Trans women, women-only spaces, and penis-panic

sisters cistersThis post is part 2 in a series examining the various justifications that are given for the (utterly unjustifiable) exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces. The four rationales being examined are as follows:

Today, I’m tackling the penis fallacy (more like phallacy, am I right?). Here we go:

But trans women have penises!

Ok, first off, let’s correct that. Some trans women have penises. This is true, I suppose. But why does this mean they should be excluded from women-only spaces? The argument goes that the presence of penises in spaces that are supposed to be safe might be triggering for people who have been the victims of male violence, and particularly of rape. Some people go even further with this argument and suggest that penises are an inherent symbol of female oppression in our phallocentric culture, and that they may be triggering of any woman, regardless of her experiences of violence.

While I am sensitive to people’s mental health needs, and I understand that this kind of trigger is not really controllable, the point needs to be made that it is simply not appropriate to accommodate all people’s triggers. In fact, it is never appropriate to accommodate triggers that are inherently based in bigotry (as the trans-woman’s-penis trigger very much is). If, for instance, a woman in a women’s shelter were to feel triggered by the presence of a black person (perhaps she was abused or assaulted by a black person?), it would not be appropriate to deny services to black women for the sake of this one racist woman. Nor would it suddenly become appropriate if the majority of the white women at the shelter were all racist.

Or, even if we remove the comparison to other oppressed groups, I still think it should be obvious that this kind of exclusion based on physical traits is unreasonable. If, for instance, someone found tall people, or blond people, triggering due to having been abused by someone having (or a number of people who shared) that trait, it would not reasonable to exclude all people with that physical trait on those grounds. Again, not even if many people shared the same trigger.

The reason that both these example will seem obvious to us all, but the case of trans women sometimes seems more complicated actually stems from the cissexist idea that trans women aren’t actually women, or more to the point, that they are actually men. Because, in fact, there is general agreement that excluding men from women’s shelters is an important aspect of ensuring both the mental and physical safety of those being sheltered. And, returning to the example of race, it is sometimes absolutely appropriate for people of colour to organize spaces that exclude white people.

It is only the fact that in the example concerning race, we were talking about a white (i.e. racially privileged) woman wanting to exclude black women that was the problem. It’s a question of whether the group being excluded is already the one with more power (i.e. the one more likely to have resources to create other spaces that will include them).

And I really do think that the idea that it is appropriate to exclude trans women in this way is deeply rooted in the bigoted idea that they are actually men, and thus can be reasonably excluded. In fact, the groups we are dealing with in this case are those of cis women and trans women; and surely we can agree that trans people are on the oppressed side of cis/trans binary. Active exclusion of oppressed groups of people is never justifiable, and is always based in plain bigotry.

When a woman says she feels uncomfortable being around trans women, because they remind her of the violence and oppression she has faced at the hands of men, she is revealing her cissexism, in the form of her inability or unwillingness to recognize the womanhood of trans women. Finding trans women indistinguishable from men is bigotry, plain and simple. And the fact that a large proportion of women seem to carrying around this trans-erasing bigotry, even to the extent that it has a negative impact on their mental health, doesn’t make the accommodation of their bigotry any more justifiable.

One comment

  1. Also, most of these spaces are not nudist, I’m assuming? XD Reducing people to what genitals they have is always both nonsensical *and* dehumanizing… and it’s something trans people unfortunately have to deal with way way too often, but to me it feels like ESPECIALLY if it’s not a space where their genitals will ever be relevant… if their genitals are going to be remaining UNDER THEIR CLOTHES… the whole thing feels EVEN MORE ridiculous to me.

    “It’s a trigger to see a penis” is a DIFFERENT concept than it being “a trigger to simply THINK about the fact that some people might have a penis under their clothes”…

    And that’s not even mentioning that a non-negligible number of cis men and cis boys, as well as way way too many trans women, are survivors and victims of sexual assault as well.

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