Transwomen fight for admission to female-only spaces
“Dear Smith College Board of Trustees and President McCartney,
I am writing this open letter to express my strong and continuing support for Smith College’s female-only admissions policy… Being a woman is not a spiritual or metaphysical experience. It is not a feeling and it is not a performative utterance. Being a woman is a lived experience with material consequences. Smith’s admission policy must reflect some clear limitations on male gender identification, lest the social category ‘woman’ become entirely meaningless.”
—“An Open Letter to Smith College about Transwomen,” Elizabeth Hungerford, Smith College ’00
At a time when feminism is finally beginning to incorporate the voices of transwomen, there are many self-defined “radical feminists” who are rejecting these women on the basis that they are not women at all. These feminists have been given the unflattering name “TERF” by trans-supportive feminists, meaning “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” However, few, if any, radical feminists actually identify with that name.
Rachel Ivey, who runs the radical feminist blog, Bend It Till It Breaks, said TERF “is a term used as an insult, and more importantly, used to shut down discussion.”
Ivey said she thinks discourse about these topics, regardless of how disparate opinions are, is important.
“[TERF] is a term used as an insult, and more importantly, used to shut down discussion. When someone uses that term, it is clear to me that they have not begun to understand what radical feminists are saying, they do not understand how gender functions and how it differs from physical sex, and more than that, it indicates that they are not interested in gaining an understanding of those things,” Ivey said. “It’s a term placed onto us by those who want to speak over and silence us.”
In contrast, many liberal feminists recognize the idea popularized in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, published in 1990, that gender is performative. Gender is constructed, Butler claimed, through the repetitive performance of activities that have come to be associated with the different genders. Each individual has their own intrinsic gender identity.
Ivey explained this view in her video “The End of Gender: Revolution, Not Reform,” and then contrasted it with the radical feminist view. Radical feminists believe that gender isn’t only sorted into the man/woman binary, but that it is in fact a hierarchy.
“Gender is not a binary,” writes Lierre Keith, a well-known radical feminist, quoted in Ivey’s presentation. “It is a hierarchy… It divides us in half. That half is not horizontal — it is vertical.”
These radical feminists believe that individuals changing changing their own presentation of gender is irrelevant. Ivey said, as a woman, she experimented with changing her style of clothing to being more “masculine” at times.
“I could not escape gender by changing myself because changing my appearance did not change the fact that I was socialized into the sex class called ‘women’ against my will,” Ivey said. “The fear and desperation that comes from that is not something that someone would choose, and it was not my fault… No one innately chooses that identity; no one is innately subordinate.”
Justin Kilian, a transwoman and student activist in Massachusetts, said she believes no one would choose the marginalization that comes along with identifying as a woman.
“Anyone in their right mind would not intentionally put themselves into marginalized categories of female and transgender if that’s really not who they were. That’s not a logical thing,” she said.
Becoming a woman, a process that differs for individual transwomen, is often a difficult and complicated journey, and it is self-directed.
Kilian said “transitioning” is an entirely individual process that doesn’t always affect changes in clothing or makeup. Although most transpeople change their pronouns, not all change their names. Kilian decided not to change from her birth name when she transitioned.
“I don’t believe in changing your name if it’s not an internally motivated thing for you. So, I don’t feel a [different] internal name, but people expect me to have a more feminine name,” she said.
The same goes for changing presentation. Many feminists like Ivey criticize the idea that an individual’s change of presentation can change their inner gender.
“The problem in that lies — per se, wearing makeup or dresse — that’s not something that just trans women do. That’s something that cis women do too. And there’s a lot of women who don’t do that too, who don’t wear makeup or that clothing,” Kilian said. “Your presentation and how you dress have nothing to do with who you are.”
Additionally, transwomen have an additional threat if they do not “pass,” or appear at a glance to look like other people in their gender. According to 2012 statistics from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 50 percent of reported hate murders were transgender women. The threat increases if they do not pass easily, as random strangers in their lives can tell that they are trans. Many assailants find their very existence an insult, and claim that it motivates their violence.
“Not ‘passing’ is extremely volatile because if you don’t pass, per se, you are in very real danger everywhere you walk,” Kilian said.
With all of these additional threats against transwomen, why wouldn’t all feminists automatically come to their defense? Kilian said she believes that “fear” is what motivates these radical feminists to continue to exclude transwomen from their spaces.
“I feel for them because a lot of it comes out of fear,” Kilian said. “A lot of hatred comes out of fear. It doesn’t necessarily make the actions that you’re taking excusable by any means.”
Kilian has been working for inclusion of transwomen in women’s spaces as part of the struggle at Smith College to make admission for transwomen an easier process. Currently, anyone who identifies as a woman is eligible for admission, but the admission process is complicated for transwomen. When applying to schools, Kilian said she called Smith to see how the application process works.
“My friend said I should try to apply to Smith, and I didn’t really want to, but I figured I’d just call the offices anyway. I asked how I, as a transwoman, would apply. The lady on the phone was very helpful and said I was going to have to get a letter for my gender therapist, and I was going to have to get all of my gender markers changed, and I was going to have to get a note from my doctor,” she said. “I could tell they had this very specific idea of what a transwoman was that doesn’t align with every woman’s reality.”
Kilian did not end up applying. Many young transwomen do not have the resources to begin their transition, physically or in their public identity, until they are older; high schools or parents are often unsupportive, and the process can be expensive.
As Smith College’s student organization “Q&A: Trans Women Belong at Smith” states: “Most school districts are free to prohibit students from changing the gender markers on their records for any reason they like. Very few states have formulated guidelines for school districts to follow. Schools can make up whatever requirements they want—like seeing a gender specialist or changing legal gender markers. These actions are not financially or logistically accessible to most trans high school students.”
When Kilian was accepted to another university near Smith, she got involved with Smith’s “Q&A,” an on-campus group that has been holding demonstrations, educational initiatives and working to pressure the administration to be more inclusive. This semester they are trying to garner national attention, particularly that of Smith’s funders and alumni. Kilian said at this point, they want to “impact how the system works as a whole… [That means creating] a lack of funds being given to the school to keep it going.”
Kilian said she does understand why so many “feminist” women are wary of transwomen, especially of their inclusion in traditionally “women-only” or “female-only” spaces.
In the eyes of these activists, Kilian said, “[Transwomen] are either purposefully changing our bodies to act as agents of patriarchy to interrupt women’s spaces, or, a more nuanced approach, we are perpetuating stereotypes about women by existing — and I can see where the concern in that lies.”
Speaking of “female-only spaces,” Ivey said, “Female people are a distinct social class with unique experiences, and like every other distinct group, we get to claim and define our own space and exclude people who do not share our specific, unique experiences.”
The lifelong oppression of those born as “female” is central, in Ivey’s view, to that experience.
Kilian disagrees. It is important to include transwomen in women’s spaces, “because we are women, and you can’t have a ‘women’s space’ unless it includes all women.”
“I think trans women in particular can really benefit from being in women’s spaces because our particular womanhood is so desecrated, completely trashed in the real world,” Kilian said. “If you can find a safe space where you are free of sort of this sexist influence on daily life, that kind of pushes women’s colleges to be a space you benefit from, that you really discover your own voice and foster your identity as a woman with other women. You get to develop your ideas of womanhood with other women.”
Alexa Salvato is a sophomore journalism major who supports self-directed and personalized paths to womanhood. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.