“Women’s” Colleges, Trans Inclusion, and Non-Binary Invisibility

"passing", activism, agender, ally, cissexism, dehumanization, gender fluid, genderqueer, non-binary, privilege, trans men, trans narrative, trans women, transgender, women's college

TRIGGER WARNING: cissexism, trans exclusion in “women’s” spaces, binarism, suicide statistics

Cis women do not have a monopoly on gender-based oppression.

Let me say this again, louder: CIS WOMEN DO NOT HAVE A MONOPOLY ON GENDER-BASED OPPRESSION.

One thing we talk about is how any oppressed group has a “dominant”–a more discussed–subset. In the case of gender-based oppression, it can be tricky to determine who has the most privilege. There are all sorts of gender-based privileges: cis passing privilege, the privilege of passing as your actual gender, binary privilege, cisgender privilege, male privilege, masculine privilege. Many or most people who experience gender-based oppression also hold one or more of these privileges.

What is very clear, however, is that the movement for gender rights that has the most institutional power is the movement for cisgender women’s rights. I’m not saying they have a lot of institutional power. I’m not saying they have it as good as cis men. I’m not saying any of that. I’m not trying to say that sexism against cis women is unreal. All I’m saying is that they don’t have a monopoly on gender-based oppression–yet they have a near-monopoly on the resources and spaces to combat it.

There are times when any and every subset of people that face gender-based oppression need their own space, or their own moment to speak out against wrongs done to them. Closed spaces are important. However, there are times when closed spaces become exclusive spaces. There are times when that closedness is oppressive.

It is oppressive many of the times that cisgender women close their doors to anyone else facing gender-based oppression. The exclusion of trans women from closed women’s spaces is egregious. It is vital that they are included in closed women’s spaces. I fight for that right whenever I can.

What hurts, though, is when people don’t recognize this fact as well: women–trans and cis–don’t have a monopoly on gender-based oppression, either. It’s not solely trans women that are struggling to gain access to the resources and support that the cisgender women’s rights movement has long hoarded to themselves. And it’s not solely a dichotomy between trans men and trans women, too. (Although trans men and boys also need access to empowering resources and space.)

We exist, you all. We exist and we are a part of this conversation. We are non-binary, agender, genderqueer, genderfluid, A/G, genderfuck, bois, grrlz, birls, pansies, and everygender else. We experience gender-based oppression for our gender identities (or lack of gender). Womanhood is not the only gender identity that is oppressed. We are so marginalized that our existence doesn’t even occur to the wider societal mind.

And I, for one, and many others that I know, are tired of being excluded from the conversation. I am tired of my gender not being listed when we are talking about inclusion in “women’s” colleges, in girls’ after-school clubs, in every space that is a closed women’s space–but that holds institutional resources or power I cannot find elsewhere. Yes, there are times and places for all specific subsets of people who face gender-based oppression to have closed spaces. But when one particular subset holds most of the institutional power (in this case, cis women), they gotta share a little. Given that there are no educational institutions that support trans people of all genders, women, men, and everyone else (and those without genders as well)–“women’s” colleges need to take a good look at their resources and stop being such bigots. Given that there are few to no other institutional spaces for trans people specifically, certainly not at the (small, not enough) level there is for women and girls (trans and cis, although trans women and girls are often excluded or only have lip service paid to them), all spaces that provide resources solely to women need to look at how, why, and if that is necessary.

Given that there are ZERO schools that provide a closed, safe space for trans people, I say that “women’s” colleges and other exclusive “women’s spaces” have a feminist/civil/moral responsibility to step up. I am so tired of this conversation having no nuance.

We need to distinguish between identity and expression. Where do we draw the line? Why is it that FAAB transmasculine genderqueer people aren’t allowed in some rubrics, but cis women with a masculine expression are? Both are claiming masculine expressions, which, by some estimations, shouldn’t be allowed at a “women’s” college… at least if they aren’t on a woman. But genderqueer people face so much discrmination based on their genders, so why can’t we share this space? What about someone of any birth assignment who’s almost a guy, but not quite? What about someone who’s genderfluid? What about a trans guy who doesn’t medically transition or who doesn’t pass? What about MAAB non-binary people? Their bodies and voices belong in this space. They face so much oppression and censure. And if some of those MAAB non-binary people don’t physically transition, then there are typically MAAB bodies on campus that may never become more “feminized,” even if trans men aren’t there. What about trans men who do physically transition, but have feminine gender expressions? Why would we allow a MAAB non-binary person but not a femme trans man, given that their treatment based on gender perception might be similar? Where do you draw the line at, not kicking someone out, but at judging them for being at a “women’s” college and asking for basic recognition and respect?

I say, you don’t. You don’t draw the line at judgment. You say, you all are dealing with severe gender-based oppression, in different ways. You all, or many of you, also have various privileges from your gender even as you are being oppressed. We can process that in a community that’s committed to gender justice. I would like to say that “women’s” colleges are one such community, but they clearly aren’t, given that MAAB trans people of all genders (or lack thereof) aren’t part of the conversation, and given that FAAB trans people of all genders (or lack thereof) are marginalized when they do attend. What’s the bigger evil? Of course—it’s not even being allowed to attend. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to do to make our schools inclusive as well. Both things are important; including MAAB trans people of all genders (except cis male, of course), and agender people is the priority.

Of course supporting trans women is important and vital. I’m just saying that supporting non-binary people is vital, too. We’re killing ourselves at a higher rate than the general trans population; we face higher rates of most other forms of oppression as well. It’s time to count us. It’s time to include us. It’s time to recognize us as part of this movement. Use words for us when talking about gender equality and trans inclusion. Say the phrase, “trans women and non-binary people.” Say the phrase “all gender-oppressed people.” Say, “all forms of gender oppression”–and mean it and include it in all the work that you do.

It’s time.

Letter to Former Therapist #1

ableism, activism, agender, ally, cissexism, coming out, dehumanization, disability, dysphoria, gatekeeper model, gender fluid, genderqueer, mental health system, mental illness, misgendering, non-binary, privilege, saneism, suicidal ideation, therapy, trans narrative, transgender, transition, transphobia

TRIGGER WARNING: Cissexism/transphobia in therapy, saneism, suicidal ideation

This letter is pretty self-explanatory, but I want to give a brief introduction. I had been seeing this therapist on and off for six years, and it was only after we stopped seeing each other, mostly for reasons unrelated to the content of this letter, that I realized the full extent of what had happened in that office in terms of my gender. This is something that is still very painful for me to process, but I am sharing this (slightly edited) letter with you all because I hope that sharing my story will help other people in similar situations, or other people who are considering therapy. If any providers are reading this post, take this post to heart and consider if any of it applies to you. If it does, make changes to your practice now.

Written: 5/1/14

Sent: 5/17/14

Dear [Former Therapist #1],

I have realized in the past few weeks that there is something more I need to say to you. Feeling both anger and loss, caring about and valuing much of our therapeutic time together while realizing how you hurt and utterly failed me in this way–it isn’t an easy combination of feelings. When someone has both given so much and also deprived me of something so important, the emotions are not easy to navigate. I know that you have always had good intentions for me, but good intentions and positive effects are, as you must know, not the same, often. I am going to give you some feedback here that I hope you will take to heart, so that you can have a positive impact and a practice where all clients are treated equally. Although I am angry about this, and I wanted to show you that impact in this letter, I also wish you the best in implementing these changes. Please get in touch with me if you need further input, or if you otherwise want to respond.

I talked with you in one of our sessions a few months ago about my doubts and worries about us working together again. I told you that you had shot me down years ago when I had first brought up questioning my gender to you. What I didn’t do then is remind you what you had said to me.

I don’t remember every detail of those conversations we had when I was 18, but I do remember the traumatizing parts. I remember that, back in what must have been our first or second session, you asked if I wanted a penis. Uncomfortable, and confused as to whether this was the only measure of trans* ness, I said that I didn’t think so. Shortly afterwards, I think you must have concluded that I wasn’t trans*, or I must have concluded that I didn’t want to repeat that uncomfortable conversation, because we stopped talking about it for a while.

Later, maybe months or a year later, I worked up my courage and brought it up to you again. You said that you thought I had penis envy or wanted a grab at male privilege. (At the time, I was too clueless about feminism to know what you meant, so I mentally shrugged.) You said that I wasn’t trans*. “But you’re so feminine!” you said. (This was especially hurtful, given my current gender identity. I don’t identify with the word “feminine,” but me having some characteristics that get categorized that way doesn’t mean that I am a woman.)

I didn’t talk with you about it again until five years later, this current year, when my internalized transphobia and gender dysphoria (among other things) was making me suicidal. (Partly, I had buried it for some time, but I found a journal entry that showed that even in the midst of that fog, I was aware of my dysphoria. Besides, a lot of why I’d buried it was because I hadn’t been met with affirmation from you at all.) When I brought up my gender identity as one of my concerns about working with you again, you showed that you had evolved in some ways. You told me that you had been naive then, and that you were sorry. (But I don’t think you remember what you said! At least, I hope you didn’t, with that response.) You said that one of a therapist’s most important jobs is to eliminate their prejudices, and now you have no personal investment in your clients’ genders. You said that you understand that for people who don’t fit into the binary, trying to fit them into the opposite-gender box can be just as damaging. (Here, given that I hadn’t talked about my gender with you in five years, I felt you were subtly gendering me again.) Then you said, “Given all the evidence, I think it’s time for a reevaluation.”

This final sentence shows how much further you need to go. You do not get to evaluate my gender. You do not get to tell me who I am. Not any more than you get to tell your cis clients who they are and what genders they should be. Not only had you led me away from my true self for an extra six years, invalidated my gender identity, and used pathetic tropes to degrade who I am (trans men don’t just transition for a grab at male privilege! And the words “penis envy” should never be uttered with any kind of seriousness in a gender therapist’s office)–not to mention that you seemed to think inquiring about my thoughts on my genitalia was a good way to both break the ice and determine my gender–you now were judging yourself professionally fit to make those calls again! Instead of realizing the significant damage you had wrought on me (and probably many other trans* clients), instead of working tirelessly to correct that damage, you simply said that I might be able to convince you, the ultimate authority on my gender, that I am trans*–this time around.

As a first-year in college, I specifically sought out gender specialists so I could start exploring my gender identity. I naively thought that it was a safe space to do so, and foolishly bought into the idea that I could trust my therapist over myself. While I know that your statements don’t hold complete power over me, and, of course, they don’t determine my gender, your authority played a large role in squelching my shy early feelings of my true self, feelings I’d been conscious of as trans* since high school, but had been waiting for a place to show. It is true, also, that especially in the early stages of gender formation, we tend to listen to others over ourselves. You have a huge responsibility!

Had I received nurturing and competent care when I was 18, I might be in a very different place today. Many of my mental health issues would at least be different, if not lessened or resolved. I might have been exposed to less or different trauma. I might even be a few inches taller, if I’d decided that testosterone was the way to go! I’d already be myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone to the point of considering suicide to get here.

I think that you still don’t understand the gravity of what you did five years ago. You still don’t understand the danger of labeling yourself an expert on others’ genders, or the absolute destructiveness of the gatekeeper model of trans* care. In many ways, you taught me how to advocate for myself in therapy, and how to break down the barriers of authority between therapist and client. Yet you still cling to authority in this way. I shouldn’t have to convince you of who I am. I am certain that you don’t ask your cisgender clients to do so. I should be able to simply be, in therapy of all places. I should be supported in all ways to become more myself!

Your discouragement took away six years of my life as myself. It likely took away many others’. Please look deeply into yourself and your practice to see what amends you might be able to make with other people you have harmed through your prejudice. You have a responsibility to your current and former clients to do so. If you fail to do this, you continue to fail the trans* community. Reach out to former clients and apologize, and ask if there is anything you could possibly do to connect them to resources or help now. Check in with current clients to be sure they feel affirmed. Never “evaluate” anyone’s gender again. Ask for accountability and feedback from the trans* community and other gender specialists (maybe them, but having met many of them, a lot of them seem as or more messed up). Please look deeply into yourself and your practice, in these ways and/or others (it is ultimately your responsibility to figure this part out) to make changes now for affirming, egalitarian care. You know the stats–lives are on the line

One more thing. I am telling you all these things, taking this time and energy, because I have seen you walk the walk of eliminating prejudice before. I hope that my trust that I have placed in you is not ill-spent. I have faith that you will take this feedback seriously and do your best to right these wrongs.

Your former client,

Still fucking known as,

[Birth name]*

*Since this letter was written, I have started trying [current name] and using they/them pronouns.

Non-binary People, the Trans Narrative, and “Passing” Privilege

"passing", agender, cissexism, gender fluid, genderqueer, misgendering, non-binary, privilege, trans narrative, transgender

TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of misgendering, invalidation of trans identities

 

NOTE: I want to use this post to start a conversation. I know that there’s plenty of trans experiences I don’t have–so if I’m missing something, please don’t be afraid to let me know! 

So, this flashy word people throw around, “trans narrative,” when they say it, they’re talking about the normative idea of what it is to be trans, what it involves. Knowing you were trans before you could barely speak and asserting that clearly to your family, expressing your true gender in normative ways, wanting to medically transition in all ways possible. Not really “counting” as trans until medical transition starts. This is the normative trans narrative that so many people decry in their vlogs and blogs and all sorts of places.

This trans narrative does not have room for non-binary people.

There are normative pressures in the non-binary world, too, possibly that you’re AFAB and that you express more on a masculine spectrum/androgynously. But the dominant trans narrative, cultivated by so many years of warped guidelines for therapists (and warped therapists) and our own trans community, does not even leave space for our existence. It also doesn’t leave space for many binary trans people. Anybody who doesn’t check all of those boxes can deal with some invalidation because of not fitting into this narrative. 

Much of the dominant culture and conversation about what it is to be trans is constructed for and focused on binary trans people. It’s important to note that this isn’t the only point of focus: dominant conversations about transness revolve around white, able-bodied, thin-privileged, class-privileged citizens of the United States (at least in the US). All of this intersects in different ways. Right now I’m going to focus on non-binary identity because I’m not versed in all of these intersections–I need to work on that. If I create any glaring holes, I apologize. If you feel comfortable, please let me know and I will do my best to correct it.

I will give you one example of how this plays out. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about “passing” privilege that non-binary people can sometimes have. I want to front-load this conversation by saying that “passing” can be a complicated topic for many people, and not everyone’s goal is to “pass.” The word itself is cissexist and sucky. But I’m going to use it here because people do talk a lot about “passing” privilege. If folks have an idea about a better word, I’d love to know about it!

Inside the trans community, there are two types of “passing.” One is to “pass” as cisgender. The other is to “pass” as our true genders. For binary trans people, even if it is hard or impossible to “pass” as either of these things, “passing” as one’s true gender can often mean “passing” as cisgender. (This is still true, but more complicated, with binary people who have non-normative gender expressions. There are also many binary trans people that do not want to “pass” as cisgender.)

As diverse as the binary trans community is, it’s harder to talk about non-binary people because we are even more diverse. However, for many non-binary people, it is nearly impossible to pass as our true gender(s) (or lack of gender). Very rarely does it cross people’s minds that “non-binary” could be an option when they’re projecting their gender assumptions onto people. Some non-binary people are (sometimes, often, or always) comfortable presenting as a binary gender. Some non-binary people CAN’T be read as cisgender because of their gender expression or medical transition. (I think that part of this assumption about non-binary “passing” privilege is based on the wrong idea that none of us transition medically.) Some wish they weren’t read as cisgender or binary trans, but due to any number of limitations, that’s what they are read as. When trying to be read as our full selves, sometimes the best we can hope for is confusing people. Many binary trans people can hope for being seen as their true genders. In order for non-binary people to be seen as our true genders (or lack thereof), we first need to educate people not only on what it means to be trans, but on the existence of our gender(s) (or lack of gender).

Then, while we’re doing that educating, we are also working against a dominant trans narrative, and many binary trans people, that also say that we don’t exist. Or that if we do, we are doing this for political reasons or something, or just to threaten binary people’s genders, or some other hogwash. So, yes, some non-binary people have the “passing” privilege of appearing cisgender–as do some binary trans people. Very few to no non-binary people have the “passing” privilege of being read as our true genders (or lack of gender). This is also true for some binary trans people. The difference is that binary trans people’s true genders at least exist as a pre-formulated possibility in people’s minds, even if they refuse to recognize a binary trans person, even if “that person might be trans” doesn’t occur to them when projecting gender onto someone. Non-binary people do not exist as a possibility in most people’s minds.

This is why we need binary trans people to have our backs. Many of us across the trans community are challenging this dominant trans narrative, but it is pervasive. It contains a lot of binary prejudice. There are many other ways that we talk about binary trans experience as if it’s the experience of everyone who isn’t cisgender. It’s not just in conversations about “passing” privilege, it’s everywhere. I hear a lot of non-binary people apologizing for their “passing” privilege, and I think it’s important for any and everyone to own what privileges they do have. Some non-binary people do have a variety of privileges. But I also want to recognize that the whole dynamic is skewed, is set up from a binary trans perspective. What would it look like if we had a narrative that held everyone equally? It might be a lot messier and longer and take some more words, but then everyone would be seen.