Space: the final frontier

May 17, 2008

The subject of ‘women-only spaces’ seems to be a source of endless fascination for the feminist and trans* feminist elements of the blogosphere, which may explain why it reappears and disappears like a moorland fire on a hot summer’s day.

Currently, that fire is burning brightly at both Philomela’s blog, Reweaving and over at Rebecca’s appropriately named Burning Words. It should go without saying that I recommend them unreservedly; as regards this post, you should read Philomela’s post, Lets go round again, and Rebecca’s A gripe about “allies” and trans-exclusive spaces.

I recognise that this is not a new or unusual subject; a quick Google for ‘women-only spaces’ returned some 245,000 results. But if I understand correctly, Philomela’s post is in response to another post elsewhere, written by an unashamedly transphobic radical feminist, and Rebecca’s expands on a couple of points raised by Philomela. As I said, this is a recurrent theme in so-called internet feminism; my co-blogger Laura posted on the subject at The F Word only a few weeks ago (link here) which was in response to a post by Michelle at Lonergrrrl, which references the binaristic divide between men and women, with no mention of trans* or other gender variant people.

Press For Change argued against ‘women-only spaces’ in a briefing paper in 1998, and I gather that the whole incendiary subject originally came about in 1991 following the ejection from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival of the trans* woman Nancy Burkholder. (Via wikipedia).

But I have no burning desire to rake over the ashes of history yet again; the reason I write this post is to raise two points which occur to me and which I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere.

First and foremost, those pesky invisible trans* men. Okay. One of the big objections by Certain Special Radical Feminists to trans* women is that trans* women cannot possibly be ‘real’ women (whatever that means) because “once a man, always a man” – and I cannot help but wonder about the opposite situation. Because, presumably, to qualify for admission to the hallowed ground of ‘women-only spaces’, a fundamental requirement must be that one is “once a woman, always a woman”. So, by that logic, a trans* man who has transitioned and lives in his acquired gender would be welcomed with open arms, whilst the doors would be locked, barred and bolted to someone like me, a trans* woman who has transitioned and lives in my acquired gender. Hmmm. Ok-a-y-y-y…

This same determinist/essentialist reasoning also undermines the idea that subject-based exclusion is acceptable; for example, ‘women-only spaces’ for the discussion of matters specific to pregnancy. Would our previously accepted trans* man be unceremoniously ejected if it should be discovered that he had undergone bottom surgery and was therefore physically unable to conceive, whilst Thomas Beatie would presumably be able to stay?

The twist here, for me, is that, even if this hypothetical ‘women-only space’ to discuss pregnancy was open to me, I would not want to attend anyway. See, I have some fairly major and unresolved issues around the reproduction of the species, both personally and globally, and I would likely be deeply distressed to have to discuss the subject in any shape or form.

But anyway.

The second point I want to talk about is this. The counter-argument is often made, “what if there were ‘trans* people only spaces’?” Well, by a strange co-inky-dinky, I am aware of at least one that exists in my adopted hometown. A year or so ago, a trans* people’s support group was set up, not far from where I live. I was in the early stages of my transition and even more self-absorbed than I am now, so I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention. For one thing, I was wary of ghettoising myself; for another, I had issues with the way the group had been set up. I felt its management structure was opaque, undemocratic and unaccountable to its members. The real problem for me was the organisers’ pronouncement that admission would be restricted to trans* people only; SOFFAs (Significant Others, Families, Friends and Allies) were not permitted to attend.

Although I couldn’t quite put my finger on ‘why’, I knew that it bothered me enough to be a deal breaker. At the time, I was a regular visitor to a few online forums (fora?) and I ‘knew’, in that old familiar online way, a couple of people who were very upset by the exclusionary clause. One in particular had a very supportive partner, and the pair of them were deeply involved in voluntary outreach and support. The idea that one was barred because he wasn’t a trans* person baffled me.

And your point is, caller?

I think what I’m saying is that the creation of exclusive spaces, irrespective of who they seek to shut out, is a result of ignorance, irrational fear and, well, poor management. One has to trust people to be intelligent and self-aware enough to know when tact and diplomacy are called for, to know when ‘discretion is the better part of valour’. After all, even the Women’s Institute doesn’t actively bar ‘men born men’ from attending its meetings should they wish to: but, quite simply, MBM would probably not wish to attend those meetings because they know there will be nothing of interest to them there. So if a long-established national organisation can solve the problem without even missing a beat, then why are certain radfems unwilling to at least try this approach themselves, to see if it might even work for them, too? I have a hunch that it wouldn’t result in their space being invaded by a hundred million nekkid sex-crazed trans* women waving their penises at all and sundry…

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Later edit: Jess and I have been talking about this; she has a really interesting take on it and, when I think about what she says, it makes good sense. We seem to agree that, as long as women-only spaces don’t seek to impose their own personal, arbitrary definition of who is and is not a woman, then why should there not be a role for them?

I did wonder if there may be an inherent contradiction there, though: if you don’t define who is/is not a woman, then how can you say that a space is ‘women only’? But that may just be me being defensive: I’ve seen too many radical feminists, time and again, trying to take ownership of the concept by insisting that they and they alone will decide what defines ‘woman’. And, however they define ‘woman’, it’s no secret that they define trans* women as not-women. But I’m with Lisa on this: to steal a quote from her, “my identity is not subject to a vote“.

So perhaps a more useful way to phrase it may be, “if you identify as a man, then this space isn’t for you”. And that makes so much more sense to me: let people decide for themselves how they identify instead of telling them what they are and/or aren’t. The emphasis is then turned from exclusive-by-default to inclusive-by-default, which seems to me to be a far more positive and workable solution.

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©2008 Helen G

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