New Narratives 2014 recap: Yes, we solved all the problems of trans activism at our one-day workshop!

Since New Narratives 2014 happened in Portland Oregon back in May, a number of people have been asking when we were going to post a wrapup. As organizers we kept discussing it among ourselves, and setting target dates for when we would finish writing it, and then not having anything we felt like we could post. Now it’s the end of July, and we still haven’t posted anything! The task has felt overwhelming to all three of us. But, something is certainly better than nothing, so here is a brief summary. I imagine some additional accounts will be forthcoming, and I will repost them on my blog. (Remind me if I missed one already please!)

Eight people attended New Narratives. Seven of us were white, and one of us was Latina. One person had transitioned in college, and lived as a trans woman for over 15 years before deciding to detransition in his late thirties. One of us had started transition but was currently questioning their path, and taking a break from medical intervention while they figured things out. They were not alone in this path – several of us had stopped and then re-started transition at different points in our lives. The other six of us were currently taking hormones and living as women. One had begun transition three months before, one of us had been living as a girl/woman for twenty years, and the remaining four had timelines somewhere in-between. Four of us had had SRS, and two of us were planning to get SRS in the future, and two of us weren’t sure.

Everyone was a little nervous leading up to New Narratives – would the same trans activists who threatened to disrupt the Radfems Respond meeting show up and disrupt our event as well? Would we (the organizers and the attendees) get outed by a malicious trans activist? Likewise, would we get no-platformed and lose our venue, the way Radfems Respond had? We had booked the Q Center in Portland for the event, but we kept things pretty vague with them in advance of the meeting, in case their vision of trans politics conflicted with ours. We were careful with our screening of potential attendees, and kept the location secret until a few days before the event. Some radical feminist women we are friends with nervously texted us over the weekend, to make sure everything was going ok.

And in the end, everything did go fine. In fact, everyone who attended seemed to have a great time talking about these issues, and came away feeling excited and energized. The one thing which we didn’t do, of course, was to solve all of trans activism’s problems in eight hours. Sorry, I lied in the title! Though clearly, turning the battle ship of trans activism around in one day would be a fantastic task – after all, it took twenty years of queer theory pomo nonsense, anti-feminist backlash, porn culture, and men’s rights activism to get trans politics into the sorry state it’s in today, where every day on tumblr I read young queer activists write gibberish like “a trans woman with a full beard and a giant dick is just as much of a woman as my mom, if she says so” with a straight face. Like, really??? Let me repeat: lay off the weed, drop out of your fantasy-land queer theory class, and ask yourself, with a straight face, looking in the mirror: really? REALLY?

Anyway, I digress. Which to be honest, was also a lot of what happened at New Narratives. We talked incessantly! We talked all morning, through our coffee breaks, all through lunch, through the afternoon session, through the afternoon break, and then we all went to a bar down the street and talked for another 90 minutes! It was an amazing feeling, to be honest! I felt so happy and grounded, to be around other trans women who were able to name reality. We could discuss in peace the ways in which male privilege had helped us, and the specific hurts that our struggles in the male pecking order had caused us, without any delusional trans activist insisting that she was “biologically female” or had been “socialized female” despite her participation in all-male activities like Boy Scouts or the Army Special Forces. We got to talk openly about how passing had helped us and hurt us, as well as how not passing had helped us and hurt us. We got to talk about our relationships to our bodies, to each other, to our families and loved ones, to trauma, and to healing. I’ve been to a lot of support groups in my day, as well as a lot of political meetings around gender and sexuality – but this was something different and special: there was a terrific atmosphere of mutual respect, an enduring baseline of safety, and a rare spark of excitement and relief.

But as I alluded to, one thing that did not come out of New Narratives was any sense of closure. While we talked and talked, a lot of ideas were thrown around, and juxtaposed and put into different contexts. Clearly this was a conversation that had needed to happen for a long time! It felt exciting, and important, and like maybe the beginning of something a lot bigger than any of us. But there was no convergence: in fact, the conversation frankly diverged! I have been thinking a lot over the last year about feminism’s message problem, in the age of feminist individualism where “anything a woman does is feminist if she says it is”, and the way that feminism has completely lost focus of the basics of class analysis: after all, “gender-based violence” is actually a one-way street (name the problem: MALE violence), and women are still paid 75 cents (or significantly less) on the male dollar. It’s been a truism for the last twenty years that the radical right is winning the war on women because they have better messaging – so when are we going to take ownership and turn this around?

When judged against the messaging metric, New Narratives was an abject failure. We couldn’t even agree on a list of bullet points, let alone finding “sticky” ways of expressing our political goals! Well, all of us agreed that convictions for sex offenses (other than prostitution) and/or violent crimes should permanently disallow trans women from legal change of sex. We all agreed that fighting against childhood gender policing was a more pressing issue than transitioning children, which many of us were skeptical of. We all thought that further scientific research on transition was important, including evidence-based studies on who transition helps and how it helps them, in addition to who transition doesn’t help and how it hurts them. We all agreed that we wanted to hear more trans women’s voices, and we wanted there to be more narratives of the experience of gender nonconformity and transition, since none of us felt like the traditional narratives had fully explained our lives. We all supported female-only political space, and agreed that access to female-only spaces like locker rooms and bathrooms is a privilege, not a right, and that generally trans people should use the bathroom of “least distress”, in the sense of minimizing disruption to others.

But other than that, there was a lack of political consensus. We all agreed that access to trans healthcare is crucially important. But which treatments are medically necessary – are any of them? Does the disease model of transsexuality ultimately help us or hurt us in the long run? To the extent that motivations are knowable, does it matter whether a trans woman’s transition is mostly motivated by autogynephilia, as opposed to sex or gender dysphoria? How can we hold providers of trans healthcare accountable for the outcomes of the treatments they provide? Most of us supported a return to some form of gate-keeping, medicalized version of transition – meaning, trans health care should be based on professional diagnosis and prescription, not self-diagnosis and self-prescription – but there wasn’t really any agreement on who would set the gatekeeping requirements, and how to provide checks on these requirements to make sure they weren’t being abused.

In general, we all wanted to move trans theory away from the idea of a trans hierarchy where some trans women are more “legitimate” than others, and wanted to take a more holistic approach to gender non-conformity rather than the all-or-nothing mentality of many transitioners. For several of us, being able to articulate that we are still male even when we pass socially as female, or that one can be a “male woman”, is a key concept in understanding our lives. We all agreed that actions and behaviors are more important than intentions and self-identifications, and attempts by trans activists to be the world’s pronoun police are misguided and futile. It is absurd to imagine we can legislate other people’s reactions to us. We were all concerned about sexual predators in the trans woman community – but other than fostering a climate that allows the victims of physical and/or sexual abuse by trans women to name the agent (i.e.: male violence), we had no solution for how to police the boundaries of the trans woman community to reduce the amount of sexual abuse that trans women commit against other trans women, and women born female.

We ended the formal part of New Narratives with a debrief session. Several of us mentioned that our favorite aspect of New Narratives were the chance to talk freely about these issues in so much depth among other people who shared the same reality-respecting ground rules. A number of us also complained that there was not enough time overall, and specifically not enough time devoted to practical steps – both topics of pressing importance like “How do we support trans women who do not pass in a way that helps them feel validated as people and socially integrated, while also respecting the range of experience in our community?”, as well as the coveted bullet-point list for a new version of trans political activism that is safer for trans people and safer for women and girls born female. There was certainly a lot left on the to-do list.

To close, I’ll reiterate again: it took 20 years for this disaster of trans politics to happen, and it’s going to take some more time to turn trans politics around. We modeled New Narratives in part on the women’s conscious-raising groups that sprang up all across the US in the late 1960’s. Women in the US made huge gains in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and it didn’t happen overnight – it required a number of paradigm shifts, which were facilitated in large part by the conscious-raising movement.

Clearly the types of conversations we had at New Narratives need to happen among many more trans women – current, former, and future – in many other venues and locales. If you are a trans woman – current, former, or future – and you want to organize your own New Narratives conference, please get in touch with us. We will be more than happy to share resources and results! Because realistically, if the major piece that comes out of New Narratives is a framework for conversations about gender and sexuality that respect reality and the rights of women born female, I’m more than happy to take that as a win at this point!

Originally posted at snowflakeespecial.tumblr.com.