Power of Personal Stories: how trans-inclusive narratives can change the discourse

Event report

Within feminist thought, fragmentations are born out of the variance of lived experiences of individuals and the webinar series- ‘Power of Feminist Narratives: from Fragmentation to Solidarity’, organised by the Heinrich Boll Foundation in collaboration with One Future Collective, aimed at strengthening existing solidarities and creating new approaches for solidarity between feminists globally. This emerged in the context of populist anti-feminist narratives that sought to dilute feminist efforts.

The Power of Personal Stories

The first webinar in this series explored the duality of lack of inclusion in feminist spaces and movements. Even within the feminist movement there is contention on who is ‘allowed’ within the movement. The discussion focused on how liberation for one means liberation for all. Narrative shaping tools for building bridges between transgender activists and cisgender activists was also analysed. Participant engagement was invited through the Padlet, Zoom polls and Mentimeter.  

Can feminism be used as a catch-all term and is it really inclusive in practice?

We are at a juncture that seems particularly challenging for the feminist movement- most recently, the chief of the United Nations said that ‘gender equality was 300 years away’.  It is perhaps necessary to take a step back and take stock of the strides the feminist movement has made. Feminism presents a threat of becoming a movement whose direction is determined by only very specific individuals in the metaphoric ‘inner circle’. This also determines exactly who is included in the broader movement. However, as Vandita Morarka quoted Martin Luther King Jr,

No one is free, until we are all free.

Simultaneously, as we publish this, the rights of trans people are being gradually erased. The breadth of global anti-trans bills and legislations is alarming. The fight against gendered oppression thus, is not a singular one.

The first webinar held on 7th February thus focused on the need for trans-inclusive narratives for a truly fortified feminist movement and explored storytelling as a means to achieving this. Activist and community leader, Julia Ehrt, the Executive Director at ILGA World, and Li Cuellar, the Director and co-founder of Sentiido participated in the discussion. The discussion was helmed by Vandita Morarka, the Founder and CEO of One Future Collective, a feminist social purpose organisation based in India.

The need for trans inclusivity

Achieving freedom for the most marginalised and vulnerable people would mean freedom for all, since it would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression. In building feminist thought and activism, and to truly contend with the complexities of gender necessitates engagement with trans rights. It is remarkable that feminism attempts to provide space and power to narratives other than those of cisgender women only, especially given the rise of anti-queer, anti-trans sentiments and right-wing politics. In that sense, transfeminism is perhaps not a ‘branch’ of feminism but a living and breathing intersectional feminist practice.

Forging feminist alliances

Feminist work must continue and for it to be nourished and reinvigorated, alliances are essential. For feminism to reach its full purpose and potential, forming alliances with transfeminism and other allied activisms can help in strengthening the movements by building a reciprocal relationship. The existing fault line between trans inclusionary and trans exclusionary feminism in fact renders the whole feminist movement weak, as it counters the principle of collective leadership and liberation. The various iterations and the evolution of feminism have been possible due to the intentionality with which feminism is practised which manifests in cross-movement organising. In the context of their work at Sentiido, panellist Li added that travesti  women and trans people are an essential part of collective feminism. But, forming these alliances is also incredibly challenging. As Julia added,

To build alliances between cis and trans movements, the bedrock of trust, mutual understanding and shared goals is essential.

Feminism connotes a formidable body of work as well, but it cannot just be reduced to a theory that people occasionally draw from, but instead be expanded to a living and dynamic practice. You can read more about this in our article summing up discussion 3.

Including trans narratives for changing the discourse

Here, it is also important to acknowledge that trans people too are not a monolith unit and hence their needs too are varied. It is crucial then that they lead change and shift narratives. Inclusion thus cannot be an afterthought, but it must be the driving force from the very beginning as we build a feminist world conversation by conversation. Inclusion too is not a linear concept but brings with it several complexities. To begin with, whether to be included is an individual choice, since belonging to a certain group need not guarantee the willingness to represent/speak for the group, particularly in a world fraught with polarities. Further, inclusion also offers power to someone else to ‘do the including’ and in that sense, replicates existing power dynamics. At a macro-level, however, trans inclusion has undoubtedly benefited the feminist movement overall by creating cross-movement synergy.

Building bridges with trans-inclusive narratives to change the discourse

The discussion approached an interesting conversation point regarding the various tools of narrative shaping. For information dissemination and strengthening trans-inclusive narratives, it is also important to be aware of the narrativization tools that can be used to this end. The panellists highlighted storytelling as a means of changing the hearts and minds of people, around which much of the discussion was centred. For overcoming the language barriers that stories often pose, translation was suggested as a technique for expanding the scope of the narrative. In addition, role-modelling, particularly for young kids, was also highlighted as a means for positive narrative building as it both reaffirms their trans identity (which is constantly dehumanised in multiple ways) and reassures them that they are not alone. Trans narrative building must also be met with financial investment in trans leadership. To quote Li,

Trans people live much of their lives in migration and to focus on migration, knowledge needs to be decolonised. Organisations led by trans people and transfeminist leaders show that feminist theory can be built outside academia.

Storytelling for reframing our hearts and minds

The panellists highlighted the stark distinction between the purposes of storytelling practices and a human rights framework for shifting narratives. The transition from a legal to a storytelling approach is considered a necessity since a human rights framework doesn’t penetrate the ‘hearts and minds of people’, which is crucial for changing perceptions, particularly for people in the moveable middle who have the potential to become allies. As Julia highlighted,

Although the LGBTQI+ movement has been successful through using a human rights framework, to change perceptions and to reach true equality for people the human rights framework proves insufficient.

The power of storytelling as a tool for shifting narratives has been recognised and used even by anti-rights propaganda movements. For making everyone’s stories available and for using narrative building to the advantage of the feminist movement, bridges between LGBTQI+ organisations and transfeminist narratives and between feminist organisations and women’s rights organisations have to be built. This multiplication of approaches could also translate into building bridges with other systems and institutions. To this end, Li added that,

We also need to build bridges with religious institutions, for instance, since LGBTIQ people practising religion feel excluded from queer movements.

Barriers to building bridges

The scope of this multiplicity too is restricted since structural barriers and the intersectional experiences of people collude to restrict access and most often, individuals and organisations might not have the solutions to bridging these structural barriers due to their reality of limited resources. For instance, Julia highlighted that in their experience in working at a global organisation such as ILGA, language has proven a significant barrier in the effectiveness of activism. This is also not to forget that several countries were colonised and so language reproduces colonial power dynamics which might prove counterproductive in the discussion of queerness which is as much a political concept as it is an individual identity. For the feminist movements, stories must be told repeatedly to be able to recruit allies for feminist change. Storytelling is thus also an extremely useful resource for reaching LGBTQI+ people and their micro-communities which can facilitate mobilisation and organisation of communities.

The discussion was held primarily in English with the facility of interpretation in Spanish since the panellists and participants participated in the discussion from across the globe. This was also in full cognisance of the fact that interpretation might prove inadequate in translating experiences and/or context-specific realities accurately.

Resources shared during the discussion
1.    Don't think of an Elephant by George Lakoff
3.    Transfeminism in Latinamerica

Image removed.