‪#‎GenderWeek: Race shatters the idea of a shared female experience

By Reni Eddo-Lodge

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

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.

Reni Eddo-Lodge is a black feminist writer and campaigner based in London. She is Contributing Editor at Feminist Times, blogs at http://renieddolodge.co.uk/ and tweets @renireni.

Photo: Google Images Creative Commons

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32 thoughts on “‪#‎GenderWeek: Race shatters the idea of a shared female experience

  1. umlolidunno

    “Those exclusions are applied to those who don’t have similar lived experiences, who are more than likely to engage in oppressive behaviour.”
    Given that transwomen are subject to male socialisation (aka Gender), and usually possess the principal biological weaponry used to oppress women as a class, it is entirely reasonable to argue that they are at least more likely to engage in male-pattern abusive behaviour against women than women are. For example, according to one study at least, “male-to-females had a significantly increased risk for violent crime compared to female controls, but not compared to males. This indicates that they retained a male pattern regarding criminality” (http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0016885#pone-0016885-t001 ). This is probably unsurprising to women who’ve found themselves on the receiving end of rabid online pile-ons for criticising gender theory. Or to the women who have been victims of rape by transwomen, of which there have been a couple of recent examples in the media. Of course Not All Transwomen Are Like That, but that’s no better an argument for trans inclusion than it is for garden-variety male inclusion. As the opening paragraph rightly says, the dynamics of any exclusive space are compromised when the oppressor class is present. Rather than tending to “lack a power analysis”, the truth is that women-only spaces are necessitated by one.

    “[Women only spaces] can be echo chambers that resist challenge and the possibility of growing. Trans exclusionary feminist spaces are the latter.”
    While you’ve presented why race may not be an appropriate analogy* for explaining the tensions surrounding women-only space (undermining the urgent reality of racism is probably the most compelling argument against using such analogies, for me at least), you haven’t actually explained what qualifies women-only space as the Bad Kind of autonomous space, or argued why it does not fit the criteria of the Good Kind that you outline in the opening paragraph. This is surely the necessary point if you want to counter what radical feminists are saying. You may well have an argument as to why organising around the Female experience is Bad in ways that organising around Gay or Black experience is not, but all you’ve done here is reiterate the same old axiom: transwomen are women because transwomen are women because transwomen are women. So the only substantive point that makes Female organising worse than Gay or Black organising is that transwomen don’t like it. Well, stop the fricking presses.

    *I note with interest that the analogous relationship between sex politics and race politics is rejected here, while an analogy between race and trans politics is enthusiastically upheld with little more justification than that they both disrupt women-only spaces or are ignored.

    1. Reni

      @umlolidunno- You’re right there, I should have put white, cis women only spaces. Hope that makes more sense!

      1. umlolidunno

        It doesn’t, really; where are these feminist spaces that are declared white women only? While there are many spaces that are white-only or white-dominated in a de facto capacity, that (admittedly massive) problem is not what we’re discussing here, which is explicitly claimed, exclusive spaces and their concomitant politics. Is the implication that black ‘cis’ women-only spaces are less transphobic (or, conversely, that trans-inclusive spaces are less racist)? If so, why? If not, then why conflate women-only space with white-supremacist meetings here?

        The implied analogy is that cis women are to transwomen as white women are to black women. But the ‘power analysis’ this rests on is still just one big begging-the-question fallacy about transwomen being women. The claim is that women – by virtue of being women – are privileged over some men by virtue of those men inwardly rejecting their maleness. That’s an astounding reversal. It differs from the dynamic between white women and black women, whereby white women have privilege by virtue of being white, rather than of being women.

        I don’t see how equating trans politics with race politics (while also explicitly rejecting common ground with sex politics) is a useful contribution to interrogating the validity of that analysis, particularly when the premise remains an unjustified, brute force assertion.

        1. Nick Nakorn

          Over the past 40 years I’ve worked many times in totally white male environments and (anecdotally I know) I can report that not being white was always an issue. But what was more of an issue was rejecting male culture. I’m not trans and I’m not gay but the slightest hint of not supporting the hetero-blokey line immediately led to huge animosity. And it’s not as if I rejected ‘all’ male culture even if that were possible; I’d just call out racism and sexism sometimes when I felt emotonally strong enough to deal with the inevitable fall-out. Perhaps it’s because my older sister, grandmother and mother were the major influences on my life that I found male culture often so disgusting. I can completely understand why women desire safe places and I can also understand why trans women might feel doubly abandoned if they are not accepted in either camp. I’m a light-skinned, mixed race non white and know exactly what it’s like not to be considered a whole person amongst polarised cultures.cccc

    2. Faradn

      Maybe transwomen have higher crime rates because of all the violence they are subject to. The fact that you are this prejudiced and call yourself a feminist is disturbing.

      1. Morag

        “Maybe transwomen have higher crime rates because of all the violence they are subject to.”

        Let’s try this: “Maybe FEMALES have higher crime rates because of all the violence they are subject to.” But, they don’t have higher crime rates. Something is different in this situation: male socialization is missing.

    3. friday jones

      What a shock that a study would find that some people were at increased risk of arrest if they’ve been sex-reassigned. A surprising shock even. Whoda thunk that in a world where you can be arrested for walking while trans, that trans women would have high rates of incarceration. Why, the only explanation must be that trans women are criminal types of low cunning, not that many are shut out of the legal economy by bigotry or anything like that.

    4. Savannah

      I’ve noticed that radical feminists have attached themselves strongly to this line from this study:

      “This indicates that they retained a male pattern regarding criminality”

      But the study doesn’t address what KIND of criminality. You are asserting that it means that trans women commit rape at exactly the same levels as cis men, but you have NO EVIDENCE for that assertion, and it is completely false.

      The fact is that trans women are for more likely to be arrested for crimes such as prostitution, which cis males are very unlikely to be arrested for. Part of the reason that so many trans women end up trading sex for money is because they are excluded from the wider workforce, as well as often being excluded from their families, therefore lacking the kind of basic support that cis people often take for granted.

      See for example the story of Monica Jones who was targeted and arrested by an undercover cop in Phoenix when she committed no crime whatsoever.

      So while you’re distorting this study to promote your agenda, what you’re actually doing is exposing that you have no empathy for trans women, to even understand the basic fact that we are arrested at higher rates in part because society excludes and in part because law enforcement hates us and uses its power to abuse us and criminalize our lives.

  2. Emma Goldman

    Re: “A person with a penis wearing woman-typical clothing does nothing to undermine “woman culture” nor vice-versa.”

    But a person with a penis wearing women-typical clothing WHO CLAIMS HE IS A WOMAN does everything to undermine class analysis of women’s issues.

      1. Susan B Journey

        A male invading women-only spaces is absolutely my business. Males who claim to be transwomen are 100% male and they rape, beat and murder women at the exactly same rates as non-trans males.

        Asking women to feel safe – or forcing us to pretend to feel safe – around our oppressors is insane.

        Would you demand that a soldier with PTSD pretend to feel safe in a room full of exploding fireworks? THAT is how I, as a rape survivor feel when you ask me to pretend to feel safe with a male transwoman in my locker room, showers, dressing room, rape crisis support group, etc.

        It’s viciously abusive and INSANE to demand that members of the raped class (females) pretend to feel safe around members of the raping class (males) so as to not hurt their feelings. You might just as well tell us to our faces: “We don’t care how hurt, how afraid, how brutalized you are. This man’s desire to invade women-only spaces for his VALIDATION is more important than your access to women-only spaces for your SURVIVAL.”

        1. Infophile

          A male invading women-only spaces is absolutely my business. Males who claim to be transwomen are 100% male and they rape, beat and murder women at the exactly same rates as non-trans males.

          I haven’t heard that before. Do you have a source to back up that claim? The statistics I’ve seen show that trans women are far more likely to be victims of sexual violence than cis men, and roughly the same as cis women, if not more (though it’s complicated due to the sources lumping in trans men and trans women – see http://www.rrsonline.org/?page_id=944, for instance), but I haven’t been able to find anything at all on the rates of committing sexual assault.

          1. Woman

            Here you go! Long Term Follow-Up of Gender Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0016885

            Relevant part: “Second, regarding any crime, male-to-females had a significantly increased risk for crime compared to female controls (aHR 6.6; 95% CI 4.1–10.8) but not compared to males (aHR 0.8; 95% CI 0.5–1.2). This indicates that they retained a male pattern regarding criminality. The same was true regarding violent crime.”

          2. Infophile

            Thanks for the link. I’d quibble that I wouldn’t say it’s “exactly” the same (looks like ~1-sigma lower), but it’s impossible to prove scientifically that two things aren’t different anyway.

            So, accepting that study as true, here are some follow-up issues to consider:
            1. The study didn’t control for income level (as far as I can tell), which has a very strong correlation with crime rates. It’s possible that transsexuality leads to a greater chance of poverty, which in turn leads to more crime. The study here doesn’t attempt to tease out this effect, but it’s an interesting question for a future study to look it.
            2. It’s possible that institutional bias against transsexuals would lead to greater conviction rates than for cis people when all else is equal, making it look like trans women are more criminal than cis women when it’s in fact just the justice system treating them differently. Again, an interesting question for a future study.

            Though I should note, this study looks only at “crime” and “violent crime,” which doesn’t quite fit with the claim I was responding to, that trans women “rape, beat and murder women at the exactly same rates as non-trans males.” For all we know from this source, that crime could be entirely against cis men and not involve sexual violence at all. Of course, it’s likely to be a mix, but we don’t know from this study alone whether those specific forms of crime are the same for trans women and cis men.

          3. Veronica

            8 out of the 191 transwomen in the study were convicted of crimes of violence. We know nothing of the type of crimes and the socio-economic status of these individuals. I’m not sure this is very representative. It is also noted in the study that the difference is only significant for older transitioners (pre 1989).

            Knowing a bit about the history of trans care in Scandinavia will reveal that the individuals who went through this back then had to go through a hell of a lot of bullshit to get anywhere at all. In parts this is still the case where I live and there are many damaged individuals that comes out of the other end of that mill. The rest of the statistics in the study attests to that. It’s a system filled with gender stereotypes and normes that would make any feminist raise an eyebrow, or more likely a fist. The current system is challenged by the major LGBT and T organisations, and also human rights organisations like Amnesty.

            It is well documented that oppressed minorities have higher crime rates. As far as I can see there is no proper control for this other than an adjustment for immigration status.

    1. Infophile

      Hypothetical: If you somehow grew a penis tomorrow (but nothing in your mind changed about who you are), would you consider it acceptable to be excluded from “women-only” spaces? Would you stop considering yourself a woman? Would still calling yourself a woman do anything to undermine the analysis of women’s issues (and what if you kept the penis secret)?

      I’m not joking here. Seriously entertain this hypothetical, because this is a big part of what trans people have to live with everyday.

      1. umlolidunno

        If women told me that I was not welcome in their space because of my magically-acquired male anatomy, I would respect their boundaries.

        How I would feel about myself is my business, but I would not have the right to demand that others feel the same way, or change their politics, or change their definition of ‘woman’ just to accommodate my feelings. This is not least because my magically-acquired male anatomy represents significant trauma and oppression in the context of women’s lives and feminist politics.

        If I decided to try and circumvent women’s boundaries by deception or force, that would make me an invasive asshole with no respect for women.

        1. Infophile

          Thanks for the reply. I won’t deny that there are competing interests here. If some women in a group are made uncomfortable by people they perceive as men, the principle of free association demands that they be allowed to form a group that excludes those people.

          They have that right, and I’d defend that right. However, that action may still be prejudiced (or bigoted, if you want to use a stronger word for it). Imagine a scenario in which a women-only space decided to become a white-women-only space because a number of their members had been raped by men (and possibly women) of other ethnicities. It would be their legal right (in the US at least – I can’t speak for all countries here), but I’d certainly argue that this is harmful to the women excluded. It punches down, excluding people who are already less-privileged* than white women, and further reinforcing the racial hierarchy.

          *For this metaphor to apply to trans women, we would have to agree that they’re less-privileged than cis women, which I’m sure will be a sticking point for you. For evidence to back up my claim that they are, just look at the suicide attempt rates of trans women (42%) compared to cis men (~2%) and cis women(~7%). This isn’t proof of privilege, which is a complicated and subjective matter, but it’s certainly evidence of how tough trans women have it.

          Sources: http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/research/suicide-attempts-among-transgender-and-gender-non-conforming-adults/ and a combination of sources to calculate the rates for cis men and women (which I couldn’t find quoted exactly a percentages. This combines a 4.6% overall rate with a 3:1 ratio of attempts by women to attempts by men.

  3. Roy

    This articlemay have an incauracy to be considered as Gay Clubs are not gay only space, they are open to all including straight people. It can be noticed that the article and comments seem to overlap feminist and Womens Only. Feminism was traditionally an open space for all those that thought the same way. The 60’s Womens Liberation Movement created and used and continue to use Womens Only Spaces for a lot of good. They however were not feminists by their own definition till the 70’s.

    I consider the word Feminism as in the dictionary from its first 1851 English usuage “state of being feminine;” a far wider meaning than the admirable Womens Liberation Movement. The lack of usage of the 1837 word féminisme (from the French however the difference between the French and English meanings are so wide then this there are some who have imported this as a loan word in its original French Spelling and meaning). This féminisme being the movement that many people are writing about. Women Only Spaces should be encouraged and its for those entering or creating those spaces to define once the space is defined as women only. The consideration is then what defines women, should gender exist at all and if it does what’s the best way to end disparities.

  4. Moz in Oz

    One interesting variation I’ve seen in Sydney is “women and trans-men only” spaces. I’m told that those spaces are often not accepting of trans-women, and there’s definitely an unwillingness by the organisers to discuss the issue (“why do you include trans-men” got a hostile response. I’m reluctant to have what it became obvious would be an argument when I’m cis and already known to object to trans-women-exclusion).

    What I find odd is that the trans-men are so willing to go along with (and, indeed, work towards), spaces which I can only see as identity-denying. It’s right back to the “womyn-born-womyn” transphobia as far as I can see.

  5. Sonja

    ITT: delusional bigots who don’t see that they’ve become what they hate.

    Let’s replace our static attribute “woman/man” with “white/black”, and our mutable attribute “trans/cis “with “poor/rich”, shall we?

    Given that rich blacks are subject to black socialisation (aka race), and usually possess the principal skin color used to oppress whites as a class, it is entirely reasonable to argue that they are at least more likely to engage in black-pattern abusive behaviour against whites than whites are. For example, according to one study at least, “poor to rich blacks had a significantly increased risk for violent crime compared to white controls, but not compared to blacks. This indicates that they retained a black pattern regarding criminality”

    Blacks as a class rape, beat and murder whites as a class. It’s been going on for thousands of years, and LeBron putting on a white collar and calling himself WInston IN NO WAY changes the statistical likelihood of him raping, beating or murdering a white.

    If whites told me that I was not welcome in their space because of my magically-acquired black skin, I would respect their boundaries.

    We’re all people, not statistics. Show some empathy.

    1. umlolidunno

      You’ve kind of illustrated a point of mine with this, and part of my criticism of Reni’s article. Invoking racism as a ‘proxy’ for understanding either side of this debate (and it evidently *can* be done for either side, albeit with varying success and accuracy) is replete with problems. Yet for many it is somehow OK to pretend that trans and race are entirely comparable, while at the same time criticising radical feminists who do the same with sex and race.

      I’d venture that if analogy is your only argument in lieu of engaging with the specifics of this issue, you probably don’t have much of a case.

      1. Sonja

        > Yet for many it is somehow OK to pretend that trans and race are entirely comparable, while at the same time criticising radical feminists who do the same with sex and race.

        The radical feminist “sex and race” analogy being criticized is that cultural appropriation is comparable to gender dysphoria. Elvis co-opted black music and style for profit. Just like how a little boy spends his childhood in psychic agony and social ridicule because the gender of his ego doesn’t match his body. Yeah that’s an appropriate analogy.

        But sex and racial oppression are very analogous when the argument isn’t moronic. Both have historically been denied rights, both are genetically hardwired, both gained rights during the cultural revolution, both are still culturally shit on today, etc etc

        So why is gender and racial oppression not also analogous?

        You say because they were raised as boys and have/had a penis, they are not to be trusted. Ok, but cis gay men have those same disabilities and women have little to fear from them. Based on some of the more enthusiastic comments, I’m guessing radical feminists are tip-toeing around stating their belief that transwomen are just boys playing dress-up.

        Then you show some statistics showing transwomen are more likely to be violent. And that very well might be true. It might even be reasonable to play the odds and exclude them from a safe area. You have every right to do that.

        But my point is that defending your fear and paranoia of transwomen with statistics just to be safe is no different than a cabbie who doesn’t pick up black men just to be safe. Black men are statistically more likely to rob him, so why take the chance?

  6. Hannah

    Re: the study linked to about trans women being approximately as violent as cis men, and the theory espoused above that this is a result of their male socialisation (convo between ‘Woman’ and ‘infophile’) –

    The very same study also found that:

    ‘female-to-males had higher crime rates than female controls (aHR 4.1; 95% CI 2.5–6.9) but did not differ from male controls. This indicates a shift to a male pattern regarding criminality and that sex reassignment is coupled to increased crime rate in female-to-males. The same was true regarding violent crime.’

    So, trans men commit approximately the same levels of violent crime as cis men, and significantly more than cis women. In which case, what’s your explanation for that? It can’t be because of their ‘female socialisation’, as presumably if that were the case, they’d have far lower rates of violent crime than cis men, and approximately the same rates as cis women?

    1. Woman

      I’ll leave the explanation to criminologists. Meanwhile, men who identify as females commit crimes at the same rate as other men — including violent crimes. If separate spaces for vulnerable women — prisons, shelters, etc. — exist in part to protect women from male violence, then there is no justification for making an exemption for men who “identify as women.” That identification does NOT preclude male patterns of criminality. Interesting too how the “female brain” and “gender identity” that purportedly underlies “gender expression” such as high heels and a fervent desire to attend the Michigan Womyn’s Festival does not result in FEMALE patterns of criminal behavior.

    2. umlolidunno

      My interpretation of that, which I think is most obvious, is increased aggression from raised testosterone levels. I’ve heard anecdotal accounts from lesbians whose partners have begun ‘transition’ that make this seem intuitive, anyway.

      1. Hannah

        Thanks, both, for your responses.

        @Woman – but the study doesn’t distinguish between different crimes committed, so how do we know that trans women commit the same/similar levels of specifically domestic and sexually violent crimes towards cis women as cis men do? Given that we know from other studies that trans women experience extremely high levels of domestic and sexual violence as victims (and given what we know about violent crime in general, and that cis men are the most likely group to both perpetrate violence and be victims of violence), I just don’t see how you can ascertain from this study that trans women commit the same levels of violent and sexual crime against women as cis men do? Is there another study that you’re getting your information from? I would be really interested to read it, if so.

        @umlolidunno – So do you think that testosterone kind of ‘overrides’ socialisation (in the case of trans men, who were socialised as females but then seem to become as violent as cis men after transitioning) and/or female hormones (whether those that trans men have/had, or those that trans women begin taking) in a sort-of ‘male hormones trump all’ effect? I’m not sure how that fits with one of the main reasons that seems to be given for excluding trans women from women’s spaces, i.e. that trans women were socialised as men and that process can’t be reversed – do you think that argument still has weight, in light of this study? Or again, are there other studies that I’m not aware of?

        Re: your anecdotal evidence – as a self-defined lesbian whose current partner is transitioning to male and whose previous partner also did, I can’t say that I’ve noticed any increase in aggression whatsoever. But that’s also just anecdotal, so hardly conclusive evidence of anything really.

  7. Roy

    Do you mean crime which is a construct, or do you mean Police recording of crime, which as the Police are the United Kingdoms biggest Gang, recruiting the most violent and dishonest elements of society, then the figures are what that gang of hoodlums in uniform who are generally incapable of telling the truth, cannot reflect crime or offences as the Police are not trained to recognise it, and not honest enough to record it.

  8. Sarah

    So sad that personal lived experience becomes fair game for dissection and analysis in these forums. Show some humanity ffs and eschew patriarchal reductionism.


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