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Trans Segment #40: Myth: Trans women make women’s space unsafe.

November 6, 2012

Myth: Trans women make women’s space unsafe.

Reality: We’ve already partly explored this in the segments about bathroom panic and trans women supposedly having male privilege, and this myth propagates the same stereotype of trans women as dangerous perverted “men in dresses” looking to prey on cis women, but let’s look at it more in depth.

First and foremost, trans women *are* women, so the claim that they would make women’s space unsafe is baseless. The very question of whether trans women should be allowed entrance to these spaces carries with it the supposition that trans women are REALLY men and is cissexist and misogynistic. Sometimes people even suggest that cis women should be able to cast the deciding vote on whether trans women should be allowed into these spaces. That sure sounds a lot like many straight people who think they should have the right to vote on the legality of gay, lesbian, and bi people’s marriages. There isn’t the faintest hint of attempting to veil the hubris.

Aside from one’s identity as a woman not being something that can be voted on, what about the cis women who *do* acknowledge, validate, and respect trans women’s womanhood? What would the answer be if, in this theoretical voting on or off the island, the majority of cis women voted yes to “allowing” trans women? I imagine the folks who cling to this myth would just have to find other rationalizations that are as unsound as the ones they have now. Or they could just get with the program and realize that trans women aren’t a threat. Trans women do not make a space unsafe. People who are unsafe make spaces unsafe. Police the behaviors you want to avoid in your spaces, but don’t profile people.

Second, I don’t really believe that spaces are “safe,” at least not always in the emotional sense. The truth is that we all have our sensitive spots and sometimes human interaction has the potential to be upsetting. But I believe that we make spaces intentionally and communally, and we can cultivate nurturing environments. That is, we can create “safer,” but not “safe,” spaces. We can have spaces that are accountable and thoughtful but not ones uniquely immune from the baggage we all carry.

Then there are certain groups who claim to want a “women-born-women (WBW) safe space,” by which they mean that they want a space void of challenge by trans women and cis women allies. They don’t want any questioning of their brand of gender essentialism, deconstructionism, radical sisterhood, or what have you. They certainly don’t want to question the cissexism in their belief that trans women are automatically precluded from the category of women. Many people who think along these lines define “woman” only as a position of oppression—which I find confounding as a feminist—and feel threatened by any women who disagree, especially if they perceive trans women as those who “chose” to be women.

The dogma that sexism is the central oppression in women’s lives disregards intersectionality. It excuses women from having to examine and manage their racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and cissexism by implying that privilege is an on/off switch rather than a matrix.

Sometimes people suggest that we should just abolish women’s spaces and have everything be gender-neutral. I would not endorse such a thing for two reasons: 1) Closed groups have a time and place. Particularly as long as our society remains patriarchal, there is an obvious need for spaces specifically designed and reserved for women, and it can be beneficial to women to partake of these spaces, and 2) It is unfair and sexist to suggest that we abolish women’s spaces and integrate them without suggesting that we give men’s spaces the same treatment. As a matter of fact, men’s spaces, namely major social institutions, deserve more scrutiny and reconfiguration than women’s spaces, which are in large part necessary because of the original exclusivity and tight policing of men’s spaces. Shouldn’t it be men’s spaces that are gender-neutral? Make this suggestion and see how quickly some people get defensive.

Following the pattern, do you notice again that there is very little said about trans men in men’s spaces? Every once in a blue moon, an issue like this comes up (I normally see it in cis gay male spaces, but that could just be a function of who I hang out with), but it usually doesn’t receive much press outside of trans male social circles and it affects mainly trans men who are not presumed to be cis. There is also not a widespread institutional level of exclusion of trans men from men’s spaces in the same way that trans women are excluded from women’s spaces.

So long as the need for and existence of women’s spaces are sustained, I advocate for the right of all women to be welcomed into them. Trans women are habitually and brusquely turned away from various women-only spaces, organizations, and services. One of the most well-known controversies is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, also known as Michfest or MWMF, which has an official “womyn-born-womyn-only” policy that excludes trans women. They also have some of the biggest Internet loudmouths around, courtesy of their forums.

I never had any personal interest in attending MWMF, but I’ve seen in my research that while trans women are excluded, not counting the few who are presumed cis who have gotten in undetected, several trans men (including ones with beards and top surgery, I am told) attend the festival. I am not sure how welcomed or not the trans men are, but that strikes me as getting in at trans women’s expense. Plus, it’s insulting to trans men. Guys, you do realize you are getting in because they see you as not “real” men, right? That’s the converse of trans women being not “real” women. How about we support the right of *women* to be at MWMF instead?

There are comparable problems with many of the so-called “women and trans” spaces, which are really cis women and trans men spaces. If you’re lucky, there might be a couple of trans women at an event, but they usually don’t feel welcome enough to come in large numbers. I’m not aware of any “women and trans” spaces in Memphis, but you can definitely see this pattern in larger cities.

Another notable example is that of Kimberly Nixon, a trans woman who is a survivor of domestic violence and works as a rape crisis counselor, who was denied a position as a volunteer for Vancouver Rape Relief because she is trans and was told “men aren’t allowed here.” Trans women are also routinely denied at many women’s shelters and sexual assault crisis centers.

Arguments used in bathroom panic are identical to the ones used to deny trans women equal access to these facilities. People claim that cis male batterers will pretend to be trans women seeking care and services, even though this has never happened. Besides, have we still not learned that domestic violence unfortunately is not limited to different-sex relationships? Would we not be concerned about a cis lesbian batterer posing as a survivor in order to gain access to that same shelter? However, the fact that we don’t consider this possibility when we are so ready to project similar fears onto trans women is an indication that the crux of the issue is that we still don’t consider women as a group to be powerful, aggressive, and even violent.

It reminds me of how, when my ex-girlfriend was staying in the dorm in college, I had to sign in and go through all the same rigmarole as other men, but women, even if they did not live in the dorm, could just walk right in. Because a woman can’t be a thief or an attacker? Oh, worried about sex, you say? Because bisexual and lesbian women surely are just a myth.

Let’s get to the bottom of all this panic, shall we? The penis. *If* a trans woman still has a penis, I still don’t understand objections made on those grounds, and I am eternally fascinated that we define men as “presence of a penis” and women as “absence of a penis.” Guess what, cis women and many trans men have genitals of our own and they’re not called “not penis.” Yes, vulvas are apparently a thing now!

Many cis women say that trans women trigger them into remembering their sexual because of the assumed presence of a penis. It is true that many survivors are triggered by penises, and they need to have the room to feel that, but not all survivors experience this. A penis is also not prerequisite for sexual assault, even when the attacker is a cis male.

Trans activists in some cities have been more successful in defeating bathroom panic bills when they have taken the double-pronged approach of 1) bringing in cis female survivors to testify that they don’t find trans women triggering and that their voices as survivors cannot be co-opted, and 2) bringing in trans women who are survivors to testify about their experiences and issues of safety.

Does it make sense to be so fixated on the penis that we make it matter in situations where people remain fully clothed the entire time? It just becomes an endless loop. People do flying leaps and acrobatics to prove that it’s about more than penises. The typical line is that it’s all about the male socialization. You ask how they know a person was raised with “male socialization,” especially with lots of trans women transitioning much younger than in the past, and these folks walk right back to square one by declaring they’ve just learned someone has or had a penis. You see, trans women who have had vaginoplasty aren’t treated any better, because just having at one point had a penis is considered to be threatening.

Anyway, I have always found penis obsession to be one of the weirder things about humans. The penis is just an organ, a body part, flesh and blood. It is not a weapon of mass destruction. It is not a magic talisman. It is not kryptonite. What makes it so über-powerful and special except our worship of it?

For more on this, read:

1. “On Survivors and Triggering” by Lisa Harney, a trans woman and survivor of domestic violence

2. “PTSD and the Responsibility for Trigger Management” by Emi Koyama

3. Emi Koyama’s FAQ on the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival “debate”

4. “A Fest in Distress” by Emi Koyama

5. “Catches Twenty-Two” by Natalie Reed

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