One of my biggest pet peeves with transgender politics is the people who scold the confused and ignorant that “It isn’t that hard” or “Just google it.” When I google transgender, four distinct definitions come up from Wikipedia, GLAAD, APA, and Merriam-Webster, hilariously none of which would be in line with my own definition of the term. And when you have politics with such multi-variant terms, the application of those concepts becomes even more difficult. One common difficulty that I am going to tackle with this post is the attempt of trans feminism to reconcile the practice of women’s only spaces with a spectrum of genders, usually by calling them spaces for “everyone but men” or even “everyone but cisgender men.” This is a topic I have written about a few times but my thinking has changed a bit (I’m too tired to be as angry as I was 3 years ago) so please take this as a fresh perspective rather than part of a previously stated position.
Let’s start with the idea of women only spaces and why they are so beloved as to compel trans feminists to attempt to re-appropriate them. While there have been a variety of women only spaces throughout human history, both empowering and disempowering, the feminist practice is most associated with the second wave of feminism. Like the Civil Rights movement at the time and the gay rights movement in the 21st century, the second wave of feminism realized that entry into man’s world (more access to “male” jobs especially in the professions, full contract rights, suffrage, etc.) was not having as profound of an effect for women’s equality as political theorists ranging from Karl Marx to Susan B. Anthony thought it would. However what Karl Marx did that was useful for the second wave was popularizing the use of a dialectical materialist analysis. And by applying that analysis (as Shulamith Firestone, Catharine MacKinnon, and others did), the second wave realized that there were issues of women’s oppression outside of the denial of access that were specific to women: namely reproductive healthcare and sexual violence.
A common misconception is that by defining these issues (reproductive healthcare and sexual violence) as women’s issues that the second wave was saying they only affected women. Quite the contrary — the second wave’s development of family planning clinics and rape crisis hotlines laid the groundwork for the modern infrastructure of trans healthcare and recognition of sexual violence against men. Firestone in particular laid out in The Dialectic of Sex what we would now call a trans feminist perspective on biological sex determinism:
The recognition of these issues as women’s issues was about how they worked systemically. When anti-abortion legislation is being debated, it is women who are the subject of that debate. When sexual violence is being dismissed in the media, it is women who are being called liars or overly sensitive. And whether they traced the origin of this patriarchy to class division arising from biology (Firestone) or sexuality (MacKinnon), the praxis was the same: women as the oppressed class had to rise up to overthrow the patriarchy. Like Marxism towards economic class, the second wave determined that they needed to raise the consciousness of women as a class — but unlike the proletariat with the shop floor, there were not pre-arranged places where women met as women.
So the practice of consciousness raising meetings was developed (and continues today), whereby women meet at someone’s home or a community center to talk in an intentional space about issues like reproductive healthcare and sexual violence. Just like one would not invite a manager to a union meeting, even a nice and sympathetic manager, even a manager who had advocated for the workers to the owner, men were barred from these meetings.
Well if that is all well and good, then why didn’t trans feminism simply carry on the tradition with the simple recognition that trans women are women? Well for two reasons: (1) the supplanting of materialist feminism with postmodernism and queer theory, and (2) the weaponization of women only spaces against trans women by trans-exclusionary “radical feminists” (TERFs) and religious fundamentalists. I’ve written about these quite a bit not as mutually exclusive but rather as two sides of the same coin (such as here and here). Despite what some queer feminists may think, I am not at all opposed to gender autonomy. Rather I fundamentally disagree on what gender autonomy is and for that matter what gender itself is.
My definition of gender is not rooted in identity or even expression. My gender is not reducible to a choice to use certain pronouns or wear makeup (it is rather sad that such reactionary ideas of femininity can still carry water under the guise of reclamation). Because those choices do not happen in a vacuum: no matter how much it eschews the gender associated with your birth sex, these choices still operate in a broader context of a system of patriarchy. A man wearing lipstick does not change the fact that lipstick as a commodity under modern patriarchal capitalism exists because of heteronormative beauty standards meant to focus the sexuality of women on pleasing men and the sexuality of men on women conforming to an increasingly unreachable (because of photoshop) ideal.
Patriarchy, and its overall purpose of oppressing women as a class, is a material reality that we cannot avoid by individual choices. But it is also a material reality that women only spaces have become weaponized to oppress transgender people, especially transgender women. These “women only spaces” are usually just euphemistic for segregating trans people (i.e. the various bathroom bills) rather than intentional efforts to build women consciousness. But it has been pretty effective at making “women only spaces” a dog whistle for transphobia to the point that transgender women will assume that “women only spaces” are not for them even when they are. So what is wrong with using “not-cisgender-men” spaces instead?
In her paradigm-shifting book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir presented one of the first comprehensive materialist analyses of feminism. One of the most important conclusions she reached (and where the title of the book comes from) is the positioning of women as “the other.” “Thus humanity is male,” Beauvoir writes, “and man defines woman not herself but as relative to him.” And because of such a definition, Beauvoir concludes, women “band[ing] together to assert a ‘counter-universe’” will not create radical change if “it is still within the masculine universe that they frame it…she is lost in the middle of this world as in the heart of an immense and confused mass.”
When we create spaces under the pretense of spaces that are not for cisgender men, we are not creating spaces for anyone. Queer theory, focused on binaries, is satisfied by the arrangement. After all the gender binary is men versus women, so what is more against the gender binary than creating a space based in not being. The intention of the space is not to create power among an oppressed class but to keep out power. Keeping out power is indeed crucial but a line is ultimately drawn somewhere and power inevitably gets in. A not-cisgender-men space still includes cisgender wealthy white women who exercise for more power than, for example, a migrant Latina trans woman survivor of human trafficking. But what unites these two people with disparate power is a similar position under patriarchy.
Where it becomes difficult is when we recognize a multiplicity of positions under patriarchy. Are transgender men oppressors or oppressed under patriarchy? Does it depend on the particulars of their transition, whether they “pass,” whether they are masculine in their attitudes or expression or relationships? The truth is that transgender men are both oppressed and privileged under patriarchy. That position is not unique to transgender men: effeminate men, gay and bisexual men, etc. are also men oppressed by patriarchal ideas of what it means to be a man. The difference is that many transgender men spend their pre-coming out lives in women’s spaces, especially lesbian spaces, so being denied access to those spaces can mean losing a longstanding network of support. Though this is purely anecdotal, in my experience this is why transgender men tend to gradually spend less time in women spaces the further they are in their transitions as they establish other support networks or increasingly find their presence in the spaces dysphoric or problematic.
I think as long as spaces maintain a trans affirmative politic (trans women are women, etc.) then the problem of transgender men in women’s spaces solves itself. But the problem becomes more complicated when the issue is those who fall outside of the gender binary. For those not familiar, there have been throughout human history a number of genders outside of “man” and “woman” (I will refer to these collectively as “genderqueer,” an imperfect but convenient term for the purpose). Genderqueer people have been oppressed both as part of the patriarchal oppression of femininity and for undermining the Judeo-Christian patriarchal idea of discrete and insular binary gender arising from discrete and insular sex characteristics. Or to put it more simply, genderqueer people show that not everyone with a penis is a man and not everyone with breasts and vaginas is a woman. Their existence is even more disruptive to the gender binary than transgender people who often seek medical care to acquire sex characteristics more aligned with the normative idea of their gender (transgender women get vaginoplasties, transgender men get mastectomies, etc.).
The complication here is that while some genderqueer people experience similar oppression to women under patriarchy, their oppression also inhabits its own realm. Further complicating matters from a practical political standpoint is that genderqueer people make up a very small amount of the population (while there are not hard numbers about this, one can extrapolate from the estimations of the transgender population in general that it is less than 1%). And to account for one more complication, being genderqueer has served as a step towards coming out as transgender for some.
I am not genderqueer and do not feel comfortable dictating how genderqueer people should organize. I am a woman though, and I do think we need to extend women’s spaces to genderqueer people in the hope of building the strongest coalition against patriarchy regardless of experiencing its oppression in differing ways. However I think we can do so in ways that do not define our solidarity by what we are not. If the choice is left to me, I tend to use the clunky but inclusive “women and gender nonconforming people.” The intentionally broad “gender nonconforming people” signals that genderqueer people and even transgender men are welcome if they so choose to be involved. I have also seen creative terms like “the struggle genders” that maybe if adopted more broadly could be a more eloquent alternative to “women and gender nonconforming people.”
Regardless of what term is used, I think it is important for us to define spaces by what we hope to accomplish rather than who we want to keep out. Women only spaces were not created to be spaces “not for men” but to be spaces for women to organize against patriarchy. I believe we can come up with creative solutions to both recognize the diversity of genders with a stake in smashing patriarchy and not take shortcuts like “not-cis-men spaces.”