Last week, I came across a feminist blog railing against trans-activists and the colonisation of their women-only spaces. The lamentation, as I understood it, had to do with trans women going in to a lesbian or women-only space and more or less taking it over, dominating the dialogue and turning it into something oriented more towards queer or trans issues.  A good portion of what’s on the blog would qualify as transphobic, so to make matters worse, in an effort to call out some of the transphobia, a member of the trans community posted some incredibly hateful, racist/misogynist comments.  So, me being me, I jumped in with both feet.  I wrote to the blog’s admin and while there was some dialogue, I’m not sure how useful it really was.  Based on the cissexism that’s still on display, I certainly don’t think I changed any minds. 

That was a little disheartening, but I also consider that to be their problem– I can always go somewhere else to read news and participate in a discussion.  And I’m not particularly interested in being around people who are terminally uninterested in any struggle but their own.   But what I was interested in were some of the topics they brought up.  So I started thinking about their complaints, the validity of them, and how they made me feel. 

This is something I’ve written about previously– I and many others in the larger trans community regard womyn-born-womyn policies (such as the Michigan Women’s Music Festival) as discrimination against one marginalized class in order to protect a second.  While I understand where the MWMF gets the idea for their policy of trans woman exclusion, I think it’s poorly executed, primarily because trans women are being held up as members of the patriarchy, a travesty that requires some outcry from the trans voices that also regard themselves as feminists. 

In some cases, trans exclusion might seem like a sensible idea– if a trans woman is leading a group for survivors of rape and incest then I think it’s a fair expectation that some cis women might be uncomfortable with that.  I’m not saying that’s rational, but I do think it’s understandable.  Most of the irrationality, in my experience, is born from ignorance but a discussion group about rape and incest may not be the best environment for enlightening someone about trans issues. 

If we change the concept a little bit, if we’re talking about a trans woman being part of a women’s support group, I think there’s less room to accomodate ignorance.  This may look like something of a strawman argument, but there are women out there who would look to exclude a trans person from all women-only spaces.  That a cis woman may not appreciate the presence of a trans woman is dehumanizing– especially when we’re talking about a survivor’s group for victims of rape and incest.  It’s not like the trans woman wants to crash for coffee and snacks.  I think the former example of trans-exclusion (with the woman leading the group) is sensible but this latter example is more an attempt to rationalize away someone’s suffering, someone’s womanhood.  Blocking anyone’s effort to connect with others that have experienced some similar trauma is an attempt to dehumanize them, and that’s plain wrong.  Whether a person is cis or trans makes no difference– they still deserve to be treated like a woman. 

As you may have gathered through hints, I think the notion of women-only spaces, places to freely discuss those issues that most concern women, is a fine idea.  I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with men, but sometimes I feel another woman is the only person who’s really going to understand what I’m going through.  I used to be a man, but now that I live as a woman, I get treated like one and I need a woman to talk to about that because she’s going to understand that it’s not all sunshine and roses, either. 

I might have doors opened for me when I walk into a restaurant, but I also get treated like a vacuous buffoon regarding anything technical and any indication that I might actually know something usually involves some man acting like I don’t know enough and that he has to pick apart nearly every statement I make in order to instruct me out of my ignorance.  This kind of  thing has probably happened to pretty much every woman at some point in her life.  Even though this has only started happening to me quite recently, it already bugs the shit out of me– as though just because I grew breasts my brain shriveled up. 

Now, not all men get that they’re being sexist unless we point out the difference in their behaviors regarding how they treat men versus women.  If I point out how I used to get treated as a man and contrast it against how I get treated as a woman, I think they might get it.  But sometimes, FSM help me, I just don’t feel up to fighting that fight.  So, the reason I might argue in favor of women-only spaces is that we can talk about or discuss any subject and expect that the other women will have similar feelings and experiences; there is no risk of being marginalized or told that we’re being too sensitive.  I like talking to people that can really relate to where I’m at, not someone for whom sympathy is a thought exercise. In other words and as I was trying to say above, a place where all women can be treated like women.

While I may not have a complete understanding of what it’s like to be a born woman, I do think, however, that I have a small understanding of what women experience.  Believe me, trans people understand oppression.  I understand what it was like to be raised in a fundamentalist church and how much that affected my ability to cope with being trans.  I can only guess at how much it affected the girls who were raised in the same environment, but I know that it had a strongly negative impact on Christine’s ideas about how she should behave in our marriage, about how to deal with her husband’s transition, about her own value and worth as a human being– after all, I had a lot of the same problems, except in reverse.  Imagine being a woman and trying to live up to all the standards that are placed on men– I thought getting married and behaving like a proper man would cure me of being trans.  I devalued myself, my feelings and experiences, my body.  So while I can’t understand or relate to everything that born women have dealt with, while I can only guess at how difficult their lives really are, I think I have an idea. 

Something I think that cis women tend to forget is that life can be difficult for a person who eschews typical gender roles, for a male-bodied individual that decides not only to shun stereotypically masculine behavior but chooses to actually live as a woman full time.  This is not something that most men would do.  In fact, the anatomical and physiological changes that result from transition are things that most men would find quite dystonic with their identities.  That trans women will transition willingly and gladly says something about the inefficacy and inaccuracy of gender-determinist ideas.  And there are born women feminists that make our lives harder by actually siding with the hegemonic patriarchy without realizing it. 

Gender determinism props up the patriarchy’s application of gender: no woman can become a man, no woman can be a man.  If such a thing were possible, if we erased the ideas of determinism and complentarian bukkake, if women could really do things as well as a man, then there would be nothing special about being a man, or being born a man, which in all honesty, just between you and me, there isn’t.  But, if we really erased the distinction between the sexes, some men think that means everyone will be treated like a second class citizen– in other words, they fear losing their status.** 

For men who live as women, who identify as women, they give up their elevated status of their own free will during the process of transition.  This threatens the supremacy of masculinity in a way that no born woman can– if a person, especially a person who was born male, can be happy and fulfilled as a woman then all the notions about masculine supremacy mean nothing and all the gender determinist attitudes that prop up that masculine supremacy come crashing down. The loss of privilege for cisgender people (or at least cisgender males) at that point becomes a certainty, not the specter of some unknown fear.   Those problems of cissexual assumption, trans-facsimilation, ungendering– all of them fall apart when gender determinism isn’t a sturdy foundation. 

Part of the reason for the persistence of the determinist attitudes is that too many cis people don’t understand the need for some trans people to transition.  They don’t understand the need because they (all too often) lack the capacity to empathize with someone who feels the wrong in their life so keenly.  It’s always been incredibly hard, in my experience, to explain something as dystonic as gender dysphoria to a cisgender person.  It really hits at the core of who that person is, and I think a lot of cis people just can’t relate.  As a result, I don’t believe that cis people have any business judging a trans person on their transition– I don’t care how good looking I was as a guy; I’d rather be an ugly woman instead.  I don’t care how nice cis people are to each other, I care about how horribly they treat trans people– the way they talk about how pretty she used  to be, how much of a jerk she is now that she’s on testosterone.  The misgendering is deliberate because that’s how cis people talk about us: in news articles, on television, on blogs, even in private communication. 

That lack of respect is what really bothers me and it seems to exist in both the cis and trans camps.  Trans people will attack the cis people for being transphobic (and sometimes make deplorable comments in the process); the cis people fight back by misgendering us and calling us frauds and perverts.  Cis people can appeal to their demographic; trans people don’t have an audience to play to.  The best we can do is hope that marginalized groups will recognize mistreatment in whatever shape it comes and help us to fight against it.  That the LGBT fight for equal rights appropriates a lot of the rhetoric of the civil rights movement for African Americans is no coincidence– mistreatment is mistreatment and the tools to fight it are not unique to battles over race.*** 

So, while it may be hard, unimaginably hard, to be a woman, and harder still to be a woman of color, life is hard.  Just because you perceive that my life is easier than yours, that doesn’t make it easy.  I think it’s worth reminding people to not be so naive as to assume that it’s the same thing.

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* I would ask that you not bother posting anything on the blog in defense of trans people, regardless of how repugnant you may find the comments– as I see it, if they aren’t interested in any form of actual exchange then they can have exactly what they want.  It’s a mindset that is as irrational as the people who insist that Obama’s still a Muslim.  That their position isn’t exactly one that a person can be reasoned out of leads me to believe that further communication at this point would do more harm than good, hence the request just to leave them be. 

** It’s worth saying that I don’t think that civil rights are a zero sum game, as I think has been proven over and over.  Simply because you stop treating people like they’re sub-human doesn’t mean that everyone gets treated badly; it’s supposed to mean that everyone gets treated with respect.  Sometimes people are really bad at understanding that distinction.

*** It’s also worth noting that the side of those fighting against equal rights have appropriated a lot of the language and behavior that was used by the segregationists– 50 years ago, they were arguing that interracial marriage would dissolve the very fabric of society by destroying the institution of marriage.  The rhetoric isn’t much changed except for the substitution of the phrase ‘same-sex’ for ‘interracial’.

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