Thursday, January 18, 2007

of men and transmen

I got an invitation in my email inbox today, inviting me to what looks like a pretty fun event, put on by a queer dragking/performer whom I don't know well, but admire. She may even be coming to a party at my house tomorrow night, actually- perhaps I'll discuss my issues with here there, if I can get my thoughts in some semblance of order.

My issues are with the parameters established for attendance at this event. The email reads as follows:

I would like you to attend [the event] if you are a woman/trans-person or genderqueer....[description of funny, queer event]....Additionally please note non-trans men will not be allowed to attend.

And I have to say, that right there puts a big huge kink in my decision about whether to attend.
There are a lot of events/spaces that advertise themselves as open to "women and trans only" and I'm not sure how I feel about it. I want to respect the right of any group to gather in solidarity, without the presence of potentially oppressive outsiders. I also want to refuse to be a party to discriminatory/exclusionary practices. I don't want to go somewhere I won't feel welcome, and I don't want to go somewhere I won't feel respected, but I don't want to lose out on a community I feel strong connections to.

These questions and inquiries are the shifting boundaries of what've been called the "dyke/FTM border wars" and

Being invited to a space that's labeled as being for "women and trans only" makes me feel like there's a line being drawn in the sand, and I'm automatically being placed on one side of it without my say in the matter, a side that I'm not sure I belong on. I resent the line being drawn in the first place, but I especially (painfully) resent being placed on the female side of the line, a place that I don't belong, as I think I've been working pretty hard to make clear. As my friend Jacob said once while we were talking about this, he doesn't want to go anywhere that's making that distinction, because of the gross implications being made that basically are either 1) trans guys aren't real men, so they can still come or 2) real men have penises and penises are yucky, so they can't come, or some variation on such a theme.

I think I understand that the point of refusing admittance to non-trans men at this event is to try to make it a safe space for the performers (and audience members, I suppose). I also think I understand that what they are really trying to do is keep out the things that would make such a place feel unsafe, like sexism, misogyny, homophobia. And I also know that those things tend traditionally to be vested pretty heavily in non-trans men. The hegemonic man takes up a lot of space, whether he admits it or not.

What I don't like is the simplistic (dare I say transphobic?) implication that it's transness, as it's understood by the creators of this event, that separates the wheat from the chaff, the feminist transguys (or, too often, the safe and safely emasculated "tranny boys" - though not at this event, since I know the performers to be smarter and more respectful than that) divided from the pigs of the patriarchy.

It reminds me of being in my psychology class last semester, being righteously indignant about an experiment that the professor had conducted, trying to determine what individuals can guess about the knowledge of the general population- that is, even when they don't know something, can they accurately predict whether or not other people are likely to know it? Running a condition where he wanted to ask people about something they would know, he was asking women about the names of cooking utensils and men about the names of car parts. I, sputtering with my frustration, tried to call him out on a sexist experiment. He, looking at me, half confused half condescending, said "Do you deny that there's a correlation between gender and certain set of knowledge?"

And no, I couldn't, because (as his experiment determined), more women do know the names of cooking utensils than men do, and vice versa with the car parts.

What I should've said was something along the lines of no, but I don't think the correlation is strong enough or reliable enough to be used as a supposedly neutral variable. It's the supposition that women are in the kitchen and men in the garage that gives that correlation it's strength, along with the matching assumption that you can tell from looking at a person whether they grew up in the garage or the kitchen.

Likewise, in this situation, I can't quite deny that lots of non-trans men are jerks, and take up a lot of space, and can, consciously or not, contribute to an unsafe space for performances, especially with mostly queer, mostly female performers. This particular event has non-so-subtle sexual overtones, too, which can heighten the tensions between the Man and the Other, as we're being set up to be in this context.

But y'know (I hope you know. don't we all know by now, please?), every non-trans man is not the last bastion of dastardliness. Plenty of transmen are pigs. Plenty of women can take up space, be obnoxious/hurtful, or contribute to an unpleasant atmosphere.

It's much easier to put "women and trans only" on your fliers than it is to say "this event is committed to being a safe space for queer, feminist people and ideas. Sexism, misogyny, or any other oppressive or aggressive attitudes will not be tolerated" and then enforce it. It's hard to try to enforce something like that, especially if everyone in the community isn't stepping up to take responsibility for it, having not made their own anti-oppression commitment, or finding it easier to just decide that women and trans people are okay and non-trans men are bad.

And, while they're at it, to assume and decide what it means to be labeled as such. "Genderqueer" persons are invited, but "non-trans men" are not. So, are genderqueer folks with penises allowed to attend or not? Are we breaking down to an underwear check, with all of the ridiculousness that encompasses? Genderqueer and trans person is too often used as code for "person with a vagina" and all of the assumptions that go along with it. Various famous music festivals (cough, cough) have their "womyn-born womyn only" policies that strike me as hurtful and misguided, and based on these same assumptions about what it means to be a woman, what it means to have been raised a woman, what kind of experiences one has when one is raised "as a woman" and what that means about potential camaraderie, allyship, friendship.

I was raised "as a girl" and I had a pretty different experience than most women do. You could argue that it's because of my queerness, but I had a pretty different experience than most dykes do. I have some common ground, sure, but there are a lot of chasms gaping between us, too, and why ignore those chasms when you're making such a big deal about the ones between you and someone with a dick?


Anyway. "Women and trans only" is not the place for me.


Anonymous said...

That is very disturbing, and I hope you didn't go.

Note that some of the assumptions included in the "women and transmen only" thing is that 1) all transmen have lived enough of their lives as "women" that they'll just "understand", regardless of personality, history, or beliefs and 2) no transmen have penises, and you can always tell a transman from a non-transman.

Believe it or not, some guys grew up as guys, and/or have spent far more time in their lives as men than they ever did as women or girls. A history of girlhood or womanhood is actually specific to certain guys and not others. Further, as you touched on, there is nothing about a transguy that makes him automatically more sensitive, more feminist, more activist, or less of an asshole than the next guy.

Also, believe it or not, there are a number of younger guys out in the world who have already had bottom surgery. There are also a number of guys who think of their T-enhanced clit as their dick. So if the dick is equal to oppression, who gets to check who has it and who doesn't?

Finally, and I know this isn't a point that flies in "queer" (that is, queer female) space, not all men are oppressive assholes. And by drawing up those kind of rules, the organizers of that event are actually burning bridges to potential allies. There are all sorts of non-trans men-- gay, straight, bi, and others-- who adhere to the same ideals of respect and positive space as queer women are assumed to. (which, by the way, not all queer women are necessarily respectful of anyone.. but thats a whole nother can of worms)

If it makes any difference, I'm nearly okay with the idea of "women's space". I'm okay with that space encompassing people who currently identify as women. However, I'm not okay with discriminating against men generally, then deciding that transmen are the safer, more compassionate, un-penised alternatives to "real" men. so we get a special pass to the girls' club. no thanks!

hope you don't take this as any kind of harsh criticism. I think these are great thoughts. it's just too reminiscent of the MichFest BS, and I really would love to see women stop making men The Enemy.

Elise said...

Hey, Eli-
It's Elise, Leander's g-friend. He told me about your post and how impressed he was about it, and his enthusiasm led me to read it. I lived in a "women and trans only" space for three years before I moved to San Francisco. And your post encompassed a lot of the frustrations I had while living there. It is impossible to create a "safe space" by simply doing away with one type of anatomy. Like you said, it can only happen when every member of the group is committed to being respectful.
On a related subject, I've been considering going to the women's bathhouse in SF, which advertises as being an all-women's space -- with the caveat that pre-op transmen are welcome. Are we drawing the line at vaginas? Transwomen are apparently not allowed. Again, another line in the sand. And again, another situation where I have to consider exactly what kind of organization I want to support.
Anyway, I hope you're well. It was nice meeting you a couple months ago.

Anonymous said...

you know, for a transguy, you've got some rather misandrist attitudes seeping through there. are men really still the patriarchal, evil "other" to you? or just the non-trans ones? or just the hegemonic non-trans ones?

think about it.