Laverne Cox at Trans March San Francisco

Women’s spaces are for women

[Image: Trans actress and activist Laverne Cox, standing outdoors and speaking into a microphone.]

Today’s Everyday Feminism article about the closing of the transmisogynistic MichFest has brought out TERF commenters in force. Some self-proclaimed feminists really don’t see a problem with equating “woman” to “assigned female at birth,” and excluding trans women from so called “women-born-women” spaces.

First of all, no one is born a woman (or a girl, or a boy/man). We are all born babies, and assigned a sex of female or male at birth based on arbitrary physical characteristics. They are arbitrary because no single sex characteristic, or group of characteristics, are shared by all females or males, and because intersex people exist.

Second, some cis women do not have menstrual cycles or other common aspects of female-assigned reproductive systems. So assuming that all “women-born-women” have any unique physical attributes to bond over is factually false.

Third, having “lived experience” as a coercively-assigned member of a gender does not define one’s gender. I’ve read many stories from trans women who were terribly bullied before transition, constantly being told they weren’t “manly enough,” and suffering for not being able to live authentically. They may have appeared to be men to the outside observer, but they were still women (or girls), and did not have male privilege. Trans women are absolutely as oppressed by sexism as cis women are, whether or not they have physically or socially transitioned.

Cis women who exclude trans women from their events while welcoming trans men are reinforcing biological essentialism, and trans men as well as women should be speaking out about this. Trans men are men, and men do not belong in women’s-only spaces. Women organizing spaces for only “people with uteruses” or some other such exclusionary category should  make it clear that’s what they’re doing.

Trans men who identify as women when it’s convenient to do so are trying to have it both ways. (I’m speaking here of binary trans men who are living as men full-time, not bigender or genderfluid people who were assigned female.) If a trans man needs access to a woman’s clinic for medical purposes that’s one thing, but to participate in a group that treats trans men as if they were “men-lite,” or, worse, a group that excludes trans women on the grounds that they aren’t real women, is to my mind inexcusable. Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, an intersex trans professor who is married to a trans woman, wrote about this in an article about trans men at women’s colleges.

Speaking for myself as an agender trans male, despite (or more accurately because of) having lived as a girl/woman for over 40 years, I have no interest in being in women’s-only spaces, whether they include trans women or not. My discomfort in being in such spaces was a good part of the clue that I was trans. Even before my transition, I generally avoided gender-segregated events, but found myself happiest when interacting with bisexual or gay men. I wouldn’t want to be in a men’s-only space that was geared toward straight men, but I’d still prefer that to a women’s-only space if those were my only choices. I’m male for legal and medical purposes, and I don’t belong in a space designated for females.

Having a uterus and ovaries doesn’t make me feel any bond of “sisterhood” with other AFAB people. I truly detested having a menstrual cycle, and never had the slightest interest in getting pregnant. It’s now been a full year since my last period, and I am very happy to consign that part of my life to history, permanently, as long as I’m able to get uninterrupted access to testosterone. If I felt the need to talk about my female-assigned reproductive system in a group setting, it would be with other transmasculine folks, not women.

But that’s just me. My point is that you can’t assume a common bond with people based on their anatomy – whether at birth or post-puberty – or their “lived experience.” Trans-exclusionary feminism is hurtful to all women, cis and trans, and trans men should not be perpetuating this biological essentialism.

7 thoughts on “Women’s spaces are for women”

  1. Look, I understand the point you are trying to make and I want to support my transgendered neighbors, but when you argue things like ‘there is no such thing as a woman or man because intersexed people exist’, you are arguing dishonestly and you make it really hard for me to support the cause in a meaningful fashion because you are forcing me to accept rhetoric that is demonstrably false.

    Listen — Sex exists. Whether you identify as a man or woman is different, but arguing against biological sex is arguing against a core tenant of biology. Yes, intersex people do exist, but that is a fluke of genetics and an ‘accident’ of nature in the same way that being born with 6 fingers is an ‘accident’ and being born with an allergy to sucrose is an ‘accident’ and being the first person born with blue eyes is an accident. It’s something that happens because stuff didn’t go as planned and being intersex is about as normal as being born with 6 fingers. The wonderful thing is that whether or you born with 6 fingers or intersex or whatever, if you can read this, you probably live in a place where people aren’t going to label you a witch and burn you at a stake! People are expected (and should!) respect you as a person, because that’s really what you are.

    The important take away here though is that when folks argue things like ‘Biological sex doesn’t exist’, you are alienating people that would otherwise be in support of the cause. Biological sex exists. It has to exist. Life as we know it would not, and cannot exist without it. Gender however, is a lot more flexible and that’s what the message should be.

    1. You may have good intentions, but you’re not going to win any ally points from me. Being intersex is actually as normal as having green eyes, and I don’t think intersex people appreciate being seen as “accidents.”

      It’s a nice idea that people should be expected to respect me, and intersex people, as what we are, but that’s not reality. I live in a country where trans panic is a legal defense for murder in every state except my own. And right here in the San Francisco Bay Area we’ve had numerous hate crimes against trans people. This is what we should be talking about, not biology.

      Bottom line, if your fixation on “biological sex” alienates you from supporting trans people, you’re not an ally worth having.

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