Over the weekend of 16th/17th October 2021, the FiLiA feminist conference took place at Portsmouth Guildhall, while outside demonstrators gathered to protest in support of trans rights at the Fly the Flag demonstration. Here, Rosy Bremer explains why she attended the FiLiA conference.
I think it was in June or July when a local social media storm about a feminist conference in Portsmouth broke. Many of my friends and people I have stood with on various causes over the years shared a post about their concerns about the event, urging people to contact the venue, Portsmouth Guildhall to share those concerns (see here for a copy of the post, and here for FiLIA’s response). The reason for this concern is that the organisation behind the conference, FiLiA doesn’t back a change in the Gender Recognition Act which would allow people to self-identify as a gender at variance with their physical body. Specifically, there is a debate about when a man can claim to be a woman. From what I can understand of FiLiA’s position, it thinks that to protect women’s and girls’ rights, something more is required to be accepted as a woman than for a person to say that they are a woman. This is a position to which many people are deeply opposed and hold the opposite opinion. They would say, I think, that it’s enough for someone to say that they are a woman, or non-binary (meaning the gender identity can change or someone doesn’t have a specific gender identity) to be accepted as such.
The post I saw on social media made the argument that women shouldn’t be gatekeepers of their community. It was this that piqued my interest, because if women can’t be gatekeepers of our communities then to whom do we give this power, and if there are to be gatekeepers, how are the gatekeepers accountable to women? As the letter implied that the conference and the organisation behind it was bad enough to warrant barring from the shores of Portsmouth, I wanted to know more about both.
I took a look at FiLiA’s website and saw that the organisation worked with women and girls from all over the world on all sorts of issues to which I could relate. Women from the Global South are particularly well represented, and as some of the least powerful, least represented women on Earth, they are the women I find most interesting and their experiences do resonate with me. FiLiA seemed to be quite active on climate change too and to involve women in action on climate change is something I can get behind 100%. Surely we should all be making it easier for women to meet up and chat about saving the world, not making it harder.
I therefore wrote in support of the conference going ahead, and shared that on my social media. At that stage I had no intention whatsoever of going to the conference and was satisfied I had voiced my support for the feminist get-together. I am by no means an expert in gender identity politics; identity politics in general has never been my thing. I have though worked for nuclear disarmament in an all women community and I have worked with women survivors of sex-trafficking. I have also worked with refugees and asylum seekers in arbitrary detention; most of whom were men, as single men from the Middle East or Global South are on the whole more mobile than women. I am possibly though less interested in how an individual perceives themselves than how the individual behaves in relation to their community. I believe we are all greater than the sum of ourselves and that’s what I prefer to concentrate on, rather than arguing about who or what somebody says they are. I am also by nature, and by experience sceptical; this scepticism generally serves me well so I am reluctant to drop it at someone else’s insistence.
To a certain extent though I can relate to identity struggles because as a person with a physical disability I have had to somehow come to terms with how I perceive myself not fitting at all with either the limitations of my body or how other people perceive me. My body imposes its own limits on me and I work my way around those limits, and the pain or discomfort they sometimes give me. I try not to let other people’s perceptions bother me too much and I do not insist that people’s perceptions of me match my own. I let them make up their own minds.
After sharing my post supporting the conference, I met up with a friend who said she had a ticket to the conference but was put off from attending by the vociferous objections to it, and in particular the slurs used against women who voice uncertainty on the issue of changing the Gender Recognition Act. I can relate to this. I do not think it’s a healthy dynamic for women to be wary of going to a conference for fear of being condemned. My experience of fear though is that if you try and run from it, it will just chase you and not leave you alone. Much better to take it by the hand and take it to the conference with you.
So I bought my friend’s ticket. There was a session on how the combined forces of military occupation and religious fundamentalism affect the lives of women which sounded particularly interesting. I know all about non-violently resisting armed factions/recognised state armies with guns and military hardware but I am eager to know about the added oppression of religious fundamentalism from women who deal with it on a daily basis.
I knew there would be a protest against the conference as I had seen flyers for it. I was braced for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was for the protest to be overtly misogynistic.
For anyone who is sensitised, as I am, to language and images involving violent sexual fantasies towards women I suggest you don’t read the next bit. In an ideal, woman-friendly world, we could choose how, when and where we understand violence and sexual aggression towards women and we would be supported in doing so.
Some of the placards at the protest read “Suck my dick, you transphobic cunts” and others read “Fuck TERFs”, (TERF being a term the trans community use for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), “No TERFs on Pompey turf” while chalk drawings depicted penises with accompanying instructions on what we should do to them. Someone had drawn a chalk picture and labelled it “This is my TERF beating stick”. Clearly this was not in any way respectful to women, or appropriate. Portsmouth City Council decided to fly flags ahead of and during the protest and conference, which represented LGBT groups and FiLiA flew the suffragette colours. I am hoping the Council seeks to distance itself from the subsequent extremist graffiti and placards.
On the end of the first day of the conference, hundreds of women poured out of the Guildhall and stood in the Square to remember, grieve and mourn women killed by violent men. Of all the vigils, the protests and the non-violent actions I have been on, this one leaves with me an ongoing grief and sadness. That we should grieve women killed by men while standing on chalk messages representing the intention to harm us is unbearably and utterly sad. I feel so deeply for the women who stood up and told their stories of surviving violence and abuse and of those whose family members didn’t survive the abuse, while reminders that violence and abuse are at the forefront of some people’s minds were around us. I salute those women and I hope they found strength in all the women willing to listen and to support them.
I remembered too when the community came behind the effort to donate to Syrian refugees, in Portsmouth and elsewhere. The Guildhall Square was full of people and full of donated goods for refugees . The statue of Charles Dickens looked on through these two events, which for me represent the best of efforts and the worst of efforts. In just a few years, we have gone from Don’t Hate, Donate to Don’t Debate, Hate.
Amnesty International sent placards to the protest, reading: “I am who I say I am” and “Love is a human right”. Many subsequently raised questions about Amnesty’s support for an event that included displays of threats and misogyny, and it has subsequently released a statement, which includes an assertion that “there should have been absolutely no place for the use of any threatening or aggressive language or imagery towards any of the attendees of that conference, or indeed towards any women.”
But regarding the placards reading ‘I am what I say I am’ being at the same event as offensive imagery and threats of violence towards women, I have a final thought. As a woman I believe people when they share thoughts of violence towards women. I am not at all sceptical about violent threats; they are what they say they are.
I know there may be a backlash against this article and my opinions, but opinions are all they are. Article 9 of the Human Rights Act says I can have freedom of thought and Article 10 states it’s even ok for me to express that thought/opinion. My precise opinion though is that I wish not to have an opinion on the matter of self identification for trans people. I want it to be settled by people who can discuss the clash of needs, wants and rights with some kind of balance and nuance. I do not want it to be settled by threatening and abusive graffiti in the Guildhall Square.
For as long as the threats, the abuse and the intimidatory efforts continue though, I will do my best to stand by those who are subject to them. That is surely what anyone committed to a fair and woman-friendly world would do.
This article is published alongside this piece from Deborah Shaw, who explains why she attended the Fly the Flag event outside the conference and shares her experiences of the protest.
Image credit: Chantelle Burton.
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