The Cotton Ceiling: The best argument yet that TERFs aren’t feminists?

If you’ve been reading my work for any amount of time, well, I’m very, very sorry. But more relevantly to this post, I want you to remind yourself that I’ve long been critical of the argument that TERFs are not feminists. This strikes me as odd. After all, many of the same people who make this argument for excluding TERFs from the feminist club also argue that trans* women must be women, in fact are by definition women, otherwise they wouldn’t be trans* women, they’d be trans*-something-else. By similar logic, it seems nonsensical to take the group of Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists and then argue that they aren’t feminists. If this is simply a descriptive label and not an epithet, as many people including myself contend, then by definition TERFs are feminists. They would have to be or they’d be TER-something-else. TERSE, I guess. (And Lawd, Lawd, the idea that they might be “TERSE” seems self-refuting, doesn’t it?) So I’m not going to argue that TERFs and their fellow travelers who bring up the cotton ceiling workshop again and again to this day are not feminists in the literal sense. Rather, I just want to show why I think that the people who make this argument are functionally feminism-illiterate. They might very well be feminists according to some particular definition you articulate, but that doesn’t mean that they’re informed feminists or that they have a competent understanding of feminist basics, or that what they’re doing actually advances feminism in any way.

I bring the cotton ceiling up because recently on a thread here on FtB1 someone else brought up the cotton ceiling again. If you’re unfamiliar, this was the name of a Canadian workshop attended by both trans* and cis queer people, mostly women. During the workshop there was a discussion of barriers to trans*/cis relationships in queer women’s community. Since that workshop there have been persistent suggestions that this was some sort of how-to-rape-lesbians workshop designed to coerce women who don’t want to date trans* persons with sufficiently dick-like genitals into dating and having sex with those trans* persons anyway. One would think that this pernicious myth would die. But no, the assertion that trans* women rape lesbians and queer women and even “all women” has been around for decades, and it is not going to die soon. The backlash against the Cotton Ceiling workshop has already been ongoing for years. But this is very, very odd to me, because if the people opposed to the cotton ceiling workshop were actually feminists it seems like they would have realized by now how erroneous and inappropriate their attacks on any use of cotton ceiling metaphor actually are.

Now, other people have attempted to explain the historical facts of the cotton ceiling workshop, but I’m assuming that none of us were there (I certainly wasn’t), and proceed to explain why even without being there, you can tell a lot about the message of the workshop just from the metaphorical model chosen. What’s ironic here, is that if you know even the feminist basics, you already have enough to know that the claims that the workshop was about coercing sex and/or raping anybody are complete bullshit. So much so, in fact, that when someone brings up the “cotton ceiling” using that name and asserts that the metaphor is about rape, you know you’re dealing with someone functionally feminism-illiterate2. Don’t get me wrong, I’m frequently all about knowing the history of things, but in this case I think even more important than knowing the history is just getting the Freuding metaphor right. This is what the people for whom the cotton ceiling workshop is a continuing bugaboo have entirely failed to do.

The “Cotton Ceiling” metaphor is only to be understood as an analogy to the “Glass Ceiling” metaphor used in more familiar feminist discussions. “The Glass Ceiling” describes situations in which workplaces appear to have gotten over sexism enough to hire women (at all), perhaps even enough to pay comparable wages for comparable work, and yet the organization never actually hires or promotes women for its most important and/or most powerful positions. Corporations have offered many excuses for this, often claiming that since they don’t oppose hiring women for this certain position or that certain position that no one can plausibly claim the organization is sexist. And it’s true that many lines of thought may affect how decisions are made by people (such as members of a board of directors) that have the power to change such a trend of hiring only men for certain positions, but frequently the explanations they offer to convince people that the organization isn’t sexist despite never placing women in positions of power come down to, “We’re not sexist! Really! It’s just that [insert sexist thing here].”

Importantly for what comes next, the “Glass Ceiling” metaphor is not an argument that a company must hire a 16 year old mail room assistant for CEO by next thursday whether it’s good for the corporation or not. The point is that even when a woman is perfect for the job, even when she has had an amazing education, even when she has had all the best preparatory experience, even when her personal skill set could not be a better match, somehow sexism sneaks in and ruins the possibility that she might get the job. Tellingly, and importantly for our analogy, very often the rationale for not hiring a perfectly qualified woman that a company would be lucky to have as CEO is something like, “We’re fine with women. We hire women all the time. Wall Street, however, still has some backwards ideas and even if she’s good for the company in the long run, right now we can’t afford the stock hit we’d get for hiring a non-traditional CEO.” In other words,

We’re not sexist, but we have to make our choices in a sexist world. So we make sexist decisions. But not because we’re sexist. We’re good people. Really.

The “Please don’t sue us” is implied.

The Cotton Ceiling metaphor functions similarly. It recognizes that there are women who are attracted to trans* folks, who would love to date or marry or just fuck some hot trans* person, but who find themselves afraid of the reactions of people around them. There are too many communities where taking to the streets against police brutality targeting trans* folks is perfectly acceptable, but inviting a trans* person into your sheets is not. This is true in different ways in different communities, but has been frequently noted and is particularly heartbreaking in “lesbian/bi women’s communities” (making the distinction here between them and “queer women’s communities”).

Lesbian communities have a long history of policing the sexual relationships, the sexual behaviors, and the sexual orientation identities of their members, even the ones not issued a photo ID. A bi woman who is dating a woman long term in a monogamous relationship? You can accept her, but just call her a lesbian, b/c that’s what she really is. A bi woman who goes out on a single date with a hot guy she’s thinking of using for casual sex? Kick her out of the club.

In communities that police membership via sexual orientation (whether queer women’s communities or others), there are people who find themselves attracted to a trans* person but afraid to act on that attraction for fear it will cost friendships, community, support.

The Cotton Ceiling metaphor incorporates the Glass Ceiling metaphor by analogy in an attempt to combat such dynamics. Where groups (communities in one, corporations in the other) appear to many measurements to be anti-discrimination, they may still (and tellingly) have lines that may not be crossed, lines that are drawn by the hands of prejudice and stereotype. This group behavior can be critiqued even when there is a particular case where anyone might acknowledge that the best candidate for ACME corp’s next CEO is a guy or that a particular woman exists who has no interest in one (or any) trans* person.

The point is not about one hiring decision. Nor is the point about any individual decision made by any individual woman about whom she will or will not fuck. The point is about what certain patterns say about a community. The point is that when you create a community where someone is afraid to hire/fuck someone because of someone else’s prejudice, the effect is the same as being prejudiced yourself. Moreover, failing to fight that climate of prejudice where the partners of trans people face intra-community punishment for their relationships with trans people means that cis* people, including all cis* women (and particularly relevant to this discussion, all cis* lesbians), risk encountering a climate of fear that will at least occasionally override the sexual autonomy of individuals. While I at least (and I think most trans people would agree, though i cannot directly speak for them) believe individual women when they say they’d be interested in dating a trans* person but are afraid of community backlash, and while I even believe those women have far more credibility than the corporations who blame the absence of women in senior management on anyone but themselves, that doesn’t make these situations okay. A climate of fear that inhibits cis* autonomy and excludes trans* people from important aspects of participation in community is a bad thing.

We want CEOs hired for their value as managers and we want trans* people fucked for their value as lovers. Along the way, many things that communicate a general community intolerance – whether it’s gossip when someone starts fucking a CEO or job descriptions that state, “broad-shouldered, aggressive trans* candidates preferred” – have an intimidating effect that contradicts a group’s own statements about how open, inclusive, and non-discriminatory it is.

There are difficult interpretations of this idea, about which people can reasonably disagree, that (for example) assert that it is probably better to leave “no trans* folk” off one’s OK Cupid profile. No person has only one deal breaker. Is it harmful to consider whether and why this one particular one needs to be listed prominently? What does the profile author get from it? Does the author gain more than the community as a whole loses if that message also communicates to friends that the author might not accept them if they’re honest about their own attractions & loves? Is it really that much work to say no to any and all offers from trans* people individually instead of putting “NO TRANNIES” on a profile page?

There are other specifics that can be discussed as well.

But at bottom, this has nothing to do with any individual choice to grab your friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke by the hair and smash her mouth up against something interesting. Any individual choice might be fine. But given that we know that some people who are attracted to at least one trans person (each, one presumes) have passed on the opportunity to tap that trans* ass because of what the neighbors might think, isn’t it time that neighbors who like to think of themselves as trans* positive consider whether their attitudes towards dating trans* people are entirely isolated personal preferences? More importantly, while it’s perfectly fine to express those attitudes, isn’t it time to consider if the manner of expression might be contributing to an anti-trans climate that results in fear, loss of autonomy, and exclusion?

Put another way, in years past we queer folks questioned whether our parents were being honest with us and with themselves when they told us that they only wished we would have straight relationships because of some completely not-heterosexist reason, like wanting genetically-related grandkids. Many parents have come forward over the years to tell stories that included admitting that even their neutral-sounding justifications for opposing their queer children’s happiness were often inextricably contaminated by heterosexism. Similar stories have been told by parents who opposed interracial relationships and the racism embedded in their rationales for that opposition. Is it remotely conceivable that there is no cissexism affecting how communities approve or disapprove of relationships between cis and trans* persons? Of course not. Is it remotely conceivable that community disapproval has no impact whatsoever on the freedom of individuals to choose trans* partners? Claro que no. Is it remotely conceivable that community disapproval has no impact on the freedom of individuals who do choose trans* partners to continue their participation in their communities? Just no.

Given these facts, isn’t it reasonable that we engage in some deeper and explicit thinking about questions raised by a community’s surface denials of discrimination when individual members of that community repeatedly tell trans* persons in private that they fear community reactions to any sexual or romantic relationship with them? Should we, perhaps, think a bit about how how much to believe assertions of trans* positivity in communities where trans* people mysteriously never get dates or randomly end up with partners who don’t want to be seen in public with their trans* bae?

The feminist metaphor of the Glass Ceiling insists that we’re right to pay attention to the dynamics that exist where women mysteriously never happen to occupy the top, corner office. The point of the Glass Ceiling metaphor isn’t to force the hiring of specific woman as CEO.

The Cotton Ceiling metaphor exists to encourage honest engagement with questions about the extent of cissexism in our communities, and whether we are actually allowing our community members true freedom not only to refuse sex with trans* people, but also to accept or (:gasp:) offer sex with trans* people. The point of the Cotton Ceiling metaphor isn’t to force the fucking of one hot Crip Dyke (should any such being happen to exist). The point of both is to get people to question whether they are, in fact, living up to their stated values since statistics suggests that certain outcomes that we see in the world wouldn’t really be expected if those stated values were actually the values those corporations and communities practiced.

Understood correctly, we want corporations to be free to hire women as CEOs if that’s what the board of directors thinks would be best, free of the nebulous intimidation of the business and investment communities in which they participate. We want individuals to be free to fuck trans* persons if that’s what an individual wants, free of the nebulous intimidation of any community in which those individuals participate. The entire point of both these efforts is pro-autonomy, anti-fear, and, ultimately, anti-oppression.

Now if person, community or company undertakes the self-reflection the mismatch between stated values and real-world outcomes suggests is necessary, and if that person, community, or company comes out comfortable with the answers, then fine. But those on-the-ground-facts at minimum suggest that such reflection is necessary.

And that’s what the Cotton Ceiling metaphor is about. Unless you think that the Glass Ceiling metaphor is about forcing one particular candidate on one particular company for one particular management position, then criticizing the Cotton Ceiling metaphor for being anti-consent or rape-y is both bullshit and entirely ignorant of the fundamental anti-discrimination arguments feminists use every day. And if you do think that’s what the Glass Ceiling metaphor is all about, well, you’re entirely ignorant of the fundamental anti-discrimination arguments feminists use every day.

Either way, the people who think the existence and use of the Cotton Ceiling metaphor is anti-woman, anti-consent, pro-discrimination, or pro-rape are fundamentally feminism-illiterate.

1: I’m not going to look it up again, but it was either on Pharyngula or on Mano Singham’s blog

2: After this point, the vast majority of this post is either copied or adapted from a comment I made early this year  on


  1. StevoR says

    If you’ve been reading my work for any amount of time, well, I’m very, very sorry.

    Please dont be. And thankyou.

    Respect. Thanks. And please keep doing what you do.

  2. StevoR says

    Apologies. I fd up again, Blockquote fail. Guess ya know what I mean? Hope so & feel free to fix & delete this accordingly

  3. Hj Hornbeck says

    I’ve heard of the Cotton Ceiling before, but I’d always thought it only related to an individual’s choice on whether or not transgender people could be sexual partners. Looks like I’ve been missing out on an important part of the metaphor.

    Thanks for typing this out!

  4. Owlmirror says

    As you might have been able to tell, I hadn’t seen the phrase used before the comment on Mano’s blog, and it certainly looked like something being invidiously misinterpreted when it was stated that it meant “lesbians being pressured to have sex with transwomen” (or even more dishonestly and invidiously, “rape”).

    Would it be fair to summarize your post above as follows:

    The glass ceiling describes the phenomenon where women are not promoted above certain levels with the same frequency as men, with the excuse being given that the business community at large is sexist/misogynist enough that were otherwise deserving women to be given those promotions, there would be negative reactions from other businesses against the businesses that made those promotions.

    So too, the cotton ceiling describes the phenomenon where transwomen are largely rejected as potential sex partners by lesbians, with the excuse being given that the lesbian community at large is transphobic enough that were otherwise desired transwomen to be accepted as sex partners, there would be negative reactions from other lesbians against the lesbians who took those transwomen as sex partners.

  5. says


    More or less, sure.

    I think that there’s also something else about how our individual choices are constructed, like:

    (For Companies filling jobs:) While feminists do not suggest that any particular candidate be forced onto a company against its will, they do suggest that if a corporation takes seriously the argument that “Well, other people are sexist and so it’s better if we just act sexist too, even though we’re not, so we don’t get targeted by the misogynists,” the corporation should do some introspection to determine whether or not they may still hold some sexist feelings themselves. After all, is prioritizing keeping sexist people happy over hiring the candidate with the best qualifications really a non-sexist thing to do?

    (For individuals finding lovers:) Likewise, while trans* advocates do not suggest any particular potential lover be forced onto any particular person (lesbian or otherwise) against that person’s will, they do suggest that if you are part of a community who would socially punish its members for their own choices in lovers, some introspection is in order. After all, is prioritizing keeping anti-trans persons happy over choosing the lover who would make you as an individual happy really a non-cissexist thing to do? Moreover, how is that even fundamentally different from accepting that the existence of heterosexism is a reason not to take any lesbian (or queer) lover?

    The reality of lesbians and other queer folk choosing straight lovers for a time because of the community in which they exist does not justify forcing straight people into queer relationships,…

    …BUT it does reveal unhealthy dynamics in a community. Part of the work of liberation is carefully considering those dynamics and determining how they can be uprooted so that individuals really are free to choose to be with the people they love and desire. This is no less true when discussing trans* persons and the people attracted to them than it is when discussing cis lesbians or other cis queer folk whose relationship choices are constrained by the heterosexist families and communities to which they belong.

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