I’m sure you know the Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times.’ Well yesterday was an interesting day. Actually that’s not true – it was a great day. But also a terrible day. It was the best day and the worst day. It was a curate’s egg of a day. And it did not go according to plan.
OK so here’s the thing. OH says to me that he really, really, really wants me to go to this conference (at least I thought it was a conference) on gender and colonialism: ‘How Gender Abolition is Colonialist’. There will be lots of stuff about gender fluidity in colonised countries and it might help us to make progress. OK. I can go with that. I envisaged some kind of smartish venue with whiteboards, people sitting in rows, a presentation and maybe some speakers. That’s not how it went.
We got to Nottingham early, wanting to make the most of the day, and tried to find which tram went where we were going. Armed only with an inadequate map, I ended up going into an electronics shop full of shiny blue kettles and asking them the way to San Francisco (the place reminded us of San Francisco because of the trams and the hills.) Trams! I was very excited about these: they were shiny new ones not rackety Blackpool ones – and the lovely people in the shop told us which tram to get and even printed us out a map! So we got on the smart new tram and ground our way up the hill as I jumped up and down fizzing with excitement and saying ‘Trams, Mark! Trams!’ There’s just something about trams… Anyway we got off and found ourselves in a warren of run-down back streets with nary a shop, never mind a conference centre. We were early so we had lunch in a lovely ‘Coronation Street-type cafe which also sold books, shoes and DVD’s. Then we found the venue.
Well. It was the centre that time forgot. I remember places like this from the ’70’s: houses in Islington where feminists and CND groups would meet and hammer out the future of the planet. The entrance was a propped-open fire escape; the signage a ‘Nuclear Power no thanks’ sticker and the foyer a table stuffed with a variety of herbal teas (no complaints there). Bloody hell. ‘This is a bit of a throwback’ I muttered to Mark, suspecting that the conference might not turn out to be quite what I’d expected. But never mind; everyone seemed friendly enough and we were offered drinks. Then when it turned out that, thanks to a rival TERF conference (I’ll explain later) we probably weren’t actually going to make double figures, we started. The leader, Sam, was ‘gender fluid’ and referred to as ‘them’: which started off the equivalent of ‘name, rank and serial number’ of the trans world ie ‘name, gender and pronoun.’ That done, we said what we hoped to get from the day. I said I was hoping for some clarity. ‘I’m bewildered by this whole field,’ I confessed. ‘I didn’t even know there was such a thing as gender abolition, let alone that it could be considered colonialist.’ In other words, ‘help me out here.’ There were smiles and nods of understanding. So far so good. The ground rules, too, were fairly standard: mutual respect, tolerance, inclusivity and ‘safer spaces’ which as far as I could gather meant that everyone should feel safe to speak, having due regard for respect, tolerance and inclusivity.
Fine. No problem there.
The introductory power-point didn’t cause me a problem either. Then it became clear that we were going to discuss – with the aid of a flip-chart – the differences between sex and gender; how gender can be socially constructed (like dressing girls in pink etc etc). And whereas I’d have been fine with a presentation, being asked to sit in a circle and contribute to a flip-chart discussion was not fine. I needed a moment. I went to the toilet and gulped a little. I let it out. Then I felt calmer. Maybe I could do this: I returned to the fray and tried to follow the discussion. But when the leader tried to suggest that sex (as distinct from gender) was also socially constructed, I had a problem. I said, ‘surely most people when they’re born fall into either one sex or the other, don’t they?’
‘Can you explain that?’ The tone of voice was quite sharp.
‘Well,’ I said, resisting the urge to say it was bleeding obvious, ‘you either have a womb and ovaries or a penis and testes.’
Well, at this point a couple of them practically jumped on me and started to explain how I was wrong about this; how a lot of people don’t fall into either male or female (I had said ‘most’, not ‘all’) and to basically diss what I’d said. And at this point my emotions overcame me. I turned to Mark and muttered ‘I can’t do this,’ picked up my bags and left.
We spent a few minutes sitting outside. Sam (the leader, of indeterminate gender, who I must refer to as ‘they’) came to see if I was OK. I said I was really struggling and finding it too hard. ‘Yes, we’ve all struggled with this,’ they said, before expressing the hope that I would come back as I might ‘get my ideas shaken up, which might not be a bad thing.’ Now I found that last statement not only patronising but presumptuous, so needless to say I did not go back in: I was too upset in any case. So we ended up having a lovely walk back into town, finding bookshops and cafes and discussing what had happened before eventually meeting up with Bettina and talking to her about it.
And here’s the thing: for a group which had specifically signed up to inclusivity, tolerance and ‘safer spaces’ I did not feel included or safe. It seemed to me a small group of people talking to each other – and Bettina (who knows the centre) said that this was quite typical. Apparently one of their aims is to make links with the wider community; and since that community is largely working-class and black, what hope is there of that? I found the language they used quite technical and academic (one of their aims was not to be ‘academic’) and they agonised about the lack of black people in the room, but really – if they can’t talk (or listen) to someone like me, what hope is there?
So in the end we had a great day in spite of the – whatever it was – conference or gathering or chat. Oh, and TERF? It stands for Trans-excluding Radical Feminist and you can look it up because my brain is now exhausted. But I did think it was funny that somewhere else in the city there was a small group of TERFs talking to each other and berating these other people for not agreeing with them…or her… or him…