Vague rhetoric and female “spaces”

Siobhan — then you agree that cis women have a right to their own spaces, that trans women have privileges from having been brought up as boys, and that cis women have a right to talk about how their female bodies shape their experiences of oppression?

This is an extremely common tactic I see deployed in criticisms of my work. I don’t know if the people using it realize just how loaded some of those word choices are, and I wanted to pause a moment to unpack that.

For starters, a lot depends on what exactly we mean by the word “spaces.” Are we talking about a Sunday scrap-booking club or a crisis shelter? The differences between the two touch many areas–legal, practical, ethical, just to name a few. A private interest group needs absolutely no justification for setting its boundaries. In addition, no self-respecting trans person wants to curry favour with people who treat them like they’re untouchables. But when trans women (and it’s usually trans women who are the subjects of exclusion) talk about accessing “female” spaces, we’re not typically signing up to be the subjects of mockery at a poncy tea party. We’re usually talking about accessing the same life-or-death safeguards as cis women, those precarious flotation devices tossed overboard in a desperate bid to keep the drowning above water.

The problem is when a service that typically falls under “public accommodations” is treated as if it were legally and morally equivalent to a private interest group. The standard sleight-of-hand for the trans-exclusionary type is to drop a byline about “supporting trans resources” but unsurprisingly, not a single “womyn-born-womyn” radfem cent ever actually goes to trans-specific startups for that exact purpose. If a particular jurisdiction has few or no resources to help trans women in crisis, I feel fully justified in interrogating the motives of trans-exclusion from the existing services. It is, after all, directly and immediately contributing to the catastrophic civil and health outcomes of trans people.

So to answer the “womyn-born-womyn” types: When you say “we want ‘female only’ spaces,” I’m more than happy to let you organize your shitty little music festivals and your bowling clubs and your no-cooties-allowed treehouses, but when you mean things like sexual assault resources, I’m considerably less convinced, particularly if trans-inclusion is not the norm in the area served. Perhaps on some level you acknowledge the moral calculus shifts against your advantage when it comes to public accommodations–hence the conflation with private interest groups, where generally established social mores regarding voluntary membership give you the high ground.

All this, contained in the word choice “space.” I’ll continue to work towards brevity where possible, but damn, TERFs do not make it easy to be succinct.

Given that the primary motivation for trans-exclusion is a broader policy of often self-styled “male”-exclusion for the purposes of “safety,” the question then is: How, exactly, is safety constructed? What does safety mean for each individual? Are safety needs even consistent across a specific demographic? Trans-exclusionary policies have had their go for decades now, perhaps most infamously the MichFest “intention” to exclude trans women on the grounds that their alleged maleness constituted a threat to the safety there. But as researcher Jane Laverick noted [p.18], this assumes homogeneity in the safety needs of cis women, and exclusion of what the organizers rather persistently characterize as “male bodies” did not absolve the festival of violence: (emphasis mine)

An example of resistance to discussing the particulars of safety developed at one of the group discussions of festival herstory at the series of workshops which we conducted as part of the research project. A woman remembered an incident in which a rape occurred at the festival. Woman to woman violence was not a topic in which anyone else wished to engage and, after a few seconds of silence, a new topic was introduced. The issue of how the incident was dealt with did not elicit comment. Apparently, the perpetrator was asked to leave the Land and escorted off. No charges were laid and no report was filed with local authorities in Crystal County. This lack of response is not surprising, considering how recently the topic of domestic violence in lesbian relationships has emerged as something which can be discussed (see Ristock, 1998), and the lack of reporting around partner abuse in general. What made it surprising was that on most other aspects of the festival women were willing to engage in criticism, evaluation and lively argument.

The construction of Michigan as safe space is one in which women are heavily invested. The need for the construct outweighs the need to take the steps required to make it a reality. In part, this is probably due to the fact that the reality of complete safety is unattainable. Each woman brings her own ideas of what safety is for her, and addressing the diversity of those needs means unpacking the assumed homogeneity of lesbian and women’s space. While the women’s movement has begun to address issues of diversity, it has not yet successfully integrated those issues into ongoing discourse. Michigan participants reflect that lack of integration in their unwillingness to take on the issue of safety.

I consider the inclusion of trans women in a crisis resource to be a complication. Absolutely. But many of the assumptions that are leveled against us when these exclusionary policies are supported are also assumptions that can be leveled against the very women that the services claim to be supporting. Capturing the fear of male violence in what are perceived masculine bodily characteristics also results in the body policing of butch cis women; constructing violence as the monopoly of men results in the erasure of victims of woman-perpetrated violence; and the insistence of a space’s “safe” quality is precisely the sort of smokescreening serial predators count on. What better misdirection than an environment that tells its participants that rape will never happen simply because the space has removed “men”?

Organizers of crisis resources sometimes recognize this, so that even in the presence of legally sanctioned trans-exclusion, many resources still opt to serve trans women. But I also notice that the constructions of “safety” are sloppy and often incomplete in TERF mythologies. Were this simply an academic exercise, I would leave it at that–a scarlet “F”, please try again, hand in your revision by Tuesday–but real people are slipping through the cracks because of these inadequate constructs of safety. Who’s speaking for them?

The actual dispute is not whether cis women should choose to disassociate from trans women–but whether or not anyone’s right to “feel safe” trumps someone else’s actual safety, whether such a right could be consistently or logically protected if it exists in this formulation, whether the proposed policy actually succeeds in the stated objective, and whether that calculus changes under the purview of public accommodations vs. a private interest group. Do the subjective needs of “safety” undermine its quality as a proposed “right”? What if a white woman fleeing domestic violence needed the exclusion of black women from the resource helping her in order to feel safe? Is there a limit? If so, where is it? Why place it there, specifically, and not somewhere else? Does said limit actually facilitate the pursuit of safety or merely the perception of safety? Does said limit create danger for someone else? Is safety the same thing as comfort?

The organizers of MichFest never really answered any of these questions, but they felt safe and that was good enough for them, as my colleague HJ Hornbeck noted some time ago. I think it would be a grave failing for something as vital as a crisis resource to think the same way.

So, that was the first part of the original inquiry: “then you agree that cis women have a right to their own spaces.”

Good gravy.

TL;DR — The original question is wrong, never mind the answer.