The Feminist Tent

West Coast LEAF has long been a trans-inclusive organization – to some extent. Since 2003, we have explicitly defined “women” as encompassing all those who define themselves as women, whatever their sex assignment at birth.

The hard part for us in recent years has been whether and how to include people who don’t define themselves as women; those who define themselves as non-binary, Two-Spirit, genderqueer, agender, or otherwise not fitting within cis* boxes.

To this end, we’ve been asking ourselves some tough questions:

What does feminism mean to us?

What are the harms we work so hard to counteract?

Who is most impacted by those harms?

Isn’t the feminist tent big enough to cover us all?

These are deep, soul-searching questions for an organization that has defined itself as a women’s organization for more than 30 years.

The answers became clearer when we took a bird’s-eye view. The overarching project of our organization is to dismantle patriarchy – a project that I believe the women’s movement shares with trans activists.

A mural of a blue painted face with Equal painted across the figure on a pink background
Oliver Cole / unsplash

Patriarchy depends on the division of the sexes into two distinct, hierarchically ranked categories. Systemic inequality of all forms – whether sustained by racial division, gender division, class division – has something in common: division. Maintaining hierarchy requires maintaining distinctions between categories and erasing difference and individuality within categories. If gender is a universe of possibilities and not a binary, these divisions fade along with the hierarchy they create.

In other words, patriarchy feeds off stereotypes – stereotypes of women as maternal, illogical, emotional, and men as natural leaders, thinkers, emotionally distant, rational. Babies who are assigned female at birth are expected to grow up to be women who will wear dresses, date men, become mothers – and the converse for babies assigned to be male. These stereotypes rely on the gender binary. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

The very fact of trans identity is a challenge to the traditional gender binary, as are the projects of feminism and trans activism. Dismantle the stereotypes and the binary division, and the patriarchal world view comes crumbling down with them.

“In response, we shifted our mandate from focusing only on women to one that includes all people who are disempowered and oppressed by patriarchy.”

We believe that our job is not to police the edges of the gender binary – in fact, such an enterprise would directly undermine the reason our organization exists in the first place. Our job is to shake things up and break things down. And by “things,” I mean the very foundations of inequality in our society – a foundation built on the gender binary, on oppression of diverse expressions of identity, on division and on hierarchy.

Our goal is to tear that foundation down. In its place, we want to see a foundation of equality, dignity, and justice.

So, where does this leave our vision for change? In response, we shifted our mandate from focusing only on women to one that includes all people who are disempowered and oppressed by patriarchy.

Our new mandate is to use the law to create an equal and just society for all women and people who experience gender-based discrimination in BC.

In collaboration with community, we use litigation, law reform, and public legal education to make change. In particular, we aim to transform society by achieving: access to justice; economic security; access to health care; freedom from gender-based violence; justice for those who are criminalized; and the right to parent.

Operationalizing this new vision is an ongoing process. At this point in our journey, we find ourselves under a big tent. A big tent that welcomes anyone who experiences gender-based discrimination.

“To the trans activists who have worked to transform feminism, often at great personal risk, we see you. We are grateful to be standing here with you.”

We urge those of you who also identify as feminists, but aren’t yet under this tent, to ask yourselves some hard questions.

What does it mean to you to challenge the patriarchy?

How does reinforcing the gender binary challenge the sexist status quo?

Are you shaking the foundation of inequality or reinforcing it?

These are questions that we continue to ask ourselves as we work towards a more inclusive movement.

And to those who we have joined under the big tent, thank you for welcoming us as fellow feminists and comrades in the struggle against patriarchy. To the trans activists who have worked to transform feminism, often at great personal risk, we see you. We are grateful to be standing here with you.

Image of a white tent with multiple points at the top with a bright blue sky and one cloud in the background
Pavel Nekoranec / unsplash

Executive Director Kasari Govender is passionate about gender equality and using the law as a tool to build a more equal world. Before joining West Coast LEAF, Kasari practiced constitutional, equality and aboriginal law. She earned her law degree from the University of Victoria, and her Masters Degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford. She is the founding President of Rise Women’s Legal Centre, has sat on the board of Pivot Legal Society, the Coalition for Public Legal Services, and Society for Children and Youth, and was an Adjunct Professor of Law at UBC. When she’s not knee deep in constitutional law and the feminist movement, Kasari can usually be found running around after her toddler.

*cis is a term used to describe people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.

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