Updated: Apr 26, 2019
"When I tell people that I am traveling across the country, leading discussions, education, and restorative justice work between trans people and radical feminists, the immediate response is shock, then fear."
Content Warning: The following statement is likely to contain offensive and uncomfortable language. The politics around "political correctness" and "tone policing" aside, I have written this without any intention of causing harm, and a willingness to be responsible for the impact it may have. I also object to the caustic environment we’ve created which is taking away our language, and making us afraid to speak. Mistakes are valuable opportunities for learning and relationship building. Audre Lorde’s famous statement, “Your Silence Will Not Protect You.” is not a threat, but a compassionate warning and call toward empowerment and engagement. I ask that if I have used a word that is offensive, can you create a space where we can coexist? I will offer you the same space. If I have used a word that is harmful, can you offer me the gift of your perspective, and trust that I don’t want to do harm, so that I can learn? I will offer you the same.
When I tell people that I am traveling across the country, leading discussions, education, and restorative justice work between trans people and radical feminists, the immediate response is shock, then fear.
Understandably; the internet has been set aflame by arguments between the trans community and “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists” or “TERFs”. Heated shouting matches have erupted about whether trans women are women, whether trans women deserve sanctuary in women’s spaces or are a threat to them, as well as whether ‘TERF” is a slur, whether “TERFs” can be called feminist at all, or are akin to fascists. Who has more privilege? Who is repeating the harms of patriarchy on whom? Who is the villain and who is the victim? At the core root, both communities feel their very identity and existence is being threatened with erasure and violence.
To those watching from the sidelines, it looks like the queer and feminist communities have distilled into violent radicalism. The Litmus test for acceptance, turned battle cry: “Is a Trans Woman a Woman?” is all it takes to fracture an entire community. Tragically, it has resulted in both trans people, and cisgender people being expelled from communities and ostracized. Increasingly, women, trans and queer people are being silenced by the intimidation associated with these issues. Those with less privilege or less visibility, the voices of people of color, trans masculine, non-binary, and global feminists (trans and cis) have also become largely absent from these debates. The conversation most of us are exposed to is characterized by extremism, by fear, by anger and intolerance. Looking closely, we find it’s dialogue existing from a relatively specific “bubble”. Mostly, it is centered in the Bay Area of California, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington and New York City.
That dialogue is mired by on one side, white feminism, and on another an urban geo elitism, and ageism. As we expand our view, to include cis and trans women of color, non binary people, those in rural areas, the global population of feminists, disabled feminists, masc feminists, and older generations, this conflict will change, and inevitably dissolve.
Meanwhile, our communities are drifting farther apart, and both communities are suffering for it. When we see members of our community expelled for mistakes, prejudice, even harm, the message it sends is: “I am only safe as long as I don’t make a mistake.” There develops an incentive to “call out” other members of the community for their mistakes, to protectively showcase one’s own righteousness. The community becomes fragile, and fractured, as imperfect humans are not allowed to learn from their mistakes, are not able to be supported and do repair. Members of the community begin to fear and distrust one another.
Say it loud, for the folks in the back: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences....The failure of ... feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.” Audre Lorde
When I talk to trans feminists and radical feminists, I learn so much. These conversations are an opportunity to build a bridge from one community to another. What has been created by this division is an inability to participate in our communities as our genuine imperfect flawed selves, who benefit from, learn and grow with one another by making valuable mistakes and learning from them. Our mistakes are precious opportunities for growth and empathy, not opportunities for shame and condemnation. I have found this conflict is not between Trans Feminists and Radical Feminists. Rather it is between those who would advocate violence, and those who are willing to listen and learn from one another. There are vast overlapping histories of allyship, of solidarity, of coalition building. It has been said there is more genetic variation within a race than between races. I have found a similar thing to be true in both the trans and feminist communities. There aren’t yet answers to the questions of how we define “woman”, or how we define who gets to be in women’s only space; whether adolescents should have access to medical transition. Answers to these questions vary depending on age, class, race, personal history, etc. regardless of trans or cis identity. Having the discussions however is vital. The idea that these differences are irreconcilable is a phantom only made manifest if we allow it. And should that happen, those who would benefit are more threat to either community than we could ever be to one another.
“When I use my strength in the service of my vision it makes no difference whether or not I am afraid.“ Audre Lorde
I understand if you are afraid of these conversations, if you do not feel safe enough, supported enough, or that you will be attacked for your beliefs or identity. I too am afraid to do this work. I know that I have transphobic beliefs, misogynist beliefs, racist beliefs that I haven’t rooted out and unlearned yet. I fear being called a traitor by all of my communities and cast out. I am not an expert, and i am not perfect. I know I will make mistakes. For me the harm being done to our communities by avoiding these conflicts is far worse. I was raised by women of color, and queer women who knew that community meant survival. Community for them wasn’t something frivolous or comfortable. Too many of us take community for granted, that we are owed membership by our identity alone, rather than by our participation and investment in that community. I owe my communities this work. I owe the women, queer, straight, cis and trans who did this work so that I could exist, and so that we could be as far as we are. For me to expect these communities to survive, to thrive, to hold me, and support me, I feel called to help them heal. I will do my best, and hope that those around me will help me become aware of my mistakes and to learn from them.
A Basic Structure:
Many methods are being used in these discussions. It takes time, care, and an individual assessment of each participant and group to ascertain what methods are going to be most effective. The following is one example of a model currently in use.
While the methods being used do sometimes require that we confront difficult and uncomfortable issues, no one will be put into a situation where they will be abused or attacked. Dialogue begins where women have created community for centuries, around a table. These discussions occur in different times, in different places, this work must be done slowly and intentionally, to allow us to settle into our feelings and practice sitting with discomfort and newness.
In homogeneous groups, trans feminists and cis feminists are kept separate to have their own discussions. Questions are passed between the groups, and the discussions are shared. Slowly trust and relationship is built as the depth and nuance of each group’s reality becomes more apparent. The reductive black/white ideas about each other’s identity, the “Otherness” we feel toward one another, and fear stemming from our lack of understanding beings to dissolve and is replaced by glimpses of understanding, vignettes of compassion in shared experiences, and finally empathy. Integrated group discussions are modeled as the membership of the dialogue expands to include more diverse individuals with perspectives which illuminate our awareness of privilege, power, impact and allyship.
Groups are also being developed for men & masculine folks to begin discussions about how each experiences male and masculine privilege differently, and how we can use those intersecting and overlapping experiences to usurp patriarchy. Please contact us if you would like to be involved.
Offering Our Work As a Resource:
As this work progresses, we will also offer restorative accountability consultations for organizations and communities who have found their members to harbor violent, radical, misogynistic or transphobic ideologies. Too often organizations and communities feel compelled to expel members when they display prejudices or expose themselves as perpetrators. The result is these individuals internalize the violence of being alienated, and turn to other communities to enact violence. There is no room for education or repair. We will offer an experienced community who has the emotional bandwidth and personal experience of being on both sides of the victim/perpetrator dynamic, to do the emotional labor of educating those who have done harm. At the same time we will involving the impacted members of the community to create a restorative process, so that genuine repair can be made, and the individual can rejoin the community, strengthening it and interrupting the cycle of violence.
Please contact me if you would like to be involved, or contribute if you would like to support this work and those doing it.
Dylan Marie Alter is a white passing, Jewish, Choctaw, non-binary lesbian lawyer & teacher. They have been practicing mediation and restorative justice for over fifteen years, to creating dialogue and repair between Israeli & Palestinian girls, Bolivian Water Revolutionaries, Direct Action Activists & Police, factions within the ACLU, Federal Prosecutors & the Innocence Project, as well as many smaller individual issues. They have also taught restorative justice at the Peralta Community Colleges in Oakland, California. This conflict is of personal importance, as it affects their own identities and communities.