Having arrived in the Netherlands for a meeting organised by HIVOS, I found myself in a way too familiar position. On the two hour busride from the airport to the place of our meeting, I had a conversation that has plagued me for at least a decade: transgender inclusion in women’s activist spaces.
It seems there is no end to this, and as usual we didn’t end up agreeing at all. But the conversation itself is quite frustrating. I’m quite baffled at times that people who claim to work against gender violence, gender stereotypes, gender based stigma and discrimination, are often so rigid when it comes to this subject.
The argument that is usually thrown around to justify exclusion of transgender women in women’s and feminist spaces is that transgender women either “aren’t real women” or “can’t share in the experience of women who were socialised as such”. This has lead to the infamous “womyn-born womyn” spaces, most famously implemented at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and often applied in women’s shelters. Personally I remember being shown the door when I tried to access a women’s shelter when I was homeless; being told that I’m “a danger to the real women” due to being assigned male at birth, I was simply told to go sleep somewhere – anywhere – else.
In this discussion I found it interesting that “experience” was hammered upon, that cisgender women had a specific experience that justified exclusion, similar to how black women’s spaces, queer women’s spaces, and transgender people’s spaces are practising exclusion. Personally I felt like it was comparing apples to pears, different spaces are organised for different reason, and a blanket justification for exclusion per sé doesn’t make sense to me. But the game was on, so to speak, and a three hour up and down ensued in the back of the bus all the way to the dinner table.
So the point that was being made was that cisgender women, like transgender women, had the right to organise on their own, that transgender only spaces were valid, and thus cisgender only spaces were as well. The person in question accepted that transgender women are women, just that their different experiences validated exclusion in this particular instance.
It is one of these double edged swords, where transgender groups start transgender spaces, and at the same time criticise exclusion of transgender persons in women’s spaces; but I think that this is often misinterpreted. The question is why, why is a particular space limited to a certain demographic. Instances when that particular group is marginalised in a larger group, when that spaces is needed for support and to talk about said marginalisation: e.g. queer women, who are marginalised in broader women’s movements, justifyably need such a space; the same goes for black women, etc. My question is, in what way are cisgender women the marginalised group when any arbitrary comparison is made to transgender persons? Furthermore, when it is said that two women’s experiences are different due to different context (the argument of differenr gendered experiences of cisgender and transgender women), I can more than accept that, but why is an arbitrary line drawn according to a cisgender-transgender binary? After all, a butch lesbian woman’s experience of gender and oppression is arguable more diverse from that of a heterosexual married woman, than that of say a feminine cisgender lesbian women and a cisgender transgender woman.
There have been many great articles written online, explaining why exclusion of transgender women in feminist spaces doesn’t make sense, and debunking many of the arguments used by radical and second wave feminist (see below). But this discussion today made me wonder, perhaps the issue is that it is hard to accept privilege, especially as a women’s activist, and even more so as a queer women’s activist, or a woman of color; because when I look at exclusion of transgender women in such spaces I see a reiteration of what feminism often accuses broader society of: policing gender and all its aspects; I see an (unconscious) expression of privilege by those who claim to so adamantly oppose it.
Rankin, Lauren. Transphobia Has No Place in Feminism. PolicyMic (circa 2013-05). Retrieved 2013-09-08
West, Celeste R. Trans women in feminism: nothing about us without us. OpenDemocracy (2013-04-29). Retrieved 2013-09-08
“Kyosuke”. Trans Women, Male Privilege, Socialisation, and Feminism. Groupthink.Jezebel (2013-04-15). Retrieved 2013-09-08
Serano, Julia. Rethinking Sexism: How Trans Women Challenge Feminism. AlterNet (2008-08-04). Retrieved 2013-09-08