Thinking about transsexuality

October 11, 2004

Back in April, I read a piece from the McSweeney's periodical, The Believer, called “Transmissions from Camp Trans,” by Michelle Tea.  The reader may already be familiar with situations where men-stay-out spaces don't know what to do with trans women.  This is one of them.

Namely, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, MWMF for short.  At MWMF 1991, a trans woman named Nancy Jean Burkholder was kicked out of the festival at one in the morning.  Someone had looked at her, asked the festival producers about the policy on transsexuality, the producers said they were not welcome, and though Burkholder wouldn't confirm for them that she was trans, saying “It's none of your business,” they expelled her anyway, saying they could do that at their discretion.

At MWMF 1992, a woman named Janis Walworth attended with her post-op sister, and other fellow-travelers, and they conducted a survey.  Three-quarters of their respondents approved of trans women attending the festival.  One quarter did not.  Some common justifications were:

    1.  A trans woman is still a man, and this is for women only.
    2.  A trans woman is a woman, but was born a boy, and this is for women who were born as women.
    3.  We don't want to see penises here, irrespective of who bears them.

Since 1999, there's been a protest camp running in parallel to MWMF called Camp Trans.    It used to take place directly across from the entry to MWMF, but is now so well-attended – though only by a minority of trans women, greatly overshadowed by the number of trans men and lesbians – that it takes place off the main road, in a field adjacent to the festival.  The camp is very small (no more than a hundred people), and free, though people who come over from MWMF for a brief sortie are charged a small amount.  The mission statement for the camp reads, in part,

MWMF's so-called “womyn-born-womyn” policy sets a transphobic standard for women-only spaces across the country, and contributes to an environment in women's and lesbian communities where discrimination against trans women is considered acceptable.  For trans women who are consistently refused help from domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, this is a matter of life and death.

Okay.  So, questions that arise for me so far:

1.  Just how does a domestic violence shelter refuse to help an abused trans woman?  I'm trying to picture these people who work their asses off trying to comfort the oppressed and nurture the terrorized… what are they doing? do they say, “well, it does look as if someone's beaten you, but before you can come in, drop your pants and let's see what you're carrying?”  Is this really a widespread problem?  If so, that's some scary shit – and clearly a big deal.  (See next question.)

2.  Dealing with MWMF, the first crucial question is, is this a big deal or not?  If it's not a big deal, then we have two sides.  MWMF's producers should say, “It's not a big deal, just let 'em in.”  The protesters should say, “It's not a big deal, let's go find something else to do this August, maybe start our own festival.”  In the end, it's just two kids who can't play in the same sandbox.  Fortunately, there are other sandboxes.  Clearly, this is not enough.  Everyone considers this a big deal.  So, what I want to know is, why?

3.  Obviously, part of the value of MWMF for its attendees is the absence of men.  To me, once you say, “okay, this is going to be a haven or enclave” and exclude groups of people, you've taken a huge step.  It's like the difference, for me, between public and private schools.  I mean, if you're excluded from the private school by its expense, in a capitalist society that's as benign an exclusion as you can find.  MWMF itself excludes many women who can't afford to shell out over three hundred dollars to attend, without arousing the same kind of ire.  But private schools also exclude those who aren't as accomplished academically.  That brings in a huge host of race/class/gender issues.  To me, teaching at a public school is different in every way – politically, ethically, practically – from teaching at a private school.  Different worlds.  MWMF belongs to the world of voluntary associations and exclusion – private, not public, space.  Another example of this – Tea writes:

It wasn't that long ago that the SM women weren't welcome at MWMF. Their presence was protested, boycotted, until this space on the outskirts of the festival was created for them so they could whip each other in peace without “triggering” the women who feel like it's just more of the patriarchy seeping in.

So exclusion is not one tool that you can just pick up and put down at will.  Once you pick it up, it changes you.  Once the MWMF has excluded men for the sake of safety, it will ultimately be compelled to exclude or marginalize some women in the name of that same safety. From that perspective, I find it hard to understand how, after Nancy Jean Burkholder, trans women can be “shocked and appalled” that MWMF doesn't admit them.  For example:

Sadie Crabtree, an activist from DC who ran Camp Trans in 2003, was concerned about people who saw the camp as “kind of a suburb of MWMF where fest attendees could go to hang out with hot tranny boys… the fetishization of FTMs in some dyke communities makes trans women even more invisible.”  As a result, she says, they formed within the camp certain workshops and decompression areas… where fest attendees were asked not to go… It wasn't to stigmatize festival attendees, but to help people think a little more critically about what it means to give hundreds of dollars to a transphobic organization for permission to do activism inside, what it means to speak in a space where others' voices are forbidden…

So, obviously, the protesters are well-acquainted with the business of exclusion in the service of inclusion – in other words, these folks have to stay out so that these other folks can comfortably stay in.  How do you protest MWMF's policies of exclusion on that basis?

4.  Another example of incoherence in the philosophical core of the protest.  Julia Serano, spoken-word poet, said:

I also found it distressing that so many women would want to exclude me (a woman) from women's space, under the pretense that my body contains potential triggers for abuse survivors.  [i.e. a penis]  That line of reasoning trivializes the abuse that trans women face day in, day out…

Right.  It's important not to trivialize the abuse others have suffered.  If they say, “THIS hurts me, as a survivor, and whether or not you understand I'd hope you'd help me avoid THIS,” we got to listen and act accordingly… but, Serano seems to be saying, yes, not only should survivors be respected, but the needs of this group of survivors automatically trumps the needs of this other group – makes no sense.  The idea that a survivor of abuse is exempt from the principle of respecting the felt needs of abuse survivors assumes that there are enough people around who have never suffered deeply to take care of all these disparate survivors' needs. No?

5.  Two women who work at MWMF make up a zine – an anthology of opinions about the trans-inclusion issue by other fest workers – and bring a box over to Camp Trans to make an effort to have some dialogue.  One of the statements reads:

Dicks are not useless signifiers.  Even unwanted ones… You did not experience being held out as girl and cropped into that particular box.  You gotta understand, you are my sister, but you don't have that experience.  And taking my experience and saying it is yours doesn’t make it yours, it makes it stolen.

The overall response from Camp Trans campers is hostile. They've heard it all before, and they don't like it.  The two fest workers are sorry to have provoked this reaction, but feel a little helpless: these are the opinions of festival workers.   They didn't feel like they could censor the thoughts of the relevant parties to the conflict – who were they to dictate the “right” and the “wrong” opinions?  The response is not sympathetic, and one of the workers ends up in tears.  They're too easy a target – I'm tempted to guffaw at the “who are we to dictate…?” defense – but on what basis are you supposed to be able to say, these opinions are constructive, and these are violent?

My deeper question in response to the “useful signifiers” statement: it sounds as though people need to figure out what it means to be a man or woman.  If you can say to a trans woman, “You don't get to be a woman just by saying you feel like one,” it seems to me you are denying the very premise of the transgender existence (or movement).  You are saying that to be a woman is something you are born into and made into, and is emphatically not something you choose.  You are making gender an ontological category, right?  This is where this whole subject blows up in my face.  It seems to me like all parties are living in the postmodern world except when it suits them.  A feminist might say that gender is socially constructed, but then say to a trans woman: it's not up to me to reconstruct gender to make room for you.  A trans woman might say that gender is socially constructed, but then say to the feminist: you have to accept me the way I identify, as one of you, because I feel like a woman.  But to say, “I feel like a woman, and the only way for me to live at peace is if the world receives me as a woman,” is the most profound affirmation of the universal validity of gender for the human race.  If gender were really socially constructed, the trans woman would have no basis for saying, “there is some secure definition of what it means to be a woman which encompasses me.”

6.  Here's Tea's response to Anna, one of the speakers at a Camp Trans rally:

[Anna's criticizing lesbians who are]  Sheepishly explaining, “He's trans” – again invalidating the real masculinity so as not to be confused with a straight girl.  Fetishizing, as a community, this sexy new explosion of trans men, but remaining unwelcoming to trans women.  It's all so true… I'd spent the first year and a half of my boyfriend's transition explaining to everyone – women on the bus, strangers in line at Safeway, people I sit next to on planes – that my boyfriend, he's transgender… And I know lots of lesbians who date trannyboys but freak out if a trans woman enters their space.  It's all so fucked up…

What intrigues me the most is the analogies to the emergence into our society of queer sexualities.  A girl who came out in high school as a lesbian, say, twenty years ago, was likely to get her ass beat by other girls who weren't comfortable sharing a locker room, or even a hallway, with her.  That same girl, today, could be attending MWMF and telling trans women to stay out, basically, because she's uncomfortable sharing the communal showers with them.  

When I'm talking to my fellow Christian from an earlier generation or a
more conservative subculture who says, “Well, obviously the Bible's
saying that gay sexuality is wickedness, because I myself experience a profound discomfort when watching their behavior” – in other words, it's taboo, so it's wrong –  when I'm talking to this person, what is my answer going to be?  I think the answer must be analogous to whatever answer we can give the MWMF producer who says, “Trans women are not welcome here, because, dammit, they just make other women
uncomfortable.”  I also think the answer for both parties has to do with coming to terms with our created nature – with what it really means, to God Him/herself, to be men and/or women.   

7.  Finally, towards the end of the article, she writes:

It's calming to be away from Camp Trans.  To be in such a political, tense environment for an extended period of time does some wear and tear on your head.  Me and Calwell talk about being afraid of being judged, feeling like you could say the wrong thing and end up ostracized and alienated.  It's kept him quieter than normal.  Same for me.  I'd like a safe space to fuck up, I say, and we laugh.  A space where everyone recognizes that everyone is trying their best, imperfectly struggling, human.  But perhaps that's not possible.

Why, I wonder, isn't Camp Trans, a place whose very formation came out of a shared experience of oppression and unfair judgment, where people originally came together for the purpose of extending solidarity, a truly welcoming environment in every dimension?  Why should Tea and Calwell feel that relief when they leave the camp?  I think, for me, the strange thing is that I've come to the point where the church looks a lot more like that “safe space to fuck up” I've been looking for.  

On a strictly intellectual level I can't possibly justify that – obviously, the church for most people is a hell of a good place to go for judgment and condemnation.  Still, looking at the limitations of all these other utopian spaces, I wonder.  What if the common recognition that we are all sinners, imperfectly struggling, human – combined with the common revelation that the beauty and dignity and passion in people are not flukes – that we were created in the image of God and redeemed in the name of Jesus… what if, on that basis, people really can become a true community, where inclusion need not be accompanied by unjust exclusion?

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