Thistle Pettersen, eco-feminist and singer/songwriter, describes how she was demonised and hounded out of venues for her feminist views and activism.
On January 21st, 2017, I attended the Madison, Wisconsin Women’s March, holding a sign I’d made for the occasion. In dried out black and red markers, I’d written, “Don’t Believe the Hype!! Transactivism is Misogyny!” on a piece of cardboard I found in the dumpster that morning.
As a result, I have been ostracized in my community, forced out of my job, and banned from playing music at various venues in my city. The experience has left me shocked and bewildered, not to mention angry and hurt. How could my own friends and community attack me in such an aggressive way, or simply turn and walk in the other direction?
My Roots of Activism and Music in the City
I have lived in Madison for most of my life. I remember growing up in an environment that was thoughtful, civil, and concerned about social justice. At church, I was encouraged to think about those less fortunate than me and work to make things better in the world. I volunteered at homeless shelters as a teen, spending time with the many people in my community who modelled kindness and concern for the poor.
This childhood, surrounded by caring, liberal activists, influenced me to engage in progressive activist organizations and projects as an adult. In 1988, my focus shifted to environmental problems and the fossil fuels and resource extraction industries behind much of the environmental destruction in my state. I worked for Greenpeace as a canvasser the summer of 1990, learning a lot about letter-writing campaigns, petitions, and non-violent direct action to stop environmental destruction. For years, I participated in environmentalist groups on the University of Wisconsin campus and did progressive organizing through the Madison InfoShop, an activism-focused collective.
In 2017, I was thriving both as a musician and an activist/organizer—contributing and creating in ways I felt called to do. I performed live music and puppet shows at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, and was working with Madison Action for Mining Alternatives (MAMA), an organization I co-founded. I was also a singer/songwriter with my band Thistle & Thorns. I was energized by what I could do as a musician and community organizer. I felt acceptance and a sense of purpose, and assumed my activist friends and neighbours valued my contributions and would stick by my side.
Speaking Out on Transgender Politics
The morning of the 2017 Women’s March, I woke up knowing the moment was ripe for the message that trans activism is harmful. Myself and the other women involved in Women’s Liberation Radio News (WLRN)—a collective producing a monthly radio show—had been seeing more and more people getting fed up with trans activism. Many of us called this “peak trans”—that moment when you realize “trans rights” are not really about supporting a marginalized population, but about undermining the rights of girls and women and bullying people into accepting transgender ideology. Some people come to their “peak trans” moment after realizing gender identity legislation allows males to be in women’s prisons, locker rooms, and homeless shelters. For others it may be seeing a man win a weightlifting competition in the women’s division. Some may have had enough after learning about the case of Dana Rivers, a trans-identified man who murdered a lesbian couple and their adopted son in 2016, yet was referred to as a woman in media and police accounts, thus skewing violent crime statistics.
While a few brave women have been speaking out for years, recently, more and more people have been catching on and getting angry.
As I excitedly interacted with friends at the pussy-hat-infused Women’s March that year, I received only positive responses to my sign. Some women said, “Wow! You are brave to hold that sign, but right on! I agree with you 100 percent,” while others gave me the thumbs up and cheered.
I only held the sign for about 20 minutes, walking through the crowd once and using it as a photo op. Afterwards, I posted pictures of me with the sign on Facebook. It was these photos that caused a backlash against me, and ultimately led to my ostracization in Madison. Though this wasn’t the first time…
My first “crime” was a 2014 interview with (now retired) political science professor and lesbian feminist, Sheila Jeffreys. She talked with me about her new book, Gender Hurts: a Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism for a radio segment I produced on WORT 89.9 FM’s Access Hour. In the lead-up to that show, local trans activists labelled Jeffreys’ work (and mine, as host) “hate speech” and “trans misogyny.” They demanded I cancel my show. I refused, and, rather than cave, I felt further inspired to defend myself and Jeffreys, and to educate my activist friends.
I lost a lot of social standing in Madison after the interview aired, but lost even more after I produced a radio documentary for WORT in 2015, called, “The Sounds of Michfest 2015.” I interviewed dozens of women attending the last Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in order to preserve the herstory of that event. I received a lot of praise from the MichFest community and lesbian listeners for the documentary, but shortly after it aired I was banned from the radio station by WORT board president Steve Ringwood, “till the board as a whole can visit the issues raised by several people.” Fortunately, the ban only lasted a month.
Transactivists Silence My Music
In early 2016, Gretchen Wheat, a friend and prominent figure in Madison community theatre, circulated a petition at the Crystal Corner Bar to get me a regular music show. This grassroots effort led by Wheat, who was energized to continue to help me recover my reputation in our progressive community and music scene, was a powerful and effective action. Over 60 people signed in support, saying they would like to see me perform my original music at the bar once a month.
In May, the show was granted, giving me access to a wide audience of music lovers and friends. I felt like I had regained my reputation and music career — I was performing with a new band, Thistle & Thorns, and we had an album in the works. I also felt it was safe to continue with my message that trans activism and gender identity politics harm the rights and protections of girls and women outside of the venue. I kept the promise to never express my feminist views while performing at the Crystal, so did not think those who disagree with me would try to harm my regular show.
Despite my efforts to keep politics out of the bar, in February 2017, Joe Lambert, the booking agent for the bar, cancelled my show due to me holding the “transactivism is misogyny” sign at the Women’s March. In an email, he wrote, “We have been getting many complaints of your political views, including multiple reports of your loud talking, off mic, in the corner of the bar.” I had been going to the Crystal as a regular customer for years, making friends with the other regulars like Wheat, networking, and talking about many things, including all of the hullabaloo over me interviewing feminists on the community radio station. As I had implicitly agreed to not bring politics to my shows, those conversations were always off the mic.
The “many complaints” were likely coming from people signed up for this Facebook event that invited people to go to the bar to disrupt my performance.
The announcement of my show’s cancellation on the Crystal Corner Bar Facebook page was met with cheers from dozens of local patrons and activists. Activist Bill Anderson, a former keyboardist in my band Thistle & Thorns, publicly bragged that he and his posse “successfully de-platformed a local TERF.”
As a social media activist, musician, community organizer, and friend to so many in Madison, I was devastated.
I played a total of nine months with my name on the marquee, lit up at night. This was a significant thing to celebrate for my music career, and were it not for the interference of people who were not even coming to my shows, I would still be playing in my corner of the neighbourhood today.
Relentless Persecution and Smear campaigns by Trans Activists
These harassers and bullies not only targeted my music career, but my environmental organizing and activism. Like I mentioned earlier, I co-founded and worked for five years with Madison Action for Mining Alternatives (MAMA). In February 2017, the Wisconsin Network for Peace, Justice & Sustainability (WNPJS), an umbrella organization for hundreds of Wisconsin-based social justice, anti-war and environmentalist organizations including MAMA, released a statement, accusing me of “targeting trans people” and promoting “hatred of trans people.” They offered no evidence to support these claims. Dozens of Madison community members piled on with defamatory comments accusing me of being “no different than a white nationalist” and saying my actions are “inherently violent and are hurting trans people.” Some said my work for environmental causes and in the indigenous solidarity movement was worthless because “dead children can’t drink the water, Thistle” (a reference to the trans activist claim that society must affirm transitioning kids to prevent them from committing suicide).
Local “activists” bombarded the organizing committee of the very successful Pipeline Fighters’ Benefit Extravagana, which I spent months organizing in 2016-2017, to prevent my band and a song of mine from being featured that day. They demanded I step down as a performer and threatened to condemn the associated environmental organizations as supporters of “transphobia” if I failed to do so. The committee buckled, and I “voluntarily” stepped down from singing at the show.
Because WNPJS, a well-known and reputable progressive, anti-racist, anti-war, pro-immigrant and pro-environmental umbrella organization for the entire state of Wisconsin, made the decision not to support me, other major social, cultural, and political organizations, community-based businesses, and entertainment organizations followed suit. I lost my regular show at the Crystal Corner Bar after the WNPJS statement was issued, in addition to other shows I had booked around town.
Boldly Moving Forward with Community Radio
After staying away from WORT for two years, I returned to produce another show during WORT’s Access Hour, featuring interviews I did with Meghan Murphy and Julie Bindel. I had thought the tides had turned a bit, and that it was safe to engage my community in discussion about gender identity laws and the harms of pornography and prostitution in an open-minded and intellectual setting. Naively, during my public persecution, I believed there may have just been a misunderstanding about my views, and that with enough open civil dialogue and discussion, people would come to their senses and be supportive, or at least support civil dialogue around these ideas.
This single hour-long program aired in March 2018, and resulted in more defamation, slander, and libel against me than any before. The WORT board of directors released a formal written apology to the “Transgender Community” for airing my show. At the WORT public board of directors’ meeting in March 2018, Emily Mills, journalist with Our Lives Magazine, Dylan Brogan of the Isthmus magazine, and Nathan MQuillen, paid staff at WORT 89.9 FM, in addition to others, spoke disparagingly of my character, calling me “less-than-honest,” “harmful,” and a “TERF.” I was not informed that the meeting was taking place and was unaware of this defamation at the time. Mills followed up her statements at the WORT board meeting with a libelous piece that was circulated in print and online for two months accusing me of promoting “anti-transgender and anti-sex worker bigotry” and claiming I have “a storied history of lashing out at the transgender community in Madison.”
I refused to apologize or to legitimize the claims that I or the women I interviewed were “harmful” and “lashing out,” and these community members continued to smear and blackball me, and others joined in the dog pile. A regular monthly show with my band at Common Ground was suddenly cancelled after the owner received an onslaught of slanderous email. In letting me go, the owner noted that, “because our whole mission is to be as inclusive and welcoming as we can, I don’t think it will be a good fit…”
After receiving bullying complaints about me for months, I was banned from playing at the open mic at Bos Meadery. Colleen Bos, the bar’s owner, told me in an August 2018 private message, “We disagree about trans women, but that doesn’t matter. Our stage is about welcoming people to the healing power of music and that requires everyone to respond rationally when confronted with someone they don’t like…people have asked us to ban you for your outside views.” According to one employee, the bar had been receiving complaints for months that I “hate transgender people.”
I began feeling hopeful again the fall of 2018 that I could re-enter the public sphere as a musician in a neighbourhood sanctioned group, the East Side Acoustic Ensemble (ESAE) that performs at the Wil-Mar. Six months had passed since the Murphy and Bindel interview aired and a year and a half had passed since I held the sign at the Women’s March, so hadn’t their obsession with destroying my ability to play unrelated music in public waned with time?
I spoke with the director ahead of time about the gang in Madison that harrasses and defames me. He said that if I could leave politics at the door and just play music, that I was in.
For a brief time, I felt embraced and safe enough to just let go and enjoy playing music with the group. However, Wil-Mar Development Director Beatrice Hadidian soon got involved, writing to the ESAE Director, Ritt Dietz, that the “…Center does not allow Thistle the opportunity to perform at Wil-Mar…we cannot in good faith provide a stage or space for individuals who exercise bigotry, discrimination and hatred towards Trans women and Trans men in our community.” As ESAE regularly performs at the Wil-Mar, I was let go from the group.
The “evidence” Ms. Hadidian provided for my “hatred, bigotry and discrimination” was from my Facebook page. She provided no further support for this accusation. Trans activists were quick to cheer the ban and declared victory.
Comments on the post declared me a “fascist” and warned I need “a new zip code preferably in the woods away from people.” One such comment came from trans-rights activist Christine Elaine, whom I had worked with in 2013 at the Madison Infoshop and who was known as “Christopher Books” at the time. Christine is the singer of local band Dumpster Dick, a term defined by the Urban Dictionary as, “A guy who will fuck the fattest, skankiest, dirtiest chick at the bar, because as he puts it, ‘fat pussy is better than no pussy.’” The band came out with a statement explaining that their use of the term “Dumpster Dick” does not mean this.
My picture has been used, without my permission, to promote local bands, including Dumpster Dick, on the Madison Degenderettes’ Facebook page.
Despite multiple complaints to Facebook for violating their community standards, these pictures of me have not been taken down from Dumpster Dick’s Facebook page nor from the Madison Degenderettes page.
What my Women’s March Sign was Trying to Say
My “Transactivism is Misogyny” sign I held at the 2017 Women’s March was one of the main reasons WNPJS issued a defamatory statement in February 2017, which is still online, and for the relentless vitriol directed at me. So what was my sign trying to say?
Trans activism has consistently advocated for the silencing of feminist analysis and news in public media forums, for “gender-correcting” hormones and plastic surgery for healthy-bodied children, especially girls, and it pushes for changes in federal and local laws that erase the dictionary definition of the word “woman” in favour of accepting the ideology that some men are actually women.
Feminists, of course, view “gender identity” as a conflation of sex and gender that undermines feminist analysis of both, under patriarchy. “Gender” is a term used to refer to a system of stereotypes and roles for males and females that, under patriarchy, keep women subordinate to men.
Feminists advocate for this distinction between sex and gender to remain in our legal language and for sex-based protections and rights for women, as the oppressed and subordinated sex.
Our opposition to trans activism, and view that trans activism is misogynistic, is not based on “hate,” but on a long history of feminist analysis and a commitment to ensuring women’s sex-based rights.
Why is blatant and rampant misogyny sanctioned by Madison “progressive” institutions and businesses? And why does so-called “transphobia” trump misogyny in the oppression olympics? I am here — a community member, lover of music and theatre, giver of songs, and organizer for the common good. The activist blood in my veins makes me determined to recover from years of smear campaigns and sing again. You can hate weeds, but we are strong and not easily eradicated.
Bio: I am a singer/songwriter, environmental activist and founding member of Women’s Liberation Radio News, a collective that has produced a monthly feminist news podcast since May 2016. To all the leftists, radicals, creatives, musicians, critical thinkers and non-conformists in Madison: Join me! Working and playing for the real deal is much more fun than defaming and ostracizing individuals and calling it “activism.” Learn more about my current goal of getting the ban lifted from the Wil-Mar neighborhood center at DefendFeminists.net. While you explore the site, be sure to sign the petition!