The Women’s-Only Spaces Myth

[CONTENT WARNING: TERFs, mentions of violence and sexual assault]

That last post was missing something.

TERFs have been keen to exclude transgender people well before 2015, for instance by  threatening to murder Sandy Stone or by deploying extreme shaming rituals at MichFest. In response to me pointing out that fears over bathrooms were invented, it might be tempting to concede that point but argue that exclusion in other spaces is still justified.

That won’t work. For one thing, look at the justifications given for exclusion back in 2014:

The justification for this policy is approximately this: that cisgender women experience a “shared experience of girlhood” honored by the womyn-born-womyn policy and violated by transgender women, who organizers argue grew up with male privilege and would contaminate a “healing space.” There’s also often talk of the sexual violence inflicted upon women who may be triggered by the sight of penises on the land (despite the fact that realistic dildos are sold in open public spaces). Often that trusty ol’ straw man of “men will sneak in by pretending to be women and then assault us” is trotted out as well.

This all-transgender-people-are-violent line is an old one, pre-dating Janice Raymond’s 1979 work “The Transsexual Empire” but given the sharpest outline there.

As one woman wrote of Sandy Stone and the Olivia controversy: “I feel raped when Olivia passes off Sandy, a transsexual, as a real woman. After all his male privilege, is he going to cash in on lesbian feminist culture too?”

Rape, of course, is a masculinist violation of bodily integrity. All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit, as well. Rape, although it is usually done by force, can also be accomplished by deception. It is significant that in the case of the transsexually constructed lesbian-femi­nist, often he is able to gain entrance and a dominant posi­tion in women’s spaces because the women involved do not know he is a transsexual and he just does not happen to mention it. [pg 103-104, 1994 edition]

By merely existing, Raymond and other TERFs argue that all transgender people are guilty of sexual assault on women. When allowed into women’s-only spaces, any transgender fem will automatically come to dominate it due to their inherent tendencies. This is so hyperbolic and delusional that it feels wrong to treat it seriously, and yet if you read to the bottom of that last post you’d see that some TERFs still religiously cling to similar claims. Alas, I must.

The easiest counter-example to these claims is MichFest, believe it or not. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival aimed to create a safe space for some womyn. In their own words:

MWMF is not just a party. It is a space wherein females—who have been subjected to all manner of degradation from the moment of their first breath—can unpack and put down the oppressions that are directly tied to that experience under patriarchy. The celebration that explodes over the six days of the Festival stems from putting ourselves back together again after the shattering experience of living as gender non-conforming, feminist, queer womyn forced to fit into constraints of what a woman or girl is “supposed to be.”

It is rather ironic that the organizers’ aim would be to push back against constraints on what women should be, only to ban all transgender people and engage in gender policing on the grounds that being assigned to the female sex at birth constitutes a “distinct gender identity.”

To eject a transgender woman from the festival, though, you first have to find them, and some transgender women look more like cis women than some cis women. Some transgender women have no doubt attended the festival, which forms a critical test of Raymond and other TERFs belief systems: will these transgender women immediately take over the place? On top of that, we’re assuming every festival goer agrees with the policy and cooperates with the organizers; the people who’d attend such a festival are likely to self-select for those who agree with its policies, true, but if you encourage a diverse crowd to gather it should be inevitable that a minority will refuse to narc on transgender women.

What I find astonishing is just how soundly MichFest attendees rejected MichFest’s official policy of exclusion. One of those “extreme shaming rituals” I mentioned earlier happened in 1991. The year after that, MichFest attendees were polled on their views of transgender women and an astounding three-quarters of them were fine with transgender women attending the festival, with the most popular reasons being “they are women” and “they identify as women.” The MichFest organizers may have thought transgender people assaulted people directly or by merely existing, but MichFest attendees disagreed.

[Proud Queer Portland]: Aside from the policy, did you notice any anti-trans sentiment while you were in the space?

[Jenn] Burleton: From the musicians, mostly not. From a small (but very vocal) percentage of people attending, yes. I just call it the radical lesbian feminist “Fred Phelps Brigade.” It’s the same mindset as the Cathy Brennans and Gallus Mags of the world: hate and ignorance disguised as socio-political opinion.

I felt like I would be unsafe (from the actions of certain people) if I came out as trans. On the other hand, I wanted so badly to just step up to the mic and say, “You’ve been enjoying the guitar playing of a trans woman tonight. You’re welcome.”

Burleton is a transgender woman who played at MichFest in the late 80’s and early 90’s after she had transitioned. Did she come to dominate MichFest after her infiltration, as Raymond and others predicted? Not even close. How about the transgender people who attended MichFest despite being explicitly banned?

Trans women who have attended Michfest feel a profound dissonance on the land. “I cut myself off after one beer, because I was afraid if I did anything even accidentally stupid, it would not just reflect badly on me, but on ALL TRANS WOMEN FOREVER,” Bryn [Kelly] said. “Supposedly, this festival is about being able to let your guard down; I had mine up the whole time.”

“There was definitely some intense hostility, but for every scowl directed my way, there were ten smiles,” Tobi [Hill-Meyer] remembered. “For everyone who told me I shouldn’t be there, there were five people inviting me to parties or to work with them. For every person who harassed me, there were three who held me in their arms and consoled me about that harassment… but at a certain point, the presence of negativity can’t be cancelled out just by having other people be positive.”

Even transgender women who were recognizably transgender were accepted by the majority of cis attendees, despite said cis people being a priori more likely to be transphobic. Contra the claim that they’d be disruptive and try to take over the place, most transgender attendees tried their hardest to disappear and blend in so they could avoid attracting the attention of transphobic attendees. Even those who were loud and outspoken about trans inclusion were welcomed and encouraged by many attendees.

It really was inspiring to see hundreds of cis allies wearing TWBH [Trans Womyn Belong Here] T-Shirts and buttons, and I wore my own every day. I was impressed how many TWBH organizers were fest workers and risked harassment for being so outspoken. Michfest is probably the toughest queer space in America to be an ally to trans women, so it was kind of amazing to see how many cis people were still willing to stick their necks out for us.

On the whole, TWBH probably outnumbered the WBW [Womyn-Born-Womyn] folks, but they had the establishment on their side. On several trees, the fest organizers put up some politely passive-aggressive posters to make sure trans women know we’re still unwelcome. They also had a deviously clever campaign of “wanted” posters to subtly let trans men know they’re unwanted.

What about the claims of more explicit violence from transgender people? Here’s the thing: thanks to a low base rate, attendees of MichFest were more likely to be sexual assaulted by cis women than transgender women. Attendees would readily acknowledge these assaults occurred. And yet, the organizers covered up at least one of them.

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.

If the organizers of MichFest truly cared about creating a space free from violence, they would have had an explicit anti-violence policy aimed at cis women and would educate attendees on it. The lack of said policy exposes the ban on transgender people as security theatre, something that gives the illusion of safety but doesn’t actually make you safer. There’s good reason to think transgender people are no more violent than their cis peers, and even if they were more violent their smaller numbers could easily make any ban useless.

Even on the most charitable reading, banning transgender people from women’s-only spaces will have negligible impact on direct violence. The fear of violence caused by trans inclusion is irrational and without merit. There is no evidence transgender people exhibit the negative stereotypes pushed by TERFs and transphobes, which renders their arguments for excluding transgender people null and void. They are no less mythical than the bathroom myth.

[2020-07-19 HJH] I’ve realized I never bothered to describe what MichFest is, taking for granted that you’d be aware of a somewhat-obscure US music festival. I’ve expanded that section out, and used it as an excuse to enumerate the thesis a bit more clearly. If you’d like to read the version that was originally posted, I’ve got you covered.