women-only spaces

Trans women, and women-only spaces: some general comments

sisters cistersIn the posts in this series, refuting the various justifications given for excluding trans women from women-only spaces, I’ve done my best to take the arguments at face value. The thing is, though (and I’ve touched on this a little bit already), it’s pretty clear to me that all of these arguments are after-the-fact justifications for the decision to exclude trans women from spaces, a decision that is generally based entirely in people’s visceral response to the issue.

Although I think that it is very important that we have arguments ready to refute these points when they are thrown out to try and justify discrimination against trans women, I also really feel that I have to acknowledge that all of these arguments have their foundations in plain cissexism. They are not reasoned arguments to begin with, and don’t really even deserve the time I’ve given them, except that by refuting them, there is some small chance that we can force changes to be made.

Ultimately all four of the arguments against including trans women in women-only spaces boil down to “but they’re not really women!”, or more directly “we don’t want to include them, because they’re men!” Which is absolutely untrue, and is the complete misunderstanding of trans identities that lies at the root of pretty much all anti-trans bias and trans erasure.

I touched on this point in some of my refutations; however, I think it is worth repeating the ways in which each of the four arguments ultimately boils down to this most basic unwillingness to accept trans women as women.

Trans women were raised as male and therefore possess male privilege.

As I pointed out in the original post (linked above), this argument is fundamentally based in the false attribution of manhood to trans women. Considering trans women to be men is rank cissexism. Nuff said.

Trans women have penises, which can be triggering for rape survivors and other women.

When women are triggered by the (presumed) presence of penises as a part of trans women’s bodies, this trigger is fundamentally rooted in the equation of penises with men, and thus in seeing trans women as men.

We aren’t equipped to fulfill trans women’s needs!

This one is a few more steps removed from the idea that trans women are really men. However, I think that the sense that it is somehow justifiable to refuse to provide services to trans women because of their (supposed) unique needs is rooted in the idea that men are not in need of the same kind of support as women are. I honestly don’t know how else someone would justify ignoring the needs of an exceptionally marginalized population, unless it is because they refuse to acknowledge that marginalization (see, we’re really just back to that whole “male privilege” idea again).

Considering trans women to simply be women reinforces the gender binary, and ignores the nuances of their unique identities (I wish I was making this up, I really do.)

Ok, this argument is I guess slightly better than the others in that it clearly accepts that trans women aren’t men. The problem is that it simultaneously asserts that trans women also aren’t really women either. Which, I mean, there are people who are neither men nor women (Hi there!), but trans women do not belong in that category. They’re women. This shouldn’t be this difficult.


I really, really wish that getting people to accept trans people as members of the gender they identify as (a.k.a. the gender they *are*, y’know) wasn’t as difficult as it apparently is.

So, while I hope that this series has been useful and/or enlightening, I don’t think I’ve even begun to address the real root of the problem at hand. And… I’m really not sure what I can say that will convince other people to stop being biological determinist, gender essentialist assholes. So, what I’d like to do here is just make room for other voices. Here are some people who are saying awesome and persuasive things about the trans experience that (I hope) will help people unfamiliar with transgender realities to approach these issues with more compassion and understanding. In no particular order:

Myths and Misconceptions about Trans Women

I really hope that y’all have found this series enlightening/interesting/useful. I think it’s been my biggest project on this blog to date! Thank you for reading.

Trans women, women-only spaces, and concern trolling

sisters cistersThis post is the fourth and final penultimate piece 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, it’s all about the concern troll argument:

Treating trans women as if they are simply women ignores their unique life experience!

So how is this concern trolling, you ask? This argument turns the tables and suggests that trans women need to be excluded from women’s spaces for their own good, out of respect for their identities. Inherent in this suggestion that trans women’s particular trans womanhood is, y’know, not the same thing as “real” (read: cis) womanhood. This, despite the fact that many trans women will tell you themselves that they do consider themselves to be “simply” women. Real women. Seriously. This isn’t difficult, is it?

Ok, there is also a slightly more nuanced framing of this argument. It goes something like this: trans people are on the forefront of the battle (or whatever) to break down the gender binary (or whatever). Their lived experiences prove that the gender system is broken, and if we ignore the trans part of their identity by providing them with vital services earmarked for women, then we are undoing all of their great gender warrioring (or whatever).

Listen, I really have no patience with this shit whatsoever. The thing is, many (possibly even most, I can’t really say) binary identified trans folks (i.e. the kind of trans folks who identify as men or as women, and not as some form of non-binary, like I do) don’t consider themselves as breaking down the gender binary. They may feel they fit perfectly well within it, just not in the way their parents thought they did when they were born. To tell them that be identifying as woman, they are somehow breaking down the category of “woman” is at best, really fucking rude and marginalizing. It’s nothing more than yet another manifestation of people’s unwillingness to accept that trans women are, in fact, women. We need to stop pretending that they’re secretly something different, something woman-like, but, you know, not in the way that cis women are. They’re non-binary women, or something.

It’s… just awful. And oftentimes this narrative of trans people as gender warriors feels almost appropriative. Feminist women often like the idea of breaking down the gender binary, in the sense of erasing the cultural ideas about the inherent differences between men and women, and their respective roles in society. And this is a great goal, for sure. Restrictive gender roles hurt everyone, after all.

But when someone starts insisting that they can’t treat trans women like other women, because then they’re erasing the trans part of their identity, and that part of their identity is important in the fight to break down the gender binary, please remember this: this argument is always being made in the face of real actual trans women who really actually just want to be seen as women, plain and simple. And really, the outcome of this argument is just plain nightmarish. What happens is trans women get denied vital and shelter in the name “respecting their identities”. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so truly awful and heart-breaking.

Stop putting words in trans women’s mouths. Stop pretending you know more about what being it means that they are trans, and how they relate with the gender binary. And don’t deny them things they need and pretend you are doing it for their own good. This is the definition of concern trolling. Just. Fucking. Don’t.

Trans women, women-only spaces, and …special needs?

sisters cistersThis post is part 3 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, it’s:

We aren’t equipped to fulfill trans women’s needs!

The above is actually the most sanitized and faux-friendly version of this argument. Some women’s shelters defend trans exclusionary policies on the grounds that their services have been designed with cis women in mind, and they simply don’t know how to help trans women. The less friendly corollary to this is often that the shelters don’t want to divert their efforts or water down their services by actively working on being able to meet trans women’s needs.

First off, I am unconvinced that the needs of trans women escaping abusive situations will be all that different from the needs of cis women in the same situation. The promise of a safe place to stay, and help with putting one’s life back together seems adequate, and with the exception of potentially unique medical needs, cis and trans women are able to benefit equally from housing, job, and childcare services, among many other services, without any needs for special accommodation.

But secondly, I want to address this idea that taking special care to accommodate trans women might somehow take away from the resources available to cis women. Much like the previous argument, this claim is only valid if we accept the unstated premise that cis women’s needs are more important than trans women’s. If, for instance, someone said that they were going to exclude poor women from their shelter, because the unique needs caused by their poverty were too difficult to accommodate (and certainly, poor women facing abusive situations may have more complex needs and have more difficulty extricating themselves from a situation in which they are wholly dependent on their abuser for their welfare), it would be patently obvious that this is a ridiculous, discriminatory, and just plain awful thing to do.

So why do we allow the same treatment to be applied to trans women (who are in fact at extremely elevated risks of violence, abuse, poverty, and many other risk factors that we would normally consider as making someone a higher priority target for these kinds of services). Rather than being excluded, trans women should be a priority group targeted by women’s shelters offering community support.

When you get right down to it, the suggestion that trans women might somehow be too in need of help to be included in women’s shelters is yet another form of victim-blaming (we’d help them if they’d just stop needing so much help!) I mean, really. Can we please stop this shit?

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.

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.

Navigating the Gender Binary: Women-only Spaces

So, this thing happened. It was a tiny little thing, really, and most people wouldn’t have really given it a second thought, but it actually threw me for a bit of a loop. Here’s the thing:

Yesterday, I got a facebook invite to a clothing swap event. I was super excited! I’ve been wanting to cycle out a lot of my old wardrobe and get new stuff in, but haven’t had an affordable way to do it. This seemed like a good opportunity for me to at least make a start on doing that. And really, the only minor speed-bump for me is that a big part of my desire to switch out a good portion of my wardrobe is that I want to have more of a masculine/feminine/neutral gendered mix to the clothes available to me in the day-to-day – I’ve been borrowing my husband’s clothes sometimes, but that makes me feel silly in a weird way, and I want my own – whereas the swap was pretty clearly targeted at women and intended for women’s clothes

Anyway, I figured I could probably at least swap out some of the dresses I don’t want anymore, and get some button-down shirts or something in return. It’d be a start right? And I didn’t think too deeply about it being a woman-focused event, since I’d be bringing “women’s” clothes to the thing, so whatever.

And then, a few hours after I “joined” the event, the organizer posted:

In case you didn’t already know, this is a female only event. Thanks!

Oh. Well then. So I find myself in a bit of a dilemma?

Maybe. Maybe not. I am frequently, in my day-to-day life, required to implicitly or explicitly indicate my gender, and when it comes down to brass tacks, I go for the female marker. When using public washrooms, I use the women’s room 100% of the time. It’s safer, and since I do get read as female the vast majority of the time (no matter how hard I try sometimes) it’s just simpler. I’m unlikely to be challenged on it, so it’s what I do.

A few months back, I even attended a women’s only spa. I did think it through before making the call, but in the end I felt that I was obeying the spirit if not the letter of the rule. (And if I chose to interpret women in this context as “people with vaginas” – as I suspect they really meant; I imagine that some trans feminine people would be excluded, for instance – I was obeying the letter of the law as well.) I’ll break this one down.

The spa consists of a variety of baths at various temperatures, as well as a sauna. And it’s clothing optional. So, as is often the short-hand way of eliminating/minimizing sexual harassment and helping people feel comfortable, it was women only. And yeah, I get the intent behind this kind of rule; in similar environments that are co-ed, it can be difficult to prevent harassment from occurring. And even if a cis man is trying to be respectful, his body might betray him and make people uncomfortable. I don’t know if there’s a good solution to this, either. In order to eliminate the desire for women’s only spaces in this context, huge portions of our culture would have to be dismantled and reformed. We would need to stop sending the message that the naked female body is inherently sexual, and empower everyone (and especially straight cis men) to be able to still treat women context-appropriately regardless of their level of dress. And we would need to live in a society where an erect penis wasn’t automatically interpreted as a threat. Because it shouldn’t be, but I also understand why it is so often seen that way.

Anyway, I figured I would be as non-threatening to the environment as any other visibly queer (and I’m not even certain that I do read as queer to straight people, most of the time) vagina-having person. And I really needed the opportunity to relax and socialize, so I went. And I didn’t even feel horrible about it.

So why, then, am I having second thoughts about this clothing swap deal? Well, to be frank, the motivation behind the exclusionary policy here isn’t as compelling as it is in the case of the clothing-optional spa. There’s a bunch of things going on here, really, but before I dive into it, I want to be clear on a couple of things.

First, I don’t ascribe any ill-intentions to the organizer whose post threw me for such a loop. I’m certain it wasn’t even directed at me, in fact; she couldn’t possibly know my gender identity, after all, and after the post appeared, I checked the RSVP and invite lists and found that there were a handful of masculine-presenting people with clearly masculine names appearing there. So I suspect the notification was intended for them.

But still, I thought, why was it so important to make sure those men didn’t show up? Is she just concerned that they’ll be disappointed at the lack of other masculine folk with which to swap? Are we assuming these people are hoping to trade “men’s” clothes? Would it make a difference if we knew that they were looking to trade out feminine clothing to refresh their wardrobes? Or is the attendance of cross-dressers being deliberately discouraged (because it makes people uncomfortable)?

These are not the men who RSVP’d. But maybe they would like to go one of these events. Is there any reason not to let them?

I feel like the reasoning here is that the people who are interested in clothing swaps are generally pretty heavily female, and that therefore it makes sense to make them women-only, um, because… well, I mentioned above that people hoping to swap masculine clothing would be disappointed, so we can go with that. I do think the opening assumption there is acceptable – I suspect that women are more inclined to be interested int his kind of event than men are, on average, for all kinds of reasons that aren’t important in this discussion.

But I don’t see this as an important enough gender-related tendency for it to be explicitly reified and policed in the way the event is organized (strictly speaking, we should strive to never police gendered tendencies, though I acknowledge that the exclusionary policies of the spa to just this*). Why not decide that men/masculine clothing is welcome, but warn prospective masculine attendees that the pickings might be slim for them? It’s clear in the language of the event that it is primarily targeted toward women, but I see no point in being explicitly exclusionary. It’s entirely uncalled for, and it was certainly uncalled for to switch from the implicit exclusion of men (in the targeting of the event) to the explicit exclusion in the little public service announcement I posted above.

So, in the end, I don’t think I feel uncomfortable attending because I necessarily feel excluded (I certainly don’t feel intentionally excluded.) But I do feel uncomfortable attending an event that is explicitly excluding people without any non-discriminatory motivation for doing so. To make this distinction very clear: the swap would still function if men were welcome, whereas the spa might not; it certainly wouldn’t function in quite the same way (as much as I and many others might like it to).

But I also really need new clothes :\

*The primary reason I feel comfortable differentiating between the gender policing of the swap, and that at the spa (beyond the distinction made above) is that while both are reacting to gendered tendencies that are at least partially rooted in the patriarchy (in the case of the spa, it’s the inability of (straight) men to see women’s bodies in a non-sexual way; in the case of the swap, it’s the idea that men don’t really want to swap clothing), the spa policy is designed to reduce the negative impact of the gendered tendency by eliminating opportunities for men to harass women in the spa, while the swap policy is designed to perpetuate the lack of men participating in clothing swaps, which is pointless at best, and damaging to those men who are interested at worst.