So I was reading and having some conversations about exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces, and I ended up doing some research on how inclusive domestic violence and rape shelters really are. I didn’t find the overall numbers that I wanted, and a large number of shelters just don’t say whether they’re inclusive on their webpages, but I found this report written in 2002. It’s a fairly long read, with 196 pages, but I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the topic.
The report itself is titled Re/Defining Gender and Sex: Educating for Trans, Transsexual, and Intersex Access and Inclusion to Sexual Assault Centres and Transition Houses by Caroline White, and includes such information as the fact that 45 of 62 surveyed shelters in the Vancouver BC area in 2000 were trans inclusive with no conditions. Of the remaining 17, several conditionally allowed trans women.
The Feministe link above links to Emi Koyama’s article on the unspoken racism in the trans inclusion debate, which makes the point that the idea that all women share similar experiences being born female and raised as girls erases the different experiences that women of color have while growing up and living in a white supremacist society. For example, how beauty standards are defined in relation to white women and how that impacts women of color. It centers the “common experience” of being born female, raised a girl, and lived her entire life a woman” on the experiences of white, middle-class women.
The report I linked above also discusses the unspoken racism in the trans inclusion debate, with a bit more force:
“…one of the biggest implications that we have seen… is women’s reluctance to include trans women in [women-only] spaces and racism, and white supremacy; the connection between those things… There was this time when I was at this conferance and… there was a trans woman in the room for awhile and finally she had to leave and somebody said “I just want to say I feel unsafe because there’s a penis in the room, and I just want to know how in a women’s only space, how we’re supposed to talk about that, blah, blah, blah…..” And so it made an opportunity to talk with this woman, which I was able to say just a little in that group, and then also meet with her and talk with her more at length about the problems of locating sexual violence in an organ such as a penis, and talking about white skin as an organ that represents lynching and systematic oppression of people of color and all kinds of violences; I mean if we’re going to be locating violence and oppression in an organ, none of the white women in that space seemed to have any problem with their white skin showing in that space, and the trans person that was there, it was really speculation on this person’s part that there was a penis in the room.
It was just absurd… the way that she was bringing that question to the group and what she was able to bring, the power behind it was that she was a survivor of sexual abuse. And so being able to really look at this piece of – white women in particular’s – just incredible resistance to including trans folks and trans women in women-only spaces I think, really reflects an investment in the binaries between men and women, and that we maintain sexism as the primary oppression that can exist in the world so then white women remain not responsible for their participation in creating, and implementing, and designing, and sustaining, and benefiting from white supremacy and racism, and imperialism.
By centering the question of whether cis women’s safety and comfort is threatened by the presence of trans women (and thus the presumed presence of past or present penises), the questions of racism, classism and ableism are simply elided.
Emi Koyama points this out as well:
Even the argument that “the presence of a penis would trigger the women” is flawed because it neglects the fact that white skin is just as much a reminder of violence as a penis. The racist history of lesbian-feminism has taught us that any white woman making these excuses for one oppression have made and will make the same excuse for other oppressions such as racism, classism, and ableism.
But for some reason, when I re-read that yesterday, it didn’t resonate so strongly as it did when I read the longer passage above.
The report continues with some discussion of woman-to-woman abuse:
One of the big problems that I’ve got with trans exclusion is that the kinds of things that you need in order to keep a shelter safe when you let trans people in and the implications that has for the so-called problem of “men masquerading as trans people in order to gain access to shelters and whatever” – not that that has ever happened once and people raise that anyway – that…should be no less terrifying than the idea of a lesbian batterer gaining access to a shelter by masquerading as a survivor, it should be. And, in fact, what it tells us is that we still don’t take seriously the idea that women are powerful! No one has …as a movement, we’ve not internalized that we are powerful; if we believed that we were powerful andthat we learned the lessons that lesbians can batter each other, we would be afraid of the power of a lesbian batterer gaining access to our shelter or our other programs, and we would take serious steps…
Both quotes are taken from interviews with women who worked in shelters at the time.
The comments also address how the question of safety in this context obscures women’s agency and autonomy:
So [safety] can trump anything, and just looked at, what does that mean? What does it mean to say that’s the most important thing? And where has survivor’s safety eclipsed survivor agency, of autonomy? And why have we chosen – Barbara Hart puts out this elegant little model that all our work should be judged against the measurement of “does it promote safety and autonomy for survivors and accountability for perpetrators of domestic violence,” which we find to be a very helpful thing to look at. But one thing we’ve noticed is that in the movement, we’ve really prioritized safety over autonomy; that safety is just it, and actually being agents, being able to think critically about our choices and be responsible for how we’re moving in the world and do that in a way where we’re seen, and we’re actually making choices in our own best interest, and all those things, that that’s really not been prioritized.
Or as Xana at Feministing put it:
As Caroline White, the report’s author writes,
Space does not become “safe” simply by virtue of it being “women’s space.” “Trans” 101 education exposes the fiction of women’s space as safe space, as well as the associated costs of maintaining the fiction. In doing so, it challenges women’s organizations to, as Diana expressed, take seriously the power, autonomy, and agency of women, and to take seriously racism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression as violence. Practically, Connie suggests that instead of working for a safe space, maybe feminists should be asking, “‘what can we do to make this space workable for us who are here today,’ or a ‘safer space’ or ‘intentional space,’ or make a space ‘thoughtful about oppression and violence.’”
All of these quotes come from chapter 3, the Trans 101 subsection, starting on page 97. I highly recommend reading this chapter if no other part of the report.