Madison prepares to counter-program the TERFs

Transgender people face increasing violence and oppression as the latest target of the far-right and its allies. Madison is no exception.

Transgender people face increasing violence and oppression as the latest target of the far-right and its allies. Madison is no exception.

Illustration: A digital collage of the trans flag overlaid with ocean waves, fire, and clouds over trees and mountains. Text over the image reads “WE’RE STILL HERE.” Illustration by M.Rose Sweetnam

Next month, a gathering of self-professed “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” activists will gather in Madison for a weekend-long conference, called “Sisters4Sisters,” with the stated aim to “make Madison ours.” The mission has little to do with the aims of true feminism, which is an inclusive and intersectional fight for justice and against proscriptive gender norms. Instead, TERFs largely focus their ire on some of the most vulnerable members of society: transgender and non-binary people.

The group is being drawn here by the call-to-arms of ardent anti-trans musician, radio host, and organizer Thistle Pettersen. Pettersen has carved her niche in Madison through the harassment and denigration of transgender people, all while styling herself a martyr to the cause whenever she experiences pushback from the community for her behavior.

Pettersen’s actions have included everything from putting up anti-trans stickers in 2021 (an act for which she briefly faced criminal charges, due to targeting sidewalk boxes owned by Our Lives, the LGBTQ magazine) to hosting virulently anti-trans, anti-sex worker speakers on WORT’s Public Access hour in 2014, 2015, and again in 2018. In 2017, Pettersen was dropped from a monthly music residency at the Crystal Corner Bar after members of the public informed the owners about her vocal bigotry. All of these are, Pettersen claims, proof that she is the oppressed party.

Thankfully, the TERFs are not likely to be the loudest voices in the room when they gather over the weekend of April 22 through 24. The Madison Area Transgender Association (MATA) and OutReach LGBT Community Center are organizing a Trans Day of Joy as a counterweight to the event. Planned for Saturday, April 23 from 1 to 4 p.m., the event will be held at 502 Walter St., in and around the Olbrich Park shelter.

“Members of the trans community were interested in having avenues for both direct action and community celebration,” says James Van Abel, a MATA leadership team member who is helping organize the Trans Day of Joy. “And while this event is primarily intended to be a space to celebrate trans voices, it also serves as a demonstration that we will not stand for anti-trans rhetoric. When our mere existence is enough to cause rage in people like TERFs, then sometimes the most radical way we can respond is by existing loud and proud. We are going to de-center the TERFs and use our time to uplift the trans community.”

Trans Day of Joy’s organizers plan to hold several community-building activities, such as a clothing swap, a collective craft activity, button-making, and bingo. Van Abel notes that PPE will be made available at the event, free of charge, along with refreshments. The event is free and open to all, with an emphasis placed on supporting and centering trans attendees. 

Other grassroots activities are also planned for that weekend, including the Ride Against Hate, a critical mass bike ride on Saturday, April 23 at 10 a.m. The ride is meant to show visible support by and for trans people, while also countering the TERF bike ride planned for the conference.

Public spaces and free speech

Of note are transgender-centered events being planned by Madison Public Library for that same weekend. “Courage Calls to Courage: Feminists Speak in Solidarity,” one of the TERF conference sessions, is to be held in a community room at Central Library on April 23. Thanks to efforts led by the library’s LGBTQ employee group, Sequoya Library will host an all-ages event to “celebrate Madison’s trans community” that Saturday. The programming will comprise three back-to-back sessions: TRANScendent Storytime at 10 a.m., TRANScend Community Art & Information Expo at noon, and a Trans Trailblazers Panel Discussion at 3 p.m.

LGBTQ library staff and volunteers have also been told that they will not be required to work at Central Library the day of the TERF conference if they don’t feel comfortable doing so, according to Tana Elias, MPL’s Digital Services & Marketing Manager.

Asked why the group was allowed to book the room at Central Library in the first place, Elias explained, “We consulted with the Department of Civil Rights and the City Attorney’s office, the latter particularly on the hate speech question. What we heard was that the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech would take precedence over local ordinances. Additionally, they told us that hate speech is hard to prove legally. We relied on the City Attorney’s guidance, as well as our own meeting room policy, which is heavily informed by the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights and MPL’s commitments to freedom of speech.”

 “While we’re allowing this group to rent the library space, we do not support the beliefs or stance of the group, and this is in no way a library event other than the space rental,” Elias added. “We value inclusivity, and we hope our track record of active collaboration with multiple community partners will demonstrate our commitment to the LGBTQ+ and particularly the trans communities in Madison.”

 A brutal wave

The issue is far larger than any one person or event. The conference comes to Madison at a particularly dangerous time for transgender people and their rights at the local, national, and global levels. State legislators around the country have proposed nearly 240 bills in 2022 alone that seek to take rights away from LGBTQ Americans. About half specifically target trans youth and adults, aimed at everything from banning participation in youth sports to prohibiting needed medical care, often under criminal penalties. 

In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbot colluded to pass an executive order targeting parents and other caregivers of transgender children by labeling all trans-specific care as “abuse.” That move has already resulted in agents from Child Protective Services showing up at people’s homes and threatening to take children away from loving parents.

In Wisconsin, a slate of anti-LGBTQ bills only met their end when the clock ran out at the end of the Legislative session, and/or thanks to the assured use of the veto pen of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Public hearings on legislation ranging from banning transgender kids from playing sports, preventing the teaching of anything LGBTQ-related in public schools, to trans medical care bans were filled with passionate and often emotional voices of opposition. Unfortunately, few (if any) of the Republican members of those committees seemed interested in truly listening.

It is a perfect storm of fear, misinformation, and hate-mongering aimed at a community that has long faced disproportionate rates of violence, misunderstanding, and oppression. That storm relies on some of the very same lies and tropes that were once (and sometimes still are) used against gay and lesbian people. Which is why it is startling to some that the anti-trans forces include members of the LGB community, and those who claim to be “radical feminists.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the loudest-spoken TERFS—or the newer label, “gender critical” (GCs)—are white cisgender women and men. A significant part of the misplaced hatred toward trans people arguably stems from racism and white supremacy, right alongside misogyny. The anti-trans movement contains the potent mix of that hatred and distrust of Black people with the idea that women–especially white women–need protection from men.

Meanwhile, Black and Latine trans women experience horrifyingly high and disproportionate rates of violence and murder. Transgender people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault. By daring to live authentically and break oppressive gender norms and roles, transgender people are far more likely to face “corrective” violence from patriarchal forces than to benefit from them.

A network of hate

One of the elements that makes the movement against transgender people so strange and so potent, then, is this tale of strange bedfellows: anti-trans women’s and lesbian’s rights groups joining forces with traditionally anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice, anti-women’s rights organizations.

Pettersen is the founder of the anti-trans Women’s Liberation Radio News, as well as a member of the virulently anti-trans Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF). WoLF claims to be a “radical feminist” group focused on lobbying for pro-choice legislation and women’s autonomy, though there’s little evidence of efforts on either front. Instead, the group is almost exclusively focused on fighting against transgender rights, going so far as to partner with a far-right, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ group called Family Policy Alliance to create an anti-trans guidebook for parents. They also co-signed a countersuit to Gavin Grimm’s Title IX suit to allow fair access to bathroom facilities in schools (which he won), among other anti-equality efforts.

WoLF also accepted a $15,000 grant from Alliance Defending Freedom, a well-funded, evangelical Christian non-profit law firm which “seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.” The organization was founded by James Dobson, who also founded the wildly anti-LGBTQ Focus on the Family, and Alan Sears, author of The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing The Principal Threat To Religious Freedom Today. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated ADF as a hate group. ADF is also directly involved in anti-trans litigation against the Madison Metropolitan School District, in partnership with the right-wing lawsuit factory Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL). In addition, Pettersen’s anti-trans activism has earned her some sympathetic attention from Wisconsin’s leading right-wing think tank, the MacIver Institute.

Notable, too, is that many of the anti-LGBTQ and specifically anti-trans bills being peddled across the country are near carbon copies of one another. Florida’s recently passed “don’t say gay” bill has clones in several other states, including Wisconsin. Bans on trans healthcare and sports participation are similarly almost identical across the board.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), along with a host of related far-right organizations are largely behind the creation of the “model legislation” showing up in statehouses across the country. It’s part of a coordinated effort to roll back civil rights and shift power back to a white, male-dominated, Christian extremist America.

And this network is not limited to the United States. Across the pond in the United Kingdom, transphobia is perhaps even more mainstream, with regular platforms in most of the major media outlets.

Fighting back

Despite the bleak-seeming legal landscape, transgender and non-binary people are finding new ways to organize, advocate, and thrive. More Americans than ever now say they know someone who is transgender, and the number of Americans who say greater rights for trans people is a good thing has also gone up—though this issue remains starkly divided by political ideology. 

Trans people are winning elected office, starring in and creating movies and television, leading businesses, innovating industries, helping to shape better and more inclusive laws, and expanding the possibilities for what it means to be a human being.

In Madison as elsewhere, the question is: when the TERFs rise up seeking a reaction, do we give them the attention they so obviously crave? It’s a quandary the public library tackled, too.

“We must balance our commitments to inclusion with our core value, and one that public libraries were built upon, of providing equal access to all viewpoints in line with First Amendment rights,” Elias said. Rather than outright banning the Sisters4Sisters event, their aim is to affirm and support the trans community through proactive programming choices. In addition to the Saturday event at Sequoya, that Saturday, members of the LGBTQ affinity group are working with Briarpatch’s Teens Like Us program and other partners to host a tour of the Central Library and work on an interactive art project that allows for trans youth and their families to participate in the creation of a mural. 

“The project is intended to be a safe avenue of resistance for trans youth,” Elias added.

For the transgender and non-binary community as a whole, grassroots organizing has generated everything from support groups to stickering campaigns to performance spaces and more. Shepherd Janeway, a non-binary arts teacher, stepped up to run for Madison School Board after the only initial candidate to file was a well-known anti-trans activist, Mary Jo Walters. Janeway will be on the April 5 ballot as Shepherd Joyner.

“I’ve always been someone who believes very firmly that we have an individual responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that the people who come after us have a better place to be than the place that we entered,” Janeway told Channel3000. By stepping up in such a wide variety of ways, trans and non-binary people—and their allies—are aiming to do just that.

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