A response to Monica Potts on trans students at women’s colleges

Update 2/22/15: It has been brought to my attention that there are parts of this post where through lazy language use I conflated assigned-female-at-birth nonbinary people and all nonbinary people. I apologize for this and have updated the post to fix this, placing my edits in brackets and italicizing them so as not to be misleading about what I said pre-updates. Thank you to the person who raised this issue with me.

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day about that Monica Potts article about trans people at women’s colleges in The New Republic (which I had been griping about). The person honestly didn’t understand, at first, why I considered the article transphobic. They noted that Potts never said that either trans men or trans women shouldn’t be at women’s colleges (something Potts has also emphasized on Twitter), and they did feel weird about the fact that trans men, who are, after all, men, would be pushing for greater acknowledgment in a traditionally women’s space. They agreed with Potts that this seemed misogynistic on the part of trans men, and didn’t think the article had much to do with trans women at all. I thought our discussion was good, so I decided to make some of my points into a post.

– Potts repeatedly uses the term “transgendered” which is widely considered to be a dispreferred term for trans people. It may once have been commonly accepted, but it isn’t anymore and hasn’t been at least since I started college in 2003 and became aware that trans people existed – this article compares it to calling a black person “colored,” another formerly respectable term that became less so as language evolved.

– The article really glosses over nonbinary people, who, like trans men, might object to women-centric language on the grounds that it excludes them (in women-dominated spaces that I’ve been in, like abortion access spaces, this sort of language debate is at least as much about the status of [female-assigned] nonbinary people as about that of trans men). Presumably, one of the points of women-centric language like “sisterhood” or default she/her/hers pronouns is that most of the world is still a men-centric space and it’s important to carve out space away from that. Now, I think it’s a little too simple, for reasons I’ll explain below, to suggest that trans men should simply back off because they’re men in what is traditionally a women’s space and the rest of the world is men-centric. For nonbinary people, though, [regardless of how they were assigned at birth], it makes even less sense. Nonbinary people don’t have nonbinary-centric educational institutions to go to ([and as far as I know, male-assigned nonbinary people aren’t even allowed at women’s colleges, though female-assigned nonbinary people are]). They’re a small, marginalized population that isn’t even acknowledged to exist by the US government or most of the public. And like women, they often (see table on page 9) face gender-related violence and discrimination. Potts’ article would have you believe that [a subset of] this group of people seeking inclusion at anti-gendered-oppression institutions is misogynistic, but I think this is a misunderstanding of the power dynamics here.

– The piece was ostensibly about the implications of trans activism for the mission of women’s colleges in the US. Quite a large portion of trans activism at women’s colleges is about the inclusion of trans women, since trans men and [female-assigned] nonbinary students have long attended women’s colleges but trans women have been traditionally excluded. When you claim that “transactivism” – not specifically trans men’s activism, but trans activism – is threatening the mission of women’s colleges, even if you toss out a couple of examples involving transmasculine people, you are including activism by and in solidarity with trans women in your criticism, and causing, at the very least, splash damage to trans women. Given that activism by and in solidarity with trans women around access to women-centric spaces is often characterized as misogyny and/or a threat to women’s spaces by transphobic women, it doesn’t come off well to write a piece about how trans activism is endangering the mission of women’s colleges even if you say later that you’re fine with trans women being there. You’re playing on traditional transmisogynistic tropes, even if you don’t realize it!

– While we’re on the subject of traditional transmisogynistic tropes, Potts used the phrase “born women” to refer to cis women. I’m not sure if she’s aware of this, but “born women” is language associated with people who want to exclude trans women from women’s spaces.

– The idea that trans women must be considered “allies” to (cis) women – which is the very, very strong implication of phrasing like “Women-only institutions can welcome as many male or transgender allies who want to join…” that lumps trans people together regardless of gender – is transmisogynistc, because it says that trans women are something other than women.

– We see further evidence that she’s not differentiating between trans people of different genders, that she’s lumping all trans people together as a gender apart from cis men or women, when she lumps together transmasculine activism around language with a Mount Holyoke theater group’s cancellation of the Vagina Monologues, and, in a later paragraph, lumps together fights to erase references to women with cancellation of “plays [like the Monologues] where women’s bodies are celebrated, where women speak openly about abuse from men.” The trans criticism of the Monologues has nothing to do with the fact that it’s a play about women, or that it’s a play where women speak openly about abuse from men, and the Mount Holyoke cancellation had nothing to do with transmasculine activism around language. The Mount Holyoke cancellation was because 1) the conflation of having a vagina with experiencing life as a woman isn’t inclusive of trans women (see, not about trans men!), and 2) the students were uncomfortable with how it presents race and class issues. This is not shoving women, or talk of women’s bodies, aside (indeed, the student theater group decided to write and perform their own play on these topics), it’s deciding not to perform one overrated play because they don’t like how it relates to some subsets of women.

Potts says, regarding the Monologues, that “Calling oneself a woman and noting that other women do, in fact, exist hardly ignores the existence of transgender individuals and other people who don’t fall neatly into either category. It’s just, in that moment, not about their fight.” Trans women, unless they are also genderqueer/genderfluid women, are not “people who don’t fall neatly into either category.” Trans women are women, trans women are not outside the category of women, trans women’s fight is as much women’s fight as any other subset of women’s fight is. Trans women’s complaint about the Monologues is precisely that they call themselves women and note that other women exist, but that the Monologues don’t usefully acknowledge this.

Relatedly, what the heck, a surprising number of reasonably feminist people on the Internet appear to think a feminist student group deciding to perform a feminist play that they wrote themselves, instead of a feminist play that somebody else wrote and won’t let them modify, is some kind of unspeakable and misogynistic betrayal. Do they realize how weird that sounds? Don’t you want more feminist works, and more young feminists exercising their own power? Why are you so attached to this one play at the expense of the young feminists, whom you seem to think are all suffering from internalized misogyny by wanting to do their own better work instead of uncritically repeating a 20 year-old one, themselves?

– Oddly, she follows up the talk about the Monologues with comments about how abortion access is under attack. This is quite accurate, and also an important issue! It is a major issue for cis women! It is, however, not only an issue affecting cis women. It’s also an issue affecting all those trans men and nonbinary people she’s been complaining about, who can and should be important members of any coalition to fight for abortion access. There are trans men and [female-assigned] nonbinary people, people who could potentially need abortions themselves, who are active in abortion all over the country, from the boards of directors of abortion funds to the hotlines of abortion-provider coalitions to reproductive care providers themselves. This has nothing to do with who should have what status at women’s colleges, but it seems worth mentioning.

– Look at this quote: “It’s only women who would respond ‘So sorry!’ and retreat to the sidelines. Women aren’t supposed to talk about themselves, to champion their cause without reservation, to put their own needs above others’. We’re so uncomfortable with female power that we fight it on the smallest scales. Women, especially young ones, hold power so delicately and uncomfortably they’re ready to give it up as soon as someone accuses them of being selfish.”

Trans women are women. Trans women are women. Trans women’s power is female power. Every time you say “women” and you actually mean “cis women” you are excluding trans women. Trans women are women.

A final note: The topic of how trans men interact with women and traditionally women’s spaces is a complicated one, and I’m not going to get too far into it here (some spaces have responded to this by becoming “everybody but cis men” spaces). I have definitely met misogynistic trans men, and trans men who refused to acknowledge that being men gets them certain benefits and privileges. I know that some folks oppose trans men attending women’s colleges because they’re, well, men, but also that trans men have been attending women’s colleges for many years and that some trans men don’t realize that they’re men until after they’ve started college. I know that a large subset of trans men previously believed themselves to be queer women and are very immersed in and have support networks in queer women’s culture (a well-represented culture at many women’s colleges), and that trans men, like other trans people, have reason to fear violence from cis men. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that communities recognize the people, all the people, that they’ve voluntarily admitted to their spaces – as women’s colleges have done with trans men – for who they are, that they acknowledge the existing reality of their student bodies, even if it compromises language purity. So I’m not sure that, as RH Reality Check’s Emma Caterine asserts in her response to Potts, trans men’s struggle for inclusion at women’s colleges is as simple as misogynistic trans men’s male entitlement. But I also think there are some issues with it, and with women’s colleges accepting people who already know themselves to be trans men as applicants to college, in the first place. This one is tricky for me.

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