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  • Rebecca Esho Greenslade

Protest and Praxis: withdrawing from the SEA Conference 


 

We are all implicated in the violence against trans people when we allow their lives and the harm they face to be diminished by a media circus … we have a duty to dismantle that circus and redirect the public imagination. Trans life is fundamental to our collective liberation.


- Lola Olufemi (2020, p. 66)


I was a scheduled presenter at the 2022 Society of Existential Analysis (SEA) Conference on PROTEST! I was looking forward to attending and contributing to a programme that seemed to be in contrast to the SEA’s usual apoliticism; a position that has, over the past few years, pulled me away from the existential therapeutic community towards more politically orientated therapeutic spaces and communities of inquiry. I was keen to reconnect. My presentation was planned to be an abbreviated version of a workshop I have developed entitled Manifesto Writing for Therapists; a workshop that invites participants to imagine the Otherwise within our praxis, to identify the aspects of the psy-disciplines that we find intolerable, that resist integration and require active refusal, or, in Valli Kalei Kahula’s words, that require “public testimony” (1990, p. 31).  The workshop intended to explore how manifesto writing might be utilised as a critical and resistant therapeutic intervention for our times, encouraging participants to consider their own manifestos as a renewed foundation for therapeutic protest and praxis.  

 

One such point of refusal within my own practice is trans-antagonism and resisting the anti-trans hysteria that the right wing media gives daily column space to; column space that does not include trans voices but actively seeks to erase them. I sit within a feminist lineage that recognises how a binary view of gender and gendered socialization is tied to the colonial project that silences and prohibits particular expressions of gender and sexuality. We live in a world where people die daily for subverting and transgressing gender norms (Olufemi 2020). This feminist lineage acknowledges how trans and women’s liberation have always been intrinsically bound by their efforts to break free from patriarchal norms. Transfeminist scholarship and struggle has played a significant role in the development of intersectional analyses and collective organising for social justice. As a practicing  existential-feminist psychotherapist, my therapeutic, supervisory and pedagogical praxes endeavour to be trans-informed and trans-affirmative; this requires me to engage with the impact my positionality as a cisgendered, white, able-bodied woman has within the relationships I place myself in and the topics and themes I speak and write about.


So, when I received the conference schedule, I was both heart broken and enraged to see that I was to share a platform with a presenter who has become a public figure based on claims that, through publically scrutinising trans peoples’ lives, he has become the subject of discrimination. This person makes claims that gender incongruence is a ‘mental health’ disorder (both NHS and WHO guidelines state it is not), has stated that describing him using the Latin prefix ‘cis’, is an expression of hatred and bigotry towards him, considers trans health care to be analogous with liposuction for ‘anorexics’ and has co-founded an organisation that opposes the inclusion of trans people within the ban on conversion therapy. This presenter is not a practising psychotherapist nor does he have a public connection to existential philosophical thought. Therefore, any grounds that he might be able to, as example, offer an existential critique of trans-phenomenology, does not apply. I could see no reason for his inclusion on the conference programme, other than an intentional provocation that further feeds anti-trans hysteria under the guise of ‘free speech’. 

 

It is my view that a cisgender man being given a platform to discuss and question trans lives in the absence of consenting trans voices is an epistemic injustice that replicates the erasures, harms and cisheteropatriarchal oppressions trans people are constantly subjected to. I am aware that some members of Therapists Against Conversion Therapy and Transphobia (TACTT) contacted the SEA to express their concerns and disappointment at his inclusion on the conference programme, as did some SEA members. Some of my own supervisees and students chose not to attend as they felt unsafe, unwelcome and appalled at the inclusion of a trans-antagonistic presentation. These complaints came from marginalised and allied voices; voices that the SEA had actively invited to present at the conference under the principle of inclusion. Yet, inclusive practice is practice that intervenes in systemic and epistemic injustices. Inclusive practice is committed to building cultures and communities of care that generate conditions of safety for marginalised voices, that address issues of positionality and decentre those that seek to speak on behalf of others' experiences. I am of the view that giving a platform to this speaker was an act of trans-exclusion, not inclusion. 

 

I will not outline the every day biographies of violence that trans people accumulate in their lives because it is your responsibility to know. I will not outline the indebtedness we all have towards trans peoples’ efforts in liberation and care work because, again, it is your responsibility to know. I don’t want to have to re-iterate the fractional amount of trans people that experience transition-regret and how even less de-transition. I don’t want to remind readers that around 700 million people live in countries that have gender recognition certificates and, no, there has not been a rise in trans women assaulting cis women in public toilets in those countries because trans women are not sexual predators, nor is there any evidence that trans-inclusive toilet access increases rates of sexual assault, and no, trans people are not taking over sport - no openly trans person has ever won an Olympic medal. This kind of ‘outrage economy’ weaponises and utilises trauma as currency against trans people’s rights, perpetuating narratives that distract us from very real issues of misogyny and gendered violence (Phipps 2020). These are false narratives, maintained by other false narratives, such as the existence of a gender binary and a sedimented body.  

 

Of course, you may agree with this presenter’s position on trans existences and support his inclusion on the SEA conference programme. However, to do so and to identify as an existential psychotherapist is both ethically and philosophically problematic. Ethically, because existentialism reveals the mechanisms of oppression that manifest through bad faith: it is a socially engaged philosophy that calls upon us to ethically act for and towards the freedom of marginalised others. To not do so is to become complicit with the oppression itself (Greenslade 2018) [1]. Philosophically, because existentialism opposes the biologically essentialist view upheld by gender criticals. Biological essentialism is philosophically incongruent with the socially constructivist perspective that existentialism adheres to, for example, Simone de Beauvoir’s view that ‘we are not born a woman but become a woman’ and Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous aphorism ‘existence precedes essence’. Whilst Beauvoir does not write explicitly on trans people, it is possible to read her existential feminism through a trans inclusionary lens[2]. Firstly, her view that we become a woman indicates that being born with female sex organs is not a prescriptor for womanhood (Cleary 2022, p. 41). Nor did she consider our bodies to be bound by facticity. As Skye Cleary describes: 

 

Being born in a certain situation or biology does not mean that we have to confine ourselves to our past bodies if there are possibilities to transcend them. Conceived in this way, Beauvoir’s philosophy gives us tools to understand gender transitioning as an exercise in becoming authentic. Transgender people reorient their situation and aspects of their lives … in new creative and meaningful ways. (Cleary 2022, p. 42).  

 

Similarly, Sara Ahmed reminds us that “no one is born a woman; it is an assignment that shapes us, makes us and breaks us” (2017, p. 15). As existentialists, surely we agree that we do not have to live by other people’s assignments? What is the existential project if not an engagement with other ways and processes to live in and through our bodies? Taking Sartre’s phrase ‘existence precedes essence’, there is no essence to reduce gender to. As existential psychotherapists well know, we are situated beings, situated within particular herstories, familial, social, cultural contexts and facticities. To reduce my experience of being a woman to the sex organs I was born with erases the multifarious components from and through which I am constantly creating myself and shaping my life.  


But don’t take it from me. To read trans people placing their lived experience in dialogue with existential philosophy, I’d recommend Tamsin Kimoto’s (2018) use of the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and Fanon to describe the trans experience of hormonal transition and transphobia. Or, Daniel Benjamin Jones’ paper for Existential Analysis (2021) that draws upon the works of Beauvoir, Sartre and Fanon to conceptualise the colonialisation of his trans body by the mental health professions and the ‘The Look’s’ imposition of a cis-gender mask - an experience I consider to have been enacted by the inclusion of a trans-antagonistic speaker at the SEA conference. Beyond existential philosophy, but fundamentally addressing existential concerns, Hil Malatino’s beautiful short book Trans Care (2020) looks specifically at how both failures of care and care practices have shaped trans lives, teaching us how care labour and ethics is so deeply entrenched within heteronormative and gendered structures that we must radically re-consider how care operates for it to reach all bodies in need of care. Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue (2021) provides an excellent overview of systemic transphobia and argues that trans liberation is essential to any struggle for social justice.  

 

When I think of the conference theme of PROTEST!, I think of the 2019 launch of The Gender and Sexualities Research Centre, when a trans exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) seized the roaming microphone to speak of how trans women had no place within feminism. Despite verbal protest from the audience, she refused to stop speaking, so instead of listening and giving the speaker a platform, all the conference participants emptied the auditorium in collective protest, leaving her alone with her microphone and anti-trans rhetoric.  When I think of the conference theme of PROTEST!, I am reminded how, at the Feminist Gender Equality Network’s (FGEN) inaugural conference in April 2022, we began the day singing in trans-solidarity, practicing defiant and celebratory chants in anticipation of TERFs storming the conference, as they had been bombarding the FGEN’s social media prior. When I think of the conference theme of PROTEST!, I now think of the SEA choosing to platform trans-antagonism, my own small protest of withdrawal an attempt to provoke a conversation (it did – following my withdrawal the SEA Committee met to discuss this speaker’s inclusion on the program and chose to uphold it), a refusal to give my time and labour to a therapeutic organization that chooses to endorse trans-antagonism, in contrast to choosing loving practices of solidarity, collective ethics and inclusive cultures of care. My withdrawal also meant my existential colleague Niki D was able to take the space of my workshop to offer a trans affirmative and allied space on the day, a vital counter to the trans-antagonistic discourse that was given a platform. I appreciate her allied response and ethics of care. I have elsewhere emphasised that the etymology of ‘existence’ is from the Latin existere, translating as ‘to stand forth’, or ‘to take a stand’ (Greenslade 2018). Where do you stand? 

 

In his introduction to the ‘Existentialism is an Antiracism’ series that T. Storm Heter guest edited for Sartre Studies International, Heter writes: “we are used to hearing that the ‘heyday’ of existentialism was the middle of the twentieth century. In truth, because existential thought is future-orientated, the heyday of existentialism may be yet to come” (2021, p. v). If Heter is right, I hope this ‘heyday’ is one that commits to the collective actualisation of Beauvoir’s observation that our own freedoms are intimately linked with the freedoms of everyone and that this liberatory commitment be fully reflected within the SEA’s ethics and actions moving forward. I offer this response as “public testimony” in service of trans-solidarity and its essential place within an emancipatory existential project.


Rebecca Esho Greenslade



A version of this article was published in the April 2023 Hermeneutic Circular.



[1] The critical turn in phenomenology - which extends phenomenology from a solely descriptive method or practice towards a mode of critique that reveals and interrogates experiences of oppression and power – is a valuable means to understanding and addressing epistemic injustice and hermeneutic marginalisation. 

 

[2] For a clear explanation of key feminist ideas on characteristics of womanhood, including Beauvoir's ideas, I recommend this short Philosophy Bites podcast with philosopher Amia Srinivasan. 


References: 

 

Ahmed, S. (2017) Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press: Durham & London.  

 

Cleary, S. (2022) How to be You: Simone de Beauvoir and the art of authentic living. Ebury Press: London.  

 

Faye, S. (2021) The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Social Justice. Penguin: London.  

 

Greenslade, R. (2018) ‘Existential Psychotherapy and the Therapeutics of Activism’. European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling. 20.2, pp: 1-15.  

 

Heter, S. T. (2021) ‘Existentialism is an Antiracism’. Sartre Studies International. 27(2), pp: v-vii.  

 

Jones, D. B. (2021) ‘De-colonising My Trans Body: Fanon and the masks I have worn’. Existential Analysis. 32(2), pp: 322-332. 

 

Kanuha, V. K. (1990). ‘The need for an integrated analysis of oppression in feminist therapy ethics’. In H. Lerman & N. Porter (Eds.), Feminist ethics in psychotherapy (pp. 24–35). Springer Publishing Company: New York.  

 

Kimoto, T. (2018). ‘Merleau-Ponty, Fanon, and Phenomenological Forays in Trans Life’. APA Newsletter on LGBTQ Issues in Philosophy, 18(1), pp:16-21. 

 

Malatino, H. (2020) Trans Care. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis & London.  

 

Olufemi, L. (2020) Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power. Pluto Press: London 

 

Phipps, A. (2020) Me, Not You: The Trouble With Mainstream Feminism. University of Manchester Press: Manchester.  




 

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