Female Only Spaces

Female only spaces, the oh so precious thing that TERFs want to protect at all costs from a certain subset of women. Yet for me female only spaces are the bane of my existence. I routinely get shoveled into these places against my will because of how my body looks like. The end result always is a miserable experience for everybody. It’s not just that I hate it—all the women don’t want my company in these places either.

I am AFAB, but I’m not a woman. Instead I am an agender person with masculine lifestyle preferences. I can also call myself a transgender man (but I am not a transsexual man, there’s a difference). I use a male name, and male pronouns, I dress as a man. I prefer to live as a man. I do not consider myself a woman, I do not have a female gender identity, and I strongly dislike being treated as a woman.

On some level, I’m tempted to say, “As far as I’m concerned, female only spaces might as well be burned to the ground.” I understand that such an attitude is immensely problematic. Women have a right to spend time with other women if they enjoy it. Moreover, some women need these spaces in order to feel safe and secure. I get all that. It’s just that I am so immensely bitter about gender segregated spaces. Their very existence is detrimental to my own happiness. We live in a cisnormative world, where cis people are seen as the default. There is hardly any accommodation for trans people. Thus gender segregated spaces can turn into a huge problem for a person whose gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth.

Gender segregated spaces can be either: (1) voluntary; (2) mandatory.

I have no objections whatsoever towards voluntary gender segregated spaces. Let’s imagine I am a member of some interest group, for example, an association of artists. Most of the events they organize are unisex. Every now and then said group of people organizes a female only event. I’m perfectly happy with such situation. I will just participate in the unisex events and ignore those that are only for women. As long as entering the female only space is optional, I’m fine.

My problem is with mandatory gender segregated spaces. Consider dressing rooms. In most buildings there is one for women, and another one for men. THERE IS NO THIRD UNISEX DRESSING ROOM. Alternatively, consider hostels. Most have gender segregated rooms for men and woman. Again, the same problem. THERE IS NO GENDER NEUTRAL ALTERNATIVE.

My passport states that I am female. I am not taking testosterone, hence my body looks more like that of a woman. On countless occasions, I have been shoveled into female only spaces against my will. Firstly, I feel uncomfortable there, I feel like an imposter, like I don’t belong in said space. Secondly, absolutely nobody wants me in female only spaces. Not only I hate the experience, women don’t want me there either. Whenever I’m forced to go to some women’s room, I tend to be grumpy and pissed off. I don’t particularly try to hide my emotions, and instead I annoy everybody around me with my loud and audible complaints about how gender segregation sucks.

People are sorted into male or female spaces according to the shape of their genitals. But women who actively seek and enjoy female only spaces do so, because they want to spend time with other people who are at least to some extent feminine. They want to talk about nail polish and make-up. They want to relax in the company of other women. The last thing they want in such situations is to be confronted with a grumpy queer person who feels pissed off about being denied access to the men’s room. And I’m absolutely unsuited for having a conversation about nail polish. I have never painted my nails in my entire life.

Last time I was forced to sleep in the women’s room in a hostel, all the women probably collectively concluded that I must be asocial. I pulled out my e-reader, put headphones in my ears, and tried to ignore the conversation around me. Whenever I’m very uncomfortable, I usually don’t try very hard to appear sociable. I don’t really try to fake it. People around me easily notice that I don’t feel well, that I’m tense, and irritated. Nobody needs this. TERFs shouldn’t be asking for it.

A trans woman will fit in some female space. At the very least, she will be a person who, unlike me, wants to be there. And that’s important. A trans woman won’t be a threat to anybody. Trans men are the people whom you really don’t want to force into women’s spaces against their will.

Personally, I am perfectly happy to spend time with a female friend. Or a few of them. I get uncomfortable only in situations where I am in a somewhat large group of people all of whom are exclusively female. Being inside some space that is officially designated as “for women only” amplifies my sense of discomfort.

How to fix the problem? Keep the gender segregated spaces that are voluntary. Those are fine. As for the mandatory ones, people can either replace them with unisex spaces or add a new unisex space as the third alternative to the existing two spaces. Toilets can be unisex. Dressing rooms for swimming pools, gyms, etc. can be made as technically unisex but with single stall cabins where one person (or a parent with a child of the other sex, a caretaker with a disabled person of the other sex) can enter for changing their clothes. As for hostel rooms, I see no reason why all of those cannot be unisex. But, fine, I guess a hostel can offer a room for women, a room for men, and a third unisex room for whoever wants it. By the way, I strongly suspect that most men would be perfectly happy to share a hostel room with me, it’s the staff who forbid me from going to a men’s room. And student dormitories should be unisex. Designating some building as “only for men” or “only for women” is ridiculous. Students should be free to pick their roommates as every one of them sees fit. If three women wanted to share a room, that should be their free choice. But if I want to share a room with two men, that should be my choice as well. And nobody should have a right to make a fuss about the letter written in my passport.

In case somebody is imagining that I am complaining about something trivial, there really are negative real life consequences on top of me getting grumpy for a few hours. First problem is that being unable to sleep in hostels increases my travel expenses (I don’t have much money, so this is a problem for me). Then there’s also sport, where my options are limited just because I get lumped together with a gender that feels uncomfortable for me.

I am not athletic at all. Whatever sports I do are purely for the sake of keeping my body in at least semi-decent physical shape. I’m not interested in competing anywhere. Nonetheless, I cannot do any team sports at all. Those are strictly gendered. I also cannot go swimming, because I don’t want to wear female swimwear, and I’m legally obliged to cover up my chest, I cannot just wear male swimming trunks in public places. (I know that rash guards exist, but those are a pain for yet some more reasons.)

On top of all that, even group training that’s non gender-segregated can be a pain and it forces me to make hard choices. Here’s an example. I love martial arts, I have spent years attending Krav Maga lessons. Even though lessons are for mixed gender groups, I still run into problems.

Firstly, before and after each lesson I must enter a women’s dressing room. Due to feeling uncomfortable in female-only spaces, I must change my clothes quickly in order to limit the amount of time I am forced to stay in a room where I don’t want to be.

Secondly, martial arts trainers have a tendency to treat male and female students differently. Most of the practice is done in pairs, and my last trainer always paired women with women. Thus I got to practice with a guy only when the amount of women in the room was an odd number. I disliked being paired with women.

My trainer also told women to do different things than what he told guys to do. Women were told to do less push-ups than men. Occasionally, women were completely excluded from exercises deemed “too brutal.” It’s true that I’m in a bad enough shape, and I cannot do that many push-ups anyway. But I hated being excluded from exercises that I could have done. The very reason why I went to Krav Maga lessons was because I loved “brutal stuff.” People hitting each other, hell yes, count me in. Besides, I attended these lessons with a group of average people. It’s not like every guy was young and muscular. Unlike I, the fat old dude who also was in a poor physical shape and couldn’t do that many push-ups was treated as a man by the trainer.

Of course, I can ask the trainer to respect my gender identity and treat me as a guy. Assuming I get lucky with a trans-friendly trainer, I still have the job to convince all the guys in the room to take me seriously and hit me for real during all the exercises. And that’s no easy feat.

Thus for me attending Krav Maga lessons was a cost/benefit tradeoff. I could go to the training and endure all the instances of getting treated as a woman. Or I could stay at home in my safe bubble of carefully curated experiences that doesn’t remind me of my gender dysphoria.

But I do need physical exercises. What am I left with? Only the sports I can do alone and on my own. I can try cycling for my commutes. I can go to the nearest park and run there. I can swim in nudist beaches only (no dress codes there). My choices for things I can do in order to stay fit are severely limited.

Such limitations would be less noticeable for a person who lives in a large city. Then it is possible to search around and pick a gym with gender neutral dressing rooms and a trainer who is trans-friendly. But people who live in smaller cities cannot be so picky. In my case, I have experienced countless instances of feeling discriminated due to the cisnormative society forcefully dividing everybody based on the shape of the genitalia.

By the way, of course trans women should be allowed to use female only spaces and trans men should be allowed to use male only spaces. If transphobia disappeared from the society, then that alone would fix the problem for many non cis people who could just use the gender segregated space that matches their gender identity. But I still insist that gender neutral spaces as replacements or alternatives for mandatory sex segregated spaces would remain necessary anyway. Personally, I do not use testosterone. My body looks more like that of a woman. People usually just confuse me for a butch lesbian. It would be more comfortable for me to just use a unisex dressing room or a unisex toilet instead of always having awkward conversations with some confused bystander: “I didn’t accidentally wander into the men’s toilet; I really feel like a man, my body looks somewhat feminine only because I’m not taking testosterone for now.” I’d prefer to just skip all that and use a unisex toilet instead. Less hassle is convenient.


  1. anat says

    I agree the way we handle gender and space sucks. Washington state has been making progress – the law requires that people be allowed to use the space that matches their identity (and anyone who is unhappy with other people they find in said space should be directed to a space with greater privacy). I am finding more places changing their toilet-facilities to gender-neutral, but even those that aren’t can’t police usage based on appearance.

    As for sports – have you tried other martial arts? My son had a good experience with karate while he was transitioning. In any case, it might be more of a matter of having a sexist instructor than the sport being inherently so.

  2. Ridana says

    They want to talk about nail polish and make-up.

    Stereotyping much? I’ve never painted my nails in my life either, nor had one conversation about makeup with anyone, ever (unless this counts). If that’s all the women around me were interested in talking about, I’d go somewhere else too.

  3. says

    anat @#1

    My trainer didn’t seem to be sexist. Back then (that was some years ago) the problem was with me. I didn’t want to inconvenience my trainer by requesting him to treat me in a certain way. I didn’t want to offend women in my group by refusing to train with them in pairs. I felt obliged to please everybody and conform to their expectations, unfortunately that meant behaving like a woman.

    By the way, women in my group did prefer to practice in pairs with other women, many of them really didn’t like the more brutal exercises. Thus my trainer wasn’t sexist, he just followed the preferences of most women. The problem was that I wasn’t a woman and had different preferences.

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