This post is a personal reflection on Janice Raymond’s visit to Vancouver during a memorial for the victims of the massacre of women at L’École Polytechnique, which took place in Montreal 24 years ago. For an overview of the controversy, why Janice Raymond’s presence (as well as some other aspects of that day’s program) drew anger from trans and sex work communities, and the different facets to that situation, please refer to my article at Rabble. What follows is my personal reflection, recorded separately.
This blog post was originally going to be something very different, a personal recollection of how Janice Raymond’s writings had personally impacted me, how to heal from that, and the larger question of how to heal the old wounds that exist between trans and womens’ movements (a question that has been heavy on my mind over the past while). After the publication of my article about her appearance at a memorial in Vancouver, the response to that article showed me that the former is something I don’t have the luxury of time to dwell on just yet, and the latter question is clearly more urgent.
A few of the responses accused me of having an agenda when I wrote the piece, Memorial draws controversy over invitation of speaker Janice Raymond, probably because I (as acknowledged in my bio at the end) have a trans history, myself. In all honesty, my aim in writing it was to dig into a rather complex situation, be as objective as possible, and present several different points of view in a way that was true to the speakers and independent of myself. Along the way, it meant examining a number of things, including the histories of Janice Raymond and the event sponsor that invited her, Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR); the use of the tragic memorial to promote a sex work abolition agenda that some felt was unrelated to the tragedy being commemorated; the trans and sex work communities’ response, and the complexities of responding while also not intruding on the larger context of a memorial. If there was any take-away that I wanted readers to have, it would be to ask questions that might lead to the aforementioned healing. A good journalist leaves the end response up to the reader, though, and the response I heard was unexpected.
What I didn’t expect was the visceral reaction that readers would have both to quotations of Raymond’s writing, and to the event sponsor’s policy on trans women. To me, those things had been long-known issues. Raymond’s book was first published in 1979, and the way it and her paper “Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery“ were used to cut health care funding and close gender clinics are a matter of public record (although while looking for a link, I discovered that those events of the 1980s are better remembered by trans bloggers than by anyone else. There are few, if any, people who are considered more controversial to the trans community than Janice Raymond.
Regarding the exemption of trans women from VRR’s primary services, I’d heard about this sporadically for years, and Vancouverites were still periodically tweeting upset about it before it was announced that VRR would be inviting Raymond to speak there. So to me, this also seemed a long-known and ongoing concern: that while VRR will ensure that anyone facing an urgent emergency will be helped by referring them elsewhere, VRR will not provide the core of their services (shelter, counseling) to trans women. This exclusion can be traced all the way back to the 12-year Nixon v RR legal dispute, in which the Vancouver Rape Relief collective won the right to choose who could be a member and participant in the collective, even if that selection was made out of the belief that trans women aren’t women.
What I gleaned from interviewing VRR’s Hilla Kerner was the encouraging information that the views of the collective vary quite a bit on trans issues. When I asked her about the exclusion, she sounded possibly regretful, perhaps uncomfortably embarrassed, and trying to rationalize the exclusion in a way that sounds reasonable if you don’t think about it too much:
“I’ll say it the other way. There will not be a situation that someone is not safe in calling us, in which we would not help them to get safe. It has nothing to do with who we are or what we do. It’s a basic human compassion. To all people. On the other hand, our core service is based on peer counseling and consciousness-raising and we’re only going to work with people, in this case, with women-born-women, who share the same experience. And I think that transgender people who this model is appealing to them and want to have what we have, I think that the rationale from that will be that if you want to operate a consciousness raising / peer counseling -based service, probably a service that is designed by a transgender and operated by transgender and support and offer the peer counseling to other transgender who have a similar journey in life… because it’s a concept of consciousness-raising in a peer counseling context.”
But to Rabble readers, apparently, the exclusion of trans women from VRR services was a mostly new and shocking piece of information.
And that’s the first problem with wanting to heal a division of this sort, when that old division is still being allowed to persist in the form of policy. Healing starts with talking about an issue, but if that issue is entrenched in current policy, doing so sometimes threatens to reopen old wounds. Yet talk we must… and ask questions.
Part of what led me to believe that the exclusionary policy would not be shocking was that VRR’s website still documents some of its members’, supporters’ and like-minded activists’ past views toward trans people, such as Sheila Jeffreys’ assertions that “from a feminist perspective… transsexualism should be seen as a violation of human rights,” and compared the availability of genital reassignment surgery to lobotomy, which trans people should be saved from, for their own sake: “The mutilation of healthy bodies and the subjection of such bodies to dangerous and life-threatening continuing treatment violates such people’s rights to live with dignity in the body into which they were born.” There is one essay on the website which talks about building bridges (while retaining the systemic exclusion, of course), but relies on one trans woman’s assertion that: “Well, let’s be clear on one thing from the start. As to M to F transsexuals, we can never be real women,” and “demanding equal treatment is not acceptable or productive…”
Most of those documents date from around 2000 to 2002, after the B.C. Supreme Court’s ruling in Nixon v. RR, but before the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the case (thus making the last ruling stand). With websites, things often get posted and forgotten, only to need questioning years later.
Times have changed, and so has our collective understanding of trans people and trans issues. It’s time to question these old attitudes, but that requires unearthing them again. That’s not an easy thing to do, apparently, without having the reaction turn to anger, instead of resolution and healing… which take much more mutual effort. But I believe that the focus needs to be kept on the latter as much as possible.
Perhaps before we can heal the rifts between collective movements, we need to try to heal the way we talk about them. And each other. As one interested party, I’m still trying to find what that way is.
The question comes at a time when something being called “trans-exclusionary radical feminism” (TERF), a fringe offshoot of feminism largely inspired by Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys, is attempting to make a comeback. While adherents have reopened some of those old wounds elsewhere, the philosophy doesn’t really resonate with mainstream feminism, which understands that division and demonization have rarely been good ways to build movements; that oppression has always been a poor way to fight oppression.
More important to remember, of course, is that there are many areas where the forms of oppression we face overlap. Misogyny is a significant portion of what makes up transphobia, for example, because it is the perceptively non-masculine aspect of trans people that the cis (non-trans) public most reacts to in hatred. Although much of the TERF critique of trans politics centers upon the possibility that trans people may reinforce an oppressive gender binary, the truth is that trans people are demonized in the rest of society exactly because they call that binary into question, are uncertainly in-or-out of that binary, blur its edges and raise challenging questions about sex, gender and human existence. These kinds of overlap are completely missed when a policy of exclusion assumes that poverty, inequity, vulnerability and rape are somehow irrevocably different experiences simply because one had been born or socialized as male.
But we need to strive for that healing, especially if social movements want to transcend their own self-imposed boundaries and bring about true lasting change. Healing and building critical mass go hand in hand. As long as activism requires thinking in terms of colonies (even if umbrella-like), rather than in terms of alliances and intersections — ownership, rather than solidarity — it will be forever fractured and expending its valuable energy on policing its boundaries and propagating oppression — not on dismantling it.
And when I say all of this, I’ve not forgotten the other aspect of VRR’s controversy, surrounding sex work. If anything, the discussion about feminism, transfeminism and the old wounds from that conflict serves as a cautionary tale, to question one’s activism, lest it do damage to sex workers, and this entire situation be revisited again in another form, in another ten years.
Healing should be preferable by far, over anger and exclusion.
For a case in point, this entire discussion began within the context of a memorial for the victims of the massacre at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal 24 years ago. It has to be one of the most vivid examples of sheer hatred on historic record, and was undertaken by a man who does not deserve to be named, and who specifically targeted women, claiming he was fighting feminism. That action is a deep scar in the psyche of Canadian women (and women worldwide).
The most disturbing thing that could come out of the controversy of the past weekend is if the tragedy of the École Polytechnique massacre becomes forgotten, turned into an opportunity for three communities that should be natural allies — the womens’ movement, the sex workers’ rights movement, and the trans rights movement — to instead do violence to each other.
(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)