RadFem 2012, “male privilege” and censorship

Yesterday it was announced that a radical feminist conference that was to be held at Conway Hall in London has had to find another venue after an online campaign led to the venue’s owners deciding it broke equality laws as well as the organisation’s own principles:

We had sought assurances that the organisers would allow access to all, in order to enable the event to proceed at the venue. We also expressed concern that particular speakers would need to be made aware that whilst welcoming progressive thinking and debate, Conway Hall seeks to uphold inclusivity in respect of both legal obligations and as a principle.

In the absence of the assurances we sought, the event in its proposed form could not proceed at Conway Hall.

Speakers were to have included anti-pornography campaigner Gail Dines, Australian lesbian feminist Sheila Jeffreys, and Pragna Patel, a founder member of Southall Black Sisters, but no other speakers have been identified and no firm programme has been announced (there is a list of “indicative conference topics” which is identical for both of the days of the conference at the time of this writing). The website currently says that the venue has been “changed” (although they don’t announce that on the front page - you have to go to the “Conference venue” page to find that out, if you haven’t been following the discussion on Twitter) and also does not give any clue about ticket prices. (More: Outlines, The Goldfish, Stavvers.)

I am in two minds as far as cancellation is concerned. Getting conferences cancelled seems to be a common way of censoring unpopular or harsh opinions, and the usual victims are Muslims, particularly those who have been a bit too strident about Palestine. It is particularly effective if the venue owners have no interest in the topic, so a large and wealthy organisation who can host their own conference (or a group with powerful friends with their own venue) does not have to fear getting censored in this way, but a small concern has to tread on eggshells to avoid offending anyone in a time when getting offended is a national pastime. The principle of “no platform” was originally intended to deny racists and fascists a platform, but is nowadays used to exclude a much wider range of unpopular opinions. On the other, the conference was to include the topic of “Radical feminist critiques of gender and queer theory” and this, if some of the online material on this subject is anything to go by, would have included hostile material about transsexual women which those affected would have been unable to challenge (as they say in the disability rights movement: “nothing about us, without us”). The argument that this would have been a small conference and was the one all-female conference in a sea of mixed events and “gender theory” does not stack up, as it assumes that all those in attendance were ordinary women who would have returned inspired and refreshed to their suburban lives, and not academics, journalists and other women with influence, even lawyers and politicians.

One of the most popular arguments for excluding trans women from conferences like this is that they previously enjoyed “male privilege” in being brought up as boys and living part of their adult lives as men. For example, there is this article (on a blog with only one other entry, ostensibly sourced from a posting on a closed forum) purportedly by a trans woman:

I do get accepted most times but if born women sometimes want to feel free to talk openly without me there, personally I don’t see the problem. I’ve always felt that the onus is on me to make other women feel comfortable with me around. The biggest part of that has been for me to always be as sensitive as I can of other women’s wishes and comfort levels and also not being confrontational.

Personally I feel very much like someone coming in from the outside and asking for acceptance. Being identified and brought up as male from birth it is a fact that there are many things that trans women have never experienced and, in terms of female reproductive ability, we will never be able to experience.

I’ve also heard, plenty of times, some trans women who clearly haven’t been able to let go of the some of their learned male attitudes. One of my female friends made that very comment to me about another trans woman. My friend commented that some of the things that trans woman was saying sounded exactly like things she would have expected to hear from a man. Therefore, it is no wonder some born women feel critical or want to have this debate.

Sex change certainly does not end simply with a bit of surgery and a few hormone tablets. It is an unbelievably difficult journey, both practically and emotionally, to come to terms with probably the most radical change in lifestyle it is possible to experience. It is also a journey that will last the whole of the rest of our lives learning to relate and share some of the experiences of the opposite sex to the one we were brought up to be.

The notion that transsexual women retain traces of “male privilege” and therefore that women are entitled to exclude them from “women’s spaces” is not new — the Michigan “Womyn’s” Music Festival excluded them for years, at least into the 1990s (it seems the policy has been changed, or at least no longer emphasised — when they first had a website, it said the festival was for “all womyn born womyn” — as it was highly unpopular even in sections of the women’s community that was its target audience) and this was one of the reasons cited when I first saw the matter being discussed on Usenet in the mid-1990s. It struck me as a flimsy argument, and it is flimsier still now that people are transitioning younger and younger, often starting hormone treatment before puberty so they never develop physically into an adult into their original sex, so their voices remain high, for example. The result will be that female-born women will not know the difference, in some cases, and not feel threatened by someone with obvious signs of manhood remaining.

The application of “male privilege” to male-to-female transsexuals also makes a host of assumptions about what kind of upbringing and what kind of male life the woman had before her transition. There are a lot of stereotypes employed here, such as that as a boy, he would have been treated like a little emperor and seen his sisters (if he had any) expected to clear the table and wash the dishes for him while he did little or nothing, which certainly happens in some families but not in all. If he had presented a feminine impression of any sort in adolescence, he may have been terribly badly bullied; he may even have suffered sexual assaults. It is sometimes assumed that boys acquire a “sense of entitlement” from a typical male upbringing or from contact with male peers, but they may have been at the bottom of the pecking order and if they had started to develop a female identity, they may have found a lot of the male “banter” threatening. The assumption that he may have enjoyed such male advantages as not having to worry about sexual assault is thus misplaced. There are other misplaced assumptions at play besides this: among them, the one displayed in the quote above, that the fact that some of the transsexuals one has encountered exhibit male-like attitudes (which one finds distasteful) means that such attitudes are typical among them.

However, the fact that someone may have experienced a form of privilege the majority of women have not does not mean they still experience it, and there are well-documented advantages to being one gender or the other from birth rather than having to adjust to what one feels is one’s true gender, to have surgery, to have to bring legal proceedings to have ones legal sex changed and then have people call you by your old gender or “it”. When the transition is advanced or complete, it is not just a matter of going back to one’s old life if being a woman gets tough, so at that point it is no more of a choice than it is for any other woman. I accept that there are some places where only the presence of women raised as girls is appropriate, but RadFem 2012 is a conference, not a rape counselling facility. It is not acceptable to have hostile speeches against a marginalised group of people without them being present to challenge it.

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