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ARGENTINA | 09-03-2019 03:09

Trans exclusion bid underlines growing pains of feminist movement

TERF-led controversy indicates Argentina’s movement is anything but a monolith.

When it comes to the feminist movement in Argentina, particularly on occasions such as the International Women’s Day march, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is something of a monolith, a force that works as one.

However, over the month of February certain tensions rose to the fore, instigated particularly by a minority group of radical feminists known as ‘TERFs,’ or ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists,’ who suggested that only people who were assigned female at birth should participate in the march.

A minority within radical feminism, TERFs consider that gender is political and defined by biology and oppression: to them, if you were not born with certain genitalia, then you cannot be considered woman nor a part of the movement. This is anathema to the rest of the feminist and queer community, who see gender as your identity: if you are a trans woman, for example, you suffer the patriarchy as such (on top of discrimination for being trans).

“The Argentine feminist movement is decades old, but there are definite markers that have led to its growth such as the Ni Una Menos March of 2015. Then, last year, we saw the amazing green wave around the abortion debate and many, many young people joining. That’s where you see this sudden influx of these ideas on social media,” said Candelaria Botto, economist and member of Ecofemini(s)ta group.

“The interesting question is why [this issue] has had such an impact: I think many find it easier to take a simplistic explanation for how things work, a binary categorisation that defines everything, rather than try to understand the struggle of others and include them alongside you,” added Botto.

During the preparations for the International Women’s Day march, flyers were published across social media by radical feminists demanding that the calls to march be limited to cis women only — those assigned female at birth and identify as such. This sparked a furore on social media and stoked tensions in meetings: in the second assembly to organise the march, when one TERF began to espouse the idea that trans, transvestites and non-binary people were unwelcome, a physical altercation ensued.

“This really made the rounds but it doesn’t represent the reality of the movement: there were very few of us by that point and our trans sisters were being violated, denied of their gender identity, in what was supposed to be a safe space that they themselves have helped build,” commented Botto, who was present at the time.

She emphasised that she does not condone violence and that the presence of TERFs is almost exclusively on social media, not on the streets or the organisation table. In fact, the assembly was opened and closed by transvestites.

Radical feminist groups were not available for comment.

Biological determinism

The ideas that TERFs and radical feminists are putting forward are not new: they stem from second-wave feminism in the United States that began in the 1960s. Back then, biological determinism (the idea that biology defines gender and social experiences) sprung from the era’s focus on gender roles, with the idea that gender was innate, fixed and completely determining of one’s essence and role in society.

However, biological determinism has been severely questioned with the advent of intersectionality, new theories and the burgeoning gender-queer community. In Argentina, on the other hand, trans and transvestite communities have been an integral part of the feminist movement since the beginning, which may explain the novelty around the TERF mentality.

“We need to take a step back and see where this is coming from: they’re outdated ideas from the US, not a homegrown ideology. Honestly, in many ways this is a non-discussion. The Argentine movement is transfeminist: that’s how it grew, with the presence of trans and transvestites. We owe them the movement, so their inclusion is really non-negotiable,” said Botto.

As is the case with any heterogenous movement, there are other discussions too: Botto described tensions between liberal and conservative feminists in the same assemblies. In fact, some radical feminists have said that accusing them of transphobia is simply a way to divert the conversation from one of the real debates raging in the feminist movement today: whether to abolish or to regulate prostitution.

Since the 8M organisers are mostly “regulationists” and radfems are all “abolitionists,” several radfems have claimed that they are being pushed aside. According to Botto, although that dichotomy exists within the feminist movement, this does not justify their attempt to exclude trans people from the march:

“The problem with that logic is that it’s not split down the middle at all. All radfems are abolitionists but not all abolitionists are radfem: trans and transvestites are in many cases vehemently against prostitution, so saying that this is a ‘regulationist conspiracy’ simply doesn’t work: they just do not want to be held accountable for their attitudes,” she argued.

“I think another aspect is social class, based on the profile of many TERFs I saw at the assembly. Trans people and transvestites find it very difficult to find employment, so the reality is that in poor neighbourhoods, there’s no question of accepting them because they are well integrated. They don’t stand out as they might in the middle and high class, and that probably leads to the lack of understanding we’re seeing,” said Botto.

It is generally recognised by activists that because this is an electoral year, the fight for gender equality will be particularly difficult, as politicians may avoid issues like abortion as the vote looms ahead and other topics may take over the political agenda. Given that, the rise of these internal conflicts could be seen as worrying, especially considering that the Argentine feminist movement has become something of a regional benchmark, following the Ni Una Menos march.

For Botto, these particular ideas will probably not cross borders and the tensions are signs of a new feminism.

“I think, more than anything, that this has helped to solidify the movement’s identity as transfeminist. In the end, tensions are the result of moving forward, it’s inevitable. The problem is that they are suggesting a move backwards: you can’t build on hate speech,” she concluded.

The sudden prominence of the TERF controversy lit a spark amid a plethora of long-debated issues that already cause tension within the feminist movement. Although not a monolith, the Argentine feminist movement is not self-destructive or exclusionary: it is just growing.

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