Monday, 11 June 2012

Trans women in female space

On and off, for a few weeks now I have been reading about the dispute between different sets of people, both identifying as feminist, abut the exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces.  It seems, from my reading at least, to have polarised with both sides levelling accusations of misogyny at each other.  No-one appears to be looking at a way forward but each seems to have retreated to the trenches and dug themselves in for a long war of attrition.

I am at a loss to work out exactly which side I agree with.  The best I can come to, at the moment, is both and neither. As a man born male, I am on the outside, of course. But this does not exclude me from thinking about it.  The furore a few weeks back concerning the exclusion of trans women from the Goddess Temple of Orange County was particularly disturbing. On the one hand, I can appreciate that for some women, the presence of people they perceive as male can make them feel unsafe. That is an important issue and cannot be dismissed easily.  On the other hand, the issue of sexual identity is nowhere near as binary as it appears at first glance. There are people with ambiguous genitalia and those who, although outwardly female, have no internal female organs.  There are women whose chromosomes are XY and men who are XX. One estimate of the frequency of intersex conditions is as high as 1.7%. (To put this into perspective, a recent survey by the UK Office of National Statistics revealed that 1.5% of the respondents identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Few, if any, in the Goddess movement would suggest restricting attendance to those who were heterosexual.)

Thus, it is statistically likely that any large random group of women will contain at least one person who is intersex.  That woman may not meet the criteria for inclusion as set out by the Orange County Temple. She could, in effect "fail the medical". The population of Orange County is such that there would be around 51,000 intersex people living there.  This number is not insignificant.

There is, of course, a vast difference between intersex people and trans people. The former could be accommodated by restricting membership to those who were assigned by the attending physician to be female - although in the case of genital ambiguity that would often be as a result of surgery - and socialised as female.  Trans women, however, although unambiguously physical males at birth and treated as such by both family and society, report that they have always felt themselves to be female and vice-versa for trans men.  The lengths to which they have gone to remedy their conflict are, surely, worthy of some respect.  No-one, I feel, would undergo such necessarily extreme disruption in their lives and risk their relationships with families and friends without courage and commitment.  The figures are, according to one estimate, around 1 in 10,000  for assigned males and 1 in 30,000 for assigned females.  Far more uncommon, then, than intersex conditions but still making for around 300 trans women and 100 trans men in Orange County. Estimates about the proportion of trans women who may be attracted to a female-centred spirituality are hard to make but I would imagine that they may be significant, but if only 1% of them would like to attend the Temple that makes for 3.  What also would the reaction be to a trans man who wished to attend?  Further, many trans people appear, without very close examination, to be the gender they they have always felt themselves to be and, conversely, many women born women may appear somewhat masculine.  How is any ban to be maintained without some form of medical certification or physical examination?

In conclusion, although I can see merits in both sides of the argument, I feel that the answer is to strive for spaces as inclusive as possible with segregation only being imposed for specific purposes. These would include, but not be limited to, blood ceremonies and the healing of sexual wounds.   This I see to be a goal - and we are a long way from it at present.  Many nowadays find it difficult to express themselves in mixed gender settings and there is a need to honour this.  I would hope, however, that this need will cease over time to be as strong.  If it does not do so, then perhaps the movement is failing.  There are many unresolved issues yet to be addressed, including the definite complication of sexual attraction.  However, I do not imagine the single sex environments are free from all possibility of power trips and sexual misconduct.

We are all children of Goddess and we all have our faults and our virtues, our wounds and our joys and these are seldom gender-specific. I respect the wishes of those who today feel it necessary to exclude men from ceremony, in order for them to feel secure and safe. I cannot see, however, how this can remain as absolute as many would wish it to be.   The link in the second paragraph above leads to an article in which a woman born woman felt very strongly that the insistence on excluding trans women in effect excluded her.  According to the comments others agreed with her.  Thus, the exclusion of one, very small, section of potential worshippers resulted in the exclusion of a much larger figure.  This cannot be a good thing.  the movement is very young and already we see signs of schism.  For this reason alone we need to find a space for a more reasoned and nuanced debate. Insults do not help. There is also the very practical question, as outlined in the previous paragraph, that a ban on transsexuals is ultimately unenforceable without gross invasion of personal privacy.

2 comments:

Elle Hull said...

I tend to agree with your points, Idris. And this - "What also would the reaction be to a trans man who wished to attend?" - is a rather interesting question, which leads me to also wonder, "What if the person is a hermaphrodite?"

When you start excluding one, it seems a case of excluding all and that becomes a bit too exclusionary for me. However, like you, I can also see times where perhaps having an exclusive closed circle might be necessary such as the ones you suggested.

You're right - exclusion cannot be enforced without invasion of privacy. I just can't see it happening.

Idris said...

For an example of the impossibility of exactly determining biological sex without invasion of privacy I would suggest looking here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_Angel - "the man with a pussy"
or here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parinya_Charoenphol

Gender and seuality are so bloody fluid that it is impossible to maintain the binary model any longer and I am sorry that so many people I admire still seem to be caught up in it.