So this is one of those conversations I tend to tip-toe around or talk about in generalities rather than holding up, and taking to task, my own, local community. So I’m a tad nervous here. Consequently this post (which is kind of on the long side, even for me – more than 1,700 words not including all the footnotes) is going to use my own, local community as one example in a discussion of a much larger situation.
Bear with me, please.
A few months ago, shortly after NMA Ottawa, I wrote a post about trans women, cis women, and queer women’s spaces where I talked about the phrase “I don’t want to hurt someone”.
Much more recently, I made a post about femmes flagging with nail polish and, in it, I alluded briefly to the privileging of masculinity in dyke/queer-women’s spaces. And I got a reader comment asking me to talk more about that subject because she experienced that masculine-privileging as femme invisibility.
And then, yesterday morning, my young lady and I got an email on one of our community lists, starting a discussion about this article on Feministing, the phrase “women and trans”, and the growing perception of it – or the underlying vibe at events, dating tendencies, and spaces labeled as such – as Problematic or Not Okay.
And I thought: The privileging of masculinity within dyke space; and the prevalence of the phrase “women and trans” to describe the desired demographics of a particular type of dyke space; and the exclusion that queer trans women frequently feel, to one degree or another, in that particular type of dyke space… Those are all related.
So I decided to try and write about that inter-relation and about how the phrase “women and trans” is exclusionary in general, but also how it ends up being specifically exclusionary to trans women.
The first thing I want to do is to talk about me (me, me, me…) in order to reveal at least some of my more significant biases. Because I think that has an effect on the use of “women and trans” and how its use is perceived.
First thing is that I’m binary-identified, cisgender, cissexual, and femme.
So I don’t have a “masculine side”. My experience of “having” a masculine gender presentation has been – a few times a year, so not exactly frequently – one of being misgendered by people who are drunk, distracted, or just very narrow-minded in terms of their understanding of “woman”, who have seen my height and, maybe, my shoulders and thought That has got to be a guy…
I don’t have to pack two sets of clothes for every vacation/event/trip because I don’t know, for sure, which point on my own gender spectrum I’ll be occupying on any given day. I’ve only got the one point, and it’s firmly rooted in “chick”. (Which means that there’s going to be a fair bit of “I imagine that, maybe” and “I’ve heard people with X experience say” in this essay).
Second thing is that, perhaps in spite of being a bi-dyke rather than a “capital L lesbian”, I’ve got a dyke separatist streak in me that’s a good mile wide. My definition of “women” might be vastly different from the biological reductionism espoused by, say, a certain music festival we all know and loathe, but I still get fluttery over the concepts of “women’s land” and “women’s space” and “women’s experiences” and stuff like that. When I see “women and trans party”, what I want it to mean is “cis and trans WOMEN’S PARTY (with, okay, maybe a couple of guys thrown in because they’re somebody’s partner)”.
Third thing is my own dating history. Most of the women I’ve fallen for, crushed on, flirted with, dated, partnered, and loved have (a) been feminine of center in their gender presentation, (b) had a history of transition or ID’d as trans(sexual), (c) been somewhere on the bi/queer/pan spectrum rather than being “gold star lesbians”, or (d) all of the above.
All of this to say that, both personally and romantically, I have a vested interest in spaces where femmes, feminine-of-centre bi-dykes & queer chicks, transsexual women, women with trans histories, and women whose gender histories, sexual orientations, and gender presentations blend some or all of those categories in various ways, are welcomed on more than just paper.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that because where a given person’s gender ID and gender presentation “live” is going to have a big effect on the kind of space they want to occupy/create and – more to the point of this post – what the phrase “women and trans” is going to mean to them and potentially how they’re going to perceive spaces/events that are labeled as such.
Which leads me to this (lots of speculation):
I imagine that someone who is faab and genderqueer/genderfluid might read “women and trans” as “I can bring all my selves to the party”. Not having to force yourself into a binary ID/presentation when that’s not you is, I can assume, kind of a help.
Likewise, I imagine that a queer faab chick who tends to date (faab) people who are masculine-of-centre in their gender presentations or whose gender identities are somewhere on the trans-masculine spectrum… would probably have a vested interest, romantically speaking, in attending events where their partners (or potential partners) wouldn’t be excluded. Likewise, maybe/maybe-not, she might feel more secure in a “women and trans” space because (maybe?) she wouldn’t feel like her own identity as a queer woman could be challenged/forfeited due to the gender-ID of her partners.
SexGeek has an (old) post called venn diagrams of likelihood about the energetic/attitudinal differences she frequently sees between “pansexual” play spaces and “women and trans”/“queer and trans” play spaces. Some of the language is a little dated, but I think it’s a relevant counterpoint to this in terms of the kind of vibe that (cissexual and/or faab) people may be using “woman and trans” to describe.
Which is great.
I can’t help thinking that the experience of spaces/events labeled “women and trans” is probably quite different – maybe identity-splitting, maybe erasing, maybe invalidating, maybe anxiety-provoking, maybe something else entirely – for the chicks who are both trans and women… you can see that reflected in the original “I’ve had it with ‘I date women and trans men’” article, linked at the beginning of this post, but also in the author’s follow-up post and elsewhere, from other bloggers (e.g.: here and here).
Now all of that is, yes, a total guess on my part – albeit a guess based on anecdata (perhaps not much better than a guess based on fuck-all) but there you have it.
So. Moving on from there.
Where am I going with this?
First thing, I guess, is that I’m a cis chick and I’ve been twitchy about the phrase “women and trans” for a couple of years – through organizing an event with that designation, even, though I don’t like what that might say about me – because, like it or not, good intentions or not, someone is getting left out or delegitimized when we use those words to describe our community or our events.
The guys who come to (and, in some situations, run) the “women and trans” events that I attend (and, in some situations, run) are by and large the kind of guys I’m okay with letting into my “boy-free zone” of a life. I don’t know what makes them comfortable being men in spaces that are, far more often than not, explicitly coded as queer women’s spaces.
All things being equal, one would think that queer trans women would flock to these dyke-coded, “women and trans” labeled (fucked up language aside, though more on that shortly), events, knowing that those spaces are theirs, while het/bi trans guys might be inclined to give them a miss, possibly because they don’t want to get hit with the whole “dude-lite” thing.
Or, alternatively, all things being equal, the people who want the kind of vibe described in SexGeek’s post (above), wouldn’t feel like they could only get it by finding “inclusive” ways of saying, effectively, “Cis dudes (and your probably-present gender-privilege-induced sense of entitlement) keep out!”
… But all things aren’t equal, are they?
That’s the trick.
My women’s community, my queer community, my broader local and national QUILTBAG communities, are all born from, and theoretically in some sort of opposition to, a heteronormative dominant culture that, in addition to everything I said in footnote six, privileges masculinity over femininity, men over women, and maleness over femaleness.
That stuff is fed to us on every possibly level from the cradle.
Which means it’s buried really deep and it shows up in different ways in different people, and when you manage to strip away the latest, top-most layer, there’s always more, and more subtly so, underneath it.
My partner says that language is the least of the problem, that phrases like “women and trans women” and “women and trans event” are indicative of a much larger problem, but aren’t the root of it.
And she’s right.
But I believe that language both shapes and maintains worldview.
And I believe that, in a (sub/counter) culture that both privileges masculinity over femininity and is deeply suspect of the entitlement and gender-privilege of cis men – a privilege that we are translating onto everyone with maab bodies… yeah. I believe that under those circumstances, the use of the words “women and trans” to define our spaces will result in trans women fearing hostility or feeling excluded and therefore not showing up (or showing up only when they’re coming with an established partner; or showing up but not expecting to get any play; or showing up but not talking very much; or showing up but feeling like they have to keep their bodies under wraps in order to be tacitly accepted as part of the community; or showing up but feeling guarded about how much, if at all, they can trust the rest of us; or, or, or).
And if that’s what’s happening, then we need to find new language.
If what we’re striving for is that body-loving, pleasure-positive, privilege-aware, diversity-celebrating, consent-active, creative, hedonistic culture/vibe/space… and some of the people we want to include are feeling excluded and therefore not showing up… it’s not just on them to screw their courage up and come in spite of their misgivings. It’s really, really, really on us to (a) change the language we use when we’re describing our events/spaces – for example, explicitely stating “this is a party for kinky, queer, cis and trans women and for trans men who have history in our community & who are comfortable being in women’s space”, and (b) challenge the attitudes that back up, justify, or are justified by that exclusive language.
Thanks for reading this, I know it’s been long.
 Which, like, never happens.
 Actually, Alice Kalafarski has an article about that which includes the following paragraph:
[…] I know that the majority of festies are in the middle with her. They don’t want to be transphobic, but they don’t want to actively call out the bigots and be part of a conflict that makes it harder for every (cis) woman to hold hands and have a great time at fest.[…]
 I’m making a distinction here because, while I might think “My friend Beryl is totally a femme. She wears makeup when she wants to feel powerful and isn’t afraid to get naked in public”… ‘Beryl’ might not actually ID as femme. It’s a thing.
 I’m a member of an online support group for (frequently cis) partners of trans people and a LOT of queer-identified cis women post to the group about how, now that their partner is starting T, they (the post-maker) are having a bit of an identity crisis because they’ve ID’d as a lesbian for years/decades and are now (officially) dating a guy.
 Although “support” isn’t always what happens – frequently it’s “let’s ignore this person’s need for help and support in favour of crucifying the n00b for not already knowing the approved language when their partner’s just come out to them”.
 See also: Biphobia in dyke spaces which, like femme- phobia/invisibility, is related to transmisogyny: They all boil down to biological reductionism, androcentrism, and the alleged linear relationship between genitals, gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender presentation as taught to us by a heteronormative dominant culture that doesn’t have a clue what to do with any of us.
 See above re: mile-wide streak of lesbian-separatism, yes, but also: When I got divorced (from a dude) and came out (again) as a bi-dyke and a queer chick, this time actively looking for a girlfriend, I decided that my life was going to be, as its default state, a “boy-free zone”. What this really meant was that I changed my “default boundaries” and my assumptions about how I “had to” behave with someone who used male pronouns, and started holding men to the same standards of behaviour that I’ve held women to For Evar in order to be willing to hang out with them. Whadaya know: As soon as I did this, I started liking guys a whole lot more. /shocking.
 I feel kind of weird saying that because, in my idealized vision of a cis and trans Queer Women’s event/party/space, the (cis) women in question also don’t pull the “dude-lite” thing because we don’t reduce anyone’s gender-identity to the genitals they currently have or were born with.
 This is why being able to name ourselves is important. This is why colonial powers kidnap generations of kids and prevent them from speaking their own languages. This is why reclaiming slurs is powerful… when they are reclaimed by people who have actually had those slurs used against them.
 In some extreme cases – like the one Sherilyn Connelly talks about in her essay (“In the Shadow of the Valley”) in Visible: A Femmethology – this can manifest as a culture of “you have to be on T in order to prove that you’re butch enough to be a real dyke”. O.O
 Not nearly as short-and-sweet as “women and trans”, but it doesn’t leave anything blurry, either. And that matters. That said, if anyone has suggestions for a short-and-sweet phrase to use instead? I am all ears!
 A word on “challenging attitudes”: That doesn’t just mean “purge it with venom and fire” (something I sometimes need to work on). It means taking your beloved friend aside (which, I’m aware, is way scarier than bitching out someone you don’t know very well) and saying things like “I know you feel really [thingy] about Situation Q, but when you talk about Situations D and F as though they were Q, you’re kind of confusing things and you’re being really rude. Do you want to maybe talk about that?”
Which maybe sounds like babying the privileged people, but which is (I hope) actually giving the privileged people a chance to confront their own privilege, stereotypes, and internalized crap in a way that they may actually do it – rather than, say, a way where they’ll just clam up and, at best, do the gender equivalent of white guilt, instead of actually looking at their Stuff and exorcising it.