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Fighting fascism in feminism

Originally published: Briarpatch Magazine on May 8, 2023 by Chanelle Gallant (more by Briarpatch Magazine)  | (Posted May 17, 2023)

I was first introduced to the power of far-right ideologies within feminism through the work of so-called feminists who were dead set on criminalizing sex work, even if it cost women their lives. Back in 2004, I was new to sex work organizing, spurred by the massacre of street-based sex workers on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. At one of those early organizing meetings, activists told me bitterly about how hard sex workers had tried to stop the massacre. I heard about safe houses like Grandma’s House, where street workers could safely take clients, and how anti–sex work feminists in Vancouver had opposed them. The police shut down Grandma’s House in 2000. The slaughter on the Downtown Eastside continued.

I’ve heard this complaint for decades now, from sex workers and trans women, about how “the feminists” were in bed with the cops – and getting them killed. These women were all feminists too – the toughest, smartest ones I’d ever met. But they were up against mainstream feminists like those at the leftist magazine Rabble who had helped to transform Meghan Murphy from an unknown intern into one of North America’s most famous TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). They were up against the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution that fought to keep sex work illegal in Canada after three sex workers fought the laws criminalizing sex work all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

During my decades of organizing, I’ve witnessed how white, class-privileged feminists wield their power to ensure that sex workers and trans women are excluded from social and labour protections, kept out of unions and social justice movements, barred from emergency services like shelters, and targeted by law enforcement for deportations and arrests. Normally when a powerful group tries to harm and eliminate a less powerful group, we call it authoritarianism or fascism. But when it’s largely privileged white women, it’s called “feminism.”

We are long overdue for a reckoning with the harms of a deadly politic that calls itself feminism but that seeks to disenfranchise and eliminate transgender women and sex workers. In the last few years, more people are waking up to this threat as so-called feminists openly collaborate with the white supremacist far right. So, who better to tell us about the enemy within our own ranks than sex workers and trans people who have been resisting, surviving, and outwitting fascist feminists for decades?

In January 2023, I hosted two conversations on how sex workers and trans feminists are fighting fascism in feminism and building a trans- and sex worker–led feminism. The following are excerpts of our conversations. They’ve been edited for length and clarity.

Woods Ervin

There’s a long history of heteronormative, rich, white cis women feminists using the police and prisons to enforce boundaries around womanhood. This branch of feminism is rooted in anti-Blackness and classism, which class-privileged white women weaponize to criminalize racialized and poor people and expand policing and incarceration.

To date in 2023 in the U.S., lawmakers in 24 states have put forward legislation that would restrict gender-affirming care for minors. Governors of six states have signed such restrictions, the most recent being South Dakota where doctors who are prescribing hormone blockers to minors have to taper off their patient’s medications by the end of the year. If they violate the bill, they risk losing their professional licences or certificates. In Alabama, doctors face up to 10 years in prison for providing gender-affirming care to minors.

This kind of legislation is often enforced through policing and criminalization, which, in my experience, means gender-oppressed people of colour are targeted by the police and are incarcerated and deported. And if queer and trans people and women of colour fight back against transphobic violence, the state locks us up.

This conversation is necessary if the left is going to take on one of the most animating recruitment mechanisms of the far right: anti-trans politics. The right is using transphobia as a uniting issue to expand their base and organize in strategic ways. I’m concerned that the rise of transphobia will threaten the gains we’ve made and trans people and racialized people will be subjected to more organized violence under a police state. I’m concerned about the potential of anti-trans politics to expand the power and scope of policing and imprisonment, especially as this fervour continues to escalate, because that is how fascism will win.

Cecilia Gentili

I grew up in Argentina in the early 1970s, right before the dictatorship, that followed the country’s first woman president, Isabel Perón. I remember many women viewing Perón’s presidency as a victory for feminism. Imagine that, in the 1970s in South America–a woman president! How empowering for women!

Although the Dirty War began in 1976, many human rights activists say it really started with Perón. In her October 1975 decrees, Perón called on the military to “annihilate” Argentinians deemed to be “subversive elements” and it’s estimated that up to 2,000 people were murdered and abducted during her presidency.

Her presidency ended after two years, in 1976, when the military overthrew her. It is important to notice how a group of military men used a woman president as a way to form a dictatorship. I remember Argentinian women felt empowered to have Perón as the conduit to incredible brutality. Feminism is the perfect way to masquerade the rise of fascism.

Nim Ralph

There’s a well-organized transphobic movement in Britain and what’s unique about it is that it spans from left-wing feminists to fascists. When I say “left wing,” I’m talking about women I’ve been organizing with for years in climate justice, feminist, and socialist groups.

There are a lot of transphobic liberal and left-wing feminist lawyers, academics, journalists, politicians, and obviously, notably, a famous billionaire author. They have access to a lot of power and a lot of money. Their fixation on trans people’s existence has laid the cultural and institutional groundwork for far-right and fascist groups’ transphobic violence. While feminists might not see themselves as fascistic, their anti-trans fixation is very similar to that of fascist groups.

This British version of anti-trans feminism is spreading worldwide, mostly in settler-colonial nations like the U.S., Australia, and Canada, because it’s imperialist by nature. When we pull back the curtain on anti-trans organizing in the U.K., there are four threads that run across the political divide, uniting left and right: body essentialism; dogmatic free speech libertarianism; fear mongering about sexual violence; and carceral politics with a commitment to punitive justice.

At the heart of this movement is a white feminism that has never truly contended with its present and historical ties to fascist movements. Trans-exclusionary feminism is about cisgender white women wanting to control the borders and boundaries of womanhood, deciding who is and isn’t a “woman,” whose virtue should be protected, and who should be punished for crossing their boundaries.

Eli Erlick

In the trans community, we’ve focused on organizing in our own countries and haven’t sufficiently activated on an international level or created strategic alliances with people who are undecided when it comes to trans issues. But the far right is reaching those people.

A European Parliamentary Forum report found that, between 2009 and 2018, the majority of the money for anti-trans organizing in Europe came from 10 far-right Christian organizations in the United States. TERFs are making their movement global.

The Heritage Foundation–a very influential think tank in the U.S. promoting a far-right ideology–organized a panel in 2017 and invited some far-right lesbian “feminist” speakers from the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF).

Since the panel, the two organizations have been working closely together. Now we’re witnessing the same Christian fundraising sites that sponsor far-right events like the trucker rallies in Canada also sponsor TERF organizations like WoLF. But there’s very little research on the funding behind these movements.

Kai Cheng Thom

We’re in an important and scary moment. We’re seeing a resurgence of fascist feminism that is quickly gaining steam.

Fascists claim that “we need to be afraid!” and generally the people held up as the symbol of the fulcrum of fear are middle-class, cisgender, white women and middle-class, cisgender, white children. In more liberal settings, women of colour or migrant children are also included, but the message is always the same: “Hide your women and children, the transes and sex workers are coming for us!”

Fascist so-called feminists spew this vitriol, claiming that trans people pose a danger to children and women. But when they say “children and women,” they mean white people–people who can hold a claim to innocence or to virtue, people who are precious to society, people who are deemed worthy of protection. This rhetoric is used to whip the middle class and working class into accepting fascism and ceding their power to the ruling class.

There’s also the idea that some bodies are predatory. That just by being in a washroom with a trans woman, a child is preyed on. If you let sex workers into a middle-class neighbourhood or, god forbid, an elementary school, even if they are not working, they’re seen as corrupting children. By creating this fear in the working and middle classes, the dominant elite claim extra power to suppress this population. This rhetoric is used over and over and over again on whichever group the elite wants to suppress: trans people, sex workers, racialized people, and migrants.

White women claiming to “fear for their safety” expands the police and criminal justice systems. This goes back to the history of the development of white feminism as a supremacist movement. Who benefits from the creation of highly developed anti-trans and anti–sex work politics? The criminal justice system. Refusing any proposed solution that increases the power of the police state is integral to liberatory politics.

Chanelle Gallant has over 20 years’ experience as a social justice activist, organizer, writer, and strategist on issues of sexuality, policing, and racial justice, nationally and internationally.

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