From informal circles to structured organizations, women’s groups have been around for a very long time.
From informal circles to structured organizations, women’s groups have been around for a very long time. But the concept of ‘women-only space’ was a much more highly – politicized idea proposed during the Women¹s Movement in the 1970s. Radical feminists argued that because we live in a patriarchal society, public and private places were inherently male-dominated, unequal and, in some cases, unsafe for women. Feminists set out to create their own spaces for meetings, support groups, rallies and marches; some went further and built lesbian separatist households and communities.
These separatist spaces were both culturally significant and crucial to the development of feminist consciousness and empowerment; they were also an important way that lesbian women connected and supported one another in the days before Curve magazine, Melissa Etheridge and Ellen. Two decades later, separatism may no longer be in fashion, but single-sex gatherings are still an important element of lesbian lives. Yet, with the emergence of a visible and vocal transgendered community, the whole notion of ‘same- sex space’ has become increasingly problematic.
As the dyke-identified partner of a trans person, I find that I am faced with this issue on a regular basis. When I am invited to speak to a lesbian organization or participate in a women’s event, I always ask, “What’s your policy for trans people?” Indeed, throughout the country, various organizations are struggling with membership and event admission policies. The critical question is this: if an event is designated as “women only” how do we define our terms? Who qualifies as a woman, and where are the lines drawn?
Let me first say that I believe all people who identify as women should be welcomed (which is markedly different than allowed) in women’s space, regardless of their gender assigned at birth, legal gender identity, or genital configuration; thus pre-op, post-op, and no-op MtFs are women, as far as I am concerned.
Currently, I think there is a thornier issue on the table for many groups: the inclusion of FtMs, tranny boys and female-bodied people who don’t identify as women. Our community has gone through significant changes in the last decade. The options of people born female have increased, and folks who once identified as lesbians may now call themselves genderqueer, boydyke, boi, tranny, transman, or FtM. In fact, there is a movement of young, genderqueer people who refuse the M and F dichotomy altogether, instead choosing to forge their own gender identities. For those who identify as trans or FtM, there is a wide spectrum of choices which are behind the labels. Some are on testosterone, others are not. Some have had surgeries, others have not. Things are not as simple as they once were, which make the idea of defining “same sex space” a complicated proposition.
A friend recently said to me, “Sometimes, I just want to be in women’s space.” I responded, “What exactly is women’s space?” I don¹t know if I would know what women’s space looked like or felt like if I was in it. The most public example of this struggle is the 27- year-old Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF) which is only open to “womyn-born womyn, who currently live their lives and identify as womyn.” MWMF is supposedly “pure” women’s space, yet the amount of masculine people, boy-on-boy action, butch sexuality, cock sucking, and other non-womyn identities, aesthetics, practices and energy proves that women’s space is a complex concept, and that exclusion based on biological determinism doesn’t make sense any more.
Several other groups have approached these issues in different ways. At a Seattle sex club which holds both women¹s and men’s parties, admission is based on the gender on your driver’s license. Some trans people never legally change their gender, they simply live their lives; so a driver’s license may say F, but they see themselves more as M or as T. Some don’t have the financial resources to make changes they may desire, and those folks, no matter how they appear or live, would be denied entrance at the Seattle club based on a state document.
At a former San Francisco BDSM play space, gender was based not on the State, but on the body. The person who ran the space put it this way: “Female-born persons who have not altered their sex with medical actions, i.e. male hormones/surgery, regardless of their gender presentation are welcome at women’s parties. This is what I call ‘estrogen-based’ beings. On the other hand, female-born persons who take [testosterone] and/or have surgery to alter their sex, are not invited into “women’s space,” regardless of whether your male identity is part-time or full-time. In my opinion, that moves you into the category of a “testosterone-based” being. FtMs without body modification can come, but those who’ve made any changes cannot. Bringing it back to the body is not as simple or as definitive as some would like it to be.
The idea that the world is divided into two neat categories of estrogen and testosterone is ludicrous: what about women whose bodies produce high levels of testosterone on their own? Some transpeople simply cannot afford hormone therapy or surgery, others consciously choose not to do it. Some transpeople may take testosterone or have “top” surgery (a double mastectomy and chest reconstruction), yet don’t see themselves as men, preferring instead to call themselves trans or genderqueer. And where do intersexed people fit in to the body model – people who have both male and female sex characteristics, whose biological bodies defy the so-called rigid rules of biology? Most intersexed folks were assigned a gender at birth, but their bodies tell a different story. Does that mean that intersexed folks are allowed in both men’s and women’s events at the San Francisco space? Are we using policies to promote prejudice?
I think trans-inclusion at queer events, based upon self-identification, is important for many reasons. In some areas, transfolks can create their “own” spaces which are useful and beneficial, but not all communities have the size or resources to be able to accommodate such luxury. If there is one group in a town for men and one for women, where do the transpeople go? Some FtMs are strongly identified as male and either heterosexual or gay, and these guys have no interest in being in dyke or women’s space. Other FtMs came out of the dyke community, are still strongly identified with and a part of that community. They are our friends, lovers, and partners, and just because they identify as trans does not mean they have abandoned queer women altogether.
I call upon organizers and leaders to raise these issues with members, decide on policy, then be explicit about it in your promotion. Too many folks avoid it altogether, making it awkward and difficult when the issue comes up. What exactly is so threatening about trannies (whether MtF, FtM, post-op, pre-op, or genderqueer) being at a lesbian event? Are they so powerful and scary that they will entirely shift dyke sexuality as “biological” lesbians know it? Will their presence be felt as “not real women” or “having male energy” or having a vibe that’s “not quite female?”
Lesbians tolerate lifestyles and desires which are not like their own at events all the time – non-smokers and smokers, sober women and drinkers, anti-BDSMers and leatherdykes co-exist (in fact, these kinds of women all “get along” at MWMF). So why can’t dykes welcome transpeople in our community spaces? Let’s take a lesson from another music festival, Ladyfest Bay Area. Its admission policy: “pro-woman people of all genders are encouraged to attend.”
Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 4 (Spring 2003), 15.