How Not to Talk About Women-Only Spaces
While browsing a pagan forum on Facebook, I stumbled on the following quote (from Rattle, Roar and Ritual):
there are times when biological women need to gather, just as biological women. That’s not a judgement against trans women. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that yes, the parts we were born with do make a difference. There is something undefinable that happens when biological women gather alone. It fills some primal need within us. We all felt that we’d be thrilled to have ceremony that includes trans women too.
To be clear, I read Tanaria’s blog regularly and enjoy a good deal of what she posts. This is not a post meant to incite a virtual stoning or flamewar. Rather, I mean it as an opportunity to dig a little deeper into where this kind of language can lead and why we should be mindful of our words. As pagans, many of us know that words carry power.
<begin sociology 101 lesson>
Sex refers to biological features of one’s body: hormones, breasts/lack thereof, vagina/penis, uterus/testes, and chromosomes. Gender refers to one’s identity as a woman, trans woman, man, trans man, genderqueer, agender, two-spirit, etc. Gender is somebody’s subjective experience of themselves, which means that only you can decide your gender identity. Someone else can look at you and decide you’re something other than what you feel you are, but nobody knows you better than you.
Biological determinism is the idea that one’s genes determine one’s behavior. If you know the old “nature vs nurture” argument, biological determinists would fall into the “nature” side. It’s the idea that the body you’re born with determines the rest of your life: how you’ll act, who you’ll fall in love with, how you’ll dress, etc. It’s where the whole idea that women’s brains are inherently different from men’s brains. Most of us know this isn’t the way things work, but some people persist in believing this kind of stuff. The tl;dr version of biological determinism is that “biology is destiny”. I’ve talked previously about how I think this is crap.
Gender is fluid, not static. The contrast between my girlfriend and I is a perfect example. She is butch, meaning she wears masculine clothes and keeps her hair short and doesn’t wear makeup. I’m a femme, meaning I wear feminine clothes, but I also keep my hair short and don’t wear makeup except when I’m in a theatrical performance. (If you want to get technical about it, she identifies as a soft butch and I’m a sometimes-femme who really likes fashion but hates the idea of eyeliner and mascara every day.)
Neither of us are “perfectly feminine”, but we both strongly identify as women. And we both happened to be born into bodies where our genitalia match society’s understanding of women. This is lucky, in that we are far less likely to be victims of violence (though still more likely than the straight population). As someone who would like to be an ally for trans folks whenever possible, I think this shit is really important. It’s really important to me that my concept of women-only spaces include ALL women: and trans women are included in that. Regardless of status of hormones. Regardless of surgery. If you identify as a woman, I believe you are welcome in women-only spaces. Period.
The idea that “biological women” (a term that is outdated – cisgender is more current) can somehow make magic happen if and only if there is nobody with a penis (or anyone who was born with a penis) present is ludicrous to me. Magic happens through hearts and minds, not through genitalia*.
* Unless you practice a vastly different type of paganism than I do, in which case, I’d love to hear more.