This article was originally written by Helena Dunnet-Orridge for NCAFC Women’s bulletin at NUS Women’s conference 2015 (NUSWomensBulletin2015)
Recently the National Campaign Against the Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) decided to include non-binary identified people in their women’s caucus. This decision was not unprecedented, but rather part of a wider trend in the feminist movement to be more inclusive. As a reasonably prominent non-binary activist within the movement this question has been of interest to me for a long while. Many feminists contest this issue, or simply do not understand it. This is endlessly frustrating to me and yet quite clearly part of a wider issue within the feminist movement and feminist politics: the refusal to integrate and learn from queer theory in any meaningful way. Queer theory and gender theory are, in a theoretical sense, the newer version of feminist theory. Where feminist theory has historically lacked a true analysis of gender, queer theory has supplied and expanded upon it. Where many feminists have been astoundingly ignorant on queer, especially trans, issues queer theory has picked up the pieces. Many feminists are learning from this and progressing, but it is not fast enough, it is not happening enough. We owe that, of course, to neo-liberal discourse and a mainstream focus on liberal feminism. Yet, even Marxist-feminism trails behind in terms of its analysis of gender politics. I strongly feel an implicit dismissal and latent transphobia within feminism that is at odds with how the movement should, theoretically, function. Within feminism lies the central notion of gender, within queer theory lies the liberatory power of moving beyond marginalising views of sexuality and gender.
Then, why, you may well ask, am I interested in being involved in ‘women-only’ spaces? It is to challenge the idea of them; the static nature they seem to possess with regards to gender and its oppressive assignment by society. I understand the need for these spaces – to be away from privileged cis men, and I fully support that notion. But we need to challenge our ideas of maleness and how people are and are not privileged with greater assimilationist narratives. Including non-binary identified individuals is one step towards doing so, for we are allowing the ambiguity some space within feminism, within gender politics. The exclusion of trans women in particular from women-only spaces is based on a reductive and purely materialist, liberal narrative – the idea that one can only be included in oppression when one has always been party to it, the ignorance enough to suggest that being coercively assigned a certain gender at birth is the only predicate upon which we are oppressed and our gender experienced. We do not experience gender merely through a general recognition of our ‘natural’ gender, but along the lines of societally implemented roles which, often, one does not fit into. This is not yet an argument which has been won. Although it is popular to ‘accept’ trans women within women-only spaces, many seem hazy as to the reasons why. I know this because they question the inclusion of non-binary people in those same spaces – with a true understanding of gender categorisation this would become clear immediately. Being within an ambiguous, anti-normative definition of gender automatically throws reactionary hate and discrimination into the mix. Being oppressed by ones gender is not limited just to cis women, but to trans people in general. Our goal within feminism is to end oppression based on gender identity – the core of which is women’s liberation, but also trans liberation. They are not separate, but intimately linked struggles. The way in which we understand gender strongly affects the way in which we address oppression based on it. It is not enough to simply understand that trans women ‘are women’, as though this were a fixed tautology. Trans women cannot be understood to have an identical struggle to cis women, though they both suffer from the same oppressive patriarchal core of ideas and their enforcement within society. Why not, then, also invite trans men into our spaces? A fair number of trans-exclusionary feminists genuinely take this view, in the sense that, to their understanding, these people are not, in fact, ‘real’ men but women so oppressed that they adopt the characteristics of the oppressor. However, we must clearly recognise that trans men, although also oppressed along the lines of gender, do gain a level of privilege within their transition and inherently identify with masculine ideals. In the same way that cis men can reject these rigid masculinities, so too can trans men. However, there is a common assumption that because trans men have experienced the oppressive nature of being perceived as a woman previously they will automatically reject participation in it, post-transitional process. This is not the case. Attempting to be masculine within a patriarchal world very often takes its toll, and the pressure to conform to this patriarchal model of masculinity is increased tenfold for supposed ‘interlopers’ and men who are seen as in some ways ‘inauthentic’. Inclusion of trans men, then, is problematized due to their tendency to participate and ‘join in’ with the same oppressive behaviours of cis men. Their identity and participation within hetero-patriarchal structures is certainly far more complex than that of cis men, particularly when we take into account those who are ‘stealth’ or chose a minimal amount of formal transitional processes and therefore do not have the privilege of ‘passing’. Their participation in feminist spaces will always be in tension. Yet we see many self-selectively exclude themselves with the acknowledgement of their gender status, rightly or wrongly. It is, to many, insulting to be ‘devalued’ by being invited into ‘women-only’ spaces.
If we are to problematize the categories of gender then ‘women-only’ spaces become ambiguous and dubious at best. Who can we include and who can we exclude? Does anyone genuinely have that authority? Adding non-binary people to women’s spaces is a huge step towards genuine discussion of gender categorisation and the complexity of queer identities within them. By explicitly stating that a space is for ‘women and non-binary people’ rather than simply ‘women*’, as though inclusion were an after-thought, an addition, a negligible tack-on symbol, we are opening that narrative. Similarly by using the term ‘trans*’ we are ignoring the attempts of truscum (trans people who believe that only medical transition awards you the label of trans) to vouch for ‘true transgender identity’ by marginalising non-binary identities as a mere addition to trans rather than inherently a part of it. By generically stating ‘women and trans’ we also refuse to engage critically with the debate on transgendered masculinities, although I am much more open to this stance than I am to others.
Truly, all categories of self-definition ought to be problematized. Who is ‘queer’ and therefore allowed in queer spaces? Who is ‘of colour’? Who is white and who is not? Who is disabled, how are they disabled? We must always disturb these narratives, put them on trial, determine their usefulness. Are they serving us, or are we serving them? NCAFC are taking this step because my very presence pushed for it. We need to force other groups to have this conversation not out of convenience, but out of genuine desire to debate and politically decide upon their stance. I hope NCAFC can come to do this, too and I have high hopes for all of the activist’s engagement with the issue.