Saturday, 3 February 2018

Let's have a heated debate....

Back in the late 80s I went to Manchester University as a mature student, and in Freshers' Week I went to a cheese and wine social at the university film society. A momentous decision as it turned out, as I met my partner there and 30 years later we are both still in Manchester, with a son studying A level Film (about whom, more later).

At that time, FilmSoc was a bit nerdy and bloke-ish, but we were a pretty professional bunch for a student society. We showed 5 films a week (from obscure world cinema to recent blockbusters) on industry-standard 35mm projectors. This meant that we needed a team of volunteer projectionists, all of whom needed training. When I joined, their one female projectionist had just graduated and what was left was a bunch of male (mostly) science undergraduates sacrificing their degrees to the needs of the society. Originally, I'd gone along with an idea of writing film reviews, like a good little arts student, but I signed up as a trainee projectionist because it looked like fun. 

Now this was real projecting, not just pressing 'play' on a video recorder. It took several weeks of training and supervision before a trainee was let loose on a live screening. If it goes wrong swapping between projectors (a changeover) the screen goes dark (or, worse still, the melty fireball of doom appears on the screen); if you lace the film up incorrectly the film appears 'out of rack' (the black bar between frames appears in the middle of the picture, with the bottom of one frame and the top of the next). All of which incurs the derision of your audience and is best avoided.

A couple of weeks into the Autumn Term a university women's group approached us to ask if we could put on a women-only screening of Desert Hearts, which had been released a couple of years earlier but not widely shown (this was before the age of the multiplex and even in Manchester there weren't that many screens). We agreed and our Chair, a lovely gentle man who was an expert projectionist after three years doing the job, went to discuss the screening with them. Except he didn't. Not only was he prohibited from entering the Women's Office in the Union building, he had to stand at the end of the corridor to have the discussion. 

The women-only screening, he was told, must have a female projectionist and there were to be no men present in the projection box or the Film Society office behind it. He explained that at the time (only a few weeks into the academic year) the society had no women projectionists, but this was apparently irrelevant. I had done about 2 weeks' training, and could just about lace up a projector and do a changeover, but I'd only ever done it as an exercise and was still nowhere near screening a whole film, even supervised. However, I was the least worst option, and I think a compromise was reached that a more qualified male projectionist could talk to me through the projection box door if there was a problem, but could not come in!

I did it. I managed to show a whole 5 reels without mishap, but it was a petrifying experience and I've still never watched Desert Hearts, but the women's group got its safe space screening, albeit a pretty ropey one. I hope they enjoyed it. I remember thinking at the time (maybe because I'd already had several years out in the real world beyond student politics) that this kind of exclusionary feminism was a bit daft and potentially harmful, something which has come into stark relief over the last few weeks. I've never really enjoyed women only events and don't join women only organisations. I'm not convinced we can smash the patriarchy by removing ourselves from engaging with men. Confront misogyny, certainly, but I would rather come from a position of inclusive feminism. Which brings me to that crowdfunder.

Whatever the arguments about gender self-identification and all-women shortlists, the actions of some of the proponents of this GoFundMe appeal have been completely unacceptable. Whatever pretence they might make at wanting a civilised debate are undermined by the vile comments made by some of its supporters. Dead-naming and deliberately using the wrong pronouns, using insults such as 'dicksplash' and 'chicks with dicks' is if nothing else provocative and downright bloody rude. And when you state "any left-over funds will go to fight against self-id", you've pretty much stated your debating position. 

It's not as if all-women shortlists haven't been used in the past as a mechanism for keeping un-favoured male candidates out of a selection process, so forgive me if I don't see them as some kind of holy grail. If you want to increase representation, you can determine a shortlist for a particular group (we had a recent BAME-only shortlist locally); increasingly this is probably the direction the Labour Party should be moving in. That's a debate; throwing insults at trans women is not.

I've found myself alienated recently from women I had previously considered comrades; this pains me, but I really won't be associated with this kind of intolerant behaviour in the name of feminism. The same women would rail against hate speech for any other minority group, but for some reason trans women are legitimate targets. Women who have rightly fought against misogyny in the Labour Party are now behaving in the same way as those misogynists. 

Encouragingly, though, this appears to be a minority view, and many more people have been supportive of trans rights than have signed up to this campaign. I'm glad, because I have to declare an interest here. My son, that A level Film student I mentioned, is trans. That's not something you're really prepared for as a parent and, yes, it does challenge your feminist views, but ultimately your duty as a parent is to love and support your child unconditionally. I've been told by certain feminists that "it's a phase" or that he's "just a butch lesbian" * but, to be honest, it's looking like a pretty permanent phase, so he (and therefore trans women) will have my full support in this "debate." It wasn't always an easy journey, especially when he first came out, but I've learned a lot and come to respect him for being true to himself. And, given how many of his friends have been disowned or ridiculed by their families, I want him to know that we will always support him.

It would seem that trans men don't figure much in the exclusionary feminist worldview, but I have friends with trans daughters and as far as I'm concerned, it's one fight - trans rights really are human rights. I'm still learning, and I don't always get it right, but at least I'm not getting it completely wrong.

As my son said recently, "Yeah, mum, you used to be a bit of a TERF, but you're better now."

I'm happy with that.

*which conveniently overlooks his preference for men...

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