The trouble with ‘women-only’ spaces

My periodic flares of frustration over the way well-meaning people talk about ‘women-only spaces’ and nonbinary gender have appeared yet again. It’s not my goal to single out specific people or organisations for ire, because this is about a larger systemic pattern, not calling people up on the carpet. People thinking about gender are good people, and I want to push people to explore gender a little further, to rethink the way, in particular, that they think about nonbinary people. In my experience, people tend to be more open to discussion when they aren’t put on the defensive, which is why I prefer to discuss things in broad terms to reach more people rather than launching targeted comments.

So. I see a lot of organisations telling the public that they run ‘women-only spaces,’ which I totally support. I argue that safer spaces where people can talk about gender issues in an environment sans people determined to drown them out is good. Women have things they need to discuss amongst each other, or sometimes just want to hang out in a place without people of other genders. I do not support ‘women-only’ spaces that don’t include all women — namely, those run by organisations that deny autonomy, respect, and identity to trans women. If you are a woman, you’re a woman. The end.

However, I also see a lot of spaces saying things like ‘or for whatever value of woman’ or ‘if you feel like a woman’ or other vague, tricky terms that sound a lot to me like they are trying to suggest that they are also open to nonbinary people. I find this language pretty upsetting, and the reasons why are complicated. First, though, it’s important to state that anyone who feels like a woman is a woman. This includes people with fluid genders who might not feel like women all the time, and nonbinary people who also identify as women. Gender is complicated and wonderful and cool!

Here’s the thing, though. The attitude embedded in that language, whether people are conscious of it or not, is this: ‘We welcome FAAB people to our ‘woman-only’ space.’ That to me suggests that the people writing these kinds of policies think that FAAB are really just women at heart, no matter how they identify. This, for obvious reasons, troubles me, because the humanity and gender of nonbinary people as well as though of other genders (even in the West, gender isn’t as simple as binary/nonbinary) is often erased, particularly in the case of FAAB people, for a variety of reasons.

One is simply the fact that many of them have ‘feminine’ appearances, with breasts, broad hips, and other secondary sex characteristics people associate with women. People seem to find it very upsetting that people who look like that can identify with genders that are not ‘woman,’ and there’s a strong whiff of misogyny in the fact that people who look more ‘masculine’ (as though men can’t be femme) or ‘androgynous’ (by which people usually mean a ‘masculine’ appearance) actually are genuinely nonbinary people — everyone else is a fake.

This puts a lot of pressure on people, including really awful gendered expectations. I don’t like being told that I’m welcome to join woman-only spaces because I look like a woman, so it’s all good. I’m not a woman. I don’t belong in those spaces. That doesn’t mean I’m speaking for all nonbinary people, each of whom has a different relationship with gender identity. But the ‘some values of woman’ thing really bugs me, because of what it says about perceptions of human bodies and identity.

Nonbinary femmes in particular have a really hard time when it comes to social acceptance. They’re assigned as female by everyone around them, including people who should know better. That takes a significant toll on people who are already fighting transphobia and dealing with the specific issues that come with being nonbinary in a binaristic world. When organisations claim to be thinking about gender diversity and expression and then effectively force nonbinary FAAB into a box, it’s pretty offputting.

I also strongly suspect that these policies are written with the implication of excluding MAAB people who fall into the nebulous spaces of gender. Just as FAAB people are used to being read and treated as women, MAAB people are used to being read and treated as men, even when they’re not — and they’re going to feel excluded from these spaces as a result of policies like these. I understand the motivations behind that, as years of growing up socialised as a man can result in pretty damaging attitudes and beliefs, but I’m troubled by the implication that they wouldn’t be welcome under a policy that basically says ‘all women, and FAAB people, are welcome, but we have our doubts about MAAB people who femme-leaning or actively identify as feminine.’

This language is also imprecise. Maybe an organisation means ‘no boys allowed’ spaces, which is also an entirely legitimate thing to do. A group could collectively decide that it wants to cultivate a membership and community that is for people who are not men only, including people with a broad spectrum of genders, gender expression, and gender presentation. In that case, nonbinary people who don’t identify as women, along with people of other genders who don’t identify as female or nonbinary, would be an important part of the community, and they’d feel more welcomed in it, with a policy that actively included them.

But a policy that says ‘values of women’ doesn’t include them. It creates an exclusionary and uncomfortable environment — and one that members of such organisations should feel uncomfortable with too, even if they’re women. We are all fighting a hard battle, as they say, and solidarity is important. Particularly for those who are actively participating in the construction of policies and guiding documents, it’s critical to think about these issues, and to answer a core question: Who do they actually want to restrict their membership to?

Because if it’s women-only, go ahead and say that. That is fine. If it’s ‘no men,’ that is also fine. But don’t try to straddle this strange divide and call it progressive. If you don’t know how to write inclusive gender policies, contact people of different genders! Talk to non-Western people about their models of gender identity and how to include them! Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Image: What a woman has to be, Pilar Castro, Flickr