Safe spaces exist in political circles for safety and security away from oppressive attitudes – sexism and racism, to name a few. When structural inequalities permeate daily life, it is a relief to spend time with others who get it. Some safe spaces invite allies to join; others come with conditions of exclusion. Those exclusions are applied to those who don’t have similar lived experiences, who are more than likely to engage in oppressive behaviour. Women-only spaces are an example of this, gay clubs another, but each holds its own flaws.
Exclusive spaces are not limited to the politics of liberation. Work places, school places and social spaces show time and time again how exclusionary spaces are informally created. Those who are similar to one another tend to gravitate towards each other. Exclusive spaces tend to expel difference, and they tend to lack a power analysis. Exclusive spaces are not always safe. They can reinforce power and collectively punch down on a regular basis. They can be echo chambers that resist challenge and the possibility of growing. Trans exclusionary feminist spaces are the latter.
Women-only spaces have always been a contentious issue in feminism. There’s a strand of politics in feminism’s broad church – often called trans exclusionary radical feminism – that argues that trans women are not women, thereby excluding them from women-only spaces. Further still, some of these feminists compare trans women to white cultural appropriators. Rachel Ivey, of US based radical feminist and environmentalist group Deep Green Resistance, compares trans women to cultural appropriators in a 40 minute radical feminist manifesto on Youtube.
But writer Savannah G deconstructs this argument in a great post on Autostraddle, saying:
‘…these things are not analogous because cultural specificities have to do with a group of people forming, over time, a local context and traditions. There is innumerable evidence that undermining such cultural specificities (through colonization, globalization, etc.) leads to mass-scale human suffering, and is in fact virtually always a component of genocide.
Neither woman-typical nor man-typical clothing resides in the same realm as such local cultural specificities. A person with a penis wearing woman-typical clothing does nothing to undermine “woman culture” nor vice-versa. For example, when women began wearing trousers more commonly in the latter half of the 20th century, they did not do so as a result of male cultural coercion or colonization. Instead they did it out of a component of liberation: it’s called, given your local context, wear whatever the hell you want.’
Racism is too often misused as a hypothetical metaphor to illustrate the injustice of some other issue rather than being an injustice in itself. In liberation movements there is a trend of comparing inevitably overwhelmingly white movements to fights against racism. Indeed, comparisons to racism often imply that the complexities of racism are widely understood – they are not – and that the struggle has ended, when it most definitely hasn’t.
Cis black women and trans women of all races have a lot in common when it comes to feminism. We complicate things. We disrupt women-only spaces. When we call attention to the power disparities between women, we shatter the idea of a shared female experience. When we have access to women-only spaces, we draw attention to the pre-existing hierarchies in place that haven’t disappeared just because of a sense of ‘sisterhood’. When we challenge racism and transphobia in feminist spaces we’re both often described as the same things: self-interested, divisive, bullies. By raising the problems of racism and transphobia in the feminist movement, we become the problem.
Black feminist contributions to political movements are often written out of history by our white counterparts. So are trans women’s. When Nancy Fraser wrote in the Guardian that feminism what becoming too capitalist, she excluded the anti-capitalist works from women of colour such as Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Himani Bannerji, Avtar Brah, Selma James, Maria Mies, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Silvia Federici, and Dorothy Roberts. Stonewall, now a charity that explicitly only advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, was initially a riot in which cis and trans LGB people fought side by side.
bell hooks called this phenomenon “white people fatigue syndrome“. This is the problem with these limited politics – there is a collective ‘forgetting’ that is inherently exclusionary. As a former English Literature student, there are more than a few comparisons I can draw with the exclusion of white women from the literary canon. They were forgotten. We are forgotten.
The transphobia displayed in some radical spaces is as conventional and conservative as the transphobia displayed in wider society. “There’s this widespread view of being transgender as a deviance or a perversion,” Gigi, aged 17 explains to me. “For example, the reactions trans people face when we want to use public toilets.” This culture of suspicion is repeated in the exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces. There is no difference. Women-only spaces aren’t safe if they impose the same hierarchical structures we aim to resist.
Both cis black and transgender women share an extra layer of having to fight for our humanity. Our existence is intersectional. We straddle awkward gaps. When it comes to the battle grounds of equal pay, gender quotas, reproductive rights, neither of us are the acceptable face of what it means to be a woman. We raise these points in feminism and we disrupt women only spaces.
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