Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival Comes to a Timely Death

What do Margaret Thatcher and Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival have in common? They’re shit and they’re dead.

I expect to hear a lot of people saying in the coming days that the trans cabal murdered the festival. As with any trans cabal talk, in reality we are too small and too marginalised a group to engage in this sort of conspiracy. Besides, the efforts of trans women and activists sympathetic to us were focussed upon attempting to making the festival inclusive, with a large number of people and institutions signing a petition to demand inclusion of trans women, alongside activism from within.

In truth, the death of Michfest was no more of a conspiracy than declining Church of England congregations. Festival owner Lisa Vogel, announcing the end of the festival, as much admits this, saying “We have known in our hearts for some years that the life cycle of the Festival was coming to a time of closure”. A sympathetic article notes that those attending in 2014 were “Many less than the 8,000-10,000 days”, while ever more acts are unwilling to perform owing to its exclusionary politics.

It died because it refused to change as the understandings of feminism around it did; instead remaining centred on a shrinking and ageing demographic of second wave lesbian feminists. Vogel has talked some right crap about trans women over the years, but as a trans woman who attended testifies, it was they that made an effort to make sure that trans women were made to feel unwelcome; wearing red as a visible symbol of their desire to exclude trans women. Trans women and LGBT activist Kayleigh Whalen describes the experience of being there

I couldn’t help but focus on all the red badges on display, and those same feelings I felt my first year were inaccessible to me. My tears burned on my cheeks; born of indignation, pain and loss from seeing so many women wearing what I could only see as symbols of hatred.

Vogel’s half-arsed attempt at claiming trans women are welcome implicitly makes it clear that these women are what Michfest is centred on, guaranteeing that organisers have no intention of combating that culture of wilful exclusion. She states:

There are trans women and trans men who attend and work at the Festival who participate in the Michfest community in this same spirit – as supporters of, rather than detractors from, our female-focused culture. The presence of trans women at Michfest has been misrepresented as a kind of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But the real issue is about the focus of the event, a focus on the experience of those born female, who’ve lived their lives subjected to oppression based on the sole fact of their being female.

At best she’s saying “you can be included, but only if you are like us, you think like us and you prioritise our issues”, which is not real inclusion.

This does not only discourage trans women and cis women with a particular unwillingness to participate in our exclusion. It discourages any cis women who are aware of the broader implications of trans exclusionary feminism – its tendency to exclude unworthy women like sex workers, or women who want to talk about oppressions beyond their vulva like women of colour or working class women; its focus upon theorising away women it doesn’t like rather than confronting the issues facing women right now.

What I gather from speaking to women from its home country is that it came to be seen as an irrelevant hive of second wavers peppered with some weird, vaguely appropriative spirituality. It’s clear that it had become alienating or at best irrelevant to ever more people that might have brought renewed life to the event. Those who refused to allow Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to change are those who allowed it to die.


Loving The Boy in Their Head: Leelah Alcorn and Parents’ Claims of Love

Content note: This post discusses a trans woman’s suicide and the abuse and misgendering she experienced.

In the wake of Leelah Alcorn’s death, her mother Carla Alcorn spoke to CNN about her feelings:

We don’t support [her being transgender], religiously. But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.

Note how misgendering her daughter wasn’t enough. It was not enough to say “we loved him”. She had to add “my son”. It was not enough to say “he was a good kid”. She had to add “a good boy”. Even after her death, Leelah’s mother had to assert control over who, in her mind, her daughter was: A boy.

No, Carla. You didn’t love your child. You loved the fictional character in your head; the person you thought your child should be. You were only willing to love that character, and through conversion therapy you tried to force your child to play that role. You failed, and she took her life rather than be someone she wasn’t. Even in death, despite your claim of unconditional love, your love was reserved for that fictional boy.

Like so much of Leelah’s story, this is not exceptional or unusual. So many parents make these kinds of claims of love while continuing not to respect their trans children. It’s as authentic as the supposed love you experience as a teenager for that person on the other side of the classroom that you’ve never spoken to but is probably really awesome.

At worst, it’s a form of manipulation. It implies that they are giving something, hence they ought to receive something in return – for their child to change, or at least to quieten their demands for respect; to silently bear the pain over the years that parents claim to need before they can bring themselves to show respect.

Being trans is not something you accept. You accept flaws, faults, poor life choices – bad things. Nor do you make a choice about whether you respect that someone is trans. Being trans is a fixed reality of who they are, so the choice is really whether to respect them at all.

This makes for a depressing conclusion; that a whole lot of trans people are not loved or respected for who they are. But if trans people’s parents love someone else, not them, then that love does not bind them to any reciprocal duty; beyond putting on enough of a front to survive until the point at which they can become independent.

The biological family is not the only family and not the only source of love. Leelah’s death should be a call for us all to reach out to trans youth, show them love and provide the practical support necessary for going through with transition, finding loving friends and getting through their day to day life. For as long as there are shitty families there must be ways of helping young trans people to liberate themselves from the script that their families have written for them.

Date Rape Nail Polish and Crossing The Road

Content note: This post discusses rape and mentions trauma without detail.

Until I read Maya Todd writing on Feminispire yesterday, I had no idea quite how many awful, misguided inventions for women to prevent rape there were. As she points out, “creating products to “prevent” sexual assault does nothing more than perpetuate rape culture by putting the responsibility in the woman’s hands to protect herself”.

Bullshit predictably happens in the comments, including this gem:

So… you have no solution or suggestions except to refuse to take any action. Nice. Wonderful article. I assume you also refuse to look both ways when you cross the street, refuse to wear seatbelts when you drive, or refuse to do anything else that you could do to help mitigate risk or protect yourself in this world.

Predictably, being the transport planner I am, the point about crossing the street caught my eye. Here’s a video of Market Street in San Francisco in the 1900s. Notice how casually people walk into the street at will.

As Roman of 99% Invisible explains in a podcast on the history of attitudes towards road traffic and pedestrians, “the rules of the street were vastly different than how they are today. A street functioned like a city park, or a pedestrian mall, where you could move in any direction without really thinking about it… If a car hit someone, the car was to blame”. He quotes a 1924 New York Times article: “The reckless motorist deals more death the artilleryman”.  Chris Carlsson points out in an article on the same subject that “customary practice gave priority to people on foot. Going back for centuries, public roads were open to everyone and pedestrians enjoyed a type of seniority rights.”.

Both Roman and Carlsson go on to describe a deliberate effort on the part of corporations interested in selling more cars, which required making way for their product to travel down the street unimpeded. As Roman explains, “they coined a new term: Jay Walking”. A propaganda campaign took place to shift the blame for accidents onto pedestrians’ failure to take care before entering the street; the street which was once theirs.

So it becomes that “look both ways when you cross the street” is to that commenter an example of safety precautions that one obviously just has to make, regardless of anyone’s values.

The point (I promise I didn’t just take you here to talk about transport) is that even the seemingly most normal safety precautions in fact represent of a set of values on who has the responsibility to take care to prevent harm and who has the right to go about their business without obstruction.

In the early 20th Century it was the right of the pedestrian to walk or hang about in the street, to get drunk and stagger out of the bar, and it was the responsibility of those with the capacity to harm them to avoid doing so. Those that did were held criminally liable and portrayed in the media as monsters. Like this:

Here in the 21st Century, that is, word for word, exactly how we should regard the rights of women and the responsibilities of those with the capacity to harm them. The 1923 cartoon could not be more apt – the lives of women are sacrificed to the effects of trauma in the name of allowing men to go about their business of drunkenly fucking women without obstruction.

As you can see if you look at a busy urban road today, emphasising the need to take precautionary measures is a dangerous symptom of the broader set of attitudes towards where rights and responsibilities lie. What we need to do is drop our tampon daggers and work together on moving towards a culture in which nobody ever questions the rights of women to do just as they wish, without having to structure their lives around the fear of those that might harm them.

How I Was Privileged and Wasn’t Expected to Fuck Anyone

Of all the men that have met me on the train and wanted to bone me, this was the least terrible one by a long shot. Men meeting me on the train and wanting to bone me happens a lot. Evening trains in South London seem to be where this sort of thing happens.

It starts with them initiating small talk. Blame me of you wish (actually don’t); I tend to talk to them. It’s easier than having to explain that I don’t want to talk, and sometimes I do want to pass the time by talking, even being aware that I might have to later explain why I wanted a conversation but not to go to his house and suck his dick.

He was shorter and smaller than me (which at my 5’11” isn’t unusual). He asked how I was doing as the train pulled out of Victoria. He offered me a can of beer, which I declined. I’d had enough, and more than anything I avoid accepting anything that will translate to entitlement later. “Where are you going?”, he asked. “Norbury”. “I’m going to Norbury too!” Oh, that’s prime trying to bed me real estate.

I was conscious that having removed my jacket I was sitting there in but a lace bralet. I thought of how revealing clothes get interpreted in shitty ways. “You’re a very nice girl.” “True. Yeah, I am.” That throws them off a bit. I was meant to be blushing and giggling right now.

As always, it was him throwing questions at me. I told him what I’d done last night, what I was planning for the weekend. We exchanged our backgrounds – I was Hungarian but grew up in the North, just to keep it simple. He’d lived in South London all his life and his parents had come from Pakistan. I told him I worked for TfL. He apologised for drinking on the train; I told him that it’s quite legal, explaining that because it’s operated by Southern under a franchise agreement with the Department for Transport, it has nothing to do with the mayor or his alcohol ban.

As we left Clapham Junction and people had sat around us he stopped talking and returned to his smartphone. We rode to Norbury, silently both went down the ramp and out of the ticket gates. At that point he turned to me and asked which way I was going. I motioned vaguely in the direction in which I was about the leave the station. “Do you want me to come?”. “No”. Simple answer, making excuses doesn’t help. “Okay”.

Damn, that was easy. Last dude ended up begging me to come over. Why so easy? This man might have just been decent but interested gently approaching a consensual hookup, though why he thought that was likely from a stranger on a train I don’t know. But as I lit a cigarette and began the walk home, I thought about something else.

Just before he’d stopped bothering me I told him who I worked for and then, explaining the alcohol regulations, showed I was knowledgable about my area of work. At that point, I became not just any white woman, which helps in itself. Despite anything my clothes might have been saying, and perhaps counteracting them, I became a respectable white woman. And I received respect – be it genuine respect, a perception that I’m self confident, hence more difficult to get into bed, or an awareness of the repercussions of making any trouble.

Since I got this job I’ve been conscious of the way I’ve been respected more by all sorts of people, and how that’s strengthened the privilege already have. And just maybe this evening I managed to make myself far too privileged and respectable a person to bother. I could not be less proud.

Binarism, Cissexism and Third Gendering

In an afternoon of following every vaguely interesting link on my facebook feed I found myself reading what liked like it could be a really positive site on bisexuality called The Bisexual Index. It includes an FAQ section that’s really a FRB (Frequently Repeated Bullshit) section.

One piece of frequently repeated bullshit was headed “Bi means two so bisexuality is transphobic”. It began by explaining that “Some people get hung up on the ‘bi’ and protest that gender isn’t binary. They claim that identifying as bisexual is tantamount to saying trans* people don’t exist, or that you’re not attracted to them, or that you’re only into masculine men and feminine women”.

Jesus christ, this is why I hate the asterisk. Whenever people use the asterisk, bullshit follows. What’s wrong with this picture? I hope I’m not the only one seeing it. Apparently if we view bisexuality as meaning “two genders”, which they go on to point out isn’t necessarily how it works, that means trans people aren’t included. That, I think, says more about the writer’s assumptions than anyone else’s. The implication is that if bisexuals only like men and women, they don’t like trans people, who are something else.

The writer, then, engages in a pervasive act of cissexism – third gendering trans people. As Julia Serano explains it in Whipping Girl, “relegating us to our own unique categories that are separate from “woman” or “man” ”. Third gendering happens in a lot of circumstances, including when cissexism (the assumption that gender is defined by the genitals one was born with, and exceptions are nonexistent, unnatural or abnormal) is conflated with binarism (the assumption that there are only two genders, and exceptions are nonexistent, unnatural or abnormal).

Cissexism and binarism are both important, and intersect in the form of non-binary trans people. But they can be logically separate. It is possible to be binarist but accept trans people just as long as they fit one of the binary genders. Conversely, it is possible to be cissexist while claiming to be against the binary; accepting others that move outside their assigned position in the binary just as long as they don’t claim to legitimately inhabit the other binary gender, which is reserved for cis people (though as cissexist views tend to still value assigned gender this can be a problematic attitude for non-binary people).

In the page linked, we see someone I assume to be thinking of themself as a super cool ally doing the latter – appearing to be concerned for trans people, but making the assumption that they’re all sitting outside of the binary, hence only by their super cool definition of bisexuality will they be included.

I’m a trans and I’m a woman and I’m bisexual, and when I sleep with someone of any gender or sexuality it’s because they want to sleep with a woman and I’m a woman. When people aren’t being cissexist assholes, that’s how it works for binary trans people. Anyone that wishes to make sleeping with me about something else than sleeping with a woman doesn’t get in my pants, and I won’t be doing so much as unzipping my dress for whoever so eloquently fought bullshit with bullshit on that FAQ.

Substandard Housing: Who Lives in the Dodgy Conversions?

Another week, another story on ridiculous cases involving badly substandard housing in London. The Guardian reports that:

Barnet council has taken the landlord of a house in Sunningfields Road, Hendon, to court after discovering he was renting out a room that could not be accessed standing up. The head height along the course of the staircase was between 0.7m (2ft 3in) and 1.2m (3ft 11in) and the door to the room was also reduced in size.

Clearly, then, a room that nobody should reasonably be expected to occupy; indeed, would be hazardous to occupy in the event of a fire. The article also links to a listing for a property on the same road, explaining that:

A studio advertised for £175 a week or £760 a month on the property website Zoopla includes a single bed suspended from the ceiling by metal chains and perched on two wardrobes.

A picture shows the entrance to the former, and it illustrates well what’s going on.

The house clearly wasn’t built like that. My best guess is that an the room occupies all or part of a space that was once a room accessed from the upper floor, via the staircase that lies above that sloped ceiling. A lower staircase was added so that the room could be independently accessed from the lower floor, splitting it from the unit above.

Like all of the ridiculous examples the media reports, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of a large amount of substandard housing in London that reflects what exploitative landlords do when faced with a captive market whose size exceeds the supply of decent housing.

Both rooms reported in the Guardian article appear to exemplify a particular trend of dodgy conversions, whereby houses and flats designed to house families, that could equally comfortably house a family or a group of sharers, are converted into substandard self-contained units, commanding the premium of rent and fees that tends to apply to fully or partially self-contained dwellings let out to individual tenants.

Self-contained studios and one-bed flats don’t have to be substandard. London has a number of old Victorian houses where the very large rooms are converted into studios large enough that a proper kitchen can be provided with some feeling of separation from the kitchen area. If you have the money and really want to live alone, they’re not the worst option. But certainly, the rents are high, reflecting the large floorspace as well as that premium for self-contained units, and only as many can exist as suitable houses or good new build blocks of flats.

Many commenters on the article point out that one could happily share a house for better conditions and cheaper rents. This is very true – indeed, one would be living in the same sort of house, without this sort of dodgy conversion having taken place. Clearly, though, there is a market of people who will live in a shitty individual unit in the same sort of house rather than sharing.

It’s hard to know who exactly is doing that, but one can put forward some reasonable conjecture. A commenter on the article gets part of the probable answer:

The proximity to Middlesex uni means that many houses along these roads are being converted into ever smaller flats. Unfortunately most of the people that rent them are Asian students who don’t know their rights and the landlords know this.

Aside from being willing to live with others, to rent a room in a shared house requires one of two things:

  • To have a strong social network – wherein there will be someone that can offer a room in an existing house or team up in finding a new house.
  • To be someone that strangers will consider a reasonable housemate.

To establish a tenancy on a new shared house, one must also normally be able to demonstrate formal employment, citizenship or stable legal residency, and be judged by a landlord to be of good character.

People that tick neither box will do so for a number of partially overlapping reasons, which can include being:

  • A recent migrant
  • Someone that does not speak English well
  • Someone with mental or physical disabilities others perceive as requiring support
  • Someone that struggles to form social connections with others
  • Someone that is vulnerable to prejudice

I strongly suspect that it is groups such as those that most often find themselves vulnerable to bad landlords and living in substandard accommodation, often in dodgy conversions of the kind the Grauniad illustrates.

How do we fix this? I’m not entirely sure. Ideally, we’d see the building of new social housing; enough to include those that don’t meet the present criteria that insist upon a link to the area and prolonged homelessness. We’d also see much better regulation of landlords. But independent of government and policy changes that may take a long time, what’s also important is these kinds of vulnerable people becoming less vulnerable – the formation of support networks that aid them in dealing with rented accommodation, establishing shared houses, understanding their rights and lobbying for improvements.

This has all been very vague, I know. There are as many questions as answers, but certainly understanding how people become particularly vulnerable to bad landlords is crucial to solving the problem.


The White Male Ranking of Rapes

Content note: Rape and trauma are discussed in detail.

Dick bloody Dawkins is at it again. The Independent reports that Richard Dawkins waded into territory he really ought to stay out of. It began with his explaining to the uneducated on twitter that one can make logical arguments involving comparisons between two things without approving of either.

That is indeed a thing you can do. You’re probably coming up with examples. Say, nicking bus money from a young, able bodied person against doing the same to an older person with mobility difficulties. Both are bad, one is worse. (Please refrain from comments about bus passes. You get the point.)

But what Dick Dawkins had to do is score controversy points, as white men like to do. He tweeted:

Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.

It isn’t the first time that this has been assumed. In 2011, Kenneth Clarke caused a feminist uproar by suggesting that “serious rapes” should be treated with less leniency in the legal system than “date rapes”.

Dudes that aren’t rape survivors really shouldn’t be talking about this shit. In doing so, both demonstrate the bias they have as men. When they think about rape, men tend to prioritise what is typically most familiar to them – physical violence. The psychological violence that rape inflicts is less familiar but of equal or greater importance. The feeling of being vulnerable and powerless, one’s body being violated and the lasting trauma these can inflict goes much deeper than scars on the body.

The result of men’s bias towards physical violence is that they rank rapes in terms of the degree of physical violence involved. Hence stranger rape, which likely began with physical violence or the threat of it, is ranked above date rape and other forms of rape by non-strangers, which often does not, and may not involve physical resistance at all. This bias is present not only when people like Dawkins talk, but in the legal system, where the presence or absence of physical resistance can make or break rape cases.

The psychological effects of rape by non-strangers can be severe precisely because one might not have initially resisted. When there was no moment to act upon the flight or flight instinct, one can feel particularly powerless. When one met the rapist at one’s regular bar and let them into one’s house, it becomes difficult to feel safe anywhere. When one trusted that individual, as a friend or as a seemingly decent stranger, it becomes difficult to trust anyone.

I don’t want to engage in the kind of “debate” that white men go in for and present that as a counterargument. I’ve never experienced stranger rape. I do know that people experience severe trauma symptoms from it, as others do from rape by non-strangers. The messy reality is that the wildly variable circumstances of a rape and the psychological state of the survivor determine the impact that it has.

Can we, then, please stop trying to rank different kinds of rape in some abstract hierarchy? It completely contradicts reality of the lived experience of survivors. In all its forms, rape is abhorrent. In all its forms, rape comes at the risk of destroying the survivor’s psychological health. In all its forms, the perpetrator takes that risk with the remainder of someone else’s life, and should be held accountable for doing so. If we must take physical violence into account, then we should do so by accounting for those violent acts quite separately from the rape itself.

I know it sounds a bit too absolute a position for the liberals out there, but rape is rape. Seriously.