Sibéal conference 2016: Roundtable on social transformation

Below is a transcript of my short presentation at a panel on social transformation, a highlight event that took place at the 2016 annual conference of Sibéal, the Irish Feminist and Gender Studies Network, held at the National University of Ireland in Galway on 18-19 November 2016. Watch my presentation here.


My name is chamindra weerawardhana. I am a trans woman of colour, living in Ulster, or as I prefer to say, the unceded territories of traditional Ulster. I come from a Franco-British academic and professional background with some ten years of regular university teaching experience, including stints with United Nations bodies. Currently i have a research title at Queen’s University Belfast, an extremely neoliberal institution, where headcount and form-filling matters more than real people. Since affirming and moving forwards with my own personal path to gender self-determination, I find myself being shunned by some “high-profile” research centres at Queen’s, people who visibly have a problem with my trans identity, or to be more precise, my trans femininity.

How come it is that in academia, except in small and close-knit queer studies/transgender studies circles, cisgender bodies are considered as an [unwritten] imperative for success? Why am i told that being my true self, and assuming my  trans womanhood reduces my chances of a successful academic career in politics and international relations?

In my country of citizenship, Sri Lanka, yet another island, some people often remind me that options i used to have in pursuing a career in diplomacy or in active electoral politics are now shattered by my trans womanhood. How do you explain the fact that non-cisnormativity, if not non-cis-heteronirmativity represent such a barrier for one’s progress in a chosen field, leaving, little space, to borrow from Mark Twain, to say Jack Robinson?

i am also a trans woman who is a parent of two lovely children, one aged five and the other aged one and half. From antenatal care to primary school, my experience in parenting has been marked by a resolve from many quarters of society to give me ‘the look’, the cisgender gaze – as if to imply, what the hell are u doing here?

in cisheteronormative eyes, my trans womanhood is often seen as an impediment for parenting, let alone good parenting. The attack, at its core, is on my reproductive rights.

This cis heteronormativity is inherently linked to a patriarcal, [cisandtrans]misogynist resolve in society to exercise control upon bodies. what a cis woman, a trans woman, a non-binary person or any other gender plural person decides to do with their bodies and lives becomes the affair of society. This is where i link, in my everyday life and struggles for gender, racial and social justice, the transmisogyny i endure  – – –  and  – – – the foremost challenge for gender justice in present-day ireland – the denial of reproductive justice to cis women, trans men and all other gender-plural peoples.

In my categoric refusal to accept any restrictions that a cisheteronromative society seeks desperately to impose upon me, i follow the wise advice of Audre Lorde, who i sincerely wonder, if she were ever tired and exhausted of being always right. Lorde once said, “i am not free while any woman is unfree even when her shackles are very different from my own”. I am often reminded of this statement when thinking of systemic and underlying political and structural causes of discrimination, especially in the Irish context. the equal marriage law in Ireland was a great feat, yes. the gender recognition act of 2015 was tremendous. however, where is the commitment of concerned parties when it comes to reproductive justice?

This question, to a large extent, sums up the core of the problems inherent in terms of gender justice in present-day ireland. Equal marriage, i believe, was pushed through in a society in which, increasingly, there are powerful cis gay men of influence and wealth. It suits them and their personal agendas.

Reproductive justice and to be precise, the existing restrictions on obtaining a safe and legal termination when a birth giver so requires, is linked to an essentially misogynist class bias. It is not an issue that adversely affects those of the wealthy and influential political class.   

Instead, it is the less economically empowered who suffer, systematically, at the hands of a system that does not want to see them.

For trans and queer people, as Ireland increasingly becomes a welcoming place in terms of legislative provision, and also, increasingly, attitudinal changes, it is very important to constantly remember that trans and queer liberation is never wholesomely realised, in any meaningful way, in the absence of tackling serious issues of misogyny and class bias, and stigma surrounding fulsome reproductive justice to all.


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Transgender policy at QUB: half-baked cake

Queen’s University Belfast has launched a trans equality policy. The press release on the launch quotes three cis-white men, two from senior management and one from the full-time staff of the Students Union, commenting on the policy. One staggering absence is that not a single comment from a trans staff member or student is included in the press release. What are the opinions of trans staff and students about this policy? Were they sufficiently consulted when the policy was drawn?

This writer, the first trans woman to occupy a research title at the School of Politics (and perhaps in the rest of the university) was most definitely not approached. It is this writer’s fervent hope that other trans/queer staff and students were approached, and engaged with satisfactorily when the policy was drafted.

What is indeed commendable is the commitment of the Student’s Union to trans issues at Queen’s. However, it appears that paid employees in the university who are in charge of equality and diversity issues have chosen to release this policy NOT with the welfare of trans students and staff in mind, but as with Athena Swan in mind, to score some cheap points in internal and external evaluations, for form-filling purposes, and perhaps to include in the next Athena Swan evaluation.

As a trans woman who is on a research title, who has been a PhD student at Queen’s and also a Teaching Assistant in the past (and also worked in several universities elsewhere, in France and The Netherlands)  this writer’s take is that this trans equality policy is a very linear, normative one, put together by people with a low understanding of trans issues, trans equality policies launched by other trans-friendly higher educational institutions elsewhere, and by people who wanted a basic guideline for the sake of having it. Just as with Athena Swan, they can then adumbrate ‘sure look how inclusive we are!!!’.

We don’t give a damn! 

To narrate a little anecdote, this writer heard about the Student’s Union’s interest in trans issues and approached the Equality Office, as an additional staff card holder. Having experience in trans equality activism, being familiar with trans identity-related challenges from her own personal lived experience, and most of all, having built excellent networks and solidarities with people involved in launching trans and queer friendly/inclusive policy guidelines in other universities (especially in Canada), this writer proposed her services to the Equality Office, expressing an interest in contributing in any possible way for a future trans equality initiative.

There was no reply for a good while. This writer was not surprised, knowing from her lived experience that Queen’s University does not take international students and staff seriously, unless it involved collecting money, a photo opportunity or a similar tokenising venture. Then, there was a reply. In a message written by a staff member of the Equality Office, the sender of the reply implied either A) they do not understand English, or B) they did not read this writers’ message, or c) they do understand English and read this writer’s message but don’t give a damn about what was said in it.



This message did not respond, in any clear way, to this writer’s query, if not offer, to contribute in any way to a trans equality policy. Instead, what does this one-sentence email really imply? How can one deduce the message that this sentence carries, and the mentality of people who come up with such responses?

It is simply that this individual, or their office, does not wish to see this writer, or acknowledge her presence in the university structure. It is a clear indicator that they do not consider this writer, a trans woman who is a post-PhD academic with a pan-European education and professional experience, is suitable to contribute to the university’s trans equality policy. Whether the response to the same message would have been the same had this writer been a white local trans woman with the same profile and credentials is an open question.

Trans equality policy with holes in the bottom 

The policy guideline totally lacks a much-needed intersectional focus. It is as if its drafters expected that a group of cis people drafting a policy guideline with ’local’ consultations (read trans support groups based in Northern Ireland) and using politically correct language would suffice. This is simply not true, and is grossly inadequate.

No trans/queer international students!

What the drafters of this trans policy especially forget is the fact that QUB is a Russell Group university. Whether some people who work for QUB like it or not, it is a place with an international staff and very especially student population. Not once does it state a single word about international students and staff, a category that includes highly qualified people who face routine discriminatory and racist and sexist attitudes from border officers, customs officers and even gatekeepers from the local Department of Agriculture  (especially at Belfast airports), and indeed (when it comes to students from countries classified as ‘high immigration ‘risk’ places) from the QUB international office.

When you are trans/ queer and non-white, non-EU and have a passport from the global South, your options can get strictly limited, and in the UK, (and very especially in Northern Ireland) you are bound to face specific challenges. Gender self-determination, or to use [cis]parlance,  ’transition’ can then become an everyday struggle of a specific sort, from being stigmatised even when flying domestically to numerous other everyday challenges and complications. If Queen’s were serious and sincere about having a workable and viable trans equality policy, it would recognise and address the genuine concerns of international staff and students. This trans equality guideline does not make a single reference to intersectionalities of discrimination, especially to protections that the university can make available to ‘protect’ trans/queer international students of colour if they are faced with multiple intersectional challenges – for example, when transphobia (coming from academic and ministrative and/or peer hierarchies) is couched with racial biases. This trans equality policy does not make a single reference to the specific issues of being trans/queer and a person of colour (and an international student/staff member) in the local context of Queen’s and Northern Ireland, and what the university is prepared to do to assist international students and staff, who make a tremendous contribution to the university’s global profile and financial strength.

Insufficient Evocation of Trans Health Issues and Related Challenges in Northern Ireland

The Trans Equality Policy also does not include any guidelines about trans health, which cannot be separated from reproductive health, and indeed, the existing restrictions on reproductive justice in Northern Ireland. Many cis, trans, nonbinary and other gender-plural students coming to Northern Ireland from outside Northern Ireland (including from other constituent parts of the UK) are insufficiently familiar with Northern Ireland’s draconian reproductive health policies, and it is important to include clear guidelines on such issues in a trans equality policy, especially when it targets the student community.

A trans/queer student going through their process of gender self-determination, and especially an international student going through these processes, do not get the information they need to know when reading this Policy Document. It does not sufficiently explain to them how their specific issues and concerns will be diligently addressed and covered by the university’s Trans Equality Policy. Instead, a student reading the recently released document is most likely to feel like eating bland and tasteless food.

Most importantly, this trans equality policy guideline does not provide a single indication of what mechanisms are in place, or will be put in place, to promote trans awareness in the university, and to enhance trans visibility and acceptance (this excludes the ongoing commendable work of the Student’s Union. This writer is referring to the HR Office, Equality & Diversity Office, International Office and other official divisions of the university).

It is not rocket science that a place with its fair share of prejudices and systemic discriminatory dynamics won’t wake up to trans issues out of the blue. It is crucial to link trans equality and justice in the professional and academic spheres with related challenges of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, [dis]ability, accent-related stereotyping, discrimination and microaggressions. It is extremely important to make the trans equality policy relevant to the specific challenges that are faced by international students and staff in the local context of Northern Ireland.

This trans equality policy, as we are talking about a high-profile (and apparently cosmopolitan and world-leading!!!) Russell Group university, is not worth the paper it is printed on. It is, however, great as a propaganda and form-filling venture.


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Keynote Speakers & Roundtable

Keynote Speakers Our first keynote speaker will be Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington (pictured below). Micheline is the granddaughter of the renowned Irish suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. In 20…

Source: Keynote Speakers & Roundtable

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Meeting Anne Dickson MP CBE: The quintessential ‘grand lady’ of the politics of Northern Ireland


Above: Chamindra Weerawardhana meeting Anne Dickson MP CBE, Carrick, Northern Ireland, June 2016 (©C.Weerawardhana)

In June 2016, I had the good fortune of meeting Anne Laetitia Dickson MP CBE, the first woman to lead a political party in Northern Ireland (and the second in the island of Ireland). Starting her career in active politics as the chair of the Carrick Party Executive of the Unionist Party, Anne was elected to the Newtownabbey Urban District Council in 1965, and to Stormont at the infamous 1969 Crossroads election, polling 9,529 preferential votes. Anne was the only woman to be elected to the last Stormont parliament before Direct Rule was declared in 1972 (from 1969 to 1972). At the Carrick Executive of the UUP (Anne’s home constituency), she would strongly articulate a discourse of inclusion, often critical of the discriminatory policies of the government run by her own party. Being female and a no-nonsense critical voice, Anne was popular among party members, and her positions were indeed a breath of fresh air to a party with an unmistakably patriarchal and conservative stamp. Despite being appreciated by party members, Anne’s presence in the political scene was anathema to many cis male politicians in the Unionist Party, especially those who upheld a hardline brand of unionism.

Read More here.

#AnneDickson #WomenInPolitics #NorthernIreland #UlsterUnionism #UlsterUnionistParty #UPNI

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Amandine Gay : “Je n’ai pas à choisir entre être une femme et être une noire”

A regarder absolument/ an absolute must-see! Amandine is simply brilliant!

Just See Real

amandine-gay_par-enrico-bartolucci_small Amandine Gay ( Photo Enrico Bartolucci)

Elle veut ouvrir la voie aux générations suivantes, elle veut faire entendre les voix des femmes noires, avec elle, c’est sûr, on voit les couleurs.  A 32 ans,  Amandine Gay s’est fait un nom, ces dernières années, dans le milieu féministe, elle est l’une des voix  les plus audibles de l’afroféminisme hexagonal. Elle vient de finir le montage de son film documentaire « Ouvrir la voix », un film sur les afro-descendantes noires de France et de Belgique. Une aventure de plus de deux ans. Elle l’a écrit, réalisé et autoproduit selon les principes du Guerilla Filmmaking développé par Melvin Van Peebles. N’ayant eu aucune aide du Centre national du cinéma (CNC), elle a décidé de passer par le crowdfunding pour que son film puisse exister en salle.

Aujourd’hui, installée au Québec, depuis 18 mois, elle était en France, il y a quelques semaines, pour faire, en…

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