Co-authored by Elizabeth McConnell
Some of you may have read the article "When Women Become Men at Wellesley," authored by Ruth Padawer, in last week's New York Times Magazine. Padawer skillfully and thoughtfully brings to light the challenges related to transgender students at Wellesley College and other women's colleges like it. This issue has also been discussed in online queer women's blog communities like Autostraddle.
"When Women Become Men at Wellesley" brings up questions like the following: What is the purpose of a women's college? Who belongs there? Should trans men, trans women, and other gender-nonconforming students be accepted into a women's college? When a person transitions during their time at a women's college, should they then be asked to leave? What are the complications between diversity and inclusion on the one hand and, on the other, the desire to have a "safe space" for women-born, women-identified women, or cisgender women, to be where they see other women-born, women-identified women as leaders, where there is no competition from men for these positions, where women are free from the patriarchy of our society?
We related to Padawer's article because of our own work on trans inclusion. We are currently writing up results from a study that we undertook at Michfest (Michigan Womyn's Music Festival). Michfest, which began in 1976, is an annual gathering in the woods of Michigan with camping, music, and workshops. The festival states its intention is for only women-born, women-identified women to attend.
We interviewed and surveyed Michfest attendees about their attitudes toward including trans women at the festival. We were interested in the dialogue and tensions around this issue, which has been actively debated in several recent online communities -- Bitch Magazine, Autostraddle, and The Huffington Post, to name a few.
Similar to students at women's colleges, the women we interviewed identified certain parts of the culture at Michfest that were important and valuable to them. They spoke about having the freedom to be themselves as strong women and to violate traditional gender roles, experiencing healing through being in a safe climate away from patriarchy, and undergoing a process of renewal and recharging that gave them the strength to deal with the world outside the festival.
Women at the festival who did not support including trans women at the festival placed a high value on the importance of separate space for women-born, women-identified women apart from trans women. Many of them expressed the belief that trans women's experiences of womanhood are just different, especially around girlhood, and thought that trans women would benefit from having their own space to organize. Some women also worried that the presence of male anatomy (penises) at the festival would trigger trauma survivors who felt safe in a community of cisgender women. Some women also viewed the effort of trans women to be included in the festival as a form of male privilege and stressed the importance of creating boundaries so that the festival didn't end up becoming open to anyone who wanted to attend.
Women at the festival who supported trans inclusion believed that women's spaces should include trans women. Many connected this position to a belief that feminism should address all oppressions, and that trans women are directly oppressed by patriarchy. Some women also expressed a need to move beyond the gender binary and to stop seeing trans women as men. Some said Michfest needed to change with the times in order to increase attendance among younger feminists, or to extend its benefits to trans women.
As these examples illustrate, there are a number of complicated perspectives and positions on trans inclusion in women's spaces, and these dialogues illustrate some of the complexities of combating patriarchy.
We are in a time of broad social change -- marriage equity has become a reality in 32 states plus the District of Columbia -- and more change may be right around the corner.
Instead of excluding those who are different, we must forge bridges and new partnerships and work to make feminist institutions more trans-inclusive. In this way, we can work to address the interconnections between systems of oppression, rather than targeting them in isolation.
Trans* exclusion in women's communities will continue to divide and isolate us. Trans* inclusion has the power to unite us and create transformative change.
Elizabeth McConnell is a doctoral student in the department of psychology at DePaul University and an intern at Impact: The LGBT Health and Development Program at Northwestern University.