The concept of women’s space is a recurring theme in trans circles: what it means, who should be included, who (if anyone) shouldn’t be included, and whether it’s okay for our allies to respect, support and/or actively participate in those women’s spaces that include some women (generally cisgender women) while excluding others (generally transgender women). I personally value inclusion, and fundamentally believe that women’s spaces should include anyone who identifies as a woman. This can get tricky where those who do not identify with the gender binary are concerned, of course, though my gut tells me that genderqueer or non-gendered people should absolutely be included in women’s spaces if they want to be. I would also extend that principle of inclusion to trans women who have not yet begun their transition or altered their outward appearance, but nevertheless identify as women, and to trans men who may still face women’s issues (i.e., sexism based on being ‘read’ as the gender they were assigned at birth, and so forth). This is because I’m basically that girl from Mean Girls who wishes she could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat it and be happy.
But there’s always someone waiting to point out that I don’t even go there, or rather, that I don’t belong there, for one reason or another. I have been fortunate to find women’s groups and women’s spaces that were happy to include me, from my college’s student feminist club (which has undergone some name changes, I believe, since my time there; when I was a student, it was Womyn’s Action Group, and I actually helped design our t-shirt for Take Back The Night one year) to the Boston Dyke March (which is explicitly inclusive and trans-friendly) to Women in Games Boston (which welcomes male allies, so it’s not strictly women’s space, but it is safe space designed for women) to the annual ladies’ brunch/girls’ meetup at PAX East. That’s partly down to luck, and partly down to conscious efforts on my part to avoid places where I would not be welcome. I’m a bit of a coward, really. I don’t like confrontation, and I have to force myself to speak out at all – that’s partly why I retreated into ‘stealth mode’ for so long and refused to discuss my trans status at all. So, as a rule, if I’m unsure about any given group’s policies, I politely inquire as to whether or not I’m welcome, and if I’m not, I’ll generally stay away. And if everything happened in a vacuum, I suppose that would be the end of it.
Spoiler alert: nothing happens in a vacuum.
Everything comes with a bright, shiny context all its own. And so, whether it’s the recurring controversy around the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (or MichFest), the trans-exclusive Dianic rituals held at PantheaCon in 2011 and 2012 (though it appears that there was not a similar ritual this year, or if there was, it was not listed in the program guide), or the debate over whether or not trans women should be admitted to women’s colleges, or the RadFem 2013 conference over in the UK, these issues keep cropping up again and again. Everyone, in my view, has the right to free assembly and association. Everyone should be welcome to gather in any kind of group they want. But when you exclude people, there are consequences, and there should be. And here’s why.
Trans-exclusive events should not be held in public venues. This is why I don’t really have a problem with MichFest in principle, though I do have problems with it in practice. MichFest is held on privately-owned land, and it is organized by a specific group of people with a specific intention. Their trans-exclusive policy is fairly well established and well known by now, though it was not always so. Now, because they sell admission fairly freely, MichFest may technically qualify as a public accommodation (remember that phrase, we’ll get back to it), and I do believe, as a rule, that trans people should have equal access to all public accommodations under the law. If that became national law tomorrow, then I don’t know how the festival would change, though I’m confident that the organizers could find a way to keep going with the trans-exclusive policy intact if they so desired. I’m not a lawyer, but there are lots of organizations and events that have managed to keep going despite policies that explicitly exclude an entire class of people, so I have to believe there are loopholes to spare.
On the other hand, you have Z Budapest’s rituals at PantheaCon. I am absolutely for freedom of religion, and I rarely feel the need to step into anyone else’s rituals, particularly when I’m not wanted. My own religion is, as I’ve said, a very private thing, though I do consider myself part of the pagan community and I have taken part in open rituals in the past. I do not believe, however, that it is appropriate to exclude an entire class of people from a programmed event at a convention open to a diverse population of attendees (as opposed to, say, a convention that is only open to women, trans women excluded – but I’ll get to that). I do not believe it is appropriate to advertise a ritual that celebrates women in their infinite diversity and then exclude trans people – certainly not without explicitly saying so in the event description. I would personally never do anything of the sort at a convention. I have organized events targeted at specific groups during conventions, but I have always chosen to hold them off site, and I have never sought to list them in a convention program. I could not find any similar events in the PantheaCon 2013 program offhand, and I sincerely hope that the PantheaCon community has reached a similar conclusion: attendees are free to hold private parties or rituals in their suites and invite whomever they like, but the con cannot put its stamp of approval on exclusive events. However, I have not yet had the opportunity to join the PantheaCon community (though I would like to, when money and time allows) and cannot speak to that particular matter.
As for RadFem 2013. Conventions are by their very nature exclusive events, and while I find the conference policies and the viewpoints of many of the participants repugnant, they were at least clear about their rules and their intentions. However, after assorted messages of protest, the venue they had chosen reviewed those same policies and the rhetoric surrounding them, found them troubling, and told the organizers that the conference was no longer welcome there. The venue’s operators were well within their rights to do so. We reap what we sow. The conference’s proponents have tried to claim that men’s rights activists and trans activists colluded to get them thrown out (never mind that men’s rights activists tend not to like trans people very much, either, and the feeling tends to be mutual…though I suppose that hasn’t stopped certain ugly elements of the feminist movement from working with certain ugly elements of the religious right when it suited them), but it’s fairly clear from the statement issued by the venue that the protests merely caught their interest, and it was the trans-exclusive politics surrounding RadFem 2013 that got them booted.
Trans-exclusive policies attract and encourage transphobia and naked bigotry, particularly when challenged. The rhetoric surrounding these events is absolutely repugnant. I know, or I would like to believe, that the most vocal, most obviously bigoted defenders of trans-exclusive policies are in the minority, and there’s a much more reasonable majority that simply hasn’t been moved to speak. But we don’t excuse men for their failure to stand up to misogyny, even if they themselves aren’t actively misogynistic. We don’t excuse heterosexual people for their failure to stand up to homophobia, to so much as say ‘hey, that’s not cool,’ even if they’re not throwing around slurs. And we should not exclude cisgender people for their failure to confront transphobia and naked bigotry. It is not enough to maintain an uncomfortable silence. It is not enough to believe, in your heart, that whether or not trans women belong in women’s spaces, they still deserve respect. All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.
I have seen defenders of MichFest, RadFem 2013, and other trans-exclusive events throw slurs around like they’re snowballs on a schoolyard. I have seen them say deliberately hurtful things which not only deny the identities of trans people, but our very humanity. I have seen minor incidents like glitterbombing (immature, but ultimately harmless) or a little ink from a marker smeared on someone’s skin blown entirely out of proportion, characterized in some cases as the acts of extremists or even outright assault. I have seen trans people accused of hideous crimes with no justification. I even vividly recall one particularly horrible anti-trans bigot questioning whether a horrific car accident in which lives were lost might not have been a terrorist act committed by trans activists – a baseless accusation, to say the least, and if anyone had been explicitly named as a ‘suspect,’ it might well have qualified as libel.
When the Indigo Girls decided that this year’s MichFest would mark their final performance at the festival until the trans-exclusive policy changed, and announced that they would campaign for trans inclusion during their time on stage, they and the trans community at large were met with ugliness that still hasn’t entirely abated. This for voicing an opinion, and exercising their right to choose where they will and will not perform. Some of the rhetoric put me in mind of the controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks when they openly criticized President George W. Bush a few years ago. There, too, artists were told that their opinions were offensive, that no one wanted to hear them. Shall the Indigo Girls shut up and sing as well?
I do not believe that going to MichFest, as an attendee or as a performer, necessarily makes anyone a transphobic bigot or a bad person. But, given the negativity surrounding the event, the ugly and sometimes terrifying rhetoric of those who defend its policies, I do look askance at those who go to MichFest without questioning or even thinking about its policy of trans exclusion. I do feel that participation in the event can be a slap in the face to the trans community. And I think the event is irrevocably tainted, at this point, by an aura of bigotry and negativity. If the policy changed tomorrow, I don’t think I’d go. I wouldn’t feel safe there.
And that aura of negativity leads me to say this, too. The Indigo Girls made, or at least announced, their decision regarding MichFest in the wake of a petition asking a number of MichFest performers to reconsider their participation in the event. One of the other artists named in the petition asked for her name to be removed because she didn’t want it affected by the negative energy surrounding the issue – but unlike the Indigo Girls, she plans to continue supporting the event. I am honoring her request to leave her name out of this, but respectfully, I think that if you want to avoid negative energy, you should avoid participating in events rooted in exclusion and surrounded by bigotry and fear.
Trans women are women. There are two arguments that those in favor of trans exclusion love to trot out when explaining why we shouldn’t be a part of women’s spaces. First, there is the privilege argument – the idea that trans women still carry male privilege, behave in typically male ways, and have not faced sexism. Second, there is the socialization argument – trans women were not raised and socialized as women, and so do not fully understand women’s experience.
The privilege argument is ridiculous on the face of it. As a trans woman, I am not a member of the boys’ club. Truthfully, I never was – even when I outwardly presented as male, I was considered a wimp, a sissy, or not really a boy in any number of ways. Certainly I never felt like one. I am viewed either as a woman or a freak. Neither position is privileged. When I began my transition and chose to present as my true self, I surrendered my male privilege, my straight privilege and my cis privilege (which, I assure you, does exist: cis people don’t have to worry about being assaulted for choosing the ‘wrong’ bathroom, for example, or losing their job if they’re ‘read’ as the gender they’re assigned at birth rather than the gender that agrees with their identity and presentation). I promise you, I’m either treated the same as any other woman, or I’m treated like shit for ‘trying’ to be one.
As for typically male behavior? Wow, that’s a fuzzy line, isn’t it? And it sure seems like I can’t win for losing. If I’m outspoken, I’m dominating the conversation, which means I’m not really a woman. If I’m quiet, shy and soft-spoken, I’m behaving according to female stereotypes, which means my gender expression is all artifice and I’m not really a woman. If I’m open about being trans, then I’m not even trying to ‘pass’ as a real woman. If I stay in stealth, then I’m a wicked, horrible deceiver. If I date men, then I’m some kind of artificial woman designed to replace real women and destroy feminism. If I date women (as I strongly prefer to do), then I’m a faux lesbian just trying to get in innocent women’s pants, and really, what is the point of this whole gender identity thing anyway, right? (Never mind that gender identity and expression are not necessarily linked to sexual orientation, or that I prefer to date bisexual women in a desperate effort to avoid offending sensibilities – it doesn’t always work, and plenty of women who identify as gay would be fine with me, but like I said, I don’t like confrontation.) I am who I am: the quiet, shy wallflower who gets really excited and talkative once she’s comfortable with you or you’ve got her on a subject she’s passionate about. The geek girl who can’t get enough baby doll tees, adores Victorian and steampunk styles, and loves to cosplay, but spends most of her days in jeans and glasses, with little to no makeup on, to the point where people express open shock when she shows up in a skirt or a sundress. The trans activist who would really prefer not to have to discuss any of these things, but feels a moral compulsion to do so. The lesbian feminist Amazon who doesn’t quite fit into everyone’s definition of any of those groups.
I don’t know if my behavior is typically male or typically female. I think the range of human personalities is so broad that you can’t really define those traits without resorting to stereotypes, and isn’t feminism about rising above stereotypes? I’m tired of walking this tightrope. No one should have to do it. I am myself. But for the record? I’m rarely read. Even with my horrible, awful voice, which I absolutely hate. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.
Then there’s socialization. This much is true: most trans women were not raised as girls. This is beginning to change, to some degree, as trans children begin to reject their assigned genders at younger and younger ages, and with the help of accepting parents, begin the journey to their true selves in childhood. But I, for example, did not begin my transition until I was nearly 20 years old. I had a very strong sense of my gender identity and preferred gender expression from a young age, mind. I always preferred the company of girls. I begged my mother to let me go out for Halloween as Babs Bunny (we ultimately compromised on Buster; I remember her outright refusing to let me go out as Babs, while she, the last time we discussed it, thought I’d simply changed my mind), I was insanely jealous of my little sister’s American Girl doll (though she had Kirsten, and I wanted Samantha), I campaigned for years for a doll of my own (and eventually got a Princess Jasmine doll, just as I was growing out of them), and so on. My mother, a feminist in her own right, involved both me and my sister in baking, cleaning and various chores. I was bombarded by the same media images, and even before I had a word for what I was, I knew I wanted to be like the girls and the women, not the boys and the men. Funny thing: I never even quite got the hang of peeing standing up. I just wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. I told my mother at the age of twelve, just when I’d learned that there was such a thing as sex change operations, that I wanted one, that I thought I was meant to be a girl. (She got very quiet; later, when I asked her about it as an adult, she didn’t remember it at all, though she was very supportive when I did actually begin my transition.) And I spent night after night praying at my bedside, begging God to make me a girl.
It wasn’t a typical girl’s childhood, no. Maybe it wasn’t a typical trans woman’s childhood, not entirely. My parents resisted some things, but I was never forced into explicitly masculine pursuits, and I was encouraged to express myself. The thing is that I’m not sure I believe there’s any such thing as a typical childhood. We start in so many different places, in so many different ways. We all have different experiences. But even if we assume that there are childhood experiences that those raised as girls will always have, and those raised as boys never will…does it matter? We socialize as women now. Assuming we are accepted as women, we have to deal with many of the same issues of sexism and harassment. And where our experiences differ, we can still be allies, just as those women who have never experienced abuse can still support those who have, or those women who have never felt attracted to other women can support their lesbian friends. I still find it helpful to get away from a society dominated by straight white Christian men and seek the company of other women from time to time. In my experience, my presence does not in and of itself destroy the sanctity of women’s space. I’ve never tried to insert myself where I’m not wanted, of course. But I do feel that you get out what you put in. If you bring bigotry, fear and anger to a space we share, you’re bound to have a bad experience. If you come in the spirit of friendship and compassion, you’re likely to have a better one. I do not believe the mere presence of a trans woman is a pox upon women’s spaces, and I do believe that we need them just as badly.
At least some of this is a load of hypocritical bull. Consider, if you will, the currently ongoing exclusion of trans women from Smith College and other women’s institutions. Yes, yes, socialization, privilege, please see above. As I said, I believe that trans women can benefit from women’s spaces just as much as cis women can, and I do not believe that our presence will ruin everything and destroy feminism forever. Here’s the thing, though: many of these women’s colleges are perfectly all right with the presence of transitioning trans men on their campus. So we’re talking about institutions that exclude an entire class of women, but welcome students who explicitly identify as men. Regardless of what you think about trans women at women’s colleges, doesn’t that seem like hypocrisy?
Now, I don’t want to see trans men kicked out of school, whether or not trans women are allowed, particularly if they started their transitions during their college careers. I started my transition at the end of my freshmen year. I know how hard it can be to do that under the best of circumstances. Forcing students to drop out or transfer doesn’t feel right to me, either. But I do think that policy carries some ugly implications. It implies that biology is destiny – that it’s all that matters – which is directly contrary to the ideals of feminism. It calls trans men’s manhood into question as much as it questions trans women’s womanhood. And it feeds into the mistaken notion that trans men really are ‘still’ women, that they’re just an extreme form of butch identity or some such.
Above all else, I simply believe that students’ gender identities should be respected, and that their needs merit close consideration. It’s true that our government tends to be less than enlightened with regard to gender identity, and it’s possible that women’s institutions could face legal trouble, at least in some jurisdictions, for admitting students who were assigned male at birth. In that case, I absolutely believe the law should be changed. There should be stronger protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression nationwide, and I concede that these schools’ policies probably shouldn’t change until those protections are in place. But that change needs to happen, and those who sit idly by cannot be excused for their ignorance or their inaction.
All of this trickles down. Lastly, I’d like to talk to you about public accommodations. Public accommodations cover a wide variety of businesses and public facilities, from theaters to restaurants to restrooms. My home state, Massachusetts, passed a law some time ago which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, education, and housing. This law very explicitly excludes public accommodations, and it does so thanks to rhetoric familiar to pretty much any educated trans person: the Bathroom Bill meme.
The idea behind the Bathroom Bill meme is that we as a society cannot afford to let people use the restrooms associated with their gender identity and presentation. After all, a man could just dress up as a woman, claim to be trans, and go into the ladies’ room, where he would be free to peep and install spy cameras and God knows what else! Besides, trans people should just use the toilets corresponding to their genitals. It doesn’t matter that toilets are unisex by design (urinals are not, sure, but only men’s restrooms have them and no one is required to use them), or that most public restrooms are either single occupancy (usually with locking doors) or have toilets inside stalls (also generally with locking doors). It doesn’t matter that we have laws against voyeurism and sexual assault that could be used to prosecute anyone who went into a restroom with malevolent intentions, regardless of their assigned sex or gender identity. It’s a shame, really, but think of the children. A lot of those trans people are perverts anyway.
I bring this up because it did in fact come up at a public dialogue on trans inclusion that I attended at Simmons College some years ago. One of the women in the audience stood up to proclaim that she would not be comfortable seeing a trans woman in the women’s restroom, though, when asked, she admitted that she wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing a trans man in the women’s restroom, either. While the Bathroom Bill meme is often invoked by conservative (or simply transphobic) politicians, it also comes up in the discussion surrounding women’s spaces. And, once again, we can’t win for losing. Trans people have been arrested for choosing the restrooms that agree with our gender identity, to be sure, but we’ve also been arrested for choosing the restrooms that agree with our assigned sex at birth. If I’m ‘read’ in the women’s restroom, depending on exactly where I am, I could be arrested. Or I could simply be harassed, or assaulted. If I go into the men’s restroom, on the other hand, the very best I can hope for is surprise; harassment, assault or worse could swiftly follow. The only absolutely safe choices are unisex restrooms, but not all places have them, and when they are present, they’re often intended as handicapped or family restrooms, and I don’t want to use a facility that someone else might genuinely need.
So I use the women’s restroom. Because this all comes down to unjustified fear which has been fed deliberately through naked bigotry by people who, ultimately, just don’t like trans people, and prefer to believe the absolute worst of us. Because, as bad as things could get for me in the women’s restroom, I’m quite sure they could get much, much worse in the men’s room. Because I present myself as a woman and am generally seen as such, and only rarely ‘read,’ so the risk to my personal safety is much greater in the men’s room. I’m fortunate to spend most of my time in what we call ‘protected jurisdictions’ – cities and towns where municipal laws offer greater protection to trans people, often including access to public accommodations. But there are places, even in my home state, where I could be arrested just for using the restroom where I’m not as likely to attract attention, where I’m not as likely to face harassment and violence.
That is what exclusion does. It leaves people on the outside. And the outside is a scary, horrible, dangerous place to be.
I face discrimination, naked bigotry, assault and worse every day because of my womanhood. My experiences are not always identical to those of other women. I have concerns that other women may not share, and other women have concerns that I may not share. But I think this is true of any two women you might choose to compare, not just trans women and cis women. My mother always believed in the value of community, and she taught me by example. Time and again, I saw her join with other like-minded people in common cause, whether they were feminists, homeschoolers, or activists of any kind. Our similarities are more important than our differences, and we are stronger together. There should be room in women’s space for all of us.