Yesterday, I published a blog post about female only spaces. One of the comments for that blog post (written by Ridana) suggested that I unfairly applied a gender stereotype to women as a group. Actually, I semi-expected such criticisms to appear in the comment section, because I myself have been wondering about whether my unwillingness to enter female only spaces constitutes sexism.
I strongly oppose sexism, misogyny, gender norms, and transphobia. I want a world in which every person, regardless of their anatomy or gender identity, was free to choose their lifestyle and fashion preferences. I also oppose labeling some behaviors as either “masculine” or “feminine.” For example, there is nothing inherently feminine about painting your nails. It’s just a cultural stereotype that associates said behavior with women. Such stereotypes are immensely harmful, and I strongly believe that every person ought to be free to do with their nails whatever they like. The last thing I want to do is promoting sexist stereotypes or treating people unfairly based on their gender.
And then there are some experiences I have had, which make me extremely reluctant to enter female only spaces.
Last time I spent a night in a women’s room in a hostel was a couple of years ago in Münster (that’s a city in Germany). At that time I lived in Mainz (Germany), I went to Münster for two days in order to participate in a debate tournament. In Europe, many universities have debate clubs, which organize tournaments. Debate tournaments usually last two or three days, and the organizers provide accommodation for participants. In Germany, places where a group of students can spend a night on a budget tend to be gender segregated. I was sent to a room that I had to share with six women, all of them university students in their early twenties. The first night there was fine, because I went to sleep late after a party at a bar, and I got up early in order to attend the debate tournament. The second night I spent there was nightmarish. The evening was fine, once again I went to sleep late after a long evening at the bar. In the morning, I woke up at about 10 a.m. I had to wait for two hours until my ride back to Mainz. It was winter, so I decided to stay in the room instead of going outdoors, where it was cold.
The six women around me started talking about nail polish, they all had painted nails and went around showing them to each other. Afterwards the conversation switched to discussing make-up in general. Then they talked about female fashion. I had to spend almost two hours listening to a group of women talking about all these topics. I pulled out my e-reader, I tried to focus on my book and ignore the conversation. That, incidentally, is pretty hard, because even with headphones you still hear what the people around you are taking. The women around me probably concluded that I must be asocial. They pretended to ignore me, I pretended to ignore them.
At that time, I had already figured out that I wanted to live as a man. Yet my appearance was still somewhat feminine, given how replacing your entire wardrobe costs a lot of money. I felt like the women around me were not only ignoring me, they were erasing my existence. They just assumed that this was a women’s space, therefore everybody inside it liked nail polish and wanted to talk about it. Those two hours were torturous for me.
This wasn’t just an isolated incident. I have been forced to use female only spaces for all my life. I have heard countless locker room conversations about nail polish; many European women in their late teens/early twenties seem to be really into painting their nails, and they routinely want to show their nails to every woman they meet.
If I were in a male only company and people around me started talking about beer, I would be bored. I don’t drink beer, and I couldn’t care less about some other guy’s favorite beer brand. But having to listen to such a conversation wouldn’t make me feel like I’m being ignored and erased from existence. It’s nice to be treated as just another guy, and boredom isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person with gender dysphoria.
I have some female friends who have stereotypically masculine fashion preferences. I also have female friends who use make-up and like painting their nails. It’s up to them what they want to do with their bodies, that’s none of my business. My female friends who do like make-up already know that I’m not interested in it, thus instead we talk about the shared interests we have. If I’m talking with my friends or a few female strangers, I can influence the conversation topic and switch to discussing something that I find interesting. When I am alone in a room with six women all of whom want to discuss nail polish, there is nothing I can do, I can only sit in a corner and wait for this experience to finally be over.
If I’m in a mixed gender company with at least one man being around, women won’t start talking about nail polish without first checking out whether the guy finds it interesting. I was never extended this kind of courtesy.
Of course, technically it is possible that I am a victim of Murphy’s Law, and I routinely get unlucky. The moment I enter a women’s locker room, women around me talk about nail polish. The moment I exit, they start talking about astrophysics and philosophy. But so far I have had so many unlucky experiences, that I’m unwilling to take the risk once again. Instead I prefer to avoid female only spaces altogether.
I do strongly suspect that, statistically, women’s locker room conversations differ from those conversations that happen in men’s rooms or unisex spaces. I suspect that I’m not just imagining that there could be a statistically noticeable difference. Why do so many women actively seek female only spaces? Why do many people want friends of the same sex as they are? If people didn’t expect to have different conversations while being in female only or male only company, why else would they want gender segregated spaces in the first place? Wanting to spend time with other people whose genitals are shaped similarly to yours is irrational. Wanting to spend time with people whose interests match yours makes much more sense.
Ultimately, this is all a matter of statistics and probabilities. I never claimed that all women use make-up or like having conversations about it. Many women don’t do that. I am aware of that. Here’s how statistically noticeable differences arise. Most women do use nail polish. Most men do not use nail polish. Thus a spontaneous conversation about nail polish is more likely to happen among a group of randomly selected women. Of course, I have heard countless perfectly normal conversations while being inside female only spaces. Many women don’t want to talk about make-up or fashion. Even those women who love make-up and fashion don’t want to talk about these topics all the time.
In my entire life, I have never been forced to listen to a conversation about nail polish while in mixed gender or male only company. Simultaneously, I have been forced to listen to such conversations on countless occasions while in female only company. Randomly running into a conversation about nail polish hurts me in those situations when it triggers discomfort caused by my gender dysphoria. If I am in some public place and I overhear a conversation about nail polish between two strangers, then that doesn’t bother me. Conversations between other people are none of my business.
When I enter some space that is officially designated as for women only, people around me can start talking about nail polish with the expectation that I will approve their chosen conversation topic. They expect me to join said conversation. In such a situation, I personally am being treated as a woman. People around me expect me to conform to various sexist stereotypes about how an AFAB person should behave, they expect me to act like a woman, they expect me to be interested in things that are labelled as feminine by our sexist society with all its gender stereotypes. Whenever people treat me as a woman and expect me to be stereotypically feminine, that bothers me. It triggers in me various negative emotions that are caused by me having a gender dysphoria. I strongly dislike being treated as a woman, and female only spaces are the number one place where people routinely treat me as a woman. I don’t like it when my preferences are blatantly disrespected like this.
Thus I believe that I’m justified to say that I want to avoid women’s hostel rooms and locker rooms, because I don’t want to listen to yet another conversation about nail polish. I hope that this doesn’t make me sexist. Besides, being inside a women’s locker room causes negative emotions in me even if no woman tries to show me her painted nails. I’m inherently uncomfortable in there, I feel like I don’t belong in these places, I get tense and experience a desire to get out as soon as possible.
When a man wants to have male friends and use male only spaces, nobody questions him or wonders about whether he is secretly sexist. It’s taken as a given that, of course, many men will want to have male friends. I am not held to the same standard merely because of being AFAB. Instead I have to justify my demand to be allowed to use male or unisex spaces. I’m not complaining that some person questioned the sexist nature of a claim I made, because that was the reasonable thing to do. I myself have questioned my own perceptions and wondered whether I’m merely imagining something that isn’t actually happening. I know that anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence, but a string of anecdotes that form a specific pattern have been sufficient to make me want to stay away from women’s spaces.