[Image description: Sisters Uncut members holding a banner and raising their fists in front of the squatted building which is their social centre in Peckham. The building has a large banner which reads “S.E.L. [south east London] SISTERS UNCUT”; below is a smaller banner which reads “ALL WOMEN AND NON-BINARY PEOPLE WELCOME”. The Sisters hold a banner readings “RINGFENCE D.V. SERVICES”. Photo by me.]
CN: mentions of domestic violence and rape, misogyny, transmisogyny
Dear Sisters Uncut,
You know I love you. I’ve hyped you since I found out about you, and several times I’ve taken on support roles for your direct actions. But your gender inclusion policy is a point of contention and confusion.
I’ve only been to one Sisters meeting, which happened sort of by accident immediately after photographing the opening of the occupied/squatter social centre in Peckham (great work, btw!). The Sister facilitating tells us that the meetings are open to all women (trans, intersex, and cis), non-binary and gender nonconforming people, those who experience oppression as women, and those who identify as women for the purposes of political organizing. She tells us that in this space, “sister” is a gender-neutral term. We go around the circle and say our names and pronouns: nearly everyone is “she” with a handful of “they”s, and I’m the only “he” (caveated with “I’m non-binary”). Some Sisters look at me funny and later complain on the internet.
Sisters is a decentralized non-hierarchical group and I don’t know exactly how the gender inclusion policy is articulated in every meeting across the UK, but here’s what is says on your website FAQ:
What is your gender inclusion policy and what does it mean?
Our meetings should be inclusive and supportive spaces for all women (trans, intersex and cis), all those who experience oppression as women (including non-binary and gender non-conforming people) and all those who identify as women for the purpose of political organising. Self-definition is at the sole-discretion of that sister. If you have any queries regarding our gender inclusion policy, please don’t hesitate to ask questions.
Why can’t men come to meetings?
We believe that women must be at the forefront of the movement for women’s rights and therefore we need safe, collective spaces where we can organise, share our experiences, learn from each other and support one another. We want to ensure our meetings are safe and welcoming for survivors of domestic violence, and for that reason we ask men not to attend.
I want to question who the space is for, and highlight the direct contradiction between it being open to “people who experience oppression as women” while not being open to men. (If this is the only phrase you take away from this without reading the rest, you’re killing any chance we have at a nuanced and complex discussion about gender. Please don’t do that.)
Trans men are not “men-lite”, and they don’t experience anything (oppression or otherwise) as women because they are not women, they are men. But claiming the identity label of “man” does not mean that the world genders you as a man. When I realized I was trans, no one else saw my masculine gender or believed me. I was still street harassed, still talked over, still objectified in public space, still abused and raped by my then-partner (s/o to Charles Potashner aka Chuck Potashner, I hope this ruins your reputation). The violence I experienced was absolutely gendered. In fact, it was often transmisandrist, if you’ll entertain the notion that such violence exists: he attempted to correctively rape me into being a cis girl. I stayed with him for years, mostly because I had no money to leave. I later found out about Sisters Uncut but felt like my presence, as a trans masc*, would be imposing, despite my extremely relevant personal experience of gendered domestic and sexual violence and my enthusiasm for direct action.
*I loathe the term “trans masculine” as a catch-all for afab people who aren’t cis / don’t identify as women: personal example of its failing is me being trans but not very masculine. Still, I think it’s the best we’ve currently got.
Trans men are not always read as men. When trans men are read as women, they experience the same external gendered violence as cis women. The transphobic violence which trans men face is gendered violence, usually about a biological essentialism that trans men are not really men but women, and are then objectified and abused as miscreant women. Claiming the identity label of “man” or “masculine” does not change the way you are coercively gendered by society, and it does not erase your history of being coercively gendered (and possibly assaulted) as a “woman”. Trans men might be sex workers who work as “women”.
In discourse, trans women are hyper-visible and fetishized and othered, constantly needing to self-advocate for their gender to be respected; trans men are invisible and also constantly self-advocate, or else assimilate into cisnormative masculinity. In queer spaces, trans men and masc people are dominant while trans femmes, femmes, fat babes, and QTIPOC have less social capital. The desire to create a space which centers these voices is understandable and valuable, but I don’t think including trans men would diminish them; it would empower otherwise disenfranchised trans men who have no safe/r spaces in discussions of domestic violence, like femme trans men, POC trans men, and trans masc sex workers.
There is a theoretical trans man who does not belong in Sisters Uncut: he has always known he was a boy/man, he has lived his whole life “stealth” and is assumed to be a cis man by people on the street. This is the assimilationist trans man, who is honestly completely unknown to me (to everybody) and who has a very different gendered experience than most trans masculine people. The domestic violence he might face, if his abusive partner did not know him to be trans, would not have the same gendered dynamic as a trans man who is out to their partner, or a closeted trans man. As you know, 4 out of 5 trans people experience domestic violence. This is not exclusive to trans women.
I am sympathetic to the desire to create a safer space which does not include men, and the empowerment which comes from politically organizing without men. I also appreciate the assertion that trans men are men despite its reductiveness. But if Sisters Uncut welcomes “people who experience oppression as women”, then it must welcome men. Who “experiences oppression as a woman” or is “a woman for the purposes of political organizing”—yet is not a woman or non-binary—if not men? If men are not welcome, what is the point of these clunky phrases?
There’s understandable reluctance to say that “trans men don’t have male privilege before they’re read as men” because it could imply an inverse “trans women don’t face misogyny until they’re read as women” or even worse that “trans women have male privilege until they’re read as women”, but this isn’t true. Trans femininity and trans masculinity are not opposites in patriarchy. Both are differently punished. This is very difficult to bring up for fear of treading on trans women, and because trans mascs have years of internalized shame and discomfort with masculinity.
Identity policing, whether it’s in-person at meetings or written to exclude certain ID labels, will keep some people away from the space who have relevant and valuable contributions to the discussion. Even saying “no cis men” will keep out amab trans people who aren’t ready yet to claim a trans identity. Baby queers and baby transes need space where they have plausible deniability as straight/cis to explore their non-normative identities. Instead of policing identity labels in order to keep out the wrong people, may I suggest: doing lots of housekeeping to frame the discourse so those who choose to participate are self-selecting as feminists who know when to speak and when to listen; and removing people from the space based on their behavior rather than your perceptions of their identity, e.g. if they’re taking up too much space or being aggressive.
It would be simplest for Sisters if you decided that the purpose of the group is to empower and help women, and only women, in protesting the closure of domestic violence services. This would make Sisters a still-valuable group, but ultimately it’s a cop-out. I would be surprised if Sisters is comfortable with the compromise of excluding people who suffer gendered violence for the sake of maintaining the purity of a No Men Allowed policy. Sisters Uncut has already made controversial but important decisions, such as supporting sex workers’ groups in demanding the decriminalization of sex work. You like doing the hard work and being at the forefront of feminism. It would be deeply disappointing for Sisters to take a reactionary, second-wave feminist stance on gender. Assuming that trans men are inherently violent because they identify with masculinity, or that they’re “gender traitors” for “abandoning womanhood”, is the kind of TERFy bullshit I hope we can wholly reject. Our language is utterly inadequate and will never capture the nuance of our lives but that’s no excuse. You (we) need to be better.
I would bring this discussion to the occupied space itself, but at this point I don’t feel comfortable there even when specifically invited by Sisters who have been active in your organization for months. If a group purporting to support survivors in demanding the end to austerity cuts for DV services excludes trans and non-binary survivors like me, it’s failing in its objective.
With fondness and in acknowledgement that this will literally lose me friends (oh well),
Post script: I’d also critique the inclusion of “gender non-conforming people” as part of the gender inclusion policy. A cis man in drag is gender non-conforming, but he does not experience gendered violence (though he does experience violence from patriarchy which insists that he repress his femininity, which might manifest in physical violence). “Gender variant” is a more appropriate term, but still unnecessary since you explicitly include “non-binary”, but I’ll concede that “non-binary” is a new and very western term and I might be missing some context.
EDIT, 4 July 2016: The following is some more context, lifted from a comment I made in the conversations on facebook:
Maybe this needs some more context. I’ve been on the sidelines of Sisters Uncut for several months. A couple of Sisters have explicitly encouraged me to attend meetings & actions but I haven’t because it felt like I’d be intruding on a women’s/femme centered space, even with the “non-binary people allowed” caveat. The reason I’m writing this *now* is because I did (very gingerly) attend a meeting *which I was explicitly invited to* and was met with a sense of discomfort, which (I’ve since learned) reflects the experiences of lots of people read as men/masc, including amab non-binary / trans-femmes. I know everyone at Sisters is exhausted by all the work they’ve been doing and some people think now’s not a good time—but this is in direct response to a particular moment at the space, and at a time when the gender inclusion/exclusion policy is being visibly, publicly “enforced”.
I’ve privately and publicly supported Sisters—individuals and the group—for a long time and hope to keep doing so. I’ve broached this topic with some Sisters and my trans family privately, and decided to write about it publicly for two reasons: because I didn’t feel comfortable bringing this up in the forum of a Sisters meeting; and to make this a wider and transparent discussion about gender and feminism. I also know that this semi-/academic language is not necessarily accessible, but I’m a single individual and this is just how I write. I’d be super enthusiastic about re-working these points into a more accessible format if there was an interest in that.
Sisters Uncut is a wonderful group and I’m so encouraged by the responses I’ve gotten (thank you again everyone for the love and support). I’m also concerned by some people suggesting that they’re above public, online critique. I know this is hard. I know it’s a lot of work and most of the labor is invisible. But Sisters is a public/community group and I think it’s fair to make a public comment about it, especially when that comment is about my inability to make a comment internally. Tbh I’d rather have these talks in person and this online stuff makes me pretty anxious.
PS Don’t call me a trans man; I’ve been really clear about being non-binary for months now. It’s disrespectful misgendering—and in this context it’s a willful political attempt to discredit what I’m saying—and I’m out of patience for it.