and a willingness to listen to each other.
It makes me sad to see this reproduced in the Anarchist Bookfair, a space where we should be able to listen to each other, and where empathy with the ‘other’, even if we do not understand where they are coming from, should prevail.
The issue of what is a woman (who defines this) is one of the issues here. The others are safe spaces (toilets, changing rooms), protection from discrimination (whose discrimination?), and more. All these are important issues and both sides are basically saying ‘we have the answer, and you are wrong’, thus blocking the debate.
The flyers are clearly transphobic, making pathologisation a requirement for gender reassignment. At the same time I doubt these women would accept a properly pathologised and certified trans woman as a woman. The problem is: there is no one concept of woman and going back to the difference between sex and gender does little to solve this. (See, for example: ‘Sex redefined. The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that’, in Nature, 18 February 2015.)
I can understand that for some women feminists it is not easy to accept that the concept they build their identity and politics on is now being challenged by queer and trans activists, and this creates fear (as is obvious especially in the MayDay4Women flyer). And this fear needs to be taken seriously, without allowing it to block debate.
There are many questionable claims in the text. Does protection of women depend on a legal category (even more so in an anarchist context)? I doubt it. There are measures against discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and what else, without these being legal categories.
And access to female toilets or changing rooms for trans women (without gender reassignment surgery, or with)? I wonder how often these women have shared a public toilet with a trans woman without knowing it. ‘Passing’ does not necessarily depend on surgery, and you won’t know unless (or even if) you inspect a person’s genitals. Let’s face it: in everyday life you usually assign a gender/sex to a person you see based on their appearance, as you do not know what genitals they have. Or do you want to have an ID check at each public toilet door?
A few years ago, I was in Sweden and experienced non-segregated public toilets. These can be as safe as sex-segregated toilets, and cut short the debate on who is supposed to use which toilet. And do you think it safe for a trans woman to use the male toilet? Or a queer non-binary person? I myself define as genderqueer – neither male nor female – where do you want me to go?
It is obvious that women are oppressed in this patriarchal society. So are trans and queer people, so are lesbians and gays, to different degrees. It does not make sense to use one oppression to negate the other. We need to find ways to take all these oppressions on board and to also understand that there are needs arising from experiencing any of these oppressions. And these needs are different.
The behaviour of some trans activists at the Anarchist Bookfair does little to advance the debate, as it wants to impose just another – their – definition, and it seems quite violently. This is not acceptable. However, how could the Anarchist Bookfair be a safe space for trans people if, as a trans person, you have to accept the kind of transphobia expressed in the flyers? I do not have the answer, but this need for a safe space also needs to be taken as seriously as we do (hopefully) take seriously the need for women spaces. As these two concepts clash here (at least seemingly), how do we create a safe space to listen to each other, have an open debate, and develop solutions which take everyone’s needs and fears into account?
The lack of empathy, of listening, expressed at the Anarchist Bookfair, but also by the editorial treatment in PN, makes me sad. We still have a long way to go it seems.