Well, ducks! It’s been a week since I did my little UK stomp and kicked over a fair-sized, even by Guardian standards, ant hill! Such fun!
Let me be serious. For a change. A surprise! A first! C.L. serious on her own blog!
I want to talk about one of those very tricky things that come up when trans folks, and most especially trans women, get talked about. Pretty universally, I should hasten to add, when cis folks talk about trans folks; but then I said people, and don’t we all know that people means cis people? Silly ducks.
The bugbear in the room is, of course, “women-only spaces.” In its most extreme form, this resolves to the old “bathroom libel“: the idea that, say, allowing trans people to use the rest rooms that match their gender presentation will open a flood of rapists donning drag in order to rape unsuspecting women. That no trans person has ever done this, and that women get raped in women’s rooms by men not wearing dresses, never seems to make a dent in this argument; but then it’s held by only the most set in their way anti-trans folks.
Sadly, this includes a large number of otherwise noteworthy feminists. Google it; I’ll wait.
A less extreme version of the “women’s spaces exclusion” doesn’t have a problem with trans folk in the ladies’, (perhaps because being booted from your stall for looking too masculine can happen to cis women too), but still make an exception for other spaces: women’s spiritual circles, social groups, and, most–notoriously isn’t the right word, but bear with me for a second–rape crisis centers.
Yes, that’s right–I’m bringing Kimberley Nixon into this again.
For those of you who don’t know, a precis: Ms. Nixon is a trans woman who lived in Vancouver. She applied for a volunteer counseling position at Vancouver Rape Relief, and passed their initial phone interview. When she showed up for training, however, she was read as trans and told that she could not be a counselor because of VRR’s woman-only policy. Ms. Nixon eventually sued the center, won one trial, but the decision was overturned on appeal.
That’s the basics. VRR claimed that the legal fees put them in danger of closing. Julie Bindel and many other trans-exclusionary feminists castigated Ms. Nixon.
But when you go deeper, it gets a whole lot more complicated.
For starters, Ms. Nixon herself had been raped and battered by her male partner. After receiving help from a different group for battered women, she entered their counseling training course, and did very well; she would later be described as a “superior” counselor. But the first group wanted her to wait a year to heal before she became a counselor, which led her to VRR.
Now hearken with me to the little lower layer. Above, I linked to an article about a butch cis woman who was unceremoniously tossed from a restaurant bathroom for looking too masculine. This is precisely what happened to Ms. Nixon. Yet Ms. Farmer would be allowed to counsel for VRR, and Ms. Nixon wouldn’t. Even though they both looked “masculine.”
Ponder that one in light of feminist principles, if you will.
Dig even deeper: it is a misconception that Ms. Nixon was demanding a spot as a counselor for VRR; what she wanted was the chance to prove herself on her own merits, and not be judged by her appearance. Furthermore, VRR claimed that her presence might traumatize other women, who might harbor fear or resentment or hatred towards men. Fair enough, I suppose, though one would think that this could apply to very butch cis women as well. But the thing is, we’ll never know if Ms. Nixon would traumatize people; we’ll never know if she could have fit in, if she could have provided healing services to women. We’ll never know, because she never got the chance.
And neither did any of the women who might use the shelter; VRR made the decision for them.
I don’t think there’s any way to slice this that doesn’t come up as prejudice. They could have done any number of things; had her help in the office and get training from the counselors, so that even if she didn’t work out there, she would gain experience; have her act as a liaison to the trans community (one would assume that VRR would also turn away trans women who were the victims of rape as well); any number of things.
But instead they said, you look like a man. You are a man. You cannot come here.
Now, it may surprise you to know that I am ambivalent–very–about these situations. I can see many sides to these issues, and they’re always tricky. And I do not dispute for a second that there is a very real difference in the background of trans and cis women, especially trans women who transition after, say, their twenties (present company included.) We, I, don’t have the experience of growing up female; we don’t have the same bodily experiences as the majority of cis women. (This is why I will never be teaching a class on Your Period and You.)
But–and this is so important that in needs to be said, again and again–the question remains: is that condition unredemediable? Is it so impossible to think that a trans woman who has spent 25 years living as a woman might have insight into women’s lives approaching that of a 25-year old cis woman? Think on this: you could transition as soon as you were of age, have been on hormone blockers so you never experienced male puberty, spent your teens and twenties living as a woman, majored in women’s studies, gone on to become a social worker specializing in the problems of battered women and rape victims, worked for ten years in public health–and you will be less qualified, in the eyes of VRR, than a high school drop out who happens to be cis.
That is to say, that not judging a person on her merits is discriminatory. Unless, of course, you’re trans. Then it’s totes feminist.
Next: I’ll take this to Tiger Beatdown and do some feminism and gender analysis.