IWD split over transgender inclusion

International Women's Day march organised by Feminist Action. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

The split in the grassroots women’s liberation movement was on display when two rallies to mark International Women’s Day (IWD) were held on March 9. Each attracted around 100 people.

The first was held at Emma Miller Place, the site of last year’s rally. It was organised by the collective that had organised the 2018 rally and was reported by Green Left Weekly here. It attracted 300 people despite rainy weather and controversially featured transphobic statements and signs and a performer known for her public hostility towards trans women. A sizeable number of participants left in protest.

The Facebook event page made it clear that the same politics of hostility to trans women's participation in the women's liberation movement would be informing this rally. At the march itself, sashes made as fundraisers for the organisers featured slogans such as “woman: adult female” and “defend female spaces”. These slogans were amplified by the first MC's speech, which decried trans women’s inclusion in women's sport, prisons, domestic violence services and lesbian spaces.

The speakers spoke passionately about femicide, the links between violence against women, poverty, homelessness and imprisonment, and the flaws in the law that allow domestic violence to continue after relationships end. But none spoke for the inclusion of trans women, or contradicted the MC’s claim that feminists (by implication, feminists like their organising committee) are “the staunchest defenders of transgendered people’s rights”.

The MC alluded to the smaller turnout, acknowledging that fewer organisations had supported the committee this year. It was explained away as a casualty of neoliberalism; left unexplained was what had changed about neoliberalism in a year.

More plausible is that people were either taking sides on the question of transphobia, or staying away in confusion or demoralisation. Some, who had spoken up for trans women’s inclusion the previous year, had been urged not to attend this year “since you don’t support women’s liberation”.

The later rally was held at Queens Gardens and had been organised in response to the whorephobia and transphobia of the previous year’s IWD rally. Feminist Action sought to reconnect with the radical history of the day, hosting it as International Working Women's Day to highlight its socialist origin.

The exuberant, predominantly young crowd responded enthusiastically to the MC’s declaration of inclusion and welcome to working women, sex workers, women of colour, women with disability, trans women and nonbinary people.

The rally hailed the current struggle of Yaggera Ugarapal people to stop development of the Deebing Creek mission site. Speakers welcomed the decriminalisation of abortion in Queensland and federal Labor’s commitment to ensure hospital access to the service; called for decriminalisation of sex work; and spoke of the impact of transphobia on trans women. Jane Walker, the mother of Nara Walker, imprisoned in Iceland after biting her abusive husband’s tongue, spoke of Nara’s experience of domestic violence and appealed for support for the campaign to bring Nara home.

In the streets, rally goers chanted: “Women united will never be defeated”; “Bring Nara home”; “Sex work is work”; “Trans women are women”; “My body, my life, my right to decide”; and “Say it once, say it again — no excuse for violent men”.

While it is clear that many of the issues raised in the two rallies were held in common, the decision to make IWD “radical again” by excluding trans women runs counter to the conclusions being drawn by a new generation of feminists who want to fight capitalist patriarchy by making alliances between all who suffer at its hands, not just cis women.

I have been attending IWD rallies for more than 25 years. I found last year’s rally and aftermath gut-wrenching, and the Emma Miller Place rally heartbreaking. But afternoon rally, despite heatwave conditions, was completely invigorating.