Female spaces, male spaces, and the hysteria surrounding them are microcosms of a much bigger debate


The fundamental issue is about dismantling patriarchal privilege–equality for all

I wade into this topic with trepidation and also wondering how could one more voice possibly help?  But the topic is very much on my mind.  As a non-binary person who has teetered on the edge of transitioning since I was a teenager, some of this discussion is very personal—and hopefully that makes it worth reading.

Female Space

There has been growing noise about the sanctity of female spaces and whether they should be made available to MTF trans people.  I know that many in the trans community especially believe, want, feel that once they have embarked on the path that there is an incredible need to belong at the destination—to make transition part of the past.

It is unfortunate that this deeply personal process, and one that is almost always embarked upon with a mixture of great personal courage, and complete and utter vulnerability, has become politicized.  So much nasty anti-trans vitriol has been written, and discussions of just why trans is so threatening to people will make for volumes of posts.

Bathroom and locker room access is a very convenient flashpoint.  Access to such an intimate, female space, has become a totem of belonging for many trans people, but also a point of outrage and concern for many women and men.

There are some very angry and outspoken words being written by many women, and whose views on the topic of barring trans people from these spaces generate intense vitriol.  At what point does an MTF trans person cross the threshold?  At what point is it okay for us to no longer discuss whether they should have free access to sacred female places?

For me, the only time, is when full transition is completed.  I know that we can hide our genitals, and in every other way, our bodies might have become female, but the fact of the penis should not be overlooked.  Please forgive me for saying that.  And for those of you who would consider me a traitor to the cause, consider for one second the plight of the woman in that space.  Think of how she might feel…to be threatened physically by a penis is the most obvious, but what about psychological or emotional fear?  It only hurts our cause to be the ones pushing.  And until the physical changes are complete, it feels wrong to push.

I am already terrified of going into a men’s bathroom or locker room.  I fear male violence, aggression.  But my fear is pale compared to how I would feel if my body transition were more advanced.  The legitimate fear of MTF people is very real.  But I do not believe that we can make forced entry into female bathrooms and locker rooms someone else’s problem.  It would be much easier if non-gendered bathrooms were always an option, or that more handicapped bathrooms were available so that people could have privacy.  Ditto for changing rooms.

And why do I feel this way?  Because women do not have equality in society today.  Women are not at all free of living in fear.  We all may wish that it wasn’t so.  But it is.  And, therefore, these spaces need to be protected.  To demand otherwise as a trans person seems to me to be hypocritical—we of all people should be sympathetic to women’s plight.  We of all people should be hyper-sensitive to the discrimination, violence, and fear that women are subjected to.  We choose it, and the process of transitioning hammers the message home.  Society seeks to control and rob women of everything, including their bodies.  I know how badly we want to belong but making this kind of demand puts us on the wrong side of the debate.

Yes, transitioning is such an important and beautiful step.  It is also a very powerful statement of laying aside male power.  But only women can admit someone to the sisterhood.  And it is only when one has truly become a sister that one should be accorded to the full rights of sisterhood.

The relevance of being non-binary

I believe that I will transition one day.  I will do so when the people who depend on me for their financial security no longer do, because I know that transition will have profound consequences for me economically.

But a big part of me is already female.  I don’t expect everyone to see that or understand it.  Nor do I wear it on my shirtsleeves—though I admit I do sometimes poke at the politics of it by my dress sense.  But I do not demand that others recognise me for that, nor demand my pronouns, as much as I like them.  When someone genders me as non-binary, or recognises and validates my femininity, I am filled with gratitude.  It is only ever women who do that, and I feel that it is only women who can welcome me in.

Male Space

Men need their own space too.  The stench of privilege and back-room dealing that the old boy’s clubs stand for should be allowed to exist.  We cannot kill the idea of same-sex spaces for one group and not then apply the same logic to others.

Men need to be able to spend time together and talk about fishing, or other stuff.  It helps them feel male.  The kind of male that is okay.  Gendered spaces are not the ideal battleground for sexual equality.  There are so many others that we need to dismantle first.

Steps towards equality

I don’t believe that we will make significant progress towards structural equality unless we legislate for it. These are some practical (or impractical thoughts) on what we might do to get there.

  • Pay gap.  This is real and unacceptable.  It also exists in part because of a perceived and real effect on career trajectory of motherhood, pregnancy, and child-rearing.  An employer will look at a woman differently for these reasons.  Unless we legislate structural change, then we will not achieve equal pay for equal work, and equal access to job opportunities.  What can we do?  Mandatory leave for fathers as well as mothers, for the same length of time, on full pay, full rights of return to work.  Mandatory reduced work-week for fathers and mothers at full pay (with the extra day covered by the state) for the first years of a child’s life.
  • Quotas.  Boards of public companies should be required to have a gender and ethnic balance that mirrors society at large.  Deviation from the quota should result in financial penalties of sufficient size to warrant changes in behaviour.  The same should apply to the executive ranks and the make-up of a company in general.  I cannot believe that we still discuss this.
  • Affirmative Action.  The detractors lament that a more qualified [usually white male] will have been overlooked because we are trying to fill a quota by turning to a minority.  That is problematic on its own, but even if there is truth in it, there is a necessary transition.  Forcing affirmative action has knock-on consequences that flow through society but will take a generation to correct—education, access to everything, opportunity…it will only come about because there is no choice.

I’d like to believe that as a society we have a collective interest in moving forward and solving these problems.  To politicize these discussions, to shout at one other about them, to regard them as some kind of existential crisis, is childish and unbecoming of any culture that wishes to last or be considered great.

Surely, every one of us in society would prefer to live in harmony with one another?  Surely, we would all be happier in a society that was not characterised by racism, sexism, and hate?  Men feared the entry of women into the workforce on many levels, and yet, one of the greatest boons to economic growth of the last 100 years has been the entry of women into the formal workforce.  The same kind of boom awaits the society that strips away all the discrimination and allows all members of society to participate in the way that equals their greatest possible contribution.

Patriarchy is a flawed system

Sitting at the root of all of this the fundamentally patriarchal nature of society.  Patriarchy has as its consequence this discriminatory landscape.  Sad, but true.  

All of these issues boil down to one thing: privilege.  Who has it, who controls it, and who won’t give it up.  As someone who was born into it, I see only benefits in giving it up.  Respect for the “other” is the only true path towards enlightenment.  It is also the only way for society to achieve its true and full social and economic potential.

Those who fear giving up their advantages are also those who fear competition, who fear competing on a level playing field.  I would suggest that clinging to privilege, reinforcing the patriarchy, falling back on the advantages you are given at birth, is the most fundamental act of social cowardice.

If the privileged few had true self-confidence, were in truth good stewards and good citizens, they would not fear making true access to opportunity, true equality, the most important goal of structural change in society.

I’m tired of all the distracting debates.  Its time to take radical legislative steps and to enshrine the principles and actions of equality into law—and recognise that the gap we face today is still huge and will only close if we take drastic and remedial corrective action.

Embrace your fear.

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