Trans women, women-only spaces, and victim-blaming

sisters cistersI recently read an anthology on the subject of the intersections between trans politics and feminism. I’m not going to name it here, because it was terrible, and full of a whole lot of transmisogynist apologia, some of which I want to talk about here.

Transmisogyny frequently raises it’s ugly head around the idea of women’s-only spaces, and ultimately, the question of who gets to determine what qualifies a person as a “woman” for the purposes of these spaces. I’ve written before about the ways in which I sometimes navigate my own inclusion/exclusion in this kind of space, as person who was assigned female at birth, but who is not a woman. I have come to understand that my perspective on these spaces is highly privileged, as in most cases, I am the one voluntarily including or excluding myself based on my own assessment of a space’s safety for me.

What I want to talk about is the explicit and active exclusion of trans women from many important women’s services, such as shelters for abuse survivors, and other places where women form communities and support each other. This post will be the first in a series examining the various justifications that are given for this exclusion. The rationales I have identified are as follows (the first point will be addressed in this post):

Trans woman are socialized as male, and therefore possess male privilege

This idea gets floated a lot in trans-exclusionary feminist thinking. It sounds kind of meaningful, I guess. And the argument usually goes that it is important for cis women to have spaces in which they can discuss the experience of being raised within the restrictive social roles allowed to people who are assigned female at birth, and that trans women do not share this experience.

Ok, first of all, it’s not like cis women have trouble finding other cis women to talk about this stuff with. And if someone wants to organize a workshop for cis women to talk their experiences being raised as girls, I feel pretty ok about that I guess. It’s the blanket exclusion from trans women from entire events such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, or from vital and life-saving services and support like women’s shelters that I feel are utterly unjustifiable.

Here’s the thing: when people talk about trans women’s male socializations, they usually don’t actually stop to think about what that experience may have been like for those women. In fact, what we are talking about in many cases are people who were forced to try to conform with and pretend to be a member of a gender to which they felt little or no belonging. The fact that trans women were tricked or forced for part of their lives to live and act as males is a form of violence and abuse that they experienced, and should not be framed as a privilege. To tell a trans woman that she is unworthy of help because of the fact that her parents insisted on calling her a boy (an experience that is very traumatic for many trans people) is nothing more than victim-blaming.

I also want to call into question the idea that there is some unique experience to be had among women in being raised as female. Not all parents teach their children the same gender roles; there is a great deal of cultural variation, and moreover some parents do their damnedest to raise their children in a gender neutral manner. Your mileage, in other words, may very well vary.

Ok, you may say. But all people who are raised as girls within a given culture receive the same media messaging. And girls are inundated with messages from birth communicating that their worth lies in their attractiveness to men, and that there is only one correct way to be attractive, etc etc etc. But, here’s my thing: Trans women have been exposed to that same media their entire lives, y’know?

And I’m really not willing to buy any argument that would suggest that being assigned male at birth made them immune to those messages. Rather, I would argue that a young trans girl, being forcibly raised as male by her parents (whether they are well-meaning or not isn’t relevant to this discussion), might be more vulnerable to the media messaging about womanhood, due to a lack of explicit female role models, or a lack of their parents attempts to intervene and mediate the negative impacts of those messages the way they might have if they had known their child was a girl. The media might be their only source of information about how to be a woman.

So, no, I don’t accept the argument that there is something special or unique to cis women’s experience, and the exclusion of trans women on the grounds that they were raised as male is nothing more than a case of further victimizing someone because they were abused as children. It’s disgusting, and it needs to stop.


  1. There’s also the way trans people are implicitly gendered long before we come out of the closet. Trans women are female, grow up female, are read as such, and we get the shit kicked out of us repeatedly, long before many have even admitted to ourselves what everyone knows and is attempting to police away.

  2. I’ve always found it interesting that the same women feminists that find trans women repulsive are always eager to accept trans men into their exclusive spaces because “they are still technically women” . Their logic somehow falls short in their arguments but that never seems to give them pause .

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