Feminism must be inclusive in the fight for equality

by Cass Macgregor

TW: transphobia

Like many other women I arrived at a deeper understanding of feminism through the experience of sexism and I have come to realise that we need action rather than words to progress. To advance equality for women, political parties such as the Scottish Greens have commitments to offer a gender balanced list of candidates at election. What this meant for me in 2014 was that when not enough women put themselves forwards for the initial Westminster selection in Glasgow, I had to change from my ‘someone else better qualified than me will do this’ to carrying my anxiety and low confidence along on the journey to selection and candidacy. It turned out I was perfectly well qualified, learned a lot and realised I had unwittingly internalised a lot of the sexism I had experienced.

Feminism as an ideology has a lot to offer: advancing gender equality and difference, theorising sex and gender, taking on the patriarchy and abuse of male power. Being a left leaning Green I find it impossible to separate out patriarchy and capitalism, both systems relying on women to do unpaid domestic labour and exploit the environment. I give you the Conservative and Unionist party as a case in point.

However, with recent government consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) bringing the issue to the fore, feminism today might feel like a battleground between those who support progress for trans rights and those who don’t. Particular to feminism is recognising both trans and cis women. There is another divide in the debate, which is that only one group of people actually has the lived experience of being trans. Without that experience, can you imagine gender dysphoria, rejection of your assigned gender identity, not being able to fit into the ‘box’ that society assigns us, feeling that your very existence is being called into question? Most people simply don’t have that experience and can’t possibly know what it’s like. Similar to being gay, bi or straight, people don’t have a choice in whether they are trans or cis. I am not trans. I have no idea what it’s like, but just because we don’t understand or share an experience, doesn’t make it invalid. This bears some similarity to the criminal justice system in its failure to bring about justice for survivors of gendered based violence. #BelieveWomen.

People who do not share the experience of being trans engage on a different level on the topic: one where their right to be themselves is not being called into question. Who is right, who is wrong and to what extend do we agree? Some of this group are survivors of the trauma of male power which is precisely the fight we should focus on: abuse of male power. We need to acknowledge that there are different lived experiences going on here. People should not be surprised if they are called transphobic if they attack someone’s gender identity e.g. being trans or non binary and this includes deliberately using the wrong pronouns. Google is a great tool for looking up this stuff and Stonewall (1) lists preferred terms.

The most disappointing aspect of the coverage has been the deliberate conflation of being transgender with criminal behaviour, similar to the treatment of migrants by right wing media: a deliberate attempt to stigmatise a group of people. It is little wonder that there is a high suicide rate for trans people (2). Our society is killing these people and it has to stop. Because this is so hurtful, the debate is raised to fever pitch level and this causes real damage.

For this reason it has been reassuring to see both the positive responses to the consultation, and the Scottish Government commit to reform of the GRA in its programme for government. The consultation closed on 1st of March and you can see the responses in the link below (3), which includes comment from many women’s groups. It is also been reassuring to see the Police Scotland hate crime adverts include transphobia and to see major organisation reaffirm their commitments to being trans inclusive. It is important to realise that transphobia is very real and is often poorly understood by mainstream commentators such as Iain McWhirter’s recent suggestion that a transphobic group with a record of attacks on trans gender identity be given a platform at an Edinburgh University debate. We wouldn’t advocate any other hate group being given a platform. Why in this case? It is important that as feminists we raise our voices and defend our inclusive, intersectional feminism.

Young people seem to get this: my teenage, Irish cousin was able to reel off her understanding of how some people are trans, some reject their gender binary and that it’s important to use the correct pronouns as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Imagine if that attitude were shared across all generations, if we made the process of growing up less binary: a true challenge for gender equality; if we could help trans kids to be themselves. How much easier we could make it for everyone. Trans rights do not come at the expense of cis women’s rights, rather women advance women’s rights together. Women’s rights do not mean that we push the idea of a binary gendered society. Let’s pursue equality between genders by reducing the binary nature of society.

In Ireland people have been able to engage with the process of changing their gender legally without extensive medical evidence since 2015 and in the UK we can look across the water and learn from this. Brooks reported for the Guardian on this in January (4) and although anecdotally, she reports that there has been no impact on services for cis people, men did not go through a statutory declaration of changing their gender in order to access women’s space and that the mental health of the trans population has improved. Feminism fights against the patriarchial system of over medicalisation. It is a frequent feminist demand that abortion access is less medicalised. Why insist on over medicalising the process of determining one’s gender, including rejecting the gender binary? The current problems in the UK have come with the current system. Why not follow Ireland’s example?

In Scotland, womens, LGBT and trans groups have already engaged in making access to survivor and crisis support systems inclusive with no negative effects, reflecting the Irish experience; on making the prison system and changing rooms inclusive (4, 5, 6). The prison system is in crisis as is frequently reported in the news. Do not let the Tories and the privatisation agenda off the hook here, feminists. Don’t blame transgender people for the failure of government policy. It is important to view the issues through lens that may aid the appropriate solution. That means that feminism must be inclusive because the alternative is too appalling to contemplate.

In party politics, despite the objections of Beatrix Campbell, people are accepted as their preferred gender, and similar to most normal human beings, people are happy to learn how to use preferred pronouns, language and systems that are inclusive.  Progressive parties often use gender quotas to promote womens representation. This can be made non binary by, for example by having a quota which says ‘at least 50% of candidates must be women.’ It is also clearly important that all women are recognised as women.

In this time of austerity and economic downturn we have seen division in our society and the attack on rights which could well worsen as we leave the EU. We must defend and progress our rights. We can’t allow the current climate of fear of ‘the other’ to divide us. Rights are not limited: rights for one group, do not come at the expense of rights for another, and we must fight for progress on gender equality together.


1: Stonewall online glossary (2018) https://www.stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/glossary-terms

2: Fisher, O (2018) The Guardian online https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/28/trans-young-people-suicide-support-mental-health

3: The Scottish Government (2018) https://www.gov.scot/Topics/Justice/law/17867/gender-recognition-review

4: Brooks, L (2018) The Guardian Online https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/15/monumental-change-ireland-transformed-transgender-rights

5: Valentine, V (2018) The economist Online https://www.economist.com/open-future/2018/07/03/self-declaration-would-bring-britain-into-line-with-international-best-practice

6: Stonewall (2017) A vision for change. Accessed via https://www.stonewall.org.uk/vision-change

Photo credit: https://qmunicatemagazine.com/2017/02/26/mapping-the-terf-transphobia-in-feminism/







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