Should trans men be allowed into women’s colleges?

It would be an understatement to say I was pretty bothered by some of the views expressed in The New York Times Magazine’s article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley”. Despite the sensationalist title, the article was a well-rounded read, discussing diverse attitudes towards the inclusion of trans men at women-only college Wellesley in the US. I’m not going to descontruct some of the opinions expressed by the trans men in the article, because that has been done so brilliantly elsewhere. However, I do want to examine why we, as women and/or queers, welcome trans men into women-only spaces. And why don’t we welcome trans women?

My knee jerk reaction to the article’s implied question ‘Should trans men be allowed to attend women’s only colleges’ is ‘no.’ I don’t think a women-only space should be coopted by men, no matter whether trans or cis. I have always found the common inclusion of trans men in women-only spaces highly problematic. In the left-wing dyke queer scene, this inclusion usually simultaneously excludes trans women, whether explicitly or by sheer numbers. I feel this dynamic is offensive to both trans men and trans women.

When we say trans men are welcome in women-only/dyke-only spaces, aren’t we effectively saying that we don’t see them as men? That their female-assigned-at-birth status trumps their identification as men? When trans men participate in this inclusion, I also wonder why. Maybe they don’t want to give up a space they were formerly a member of. Maybe they simply haven’t examined the problematic dynamic of men taking up women’s space.

I just didn't want the first pic to be Cathy Puke Brennan
I just didn’t want the first pic to be Cathy Brennan

Although it may be bittersweet, transitioning means you do have to give up some things. For a trans man, he may have to give up the openness of women around those they perceive as other women. He may have to give up access to a dyke club, to a sisterhood. But, this is part of being a man. Sad as it is, the sexism inherent in our world means that women are mistrustful of men. Whether or not it is sad, women-only spaces are necessary and demanding to inhabit that space, as a man, is ignorant at best and misogynist at worse. It is clear that having been female assigned at birth does not give trans men ‘special insight woman powers,’ otherwise trans men might realize how women are routinely pushed out of physical, financial, institutional space. They then might realize how they are participating in that exclusion and cede the space to women.

It is also tragic that the inclusion of trans men in many women-only spaces often goes hand-in-hand with the exclusion of trans women. It’s weird to me that trans men would want to participate in this dynamic because it so obviously stems from seeing trans men and women as the gender they were assigned at birth, rather than the gender they actually are. Trans men are allowed in women’s spaces because they are perceived to not really be men, and trans women aren’t allowed in because they are perceived to be men. That feminist spaces perpetuate this transphobic dynamic saddens me.

Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women's spaces?
Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women’s spaces?

However, the exclusion of trans men from women’s colleges isn’t as clear cut as we might like to think. Although trans men shouldn’t attend a women’s college, what about students who as FAB (female-assigned-at-birth) and gender queer? If gender is a spectrum, where should the cut off line be drawn? Although a butch woman should undeniably be allowed to attend a women’s college, what about a FAB trans gender queer person who takes testosterone but doesn’t identify as a trans man? As the New York Times article posits, you could say that, by challenging gender norms, gender queer folk and masculine women are being true to the spirit of women-only colleges.

I don’t have the answer to this last question, so I would appreciate any of your insights. What do you think about this debate? Should any lines be drawn?

Here’s some food for thought by the great thinker, Julia Serano:

stand by your trans: the ‘they is’ argument

Tomorrow I am going away to meditate in the woods for a while and won’t be posting here until the third week of February. But no fear, here is plenty of reading to mull over in the meantime. You can also check out my links sidebar (on the right) and find other awesome feminist and queer blogs. I’m just sayin’…

“A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a young woman, a college student, who claimed that her professor had assigned her entire class a special little assignment, for extra credits, for students who could track down my legal name and bring it to class. This young woman had tried and tried, she said, to find it online, but couldn’t, and she really wanted those extra marks. Would I be so kind as to just tell her?” 

Ivan Coyote, “They is me”

Reading this opening of Ivan Coyote’s latest story, I was pretty – well, not shocked, I guess, because I wasn’t surprised. But I was upset. Sometimes I forget what it must be like living on the borders of gender, carving your own path. As I said in my previous post, reminders like these make me want to be a better trans ally. To do my little bit. And then I got to thinking about the whole grammar thing of using “they” as a singular third-person pronoun, and I got a little bit obsessed. It turns out, there is a lot of historical precedent to using gender neutral pronouns in English and a tonne of research on the subject.

Although Ivan Coyote’s wife (jealous much? hell yes!), Zena Sharman, has already compiled an amazing ‘they’ as singular pronoun reading list, I wanted to share my own (far inferior) findings on the subject. So, here you go:

A Lipstick Terrorist’s Guide to Beating the ‘they’ Doubters:

1. First of all, If you are looking for a 2-minute ‘I told-you-so’ to show the ‘they’ doubters before you move onto reading about another subject, this is the place for you. As it is made by a dictionary, any grammar snobs will be super impressed by its air of authority. I can’t embed it here because WordPress is being stupid.

2. Historical usage. Did you know that Chaucer used they as a singular pronoun in the 16th century? Did you know that Shakespeare did it too? Hell, even Jane Austen and the King James Bible did it! Who was it that said God’s word was law? I have happily plagiarised most of this information from the following website. Please go check it out for extra geek points.

3. There’s also of course the ‘accepted usage’ argument. The Oxford Dictionary itself argues that the singular they is now common in English and “widely accepted both in speech and writing”. There, go stick that up your pipe and smoke it (oh idioms, how I love you).

4. And then there’s the fact that you’re being a big transphobic plonker if you don’t use the pronouns your friends and peers ask you to. For anyone who feels that they (yes, that’s the singular they in action folks! See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?) could learn more about trans etiquette and manners, go here. I know I certainly could. And this is another really helpful resource for people who are new to having trans folks in their life.

Lastly, for a little fun, here’s a little song the Canadian singer Rae Spoon wrote that we can all sing together:

The Oppression Games

While searching for an appropriate title for this post, I spent some time looking in my thesaurus. I like thesauri. They truly are books of wonders. These are some of the meanings I found. I think they all apply to this essay:

game [noun]

1. entertainment, diversion, distraction

2. match, contest or play-off

game [adjective]

1. brave, gutsy

2.willing, prepared

For some time now, I have been pondering whether or not to post here about sexism in the queer community. I have spent a lot of time on this blog writing about my frustrations with the queer communities of Europe and North America and the gaping holes I see in simplistic political theories. I am always trying to follow my nose. To trust my bitch’s instinct to sniff out sexism wherever I find it, and report on it with a resounding, wolf-like howl. Yet, I don’t want my energies to be destructive. I don’t want to provide harsh critiques of queer communities because, after all, we are just a conglomerate of individuals trying to find our way in the dark. We hold each other’s hands as we wander, lost, through the dark alleyways of gender and sexuality. Sometimes we follow fun, sexy detours. Sometimes we stumble, like Alice, into new and wonderful lands. Sometimes we end up where we started, no matter how far we have walked, or feel we have travelled.

I have, so far, restrained from writing about this topic here for three reasons. Firstly, I feel that I have started the ball rolling on the subject, at least in Berlin, by creating my zine on sexism against queer femininities. My second reason is that my thoughts on the subject are not 100% formed and I am afraid I will make a huge fucking mistake. Lastly, I am worried that I will come across as a transphobic asshole and may even be one, too. Transphobic, you ask? Why, in particular? Because if I talk about the sexist dynamics of my queer community in Berlin I will have to say this: there is a hierarchy in the queer community, with some kinds of transmasculinity at the top of the pile of all things queer and unholy, which leaves transfemininities at the bottom. The dynamics of the scenes I move in say, both explicitly and implicitly, that transmasculine folks are more queer than transfeminine folks.

Cue: one big fucking political(ly incorrect) mess.

How can I distinguish my experiences of sexism as a queer cis femme from my own cissexism? Is there a point at which discussion of this traditionally sexist dynamic (masculinity is good, femininity is bad), which definitely exists in our community, by the way, will tip into transphobia? Anyway, isn’t my fierce energy better spent elsewhere? Shouldn’t we all just shut the hell up, stop fighting and just get on with it?

The wonderful butch transmasculine activist and writer S. Bear Bergman has this to say about infighting in the queer community:

“I think that all of these concerns and fears and angers and loves and all are completely valid and utterly understandable. And I think that if we don’t quit spending so much energy on fighting amongst ourselves, we are going to look up one day soon and find the Department of Homeland Security on our collective doorstep, confiscating our banners and banning us from travel or work for being security risks by virtue of being too confusing, one and all. Then we’ll realise what a privilege it was to engage in border wars, when we had the leisure time for that. Before we ended up spending every scrap of energy on survival. That’s what I think.”

– from Butch is a Noun

Yeah, Bear, you are so right. It isn’t productive to say, well my oppression is worse than your oppression because of this and this and that.

There is also my raging anger, however. There is also the feeling that, yeah, I have privileges because I am white and cis and pass as straight to a lot of onlookers (which can sometimes be a real bummer – for instance, when I want to get laid, or to be recognised by a fellow queer I spot while out and about), but I also experience sexism on a daily basis: in the world at large, in all my relationships and in my community. There’s no such thing as a queer bubble, right? And do I have the right to speak about my experiences of sexism? Of course I do!

And then, this complicated feeling leads me onto what I call the ‘Colonial Chicken and Egg’ argument of social justice theory. It’s the kind of argument you hear when governments justify their sexist development policies for undeveloped countries. The argument goes something like this: “Well, of course women’s rights are important and we will get onto them as soon as we can, but can’t you see that what this [insert group of people here] really needs right now is [insert human right here, such as access to medical care and food]?” It’s pretty colonial because it assumes that [insert all-knowing patriarchal authority here] knows what is best for said underprivileged group.  The struggle against sexism just ain’t as important as the struggle for medical care. But, to extend the analogy to breaking point, when sexism leads to women being systematically raped and murdered, where can the boundary between women’s rights and access to medical care be drawn?

And, aren’t I being racist right now by using a Third-World analogy to illuminate Western social dynamics?

How can I complain that transmasculine folks are benefitting from some kind of privilege in the queer community when transmen are only just starting to get access to the medical care they may (or may not) want and which they undeniably have a right to? Whose fundamental human right is more important? My right to not experience prejudice as a feminine woman, or a transman’s right to claim and inhabit his gender? The answer is, of course, no one’s. We both have these rights and these rights are equally important. But tell that to a community of 1000 screaming individuals, each with their own needs and own experiences of oppression owing to dis/ability, race, religion, class, gender (and more). Tell them that each of their needs are equally important and what happens? None of them can be met. Political theory collapses. Go directly to Jail, do not pass Go, do not collect your activist points. This kind of shit requires one to spend several reincarnations studying the philosophy of ethics. And even then we’ll make mistakes. Because, after all, we’re only human.

We prioritise needs in our activism in order to get stuff done. You have to make a choice, right? Right?

My experience of being a political activist is a balancing act. Sometimes I have to hold my body on the fine edge of a knife and make this painful, dangerous terrain my home.

Reading the writing of artists like Ivan E. Coyote and S. Bear Bergman reminds me not only what I desperately, hopelessly love about transmasculine folks, but also encourages me to be the best ally, the best person I possibly can. But, sometimes, I get lost. Sometimes I am not sure where I am going, and I can’t see whether the path I am following will lead to a dead end or take me forward. I get distracted and I have blindspots, like anyone else. Sometimes, all I need is a little help. A friend to gently take my hand and help me find the way.

After all, I am only human.

dating, sexy consent and a question…

I have been so happy with readers’ responses to posts on this blog. When I don’t want to have sex went off the wall, with, like, a million hits in one day (ok, that’s an exaggeration) it became clear to me that lots of other people feel pressured to be sexual or be sexual in a certain way, in order to try and fit into the queer community. Thank you so much for all your comments. You have given me much food for feminist thought. Now I would like to broaden the topic and think about pressures around sexuality which exist in every aspect of society, even if they play out in slightly different ways. And one thing that has really been getting my goat recently (great expression), is other people’s expectations of me in the context of dating.

My slight feminist obsession with gender, sex and sexuality has led me to do a lot of outreach work on these subjects with young people. In Montreal I worked with both a sexual assault centre and an LGBT organisation along the lines of Berlin’s ABqueer to talk to first-year university students about sexual consent and intimacy. I used the same workshops to adapt the government’s qualification on sexual health in the UK. Discussing sex and dating with young people in London and Canada has given me a lot of insight into the expectations we are taught to have when we go on a date or bring someone back to our place. I believe that both men and women feel an excessive pressure to have sex, to follow a dating ‘script,’ which leads them to act out of peer pressure rather than to listen to and follow their own desires.

“Kisses in the movies will lead to beautifully choreographed missionary position sex without so much as an ‘is this OK for you?'”

In the workshops I lead with teenagers, we discuss an imaginary encounter between two people in order to think about what sexual expectations we have of others. The scenario goes something like this: two people meet at a party. They are either opposite or same-sex depending on the group, and of course the gender of the two people often leads the group to interpret their behaviour accordingly. These two imaginary teenagers like each other and they go back to one of their, say the guy’s, apartment. After a little while, the other person, say the woman, says that she doesn’t want to stay the night and wants to go home. She gives the guy a goodnight kiss, which he interprets as a sign that she has changed her mind and starts to remove her clothing. One thing leads to another and they end up having sex. The next day she feels really uncomfortable. What went wrong?

The groups’ response to this scenario can vary surprisingly, but generally the following ideas come up. The group will often jump to the defense of the man, saying it’s not his fault that this happened, that she should have said ‘no.’ Or that she is ‘leading him on’ by kissing him. This immediate defensive reaction is interesting, because it implies that we, the facilitators, are trying to blame someone for what happened. In fact, the purpose of this exercise is to find out how this scenario could have been avoided. How could these two people have negotiated the situation in order to make sure this misunderstanding didn’t happen?

“What if the guy thought he should have sex because his friends would call him gay?”

I have run similar workshops with LGBT youth groups, Muslim boy groups and Jewish girl groups, from private schools to council estates in East London. With a pretty varied bunch of people, really. And the same ideas always come up. This idea that a woman should be the defender of her sexuality falls in with the stereotype of the man as the sexual actor and the woman as the sexual receiver. A man’s role is to try and get as much sex as possible, and a woman’s role is to try and defend her virginity, ‘purity,’ not be a slut, whatever. There is the assumption that the man will, naturally, want to have as much sex as possible. Even in LGBT groups, there is the assumption that we all, men, women or queers, want to have as much sex as possible and if you don’t, then it is your responsibility to say no. It’s not very often that someone in the group will bring up the possibility that maybe neither of these people wanted to have sex at all. That maybe the guy, or girl, proceeded to remove the other person’s clothing because s/he thought s/he should. Because that’s just what you do in these situations. Flirting leads to kissing and kissing leads to sex. Naturally.

I love it when some wonderful person says, but what if the guy didn’t want to have sex? What if he thought he should have sex because otherwise his friends would call him a loser, a pussy, gay? A classic example of how sexism hurts men too. Depending on the level of the group, we try to discuss why people feel a pressure to have sex, where this pressure comes from, and what we can do to make communication between lovers more clear. Because our sexual interactions rely on a lot of assumptions. There’s a script. Literally. Look at lovers on the silver screen and their kisses will lead to beautifully choreographed missionary position sex without so much as an ‘is this OK for you?’. And when we get our ideas about romance from movies is it such a surprise that our sexual communication is so fucked up? Looking at Hollywood couples you would assume that they can communicate telepathically, their kisses and moves are so in tune. And do you know why this is? It’s because they are choreographed by a team of film makers whose job is to maintain this illusion of romantic perfection.

No matter how feminist, or ‘liberated’ we think we are, we still try to follow this ideal. This Hollywood dream. No wonder our sex lives are so hard, so full of miscommunications, because we, actually, don’t really communicate. If only we did have psychic insight into our lovers’ desires. I’ll stare into your eyes and I will magically know that now you want me to kiss your neck, suck your toes, whatever… It would make this whole sex thing a lot easier!

It’s not only teenagers who feel the pressure to follow a sexual script. This idea that ‘one thing leads to another’ came up in my life quite recently, much to my surprise. It turns out even super awesome feminist youth workers like myself aren’t immune to breakdowns in sexual communication! A few months ago, I was flirting at a party with a cute person and I kissed her, in a spirit of spontaneity. I didn’t want to go home with her, I didn’t want to see her again, I just wanted to kiss her. So I did (And I asked first). I was criticised the next day by someone else for leading the other person on. Sending mixed signals. Being a bitch, because I had told this cute person that I didn’t want to see her again. And this really hurt me. It turned out that, apparently, I wasn’t allowed to be in control of my sexuality. I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted. I had to follow someone else’s idea of what a kiss means, and ignore my own desires. I had deviated from the sexual script, and boy was I punished for it.

“Would you like to step into my boudoir…?”

Worried whether my behaviour really had been all that bad, I asked the girl I kissed if that had been OK for her. And she said, yeah, it was totally fine. No problem. So, neither of the two people involved in ‘the kiss’ had any problem with it all just stopping there. It was actually an observer who had nothing to do with it at all who found the whole sexual interaction offensive.

So, it’s not just the teenagers in the scenario who feel peer pressure to have sex, it’s queers like myself too. It’s pretty much everyone, actually.

These days I am exploring how I can communicate with my lovers to reduce the number of miscommunications that happen. The workshops I run always finish with a discussion about consent. How you have to talk with a lover in order to express what you want, ask what the other person wants, and to negotiate something that you are both happy with. That relying on telepathic Hollywood brainwaves really doesn’t work. Now this might all be a bit Sexual Consent 101 to some of you readers out there, but as my own experiences have shown me, consent is necessary in every actively sexual person’s lives (unless you’re having sex with yourself, in which case you can communicate telepathically what you want!).

And now, in the interest of improving all our sex lives, I have a question. Who can think of some sexy consent questions? I am always trying to think of cute new ways to ask for a kiss, a fuck etc. and sometimes my attempts are called sweet or endearing, but rarely hot. It would be awesome if you could leave your ideas in the comments below. Maybe together we’ll be able to think of some awesome new phrases… Can I jiggle your schizzle (I have no idea what this means)? Would you like to step into my boudoir and check out my awesome new selection of ticklers? See, I’m not very good at this… Help me!