This piece began based on my experiences of holding women’s spaces for the last 8 years, and attending them for the last 17 years. Whilst writing I discovered much more by researching. There are a lot of angles on the broader subject of transgender rights that this post doesn’t touch upon (e.g. in sport), and because my focus is on women’s spaces, I am more concerned with trans women than men. It’s also particular to the spaces I hold, mainly with Spirited Bodies, so I’m not really talking about toilets, prisons or refuges. One of the unique things about Spirited Bodies is that it involves nudity, and people who are nervous for personal reasons.
This is such a huge, important and fascinating subject that a whole book could easily be filled with it, however I merely make a starting point, trying to remain accessible and balanced. I hope more people start to long for a peaceful open dialogue, because the warfare is ugly and destructive. Meanwhile the Patriarchy continues to dominate at leisure, as we fight amongst ourselves. That is a real tragedy for all of us.
If you would like to read more about the ongoing debate over Transgender rights, this long article is worth a read – https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/04/woman-2 – although it is 6 years old, it is the most neutral and useful example I could find, and the same situation still prevails.
Definition of gender has been pertinent to Spirited Bodies since the off, as we began by only offering the experience of trying life modelling to women, but it wasn’t till we started doing women only events with big organisations, that the terms needed formal clarification.
First was the Women of the World (WOW) festival in 2013, though if I remember correctly, no one was bothered until perhaps 2014 or 2015, when I was asked for my definition of women for the purposes of the door policy. A lot of the WOW festival was open to anyone with a ticket, so we had to be clear who was allowed into our space.
What I said now seems dated, but the truth is, it drew a line in a way that made practical sense to me. I said, anyone without a penis. I wanted to include trans women, intersex people, other non-binary folk – as long as they didn’t have male genitalia, and that was only if they wanted to model (lots of people just came to draw and listen as long as they identified as women).
I was aware of some women participating who were survivors of sexual violence and, still in recovery for whom the unexpected sight of male genitalia in a ‘safe’ women’s space would be disturbing. One of them was a trans woman who before transitioning had suffered some of the worst male violence, and wasn’t ready to be in the presence of a potential trigger like that (she had stated as much in her interview).
At this time, I wasn’t aware that ‘trans woman’ could legally apply to a person with a penis – who therefore would in fact have been entitled to attend. Furthermore, if I wasn’t aware of the law, there was a high chance that others participating wouldn’t have been either. This delicate moment of appearing nude for the first time in front of a group of strangers would likely be the wrong time to suddenly be confronted by that.
My eyes were opened by a young woman activist who was part of a collective running a community space in my neighbourhood. I approached them about the possibility of running some women’s sessions there in 2015, and she asked about my inclusivity policy. I was caught unprepared and quickly told I was transphobic.
It started me researching, which was of course necessary, though the bitter pit of a slanging match I duly uncovered online to educate myself was far from encouraging. It saddened me (and still does) that what I do may touch upon this nasty quarrel. It is so ugly as, in my opinion, both sides go too far in their intolerance of the other; so that no common middle ground may be established to start a dialogue with.
There has been some progress in the last 5 years, however, if only a little. Since J K Rowling waded in most openly on Twitter last yeari, the matter has gained a lot more mainstream attention, and whatever one says about her manner, I believe she has done a useful thing. We inhabit a gendered world, a gendered culture, so the way definitions evolve and laws change affects all of us. If it is all happening quietly, with only the most educated and interested parties aware of the shift; a lot of people are going to be left behind.
It’s better to have more people learning about what’s going on, and what’s at stake. I am not wholly behind all radical feminist (or gender critical) politics, but I think they are right to ask questions.ii That is an important part of the process of a culture growing in a healthy way; and to deny the freedom to safely ask questions, which is what liberal “inclusive” feminists and trans activists are trying to do, is I think counter-productive. It’s not only gender critical feminists who have strong opinions about this. Before I became aware of their stance I was thinking some of the same things and feeling unjustly silenced when voicing several concerns based on my lifetime’s experience as a woman.
As I grappled with this new understanding of what legally constitutes a woman1, other considerations arose. If a person born as male can identify as female without transitioning in any physical way, that surely leaves room for wrong men to exploit the opportunity solely in order to harm women.iii I know from experience the lengths to which some demented men will go to, to reach and hurt vulnerable women; because they feel entitled. I know that attempting to vet them doesn’t always weed them out; in fact the most dangerous ones are very clever. They know how to pass tests and say the right things as I wearily discovered when I had to select ‘safe’ men for mixed events. Alarm bells were ringing in my head – even more for realising that making it easier for trans people to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate was being debated.
It is also true that there are strong arguments against this line of thinking.iv These state that said wrong men will find ways to be wrong regardless of laws which improve transgender rights, and furthermore that the 2010 Equality Act makes provision for safeguarding certain women’s spaces according to biological sex, where there are strong grounds for doing so. My personal experience with problematic men was concerning mixed events after all, rather than women’s; but perhaps it is natural to extrapolate. What I think remains of utmost importance is the facility for discussing all our legitimate concerns respectfully, without fear of losing jobs and opportunities. Currently, while the law does allow for women’s sex-based safe spaces, that could still be challenged in court. But more likely than that is just being labelled transphobic and the potential damage that could do to one’s career.
Trans activists are against the discussing of their rights as it creates space for their very existence to be questioned, and this contributes to hate crime against trans people as bigots feel entitled to be actively hateful towards trans and gender con-conforming peoplev. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this, because there are also very strong reasons why discussion ought to be happening. If it is forbidden, that can lead to a backlash, and also a lack of real understanding. Sometimes understanding itself only emerges through debate. There is the very real possibility that misguided individuals decide to transition because they haven’t had access to the right informationvi. Also, the active avoidance or rejection of open discussion generally tends to suggest that someone has something to hide, which may lead to them being perceived in a negative light.
Since my encounter with the young activist in 2015 (with whom naturally I was not welcome to collaborate with) I have managed to avoid the conflict area as much as possible, by treading a very careful middle ground. I have complied with several venues’ and organisations’ requests that my women’s sessions are open to all who identify as women and have included that in much of my events’ blurb for the last several years. Basically, unless I wanted to be exclusively labelled as a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) and transphobic, this was the way to continue being booked.
In any case, despite my quiet misgivings, I learnt that in practice, whatever I write on the event description, however much I make a big noise online about being trans inclusive (and I’ve observed this with other women’s events I’ve attended as well), no trans women show up. In fact more of them came along before I started pre-emptively welcoming them! Were they put off by the inclusive language and like alternative music lovers after the turn of the millennium, suddenly dismayed to find themselves part of the new mainstream?
What I actually suspect is, as the trans scene developed, new ‘cooler’ places became more attractive. A trans woman with whom I worked in 2013 bemoaned the lack of suitable places just to hang out and feel accepted. Hopefully that shifted soon after. Apart from that, as I mentioned above, sometimes I have noticed that transitioned trans women feel more strongly about excluding those who haven’t transitioned, than some cis women do.
Once at one of my women’s events, a person who was in the middle of posing nude for the first time within the group spoke up about their gender dysphoria. They announced that they didn’t identify as a woman. At first I thought: that’s a strange thing to say in a space exclusively for people who identify as women! But looking past the announcement, simply at their body, it was a curvaceous female shape, more womanly than my own. I knew that whatever this person identifies as, or said, everyone in the room would be feeling safe. We knew that they had grown up in the same sexist culture, likely experienced relatable puberty issues, and had to confront their reproductive biology whether they wanted it or not. In important ways that matter, perhaps on a chemical level, certainly in some common experience of growing up, we shared what we understand as the condition of woman. This person described their story in a very intimate way and it was well received.
I couldn’t help wondering if someone with a male body who identified as a woman would have fitted in so easily. I doubted it but I am totally prepared to be proved wrong and forced to think again. It just hasn’t happened yet – a trans woman who has not transitioned, coming along at all; or if she has, she’s kept her clothes on so far, which I could completely understand.
This sensitive aspect touches on both whether a woman who hasn’t transitioned can actually fully experience embodied womanhood, and whether cis women at my events would be prepared and able to accept her as a woman. Gabrielle Bellot describes her take on this state of embodiment most articulately in Borderlands, an essay in the book ‘Can We All Be Feminists?’, published in 2018. Before she fully transitioned, the world was responding to her as a woman, so one imagines that the matter of genitalia didn’t need to align in order for her experience to be authentic. On the other hand at Spirited Bodies women’s events, there are typically a group of nude women modelling alongside one another. That’s not an everyday experience by most people’s standards and it poses a challenge to many of the participants.
There are many different kinds of women’s experience to accommodate and consider, and naturally some needs may clash with others. There are a couple of different women’s groups I have been involved with over the years, for example, both of whom were formed by migrant women of diverse ethnic backgrounds, who organised to support each other. In both cases they lived on a council housing estate, in completely different areas.
I was interested in creating Spirited Bodies workshops with both; and while one was more accessible to the idea of nudity, both were resistant to including trans women. This was outside of their experience and understanding of what a woman is. They considered that for them, being a woman was very much connected with having a monthly cycle, having children, and all the associated issues. It is a significant enough step that they are able to gather together to share their relatable experiences when they all come from different cultures.
As I explained my experience with the feminist movement and what that means in practice, it became apparent that if the idea of trans women was radical, the broader understanding of that including women who have not transitioned, was completely foreign to them. It was an awkward moment of confusion and incomprehension, and I felt that such new ideas really must take time to settle.
Furthermore, I would feel wrong being white, British middle class, telling them they need to adapt, or even suggesting change. That I think should happen organically if and when it needs to. They are very busy already, serving their communities in important ways. It would probably be different if I was black or queer for example myself. I would like to add that writing this section was possibly the most challenging for me, because of being mindful not to identify the groups in question who are dear to me, or belittle their stance; making them sound backwards instead of the awesome, whole hearted and community committed women they are. It distressed me that I felt pressure to suggest they ought to change, which would feel like betrayal. I realised how much I value the trust I built up with them, and that in some way they were a significant part of the reason I felt inspired to write this.
There are of course individuals from communities like these who identify as trans, non-binary and queer; and I imagine as they emerge, it helps to change people’s perceptions and make them more included. In the case that on the contrary, they experience exclusion and discrimination, they certainly need and benefit from the support of allies. Knowing of the presence of such intersectionally challenged people would make it imperative to take a more proactive stance I believe.
By the way, this isn’t the end of the post. In the midst of a lot of dense and intense writing, I was just ready for a pretty picture.
Looking to the Future and the Law
Let’s consider the proposition of trans activists; imagine a future normal where it is simply accepted that everyone’s gender is as they themselves describe it, and for that to be the sole basis for defining it with no gatekeepers. One thing that immediately strikes me is the indication of a system not based on fear – of wrong men abusing it, for example, or children and young people being misled into potentially harmful choices. A system instead based on trust that people are in touch with their own feelings.
I want to say that however far away from choosing that in our society I think we are, I really am attracted to this idea and think it is very powerful, as a way of imagining a better future. It is so hopeful about humanity and if the young are pushing for this, that’s not to be sniffed at. It certainly sits with the notion of innocence until proven otherwise; an honourable stance.
Many countries are very far from introducing this, but there are several who have already, including Greece, Norway, Belgium, Portugal, Ireland, Malta, Denmark, much of South America and Pakistan.vii While some of these examples may be regarded as progressive, there is unfortunately another less enlightened angle at play in others. This is where homophobia is part of the unstated reason, which also happens perhaps more subtly in the UKviiiix. Being transgender may be seen as a cure for homosexualityx, which is illegal for example in Pakistan and considered unacceptable in Islamic law (the same rationale may apply in some of these Catholic countries too).
It is more complicated than that however, as culturally, long before British rule, it was standard in South Asia to recognise a third gender. Such people whilst subject to discrimination do simultaneously have rights and particular status in Pakistan. This is evidenced there, in the way that transgender people may identify on their documents; not simply in a binary fashion as is currently the case in UK law, but can also choose to be both or neither genders.xi
It seems that the younger generation are taking this further, and will overwhelmingly choose inclusivity. At least that’s what it looks like from my arty feminist south east London perspective! Factor in most of the depressingly right wing world right now, and globally this will take them a while to roll out, which is probably why they are so hot on it in places where they can.
From what I can see, there are differences between what works socially in many cases, and how the law is defined. It is argued that the battle of women’s rights, which even in this country is far from over, may go back several decades if sex is removed as a distinct characteristic, separate from gender within the law. That might not affect most people who are driving this cultural shift, indeed as gender reassignment is a protected characteristic in the UK Equality Act, all trans people with or without a Gender Recognition Certificate are covered in this respect. It could however affect a number of women, for whom the ability to fight a case on sex discrimination may be weakened, and whereby gender equality is regressed instead of moving forward.xii xiii
At the moment there are not so many legally trans identified people in the UK (about 5000). If however the Gender Recognition Act were to be altered to make the process easier, it is estimated by the Government that there may be between 200,000 – 500,000. While that is a very small proportion of us (less than 1%), if all these people change gender, which for legal purposes at the moment means sex; that affects a few things.
Not enough is really known, so examples are based on speculation about what seem like low probabilities. That’s a bit too abstract for me, plus the rationale doesn’t tend to take trans people’s needs into consideration.
Discrimination cases – a comparator is always used, which is someone with the same characteristic that the case refers to. If the comparator is transgender but the person with the case is not, it is unlikely in several instances to be a fair comparison.
Figures relating to inequality of pay and positions of power between men and women. Figures relating to violence against women, and women’s healthcare priorities. Basically, where we want to measure sex difference so we can address sex inequality, be it health, education, legal representation; the results may be skewed. These are all areas where women already struggle to achieve equality, but so do trans people.
It is not known how transgender people are distributed amongst the broader population, so we have no idea for example if there are sections of society that would be disproportionately affected.
The law often seems quite removed from our everyday lives, but it can define them acutely. The way this battle actually gets furthered may be in court, one precedent at a time. I don’t personally think these reasons should be strong enough to stop trans and non-binary people from self-identifying. I just think that the UK law needs to be made clear with regard to the difference between sex and gender, because as it stands it is confused and poorly worded.
Surely people should be able to easily change gender, but not have that conflated with sex, unless they are completely transitioning. Much more clarification is needed about particular situations where it matters. I realise that a lot of trans people do want to change sex legally (and about 5000 already have), but I’m mainly thinking about those who don’t transition. I share more thoughts on this in the next section.
A serious obstacle to clarifying the law, or doing proper research into the impact of changes on people with different protected characteristicsxiv, is the fear of being labelled transphobic due to the social currency this currently holds within academia and politically. Furthermore, it’s difficult just finding neutral comment on the topic to help me understand and write about it.
There is clearly a lot more to this which is a bit beyond the scope of this post. I will add that while I don’t understand all the legal stuff, one hint I found about the effect of gender ideology on international law was in a 2015 academic article; “in a number of countries, rich and poor, governments adopt laws couched in gender-neutral language, the effect of which is anything but neutral, allowing stereotypes and traditional practices to remain untouched and exacerbating discriminatory outcomes.”
It looks like old world patriarchal power structures, take advantage of gender neutral policy and language to support their own ends (in this case suppressing women’s human rights). This suggests that within law, trans ideology may indeed count against many women globally, if that isn’t mitigated against. This isn’t the intent of trans activists, but it may be the outcome that gender critical feminists (some of whom are lawyers) are fiercely guarding against, and fighting back about.
The biggest concern cited in the article is about violence against women. About the UK it states, “the gender neutral interpretation of the Gender Equality Duty, had a negative impact on funding to women’s organizations and the provision of ‘women-only’ services.’’ This article while clearly feminist, seems to be outside of the trans debate and therefore relatively neutral. The words ‘trans’ or ‘transgender’ never appear in its 29 pages. The writers express perplexity in their conclusion, at why so many governments are adopting gender neutral policy and language, when these things are so harmful to women. Men’s rights groups are sited as a significant reason apart from traditional patriarchal structures. It is mentioned that the drive to appear gender-equal is behind the phenomenon as well.
It makes me think that co-opting gender inclusivity by governments needs to be overseen by people who won’t let it be abused, whereby women and their particular needs get erased from the figures. Obviously that requires better governments, but apart from that, a united and inclusive feminist front might help. I mean if feminists weren’t blaming each other, wasting their anger and sense of disenfranchisement on other vulnerable minorities when they should be supporting each other, that could only help, right?
There is one common enemy, and they are sorely getting off the hook while this in-fighting continues to serve the elite and deplete vital energy reserves. There may be complex legal issues to be worked through to achieve a fair system, but with so many smart feminist lawyers, I’m sure that would be possible… I recognise that there are cases of harmful behaviour from trans identified people on occasion, but that is true of all kinds of people and I don’t think it’s kind or helpful to focus on that. At least not without expressing a more balanced agenda.
Activists thrive on anger to further their cause. But only with love can we unite to make change.
If we lived in a world without narrow expectations of sex and gender, more people would feel comfortable and accepted in the bodies they are born in. Yet, sometimes it’s easier to change a person than society…
Trans people vary enormously in terms of how they identify. Some, even as they change gender, wish to remain within the binary framework. I can’t help thinking this may be because we haven’t changed the structure of our society to properly include a third or more genders.2 Intersex people are also completely excluded from UK law and habitually had “corrective” surgery imposed upon them at birth. Our system is so binary that in order to fit in and have rights, trans people are currently required to remain within it, just as intersex people were forced to fit.
Trans activists get upset if you suggest that there is difference between trans women for example and cis women. But what if that difference where it may exist, was celebrated? Trans people are very special for their pan-gender experience and the insights they offer us. Indeed in Native American cultures they have been revered, regarded as shamen. And in South Asia, even as they are subject to discrimination, they are also feared and afforded some respect as superstition ordains them with unusual powers.
A significant difference with those older, more inclusive cultures was absence of modern technology. Those non-binary or trans people then, probably did not have the option of taking hormones or having surgery (although they were very advanced in their medicine, genital reassignment for example seems unlikely). But they had other gender categories available to them to fit into.
I realise as well that, it’s a very different thing to get nostalgic about a bygone culture which ours destroyed, and for trans and non-binary people today to make their lives work. The ubiquitous binary of our society has shaped the way we are formed, and so there are trans women who simply regard themselves as women; likewise for men. We need to (and do sometimes) accommodate them, welcome them fully where we are able. Where there are particular situations that need discussing, let’s make space for that and find the best way to work it in a context of peaceful dialogue.
I love this article of dialogue between two trans writers by Mud Howard, its reference to the divine in queer dance spaces, and Jayy Dodd’s assertion that “the sharing of space between bodies navigating similar bodies can manifest the sacred.” naturally speaks to me.
I have accessed women’s spaces since my mid-twenties, for a wide range of reasons. These include a group for women affected by drug abuse, women’s political and feminist groups, a group for women survivors of domestic violence, red tent circles, full moon women’s dances, women’s business networking events, women’s creative networking events, women’s spas and swimming pool dates, women’s self defence classes and women’s spiritual meditation gatherings.
For the last 8 years I have been running my own women’s events; mostly life modelling workshops, as well as some red tent gatherings. I know how important all these spaces are and how important it is that they are kept safe. “Safe” means different things in each setting, and I think there is room for adjusting rules according to what is appropriate.
Male violence can be a very real threat for so many women or cis women, that ideologically prioritising a tiny minority of trans women who don’t transition, over a far vaster number of women doesn’t make sense, and sounds misogynistic. But this may only apply to events involving nudity or extra vulnerability, and it could also be that sometimes the same kind of event is created to reach different women. On one occasion it might be totally trans inclusive, and on another it could exclude women with penises, making it more accessible to women of faith, for example.
It was my own experience of domestic and sexual violence I believe, that makes me feel so strongly about the need for women’s sex-based private spaces. It took me until some time in my 30s to stop attracting relationships that involved some domestic violence. It was never the defining feature, but it was nevertheless present. I know how difficult it is to break that cycle, to leave even when a situation is harmful because of perceived lack of options.
When I attended a group for women survivors of domestic violence, I saw how fortunate I am on the scale. I met women there who had known nothing else, and were in far more extreme difficulties than I was. They often lacked education and more favourable role models. While that group was instructive for me, it was a lifeline for many of them.
I know trans women suffer extreme discrimination and also require these services. I don’t know the answer to that, especially in a time when there are not enough of many services. Some of the issues trans and cis women face are very different, particularly among poorer, migrant and working class people. Women’s reproductive biology can be so informing of our life patterns and opportunities, that spaces where we may unpick those predicaments together are invaluable.
A non-binary friend of mine visited me yesterday and it was so timely as I’ve been stuck on this post. Speaking to them I realised that the right person would be able to hold inclusive and sensitive women’s space. It takes special abilities as a communicator and with all the right understanding to reach and include the whole group. It could be possible to bridge the differences between types of women – and learn from each other’s experiences. This gave me much hope, though I sensed that role may not be mine, at least for now. Partly down to my lack of LGBTQ experience, and also my tendency to identify with cis women survivors may inhibit peace making if there was a clash.
That’s an emotional identity on my part, and it’s strong. I imagine that fuels a lot of sentiment among gender critical radical feminists, along with other feelings of displacement.
What I hope is that where the youth are more LQBTQ aware, they will grow into more conscious and loving beings who are able to support the diversity of humanity. While there are extremists in this debate, there are also a lot of quieter people who understand the need for peace and cooperation.
In time, or ideally very soon, I hope that both of the extreme camps on this issue can dialogue with each other. There is truth and value on both sides, but each needs to back down somewhat in order to share intelligent conversation with the other. With trans activists I share a belief and appreciation that gender stereotypes need to be and are being exploded and redrafted, with rights given to all. With gender critical radical feminists I share understanding that those rights need to be considered carefully in the context of how they affect other vulnerable parties.
The more I read, the more strongly I feel that gender diversity needs to be fully integrated into our society. That is, the understanding that gender may be separate from sex; there are a variety of genders; a person’s gender may evolve throughout their lifetime3; it may be opposite to, in alignment or at variance with their sex. Evaluating necessary adaptations to accommodate this, shouldn’t just be based on fear, but should take the realities of sex inequality and male violence into consideration, as well as examining impacts on other groups. Defining the law carefully to protect all concerned deserves special attention. To really evolve in a mature way we need to be able to discuss all the very real issues without fear of punishment.
The most persuasive arguments for trans rights I found through trans writers exploring themes in a relaxed, considered fashion, discussing their livesxv and representations of trans people in art and media.xvi Of course activism is needed, but it is sometimes deeper reflection where it is possible to connect with someone’s thoughts in a more subtle way, that really penetrates one’s opinion forming.
It was also through reading about the broader struggle for trans rights globally, and how non-binary understanding of gender was historically prevalent in South Asia and Native America, for example. The name ‘two-spirit’xvii was coined in modern times to encourage indigenous Americans to embrace their much earlier heritage; “Two-Spirit powwows are part of a growing movement among Native Americans who say rigid ideas of gender and sexuality are unfortunate remnants of colonization”xviii.
This discussion spans philosophy, science, psychology, law, sociology… and it would be wonderful for a massive open conversation covering all its themes and nuances to develop in a healthy, respectful, intelligent manner. I’ve seen evidence that that’s possible on all sides, so it would just take dampening down the negative, over-censoring voices for a rich dialogue to prevail.
Finally, something which is very clear to me is that our society badly misses the necessary reverence for older women in order to make it healthier, just and wise. Casting an eye on our cultural landscape, some of the older, maltreated, but strong and extremely smart women we need to restore balance, are surely to be found among radical feminists, as well as in the camps of environmentalists, other social justice advocates and spiritual leaders.
1 A person with Female or Woman indicated on their birth certificate, passport or other ID including Gender Recognition Certificate.
2 Stonewall are campaigning for this.
3 I know Stonewall state that gender doesn’t change and that it is consistent from early years, but adult trans people I’ve worked with told me otherwise.
ii http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/womens-rights-and-the-proposed-changes-to-the-gender-recognition-act/ by Rosa Freedman and Rosemary Auchmuty
iv http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/womens-rights-and-the-proposed-changes-to-the-gender-recognition-act/ by Peter Dunne and Tara Hewitt
vii From https://www.gires.org.uk/the-gender-recognition-act-discussion-july-2019/ by Terry Reed