If I’m being totally honest, I’ve taken my time writing this. For the uninitiated, TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, and they have long been a nuisance in the feminist movement worldwide. The presence of TERFs and transphobia within the Pride Department is not news, especially for those involved in the Guild. It is however a persisting problem that has led to the Department having a reputation for being unwelcoming to old and new LGBT+ students, especially trans and non-binary ones. And worst of all, these harmful attitudes are now manifesting in our Women’s Department too.
There are lots of reasons why the problem has not been called out in a substantial way in the past. Firstly, since the Pride Department is autonomous and largely separate from the agendas and inner workings of the Guild, many Guild members feel like it’s not their place to be calling out bad behaviour, especially when those members aren’t LGBT+ themselves. This makes sense since intracommunity conversations should be left to the community members, and in a university context LGBT+ students should get to make their own representation and have the agency to make their own decisions irrespective of which party is in power.
But conversely this also means that you need to be in the group to vote for a concrete change in its culture, which ultimately means that those who feel unwelcome or uncomfortable are going to find it significantly harder to engage and participate with the Department and its spaces. In addition, the LGBT+ community is small, especially on campus, which means so many friendship networks are firmly enmeshed within the Department. It is difficult to stand up to strangers, but it is arguably even more difficult to stand up to friends or mutual friends, especially when they are your sole support system or form the basis of your only safe spaces.
Secondly, a lot of people just don’t know how to call out transphobia in these spaces. Often transphobes are armed with rhetoric that obfuscates their true opinions, make them into the victims, and counter simple talking points with academic jargon that ignores the basic empathy required to make spaces accessible and welcoming. Transphobes often think their transphobia ties in with feminist ideologies which can be genuinely alarming and confusing especially to young feminists who are still trying to understand the movement and its modes of analysis. They also believe that trans people are somehow out there to attack them simply by the virtue of existing when, in reality, it is the bigotry of TERFs that makes the lives of trans people difficult and painful.
In my own personal case, I must admit that I felt scared of confronting TERFs. I had long heard of the way they made life difficult for students in university spaces who called them out, or the way they harassed trans women and their supporters online. Having said that, I am now older and more comfortable with my understanding of feminism, and I no longer think fear is a good enough reason to stay silent. Although I may be afraid, I am not trans and I will never face the consequences for speaking out in the way a trans or non-binary person would. As a cisgender person, it is my obligation to call in my fellow cis folk for their harmful transphobic values and attitudes. It’s clear that I cannot wait for Guild members to make concrete policies and decisions that show that transphobia is unacceptable in Department spaces. I also cannot sit down and be silent as the transmisogyny of Pride seeps into the Women’s Department too. To be a bystander and allow other women and non-binary people to be hurt in front of me is callous and irresponsible behaviour.
For the record, a few things in this article are not up for debate. Firstly, non-binary people who say that they are trans are absolutely trans. Secondly, trans women are women. Thirdly, all women (trans or otherwise) and non-binary people are allowed access to the Women’s Department, its spaces, and its services as enshrined by Guild policies. This article is not here to provide you a play by play account of what being trans is or why trans people should be respected and given safe spaces, if for no reason other than the fact that I am not a trans person and not the authority on this subject. If you want to know more, there are already plenty of articles out there written by trans people on the subject. Google it!
The reason why this article is being written is because of several incidents of transphobia and transmisogyny in the Women’s Department. Firstly, as part of my work in Women’s last year, I wrote a set of guidelines on the Women’s Room whiteboard to establish codes of conduct. Some of them were fairly simple such as ‘clean up after yourselves!’ and ‘don’t lock the door!’ Others, however, were about the level of respect and feminist consciousness expected in the room, including the phrase, “trans women are women.” Over the course of the year, the guidelines were defaced multiple times with the transmisogynistic phrase, “trans women are men.” Despite myself and other Women’s Room visiting students replacing the original statement in permanent marker, the vandalism continued.
This sent a cruel message to any trans women in the room: your identity is a lie, and you are not welcome in this room. It says that despite you doing nothing to harm or disrespect me, I still believe your very existence is an affront to me and I will now harm and disrespect you. It speaks of entitlement and gatekeeping in a space which is meant to be safe for all women and non-binary people. It is emblematic of the kind of attitudes that sustain white feminism; the same attitudes which have led to the continued relevance of Germaine Greer in Australian feminist spaces and the persistent transmisogyny in Reclaim the Night.
These attitudes are not benign, and often are precursors to acts of violence, which is exactly what happened earlier this year. During Guild elections, a non-binary person of colour was harassed in front of witnesses for simply sitting in the Women’s Room, reducing them to tears. This individual said that non-binary people existing within the Women’s Room was ‘disrespectful’ despite being technically allowed.
When TERFs say that non-binary people are being disrespectful by existing in women’s spaces, who is this disrespect aimed at? Non-binary people have no material power over cis women in any way, nor are they breaking any rules by using Women’s Department spaces and resources. These kinds of statements assume that gender is linked to genitalia, ironically defining women by their reproductive organs in a way that feminism has tried to decry for years. These statements state that only women, specifically those with vaginas, can access the resources provided by the Guild. It is also a remarkably white, colonial view of gender – one which views it as a black and white binary when so many cultures of colour around the world have non-binary and third genders. It ignores the realities of the complex system of patriarchy and confuses those who benefit from it and who are punished by it. But most of all, it lacks empathy, which is the basis of all progressive thought, and dehumanises and others people for no reason other than malice.
I end this article by imploring my fellow cis people to not let bad behaviour slide. Call out transphobic attitudes, even if it is your friends who are espousing them. Educate yourselves so you can better educate others. Stand up for trans and non-binary people in meaningful ways if you see them being harassed. By doing nothing, you allow the mistreatment of trans and non-binary people to continue. To all trans and non-binary people: you are welcome in university spaces. I am sorry we have let you down for so long. I am sorry for my silence. We will do better.
As appeared in Ed. 6 BARE available now.