The WBF and trans* inclusivity: what’s in the name?
An email conversation between a Dutch climber, Welmoed Jonas, and the WBF founder, Zofia Reych. Analogue photography by Welmoed Jonas.
When a few weeks ago, we received a message from Welmoed Jonas concerning their suggestion for the Festival’s name, we asked if we could share the well thought out email on the Community Blog. Following Welmoed’s suggestion to publish both their messages and Zofia’s replies, the full conversation, edited for clarity, can be found below. We’d love for you to chime in with your thoughts via comments, email or social media. (As well as, of course, in person - after the pandemic is over!)
16. April 2020
My name is Welmoed Jonas and I started bouldering about a year ago. I could go on for ages about why I love the sport so much but to stick with the subject of this email, I'll just give you one. For me as a non-binary trans* person, the bouldering environment feels way more safe to be a part of than a lot of other sport environments. I can engage in bouldering without having to let go of my true gender identity since the sport is quite androgynous. For example, I don't have to be in a team in which the membership is based on the binary construction of gender.
Because of my often excluded and marginalized gender identity, I truly believe in the power and importance of diversity, and the creation of safe spaces. That's why I was really happy when I found out about the Women’s Bouldering Festival and your values. I'm really grateful for the effort and the energy you put in organizing this important festival. The reason that I send this email is because I would like to make a suggestion in order to make the festival even more inclusive and welcoming for all beautiful diverse womxn out there. I think by now you can already guess what this suggestion is, namely to replace the term 'women' with the term 'womxn'.
I know from my own experience that the term 'women' can feel a bit exclusive. Since I don't identify as such, it makes me wonder if I'm actually welcome. If an event such as the Women’s Bouldering Festival is also meant for me. But then the same questions occur when there is a group meant for 'men'. Thereby comes that, since I'm socialized as a woman and I know how it feels to be marginalized, I do feel more at home within groups that consist of 'women'. But on the other hand, making myself part of such a group always feels like I'm losing a bit of my non-binary identity.
This is one of the difficult things if you live outside of the gender binary, you often end up being excluded from all the groups or you have to make a compromise about your gender identity.
I also know that, since I have spoken a lot with trans*women, the term 'women' can be difficult for them to. Not al trans*women identify as 'woman'. Furthermore, there are still a lot of cis women who believe that trans*women aren't real 'women'. Currently there even is a movement within feminism that actively tries to exclude trans*women from places that are meant for what they believe to be 'real women' (namely, cis women). This makes it difficult for trans*women to know whether they will end up in a safe environment when an event explicitly states that it's organized for 'women'. With replacing the term 'women' with the term 'womxn' the festival will actively state that all womxn are welcome, not only cis women.
[...] words do contain a lot of meaning and power. Therefore, to speak from my own experience, I would really appreciate it if the festival would use the term 'womxn'. It would make me feel welcome and seen. Feelings that are unfortunately are not as common as they should be for trans* folks. Of course it's just a suggestion. I hope you will think about it.
16. April 2020
Thanks so much for the email! I really appreciate the time that went into sharing your experience.
The use of the term "women" vs. womxn and other more inclusive alternatives was something that I thought about for a while. What I must explain here, is that while the team behind the event is now growing, at first it was only me and many decisions lacked the advantage of a group process. While for now we're sticking with the "Women", it's something that will be reassessed over and over again, and my feeling is that sooner rather than later the term might somehow change.
Personally, language changes come to me with difficulty. While I'd love to have a more inclusive term, linguistically I can't quite warm up to "womxn". Maybe I should just get over myself.
On another hand, identifying as genderfluid, I don't particularly enjoy being shoved into the social constraints of hegemonic womanhood on an everyday basis. Mildly annoying at best, infuriating at times. At the same time, I feel like inclusivity is something that doesn't necessarily require putting the marginalised persons' experience nominally at the forefront. The reality is, that the vast majority of climbers attending the Festival are cis-women. At the same time, perhaps because I'm not one of them, it is unthinkable to me not to see the event as inclusive... But then I run into problems because as you mentioned, the way the festival's identity is presented to the outside world might not reflect that.
(Ideally, I'd like for our comms channels to clearly stand for inclusivity without the need for a name change but it might be in fact not possible and the name change necessary.)
In addition, how can we then keep a profile of the event as something particularly for one group and not for another (my thinking is kind of, for everybody apart from cis-men even thought cis-guys can get involved as volunteers), but it starts getting tricky... While it seems somehow sensible to have an event specifically for one group, it seems a bit odd to have an event for everybody without one group. Even though my instincts tell me it should be actually ok, because the group that we're excluding is the one holding power that has been leading unfairly for long enough. So, what we come down to is that the event should be called: "A festival for everybody who doesn't benefit from the male privilege". Whereby again we run into problems because that smells a little of white feminism... So it should be "A festival for everybody who doesn't benefit from white male privilege". Which would end up diluting the experience of people attending the event, cause you'd have in attendance male-identifying, masculinity-performing persons who might make others, seeking shelter from that, feel uncomfortable.
Frankly, I have no idea how to draw the lines, how to communicate inclusivity, maintain appeal to the widest group of our attendees (cis-women) and protect the idea of a safe space.
It seems to me that safe spaces should be safe from certain behaviours not from certain groups. Ideally we'd want our event to be safe from any toxicity, aggression, domination, etc. But how do we communicate that and make it happen? And, how can we justify excluding certain groups if we're only trying to get rid of certain behaviours?
Guys can volunteer to support the event, and they do a great job. But then in practice, I had a great cis-male person acting as a mentor and I know from participants’ feedback that some attendees didn't feel comfortable being mentored by him. In the next edition of the event, we're going to welcome men in supporting volunteer roles but not as mentors. None of those decisions are easy and obvious, and they need to be reevaluated all the time.
[...] we have a General Assembly coming up (the event is organised by a non-profit organisation and we have to have meetings periodically etc., to adhere to the laws governing non-profits) and I'll put the festival title issue into the plan of things to discuss.
Some of the concerns that you voice are addressed in this piece that I wrote for the Rock&Ice Mag a couple of months ago. I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts on it.
17. April 2020
Thank you so much for your comprehensive and quick response. An important theme in my life at this moment is that I'm practicing to dare to take up space and to speak up as a gender nonconforming person because I have some difficulties with this sometimes due to internalised shame and the outside pressure of 'acting normal and just shut up'. Reactions as yours really help me with learning that it's ok and even appreciated if I speak about my experiences. Thanks for that!
I really understand all the valid points you make about the suggestion of a name change. Regarding the word 'womxn', it's ofcourse a little bit weird in the current language system and it also gives some pronunciation difficulties I guess. But maybe all 'new' words are a bit odd when they just start to arise. This is something I'm struggling with at this moment since I just started to use gender neutral pronouns which is something the Dutch language really sucks at and it sounds kind of weird. But without trying them and using them, they will definitely never become normal.
For me, the term 'womxn' is more like a symbol. A way of communicating to the outside world that there has been thought about gender diversity and showing empathy to those who are not living within the gender binary (but that is of course not to say that without using the X those values aren't just as much practiced.) I guess that's what the X is about for me and therefore it always makes me really happy when I see people use it. From that perspective it's not per sé a matter of putting marginalized people to the forefront, but rather making sure that everybody has an equal share in the forefront. Since, at least for me, the term is not meant to 'replace' (cis)women. It's more about making explicit room for those who aren't cis gender and are often unseen.
But, again, I really also understand the thoughts you share about the name and inclusivity. I guess the overall difficulty is to find the right balance between being inclusive and setting valid group boundaries to ensure that the space is safe for those who it's meant for. And then there is, as you also address in your article, the notion of taking your own responsibility as an individual to sometimes make the decision that a space isn't meant for you and you just don't show up. Instead of suggesting a name change for the Women’s Bouldering Festival, I could of course also acknowledge that maybe this space isn't meant for me since I'm not identifying as a women (again, this is not to say that I think I'm not welcome to the festival but just to give an example and to point out that there is an other balance for everybody to find).
I really enjoyed reading your article and it indeed really points out the thoughts about what’s in the name! I'm not going to go really in depth on it now since writing in English on topics like this.
[...] While reading it your article, and especially the piece in which you state that it's mostly about creating a space that's free of sexism, racism, and microagression, it came in to my mind that the name of the festival could be the Feminist Bouldering Festival. But that’s probably again another interesting topic of discussion. And again, staying with the Women’s Bouldering Festival is also really understandable and it's really good to know that there has been a lot of thought behind it.
Liefs [Dutch for “love”] ,
25. April 2020
Sorry it took me so long to reply - my house renovation completely too over my life for the past week.
[...] The more I think about it, the more I feel we should have some sort of a clearer indication that the event is very much LGBT+ inclusive. Perhaps "womxn" is actually a less intrusive change to the title than it initially seemed to me. After all, it's only spelling but something that makes a big difference. As I mentioned, I'll raise it as a General Assembly point this May. The topics to be discussed are presented to the bureau in advance, so everybody will have some time to reflect on it before we talk about it.
In addition, I absolutely love the idea of a Feminist Bouldering Festival! It is in fact the most accurate name for the event as intersectional feminism as a social movement, ideology and a theoretical framework is definitely our lighthouse. However, to be perfectly honest (and what makes me feel a little ashamed) I'd be afraid of making a shift to having "Feminist" in our name.
It is sad but it seems to me that the word feminism is hugely misunderstood by the general public and we could end up antagonising people with whom we actually want to have an open dialogue. I feel like by coaxing them in, we can then show them by our behaviour what feminism is really about. It is also really surprising and sad but I have a feeling that especially in France (which is weird, because isn't this the birthplace of feminist thought?) people think that social discrimination on the basis of gender is not a thing anymore, therefore feminism is almost about female supremacy. I might be wrong and I might be generalising but many people don't understand that feminism is in fact for everybody and it strives to dismantle harmful gender roles for the benefit of us all, not just women, or cis, white women.
I wish I had the guts to be so rad and to say, fuck it, let's call the festival what it is, let's be super transparent! While I have every intention of following what I see as right in my personal actions and in the way I organise the event, I feel also the responsibility to appeal to a wider public - not necessary out of the need to sell more tickets but more because through that we can then create change.
Is this something you'd see as justifiable, or am I basically being a coward? I will by no means not take offence if you think the latter.
11. May 2020
I'm really curious about the reactions you'll get from the General Assembly. Would be nice if you could send me a little update on that.
It's funny how at this point in my life I can hardly understand that people would have those negative assumptions by taking the word ‘feminism’ in the name of the festival while I also know that at another point in my life I probably would have been one of those people. I'm grateful for the road I have taken since then but it also makes me understand your considerations about the word. Maybe it would make you a tactical coward? A coward for the greater good? I really don't know.
Also, since it's so important to spread the message that feminism is also something in which (cis) men should engage, changing the name from 'womens/womxns' to 'feminist' boulder festival, would also be an other reconsideration of the group boundaries. Again, I think it's a matter of finding the right balance between setting valid group boundaries in order to create a safe space and achieve the goal where the festival is organized for, and being inclusive. Based on the conversations we have had, I truly believe that if you follow your own moral compass and stay engaged in discussions like these, the festival is going to be awesome no matter what the name is!
I hope you're doing well and I keep my fingers crossed that there can be a Womens/Womxns/Feminist/NoStupidCisMen Bouldering Festival this year!
16. May 2020
I introduced the idea at the General Assembly and we had a brief conversation between our Treasurer and Secretary, as well as the Site and Volunteers’ Manager and myself.
The discussion turned heavily toward how we can make sure to stand for inclusivity in our actions and in the way we communicate with the public. When it comes to the name, for now we’ve decided to stick to the original “Women’s Bouldering Festival”. The primary reason was that the majority of our participants and target group, that we identify as to a degree marginalised and therefore in need of a dedicated event, are cis-women. The secondary reason was that the term “womxn” is apparently still not very well recognised (which surprised me) and would require a separate communications campaign on our part to explain it to the general public.
The idea of changing the name to the Femisnist Bouldering Festival was also rejected under the notion that our actions and comms should make it obvious that it is, in fact, a feminist event. We all agree that any good human and conscious human being is, to a degree, a feminist.
My personal stance is that to actually be a feminist, one needs to be an ally. Men need to be allies of women, women need to be allies of non-cis folks, etc. And to be an ally you can’t be silent - therefore raising issues such as trans* inclusivity, and not just refraining from discrimination on the basis of identity, is to be expected.
I have the deepest confidence in the WBF Team when it comes to intentions and attitudes. We might be somewhat divided when it comes to theory, and I might personally feel somewhat upset by the lack of understanding that allyship needs to be very overt - and here I guess I’m siding with the minority of non-cis folks - but I know that while we make not do all that could be done to be inclusive, we will continue to evaluate our actions to do more and more.
Earlier this year I attended a Felsheldinnen Festival in Berlin in the capacity of a guest speaker. The organisers use the term frauen*, or women* to indicate inclusivity. I have not elsewhere come across this term, but being aware of the asterisks' meaning in the term trans*, I - and probably other participants - was quickly able to understand that inclusivity beyond just cis-women was an important aspect of the event. It is something I would like to give more thought to and again, your opinion would be appreciated! [...]