Month: November 2014

SWOU statement on London Reclaim The Night

One of the best received workshops at AFem2014 was from the Sex Workers Open University. They’ve written a write-up of Saturday’s London Reclaim The Night, which was “again not a safe space for sex workers” or trans women:

Centre stage was given organisations that fight to put us out of work and onto the streets, and there are reports of planned protests against sex workers workplaces. Recent protests outside sex workers’ workplaces have led to multiple reports of sex workers being spat at by these protestors. Nor was it a safe space for trans women, with transmisogynist leaflets distributed [from S: you can read the leaflet if you want, but warning, it’s incredibly transmisogynist and vile]. Lots of women and groups participating spoke up against this hatred of trans women and sex workers, and we are clear that our concerns are about how the event is organised – and with a small minority who feel empowered to be hateful by the way the event is organised – and not with the many women who marched and are in solidarity with sex working and trans sisters.

This open hatred of sex workers is a sadly familiar situation at London RtN. Events in previous years have seen the sex worker bloc attacked by some women on the main march, and RtN stewards/organisers directing the police to interrogate women marching in the sex worker bloc. This makes clear that the organisers seek not to end violence against women, but violence against some women – and that way they seek to achieve that is through supporting and perpetrating increased violence against women who they deem as not deserving of safety, rights and justice.

The violence that they think we deserve spans a whole spectrum from direct interpersonal violence – such as being spat at as we go to work – through to police and state violence, and the economic violence of poverty. In directing the police to question marchers on the sex worker bloc in previous years, organisers have demonstrated that they support and encourage police harassment of sex workers, including at RtN. The police are primary perpetrators of violence against us, including sexual violence and forms of state violence such as arrest, incarceration and deportation. For sex workers who are migrants (documented or undocumented), people of colour, trans, queer, drug users, or parents (particularly mothers or liable to be read as mothers), the risk of police violence is compounded. By arguing that our jobs should be taken from us, and protesting our workplaces, the organisers of London RtN self-evidently wish to subject us to the economic violence of poverty, and they specifically link our poverty – the “end” of sex work – to their own “liberation”. There can be no liberation based on supporting and perpetrating increased violence against some women. Sex workers in London last night felt scared to be on the streets – scared of violence from RtN organisers.

What is heartening is that trans women and sex workers (obviously not a clear distinction!) were standing side by side throughout this, and that “many women at Reclaim the Night London spoke out and marched in solidarity with trans and sex-working sisters”. Solidarity to all fighting for true liberation!

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On the TERFs in our midst

As an organising group including many trans people, we explicitly oppose transphobia, and any attempt to portray trans women as lesser than cis women.

How some people acted at the conference was abhorrent, and entirely against our politics and our identities. TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) are not welcome in our organising, or in our spaces.

We wanted to clear up what happened on the day, and why, to the best of our knowledge. Here goes.

What actually happened with the TERFs during the conference?

This is our best attempt to piece together what happened, from the reports of organisers and volunteers.

Initial all-attendee meeting

During the first session, an audience member asked why there wasn’t a woman-only space in the conference, given that there were other spaces set aside for trans people, sex workers, people of colour, and disabled people.

The question was answered in good faith, explaining that we’d set aside spaces for people that were marginalised within anarchafeminism specifically – and though women are marginalised within anarchism, they aren’t within anarchafeminism, which was what the conference was about.

The ‘introduction to anarchafeminism’ meeting

One of the facilitators was a woman called Gail Chester, who is also involved in the Feminist Library and Black Flag. During her introductory talk, she called for there to be a ‘woman-only space’, by which she meant a space for cis women only. This was against what Gail had told her co-facilitator in advance she would do.

The safer spaces volunteer in the session was prepared to deal with problematic participants. However, they were knocked off-kilter when it was the facilitator that was using trans-exclusionary language. They wanted to shut the discussion down and ask the Gail and the other transphobes to leave, but they felt intimidated and unable to challenge Gail directly, because they’d had run-ins with Gail before.

Instead, they tried to challenge the bigoted views when the session got going, and along with other session participants were vocally supportive of an inclusive feminist movement. The session’s other facilitator tried to silence one of the people that had expressed transphobic views, and for that they ludicrously accused her of being “hierarchical”; the transphobic person, needless to say, kept speaking out of turn.

After the ‘introduction to anarchafeminism’ session

The people calling for a transphobic women-only space talked to each other after this meeting, and then went and had their own unpublicised ‘women-only space’ (i.e. cis women only space).

After this, they approached an organiser and safer spaces volunteer asking if they could organise a more public ‘women-only space’. When asked what they meant by this, it became clear they wanted to organise a space only for cis women.

They were told there was no chance that this would happen at our event, because the very idea is transphobic. They went around asking other safer spaces volunteers, who all gave them the same answer – that there would be no space only for cis women. When told this, they responded with shouting and angry body language.

So why weren’t the TERFs asked to leave?

Some of them were.

There were multiple people in multiple rooms calling for a cis woman only space. Sometimes, they were challenged in the session. Sometimes, people told them to leave the session. When it became clear that the same people were maliciously coordinating their transphobic outbursts, using the quiet space as a base, two organisers went to tell them to leave the conference.

However, Gail told them that they should ignore that and stay – and (unsurprisingly) they listened to Gail and ignored repeated requests to leave, as Gail described herself as an organiser.

Why did you let a TERF onto your organising group?

Gail had in the past expressed some transphobic views. However, the organising group were told (both by Gail and others) that she had changed her ways.

Due to some comments she made during the organising, we specifically asked Gail if she agreed with our organising principles, which included both what transphobia is and how we stand against it. She said ‘yes’.

What power did Gail have as an ‘organiser’?

Not that much.

To be clear: Gail had no access to anything by being an “organiser”. She couldn’t access any contact details of participants – because for security reasons we didn’t collect any.

She didn’t influence the make-up of the day in any way, as she never really responded to work on the organising email list. She also didn’t have any special power to ‘block consensus’ about getting rid of TERFs from the event. We didn’t need unanimity from ‘organisers’ to remove people from the event.

What do we think we could have done better?

We feel:

  • That there weren’t enough people that felt able to challenge bigotry when it happened. This could be addressed in the future by confidence building/assertiveness training for safer spaces volunteers, having more volunteers in each room so they would know at least one other person would back them up, and giving volunteers a very specific and clear set of guidelines on when to act and how.
  • That we didn’t successfully remove bigots in our midsts. Because we as organisers were undermined by another woman who was also an organiser, we were not able to deal consistently with this. We had some reason to mistrust Gail, but we took her at her word. We could and should have spent more time discussing the content of the various workshops with all the facilitators, including Gail.

What next?

We have removed Gail Chester from our organising group, and we will be meeting in the near future to redesign our organising process so that people can’t just lurk on our email list.

We are an international group of active anarchafeminists, and praxis, not securitisation, is our focus; our conference was successful not because we tried to write a perfect set of policies (an endless and impossible task!), but because hundreds of gender-oppressed people from all over the world worked to forge new understandings and new ways of organising together under the AFem banner.

We will be looking for new people and new ideas in the next few months to continue that work.

Apology and reparation

We apologise sincerely to those whom our ways of working failed to protect or support, and we want to make reparation.

If you have suggestions as to how we can do that, or how we can work better in future, please let us know however works for you: we have a feedback form, email, twitter, a facebook page and this blog where you can leave a comment.