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:

Counting calories in the office

You know what I fucking hate? Moral judgements around food.

The office I work in has recently relocated, which means I have been forced out of my antisocial hidey hole into an open plan nightmare. Not only does this mean no more cute videos of bulldogs on skateboards, it’s also forced me into contact with a couple of colleagues who are obsessed with counting calories.

“This is so naughty,” “How many calories are in that?” “I shouldn’t. Oh, go on then.” This is what I hear around me every lunchtime and afternoon. This kind of food talk between women is so common it feels trite to claim it’s noteworthy. But we should pay attention to this language; we should notice it.

I’m so mad at this situation that I’m finding it really hard to come up with coherent thoughts about it. Hearing this kind of language at works reinforces a lot of negative beliefs I have about my body, but have also been trying to de(con)struct for some years. I think I look quite good, with my round tummy and pencil skirt, munching on a chocolate, but then I hear a colleague joking about how she’s going to be “naughty” and have a cookie, and I think – “wait, am I supposed to be feeling bad about this? Am I supposed to be hating myself? Oh God I am, aren’t I!” and descend into a bout of self-hating that, as we well know, contributes to an obsessive relationship with food and, paradoxically, comfort eating.

OK, this isn't office workers on a donut, it's police on a donut. But I thought it sufficiently similar to be funny. Thanks, Tumblr.
OK, this isn’t office workers on a donut, it’s police on a donut. But I thought it sufficiently similar to be funny. Thanks, Tumblr.

It’s not like these thoughts aren’t already there. I’m not blaming individuals at work for my insecurities, but I am certainly blaming an anti-feminist work culture that fails to support its colleagues by excluding this kind of moral language from the office. I guess this is what is meant by triggering. Although I am leery of the culture of excessive trigger warnings I see around me in lefty, queer, feminist online spaces, I can appreciate their use in this situation. I just want to yell SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU ARE MAKING ME FEEL BAD ABOUT MYSELF AND NOW I CAN’T CONCENTRATE ON THIS DAMN PROOFREADING! Hearing them talk about their own insecurities remind me of, and contributes to, my own.

I have enough internalized fatphobia as it is, I don’t need people at work making me feel even worse. When are we going to learn that internalized misogyny is just as harmful and pervasive as the racism and homophobia that we already (mostly) know is not OK in our workplaces?

I know I could take the feminist high ground here and empathize for these people who have such a complicated relationship with food. But, you know what? So do I! And I don’t need to be exposed to anyone else’s.

So, the next time you joke about being bad because you’re going to have one of the chocolates in the kitchen, spare a thought to the rest of us who don’t need to be reminded of our own body hatred and difficulties with food.

And now it’s time to turn to you, dear readers. I would appreciate your advice. Do you have any strategies for dealing with this language at work? I really don’t think pointing it out to them would be productive, or supported, as it is the management team who talks like this. Any advice would be great.

Lastly, here are a couple of resources that I’ve found helpful:

Navigating assumptions about weight loss as a fat positive person

Self-hating feelings about fat and their transformation into FAT ACTIVISM AWESOMENESS

Orthorexia, the new eating disorder?

Laura Brightwell examines the trend in organic and fresh foods and argues that we are unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating.

Our eating habits have changed hugely in the past 10 years. Women on a diet no longer content ourselves with eating a salad and skipping meals. We have also started paying microscopic attention to the food that we do eat. Understanding more about the way chemicals in mass-produced and processed foods impact our health, we, as a culture, are turning to organic and fresh choices. Outside of supermarkets, our city streets are sprouting whole foods shops, raw and fresh restaurants and even our fast food chains are selling foods marketed at a health-conscious audience. But how much of a difference do these foods make? Are businesses that offer “healthier” choices just cashing in on our nutty obsessions?

Orthorexia nervosa may be a familiar term to some of you. For others, it’s totally new. But, the reality is, we are all familiar with the eating behaviours this term describes. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating. From the mass-marketing of organic produce to the popularity of “fresh” restaurants, orthorexia and related eating behaviours are an accepted part of our daily food culture.

Orthorexia calls attention to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one.

The first time I read the term orthorexia (admittedly, in my favourite book on healthy eating for women), was an AHA! moment. It gives the name to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one. Orthorexia is, of course, not just eating well. According to the AEDA, “Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity.  They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and […] self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise).”

Organic Coke by Koert van Mensvoort
Organic Coke by Koert van Mensvoort

For me and, I suspect, for many women, this description of a dysfunctional relationship with food sounds all too familiar. Although I recognize that orthorexia, along with other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, is a serious illness, like these other eating disorders, aspects of orthorexia can be seen in many people’s diet and eating habits.

For media and the collective subconscious, “healthy” is often shorthand for “thin.”

This new term calls attention to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one.People who exhibit orthorexic behaviours are often publicly praised for eating healthily. A person with anorexia who eats little may be lauded for their ‘restraint’ and dedication to their health. In a culture that values thinness over health, women are praised for unhealthy eating behaviours. For media and the collective subconscious, “healthy” is often shorthand for “thin.”

Other aspects of orthorexic behaviour include a feeling of superiority to others as your self-esteem becomes wrapped up in your eating habits. We often use moral terminology when we talk about to the food we choose. We say that we have been “good” when we follow a diet and “bad” when we don’t. Needless to say, thinking of all eating as “bad” and not eating as “good,” is inherently unhealthy. If we are unable to eat a cookie without experiencing a desire to purge or punish ourselves, how much of our attention to food is about our health at all?

The face of organic culture is undeniably young, white and thin.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are benefits to eating whole foods over processed, but the whole foods/organic/fresh trend of recent years seems, for many people, less about eating well than losing weight. The obsessiveness behind our eating highlights the problem with our new healthy habits. It is worth asking ourselves why we choose the foods we eat. Do we choose healthy food to feel good and nourish our bodies, or do we aim to do both these things while secretly hoping that we will lose weight?

Healthy or not? Cafe sells organic fast food in NYC
Healthy or not? Cafe sells organic fast food in NYC

For me, the understanding of orthorexia as an illness sheds light on our emotional relationships with food. When I eat a carrot, I feel good about myself. I feel in control of my environment, my body and my life. When I eat several cookies, I start to feel that my body is my enemy and my life is out of control. The desire to eat healthy food is, unfortunately, less about being healthy, but more about controlling my body, my desires and my weight.

Is it worth asking ourselves who has access to our “healthy” spaces and at what financial and emotional cost.

The face of organic culture is undeniably young, white and thin. I would also argue that it is predominantly female. As Christi-an from Kula yoga in Toronto says, the litmus test of norms comes in what kind of bodies are welcome in certain spaces. It is very easy to see who does, and who doesn’t belong in a space. When I walk into a yoga class, or vegetarian restaurant I anxiously look around to find someone as fat as me.  Unless I am represented in a space, I am unlikely to feel comfortable in it.

Although it might be tempting to dismiss my discomfort as neurosis, this exclusion of non-normative bodies has been well documented. The absence of fat-positive yoga studios for example, has led Kula yoga studio in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood to create a fat-positive space, as well as brown girl and queer yoga classes. I would, of course, argue that this exclusion stretches to the majority of health and well-being services.

Is it worth asking ourselves who has access to our “healthy” spaces and at what financial and emotional cost. If I, a young, white, middle-class, feminine, able-bodied, albeit fat and queer, woman feel uncomfortable in spaces that sell health, how would a queer person of colour feel, or someone who Is differently abled? And all this is not to mention the fact that such services are often expensive, thereby excluding those with low incomes.

If I’m not allowed access to a certain lifestyle because I don’t feel or look thin enough, then how much is this lifestyle about my health? Organic, fresh culture seems disproportionately focused on the way we look and far less on improving our mental and physical health. To take it even further, as this article argues, could our eating habits even be a way of proving our social status?

But, where does all this leave orthorexia? What’s so wrong, after all, with a preference for fresh, organic food over processed junk food? Although a fastidious attention to produce and freshness could be perceived as a healthy habit, as with all eating disorders and worrisome habits, the problem lies in the thought process behind, and the excessiveness of the behaviour. If we, as women, or as a culture, can’t ever enjoy a burger or a donut without feeling compelled to purge or punish ourselves by excessive dieting or exercise, then there is something tragically wrong in our relationship to food. This is undeniably unhealthy.

I’d like your input to help me work this moral foody conundrum out. Do we live in an orthorexic culture? I’m especially interested in how our gender dictates our relationship to food. Women often have a hugely complicated relationship with nutrition and our bodies. Is healthy eating, for you women readers, just a way to stay thin?

Are You Kinky? The Anniversary Edition

Happy Birthday to me! Happy Birthday to me! It’s been a whole year since I started this blog! I am so proud of myself for sticking with it. Yay me. And thank you so much all you lovely readers who share your thoughts and let me know when you like my posts 😀

I don’t know why I started this blog. I guess it was the overwhelming urge to get my writing out there, because I have stuff to say and I think people should listen GODDAMMIT! My most popular post, by far, has been ‘I Don’t Want To Have Sex’ and I have found that very encouraging. It seems that I am not the only one to feel the queer community still privileges one way of being sexual over another.

One year later and I am still – surprise! – really annoyed about this. So I decided to post this. Let’s call it the ‘I Don’t Want To Have Sex Anniversary Rant.’ In which I examine further the assumption that all queers are kinky, poly and into public sex. Read on:

Emailing an acquaintance recently to get the queer lowdown on the new city, I got a quick reply. “Are you kinky?” was the opening sentence. The message proceeded to list some sex and play parties that weekend, as well as some Halloween themed events. (Yay lesbian wiccans!). While I appreciate, so much, this stranger’s willingness to connect, this casual reply immediately got my (feminist) goat. It brought up so many questions for me: Why do we assume that all queers are kinky? Is this an appropriate question to ask another, queer, stranger? Why was I so annoyed? Am I just jealous because I’m not getting any? And, challengingly, am I just a prude?

I felt that answering ‘yes’ to this question would allow me to jump straight into the Montreal queer scene, no holds barred. Answering no would immediately exclude me from all the queer events I had just been invited to. As it is, I politely answered yes, I am kinky, but no, I’m not interested in the parties.

“Is this what being queer is all about?”

You could argue that, given the super sexual parameters of the queer communitythis is an appropriate question to ask. In this case, it’s not so much the question itself I want to challenge, rather the assumption a certain shared sexual behaviour that makes the question socially acceptable in the first place. I am not sure what to call this assumption. Sexual privilege? I’m-a-better-queer-because-I-do-it-in-dungeons?

Kink seems to be an access-all-areas pass to the queer community. For me, the queer community’s emphasis on sex doesn’t only come from its history as a group united by our alternative sexualities. It also comes from a misinterpretation of sex positive feminism. At its core, sex positivity is about being OK with your own sexuality. It’s about behaving in sexual ways that feel healthy to you. Yes, sex positivity does recognise that consensual practices of BDSM and other marginalised sexual practices can be healthy. Yes, sex positivity knows that some porn is feminist and empowering. But sex positivity does not entail promoting one type of sexual behaviour over another. And this is exactly what I see happening in the queer community, to the detriment of the sexual health of its members.

Image courtesy of Dinosaur Comics

Sex positivity is too often mistranslated as an assumption that all sex is good, and that traditionally marginalised sexual practices are better. This just isn’t true for everyone. Once again, in embracing the underdog we have pushed other people to the margins, simply for not having the ‘right’ sexual practices. Sex positivity has to recognise that sex and play parties are not safe spaces for all queers. That some queers don’t want to have kinky sex, or any sex at all. Some queers don’t want to hear about your fisting practices while they’re trying to eat their vegan potluck. As one commentator on my blog said, “there’s a difference between sex positive and sex dominant!” (thanks Nat R!).

As many of you know, while working out my own shit I have decided to not date for a while. I don’t want to go to play or sex parties and I am not interested in talking in detail about other people’s sex lives. Relationships, sexuality and sex remain fascinating to me. I just don’t want to talk about who you are going to fuck tonight or my own sexual adventures. For me, this is a profoundly healthy choice. It recognises that there are things in my life I need to examine and I need to take time out to do that. However, this choice is not recognised by the queer community. The fact that nearly all queer spaces are super sexed means that I feel uncomfortable in many of them. Sure, it’s great that we have DIY sex toy workshops and sex parties at our feminist festivals, but is this what being queer is all about?

“There’s a difference between being sex positive and sex dominant”

For me, a sex-positive environment would be one which recognises that the choice to not have sex can be healthy and feminist. For me, a sex positive environment would be one that doesn’t confuse queerness with kinkiness. It would be a space in which I feel safe and supported while I choose to be less sexual. This isn’t the environment I have experienced in queer spaces.

gratuitous cat image

Sex positivity should encourage us to engage in sexual behaviours and practises that work for us, rather than feel pressured, like so many of us do, to present ‘cool’ sexual behaviours. It should support us when we opt out of sex temporarily or permanently. Sex positivity is about cultivating and adopting sexual practices that feel healthy for us.  It’s not about falling into a way of having sex that is about the cool way to be queer.

How can we say queer is an umbrella term, when so many of our allies and friends are left outside in the rain?

Personally, I am not at all interested in proscribing what ‘queer’ or feminist sexuality should look like. It disappoints me that queer is.

I don’t want a queer community that gets its superiority kicks from putting other people down. I don’t want a community that pitches poly against monogamy and marriage. I don’t want a community that says kinky people are breaking social taboos and adventuring into new sexual fields, while so-called ‘vanilla’ folk are blinded by tradition. I don’t want a queer community that says heterosexuality and anything that looks like it is sexist and that homos are here to save straights from the limits of their own imaginations. I want a community that has space for the expression and sexual (or not) behaviours of a plethora of people. I really want all the freaks.

This privileging of one way of having sex and assigning sex a leading role in the queer community strikes me as a bit stupid. It ignores the fact that there are asexual people in the community. It ignores the fact that nearly every sexual person goes through times in their lives when they are less sexual. How can we set ourselves up as the vanguard of sexual acceptance when we intentionally exclude people from our groups for their sexual expressions? How dare we say our history lies in the development of queer as an umbrella term, when so many of our allies and friends are left outside in the rain?

Sometimes I think that us queers are so concerned with making ourselves look good that we engage in I’m-cooler-than-you-so-there kink contests. Loud conversations about how much sex where going to have and how reek to me of playground posturing. It’s as if we’re a bunch of peacocks strutting around trying to attract a mate. Actually, I guess that’s EXACTLY what we’re doing! But, again, it’s not just about getting laid. It’s also about proving how cool we are. I am sick of it. When are we going to grow up?

When I published my first post that critiqued the hypersexuality of the queer community one year ago, I got some very defensive reactions. Some people seemed offended by my critique of queer as a hypersexual space and ran to defend the status quo by suggesting that, hey, that’s just the way queers are and implying that I am the odd-one-out for not being the same. But others, the majority in fact, thanked me for talking about a huge aspect of living in the queer community that goes largely unchallenged.

If we were all super sexual beings then this norm would be just fine. If we all enjoyed going to play parties and having public sex then there wouldn’t be a need for this article. But the fact is that queers are – shock horror! – different. In fact, the right to express and live one’s sexuality how one wants, in a way that is true to oneself, might be called the founding rock of the queer community. As my imaginary Queer Charter puts it, the freedom to express one’s sexuality is a fundamental human right.

I would appreciate knowing what the rest of you think about this. Do you agree there is a tendency to privilege poly and kinky sexual expressions in the queer community? How do you imagine different sexual expressions such as asexuality and BDSM can share queer spaces? What would your ideal queer community look like? I would also like to thank all the lovely commentators on my first article about this, one whole year ago. It’s nice to hear your voices and I have learnt a lot from you.

Related posts:

I don’t want to have sex

Polyamorous is Not a Noun

Queers are Slutty, Lesbians are Boring

Queer vs. Radical Feminism: the Hoedown