Why aren’t there More Women Around Here?

Every so often, the topic of diversity comes up in electronic music. Women definitely make up less than 50% of participants – including in the forums where this topic is discussed. Since I’ve moved to the UK, I’ve seen a few email flurries where men argue about whether or not its a problem that there are so few women participating and if so, what they can do about it. These arguments themselves are probably somewhat off-putting, as there are always at least a few vocal men who like being in a boys club and will argue that things are fine. Even if everybody started from a pro-diversity standpoint, I doubt it would be a particularly fun conversation for the few women who were on the list, lurking. This is why I think efforts like MzTech, Flossie, G-Hack and ETC are a good idea, despite all the places where they’re problematic (which is beyond the scope of this post).
Women-only events do seem to be how the UK is best able to cope with the massively huge tech gap. This gap, by the way, gets more pronounced as level of techiness rises. As far as I’ve been able to determine, there are fewer than five women who are regular SuperCollider users in the UK. This is absolutely a social problem. It seems to be the case that in Japan, women users are roughly equal in numbers or possibly greater than men. Thus there is nothing inherently woman-unfriendly in the programme.
Meanwhile, in America, there is still a gap, but it seems less bad. I don’t have solid numbers, but I’ve seen women at American conferences and they make up a fair percentage of presenters. However, sexism is also very clearly apparent. How is it that women are participating in greater numbers in what seems like it’s a more sexist environment?
Well, it might not be more sexist in the States. It might just be a more open form of sexism. Scientific American just ran an article about benevolent sexism. When sexism seems ‘friendly’, women are more likely to accept it. They gave a hypothetical example:

How might this play out in a day-to-day context? Imagine that there’s an anti-female policy being brought to a vote, like a regulation that would make it easier for local businesses to fire pregnant women once they find out that they are expecting. If you are collecting signatures for a petition or trying to gather women to protest this policy and those women were recently exposed to a group of men making comments about the policy in question, it would be significantly easier to gain their support and vote down the policy if the men were commenting that pregnant women should be fired because they were dumb for getting pregnant in the first place. However, if they instead happened to mention that women are much more compassionate than men and make better stay-at-home parents as a result, these remarks might actually lead these women to be less likely to fight an objectively sexist policy.

So it might not be that British culture (and British people) are less sexist than Americans. They’re just more polite. And the result of this politeness is not that women feel more empowered. Quite the contrary, in fact. Because the sexism is less in-your-face, it’s more effective and participation by women is thus lowered.
Indeed, if men who mean well are making a big deal about how rare it is for women to get involved in something, this can accidentally slide into benevolent sexism. Which leaves us in something of a bind. For those of us who are men and do want to increase participation by women, what can we do about it? I would argue that one step is vigilant moderation, where all sexism, benevolent or openly hostile, is banished from online discussion. And we can refuse to participate in all-male events or panels. Some effort should probably also be extended in this direction for collaborations, projects and musical groups . . . there is probably some size at which it becomes problematic if everyone involved is a man. The growing pool of G-Hack alumnae will hopefully become part of the larger scene. And hopefully more women on stage will empower the women in the audience to start producing. And hopefully those of us men who want to make a big deal about it (‘and they’re pretty too!’), will get the message that this is not the way forward.

Dr Ew (contains spoilers)

These evil people are clearly suspicious. They have hacked a young woman’s head so she can actually understand the internet. #drwho #ew
@PennyRed

The current Doctor Who series has exactly zero women writers. Perhaps this is why it’s kicked off with a show that fails the Bechdel Test – at least between adults. The child and the nanny do have a brief conversation.
The show has two strong female characters and two strong male characters as well as two additional supporting male roles. The major male players are of course, The Doctor and a character that one might not expect to have a gender: The Great Intelligence. The other male roles are two subordinates at an evil company that hacks people. The strong female roles are Clara, the Doctor’s new sidekick; and the woman in charge of the evil company.
As Laurie Penny notes, the evil company adds computer knowledge to Clara’s head. Previously, she was entirely inept at getting online, ringing a helpline for aid logging in to wifi. She seems to be a middle class woman in her 20’s in modern-day London, who has access to a netbook and a reason to want to get online. The idea that she would be unable to manage something as simple as loggin in to wifi actually seems profoundly unlikely.
Her job is working as a nanny, a reprise of the job of her previous incarnation. The Doctor keeps trying to ask how somebody as obviously clever as herself got stuck as a nanny – an often female-specific job. Things are not getting off to a great start.
The other strong woman character never speaks to Clara. She mostly speaks to her two male assistants, to the Great Intelligence and to the Doctor. At the end, after the Doctor saves the day, she is reset to her state before the Great Intelligence started shaping her personality and actions, or ‘whispering in her ear’ as she puts it. UNIT finds her sitting on the floor, speaking in the voice of a little girl, asking where her mummy and daddy have gone. Her talents and even her entire self is thus not her own, but belonged to the male Great Intelligence.
Clara did get to save the day in her debut, but only by offing herself in the process. She manages to live through this episode – sort of. She dies twice, but the Doctor brings her back both times. As she’s dead, she’s especially helpless as a captive and thus is not able to play an active part in her own rescue. However, she’s not useless. She discovers the location of the bad guys through a clever insight into social engineering – that the weak point in computer security is usually the people. However, this insight is not entirely her own. All of her computer knowledge and therefore all of her hacking skills, remember, have come from the bad guys. Again, this mirrors her first episode where she also has superior hacking skills than the Doctor, but only because the Daleks have tampered with her mind and body.
The power of women in the episode is, therefore, largely not really their own, but given to them by the machinations of a male intelligence. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s abilities come from his own great intelligence and from his magical powers – he uses the sonic screwdriver to ‘hack.’ This device functions more or less as a magic wand in recent years. In this episode, he also has a magical flying motorcycle. (The linked article at the top mentions JK Rowling as a sci-fi author. I would normally strongly contest this claim, but her influence on Doctor Who is very clear, thus pulling the show further and further away form sci-fi and towards fantasy.) The source of the Great Intelligence’s power is not yet revealed in it’s current arc – it’s a nemesis from the old days, so a backstory does exist, but without benefit of that knowledge, one does assume it is intelligent and powerful in it’s own right.
The episode does not contain any great moral questions of good and evil and does not intentionally engage gender roles in 21st century Britain. Instead, it gives us the doctor acting silly, doing magic and centres mostly on London geography. The tallest new building in the capital, which is also a a ticketed tourist attraction, is the main point of action, but there’s also South Bank and a joke about the blue police box at Earl’s Court.
For those of us who miss Davies, there are not LGBT characters, but there are some POC and there are women working in tech jobs at the evil company, although these are not speaking parts. These women, like their male colleagues, also have gotten all their job training via evil mind control, so this doesn’t really imply anything about their abilities, but it’s better than nothing, I guess.

Apples vs Oranges

In general, I try to avoid intra-feminst disputes because, although I still consider myself a feminist, it doesn’t really directly effect me and generally it’s not good when allies wade into stuff like that. I also doubly avoid annoying fights. (Frankly, being able to ignore stupid pseudo-feminist bullshit is an example of male privilege, but anyway.)
There is a constant, long-running fight between some bigoted radical feminists (called TERFs for some reason) and trans women. Obviously bigots are in the wrong, but arguing with them is like arguing with my kitchen table, so I mostly ignore this except when it becomes relevant. (It used to be that TERFs wanted to save me from being trans . . in the same way the Fred Phelps wants to save people from being gay.) It’s really much more fun to ignore them. However, they’re planning a conference in London that actively excludes trans women and this is discrimination. I don’t want to see this kind of event pass without comment, lest anyone get the idea that this kind of discrimination is ok. I doubt very many trans women would want to spend a weekend hanging around TERFs, but they should still face criticism for their bigotry.
Meanwhile, one of them wrote a blog post defending their London event as being better than a trans health conference being held in the US. Astute readers will note that a health conference in the US and a political conference in the UK are really not the same thing, but let’s pretend this argument is worth examining (as my other planned activity for this evening is putting everything I own into boxes).
BugBrennan specifically attacks the sponsors of the health conference for including pharmaceutical companies, government and religious organizations. I will admit that I also find the participation by pharmaceutical corporations to be problematic, but this is a consequence of the how the US chooses (not) to organise it’s health care system. The participation of for-profit entities in anything health-related is morally suspect, but, alas, that is the entire basis of the US health system. And, indeed, it makes sense to have health providers involved in a health conference. If there were a trans health conference in the UK, I would expect to see NHS sponsorship and involvement. If it were a large, mainstream conference like the one up for discussion, I would be concerned if the NHS were not involved. Trans people who take hormones do rely on pharmaceutical products and it’s better that our health needs are taken into account by the manufacturers of these products.
If this were a political conference, the participation by companies such as Johnson and Johnson would be much more suspect. But it is not.
And, in the same way, government involvement seems appropriate as trans health is a public health issue. Because of systemic transphobia, many trans people in the US are reliant upon government services to provide health care as they are unable to afford private care. A social worker in the city of San Francisco once told me that it is a cost-saving measure for them to provide free transition-related health care to poor trans people. I would expect this to be true in other places as well.
So what about religious groups? I speculate that they wanted to participate because they wanted to show that they are open communities and because they perceive trans people to be a vulnerable community. If there were a gay men’s health conference, I would also expect to see health, government and religious groups involved. Lest that be construed as supporting the patriarchy, if there were a lesbian health conference, I would also expect to see those same groups involved. Also, being trans is not a spiritual identity, any more than being cis is a spiritual identity. Some cis women are religious. Some are atheists. Some trans women are religious. Some are atheists.
Of course, a political conference probably wouldn’t have church support or government support or big pharma support, but if you look at the very long list of supporting organisations, some of them are the kind of thing you might expect at both a health conference and a political conference. Let’s look at some of them:

  • Trans Masculine Advocacy Network (TMAN) which continues to provide leadership towards making PTHC better able to serve communities of color.
  • The William Way Community Center which will be hosting this year’s opening reception
  • The Attic Youth Center which will be helping to host this year’s Teen Space
    GenderReel which will be hosting a mini-film fest on Thursday evening at the conference
  • Philadelphia Family Pride
  • GenderQueer Revolution (GQR)
  • Female to Male International (FTMi)
  • Transgender People of Color Coalition (TPOCC)

There we have families, teens, community centres and non-white people! Now, I don’t know who or if anybody is sponsoring the radfem debacle coming soon to London and maybe they don’t have affinity groups for, say, people of colour. Maybe they think they don’t need them for some reason. Maybe they have a very good reason to sneer at gatherings that try to be visibly and openly inclusive to a racially and age diverse group of participants. I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t want to jump to conclusions.
Really, the TERF conference is going to be much much smaller, so it probably needs a lot less support and it’s not really fair to compare things that are so unlike. But given that their intended venue threw them out for being bigots and they are keeping the new location secret, I think it was strategically wise of them not to try to get community support.
Now does this one health conference mean, as BugBrennan suggests, that trans people are now fully integrated into power structures in America? Well, one can only hope that this is a step towards the end of systematic discrimination, but I’m afraid post-conference statistics on trans unemployment, hate crimes, etc are not yet available, so we’ll have to wait and see. Unfortunately, I suspect we still have a while to go.
Some of you may be wondering how it is feminist to discriminate against some women based on sex/gender? I will admit I don’t get it, but if any of you understand it, feel free to explain in the comments.

Discuss

This post is intended to be accessible to non-technical readers, so don’t flee when you see mention of programming languages.
Recently, on [an email list related to a FLOSS programming language], somebody posted about having used [a rival language] a lot for a month. He was happy to be back to his preferred language, writing, “It feels like having been fucking around with ugly cocain addict ex-go go dancer only to find out how much you love your wife. (who looks like Sharon Tate and still a C++/Java expert. )”
He then went on to ask a technical question.
I don’t want to bring this up on the [original] list, but I have questions about this and would like to get a discussion going. Is this an example of casual sexism / heteronormativity or just a slangy way of speaking? If it is sexism, could it it alienating to women who might otherwise want to be on the email list? Should such phrasing be discouraged? Should there be a policy? Would such a policy be overly formal/constricting for a language often used by hobbyists?
I found that sentence to be somewhat annoying, obviously, or I wouldn’t be posting about it, but not annoying enough to reply back and start a discussion on the list, especially as it’s pretty atypical. I’m wondering what others think about it, though.

Politics and FOSS: Open to who and when?

I was recently doing some reading towards writing a paper that touched on the politics and philosophy of FOSS. That stands for “Free and Open Source Software.” That doesn’t mean free as in “no charge,” although that is often also true. It’s “Free as in Freedom,” according to those that follow Stallman [1]. FOSS software belongs to the community of people that use and write it.
It’s about sharing. You give away what you write and you give away your knowledge of how to use. Communities of users form, giving each other support and helping each other with the software. It’s very easy to see this in idealist terms, and I wanted to write a paper about how progressive we all were. I was reading a paper by Olga Goriunova that analysed FOSS from a Marxist perspective. And then again from a feminist perspective. And then again from a Deluzian point of view. [2] FOSS began to look like a Rorschach blot of politics.
Indeed when some of the major players in the movement, such as Raymond, are right-libertarians [3, 4] and others are anti-captialist, then obviously it resists this kind of simple political reading.This was at the back of my mind this afternoon when, looking for distraction, I logged into the Greater London Linux Users Group channel on Freenode.
Freende is an IRC server, so this was a real-time chat, established so that people in the London area can talk about Linux; maybe network or get some help with a problem. Instead, I wandered in to a conversation where the participants were bemoaning the “wrong” kind of people having babies, by which, they meant poor people. One of the participants was talking about how a particular 14 year old girl, known to him personally, was a “slapper.” (*) The conversation turned to how forced sterilisation of poor people would be a good idea. “[W]e keep coming to this conclusion, birth controll [sic] in the water in all council estates” suggested a user called hali. [5]
Meanwhile, bastubis, a woman from a working class background logged in and became upset about the content of the conversation. Bastubis noted she “lived on a council estate as a child.” A few lines later hali said, “the fact the chavs(**) get pregnant in the first place is usually a misstake [sic].” Bastubis explained that she was “a chav with an education – you’re talking about me.” Another user, dick_turpin, chimed in shortly thereafter with, “Enforced sterilisation I say.” Bastubis quickly became frustrated and left. [5]
Dick_turpin cheered her departure with a “Huzzah!”, while hali celebrated with a “muahaha.” [5]
Their exercise of privilege to create a hostile environment for some users is clearly not accidental. If they were unconsciously expressing privilege, that would not have been followed with a “huzzah.” Given that the conversation started with both gender and class based slurs, it seem likely that their desire to exclude bastubis from the group had roots both in class and gender. As such, their intention was specifically to replicate privilege found offline and institute online to create an homogenous environment.
That privilege is expressed online as much as offline should not be surprising. FOSS communities are diverse and organised around geographical regions and or interests and sometimes identity, such as women or LGBT users. Therefore, some groups will tend to allow unchecked privilege, while others will tend to frown upon it or specifically disallow it. Simon Yuill writes that OpenLab, another London-based community centred on FOSS, specifically grew out out of a progressive squatter-based movement. Hacklabs such as OpenLab, “have provided a clear political and ethical orientation in contrast to the somewhat confused and contradictory political and social perspectives articulated in the other communities and contexts of the wider FOSS world.” [6] When OpenLab’s mailing list recently had a discussion about how to get more women involved, there were certainly moments of frustration, but the apparent intention was inclusion.
How is it that FOSS can create some communities that would seem to be progressive and others that would seem to want to preserve privilege over any other goal? I think my error is looking at it as a political movement. A lot of its spokespeople speak of it in a political manner, but given the widely divergent viewpoints, there is no inherent or unifying left or right ideology of FOSS. It’s infrastructure. It has value to many groups of people because it avoids duplication of effort and grants them access to resources. For some groups, the fact that it also grants resources to other users is a necessary sacrifice – one that can be mitigated through hostility to undesirable participants. For other groups, the sharing is a main focal point. FOSS, itself, is political like music is political, with as many readings and intentions.

*A derogatory slang term used for sexual promiscuous females.
** A derogatory slang term used for poor people

[1] Free as in Freedom
[2] Goriunova, Olga, “Autocreativity: The Operation of Codes of Freedom in Art and Culture”. FLOSS+Art (eBook) Ed. Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk. 2008.
[3] Raymond, Eric S, “I am an active Libertarian” 2003. Assessed 18 August 2010.
[4] Raymond, Eric S, Whatever happened to civil rights? 2003. Assessed 18 August 2010.
[5] #GLLUG ON FREENODE ON THE 18TH OF AUG 2010 IRC log
[6] Yuill, Simon, “All Problems of Notation Will be Solved by the Masses: Free Open Form Performance, Free/Libre Open Source Software, and Distributive Practice”. FLOSS+Art (eBook) Ed. Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk. 2008.

Transfeminist Disucssion

I went to panel discussion on Trans Feminism at the London Transgender Film Festival yesterday, which I think was a very good discussion, although emotions did run high. The panel had four people, two of whom were mtf and two of whom were F2-genderqueer.
Near the start, one of the panelists made an excellent point about how gender is a force acting on everyone in society, but trans people end up being perceived as responsible for all gender because of transition. (I’m not stating this quite right.)

The panelists were talking about second wave and third wave feminism. Bridget, a panelist, talked about conflicts between second wave feminism and trans people and noted that the people in conflict were feeling wounded and attacked by society in general. And the people who were the most vocal were the most hurt. And that, I think, shed a lot of light on the conflict between radfems and trans people. Both of those groups have common cause, but both of them have suffered terribly under groups that (falsely) appear to have commonality with the other.

It also came up that a lot of women’s groups avoid having a trans policy to avoid controversy and then trans people don’t know if they’re welcome or not. Given the history of acrimony, these groups should be willing to make a statement for trans inclusion. For example, one of the Take Back the Night Marches last year was not listed as “official” because it had trans participation . . . which is so terrible because trans women have an even higher incidence of rape perpetuated against them than do cis women.

One of the audience members was involved in some women’s march in London (the one that shut down their mics rather than let a sex worker speak!) and she was talking about how she was in favor of trans inclusion and everybody come along, etc. But she wasn’t speaking on behalf of the group, so it was an invitation to push for inclusion.

This didn’t come up, but I want to note that “not having a policy” is a position of privilege. Cis people get to avoid having discussions they’d rather avoid. And then trans people get mixed messages about whether or not they should show up. And then, if they do come, all of the controversy is directed at them. So their quiet allies can avoid having to get involved. I’m a bit bitter about this because I got involved last spring with a feminist thing without an official policy and, as I was on T barely four months by then and feeling incredibly vulnerable anyway, a controversy focused on my own gender presentation was hugely stressful and not ok.

Anyway, somebody in the audience wanted to note that the experiences of trans women resonate with dysphoric (read: eating disorder) cis girls, and trans feminism is thus a valuable contribution to feminism because it benefits cis women. This did not go over well. I know she was well-intentioned, but it simultaneous came off as “they think THEY have it bad, but look at you (exotic) lot!” and “well, your stuff also matters to REAL females.”

The person sitting in front of me tried to defend Julie Bindel, by raising the point that Bindel apologized for the tone, but not the content, of her transphobic column in 2004. But she gave up quickly. During the break, she said she had been hoping for a panel of ftms talking about how we still care about feminism. And she wanted to talk about socialization. Given that this is a cornerstone of why some feminists are transphobic, it’s easy to see why the panel wasn’t keen to bring it up. Also, I’m concerned about why a feminist discussion that mostly included ftms would be more desirable than one that included mtfs. The implications trouble me.

What was largely lost in the whole discussion, was that third wave feminism, as an extension of second wave feminism is thus a validation of the second wave. If the second wave hadn’t been useful and made great gains, there wouldn’t be a third wave. We want to build upon the success of the second wave while, at the same time, making critiques of some of the shortcomings of the previous wave. Second wavers were feeling attacked and third wavers get annoyed and don’t spend much time on the positives of the second wave. Which is logical, really, I mean when you’re complaining about radfem transphobia, you shouldn’t have to start every complaint with an acknowledgement that they were the originators of the concept “patriarchy.” But it should come up more often than it does. We owe these women a great debt, but it doesn’t mean theyre right all the time on everything.

Anyway, the discussion was lively and I think productive and it can’t help but continue.

The Transsexual Industry

In the UK, the largest LGB* rights organization is called Stonewall. You’ll note I didn’t say “LGBT.”** They don’t say it either. They’re a lot like the HRC in the States.
They’re about to have an awards banquet where they’re going to recognize various people who they feel are good for the LGB community. One of the people nominated is a journalist named Julie Bindel, who is a Radical Feminist*** lesbian who writes for the Guardian. Like most radfems, her writings on trans issues are often transphobic. She has written transphobic things in her column in a major newspaper. Trans activists are displeased that Stonewall wants to honor this writing.
Alas, I am not talking about subtle differences in opinion. She has used slurs and thinks that trans people shouldn’t have access to hormones or surgery, saying, “Sex change surgery is unnecessary mutilation.” While she’s apologized for past slurs, the other stuff she hasn’t. She recently issued a statement about the controversy, which does not back away from those positions. (Indeed, the quote above is from it.) Instead, she says, “I am the victim of an organised group of bullies who seek to discredit me and silence any radical feminist debate around the issue of GID**** and of the transsexual industry.”
The transsexual industry? Does she imagine that trans people are some kind of profit center for the NHS? That’s as mad as making claims about the “abortion industry” in the US! In fact, it’s almost exactly identical.
Earlier in her statement, she talks a lot about Claudia, somebody who had SRS and then regretted it. She writes,

In 1985, after a consultation with Reid that lasted only 45 minutes, Claudia was diagnosed as transsexual and referred for surgery. . .. In May 2007 after a case lasting three years, the General Medical Council’s disciplinary committee ruled that Reid had prescribed hormones to five of his patients too soon, and referred them for genital surgery without properly assessing their mental and physical suitability. . . .. [G]etting to know Claudia was the catalyst for me in deciding to research the hidden side of sex change surgery, namely the validity of the original diagnosis of GID, and the stories of those who regret taking the hormones and having the surgery.

In the States, anti-choice activists claim that there is an abortion industry, where woman-hating male doctors cajole their patients into having abortions which leave them mentally and physically scarred for life. They mention the cases of some unhappy women who wish they hadn’t done it. They bring up some doctors who have faced discipline for unethical acts. Based on this, they argue that abortion is harming women and ought to be made illegal.
Bindel is using the same argument. And this betrays a fundamental truth about her perspective. Anti-choicers want to remove agency from women, so they imagine that somebody else has already done so. They see themselves as guardians of a helpless and contemptible class of people. Similarly, Bindel imagines that trans people have no agency and should not be allowed control over their own bodies. Like anti-choicers, she imagines a sinister “industry,” eager to prey upon weak victims who fall into their clutches.
And yet, in both cases, most of the people who utilize these “industries” don’t see themselves as victims at all, but as agents empowered to take advantage of what was a hard-won right. I would like to imagine that the parallels in argument would give any feminist pause, but as right wingers have happily co-opted language from the left to paint themselves as victims, I can’t imagine anyone of any political stripe would be above borrowing language and arguments form their ideological enemies. If painting others as victims works for your cause, then you would use it. I’d hope that the agency-denying aspect of the argument would give leftists pause, but, alas, this gets into a larger critique of radical feminism.
If seeing trans people as full adults won’t work, maybe she’ll note that medical malpractice is a real issue, but when somebody has their spleen unnecessarily removed, we don’t condemn all spleen surgery as a result. But if logic doesn’t work for anti-choice activists, it won’t work on their ideological twin. After all, there’s a sinister industry afoot.
* Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual.
** T is for transgender or transsexual or other gender minorities.
*** Not the fun kind
**** Gender Identity Disorder is the diagnosis used to give hormones and whatnot to trans people want them.

The WSJ on Social Structures in the Loo

The Wall Street Journal waxes poetic about the ladies’ loo. It starts with, “It’s a good thing office lavatories aren’t coed.” This is more or less the crux of the article. Why is it a good thing? Well, the author never actually says, she just hints. The reason, of course, is that it’s a holy temple of feminity. A safe space, for gender normative women. For others?

Not every woman, of course, wants to join an office ladies’ room club. Some undoubtedly think there’s more to be gained snagging lunch dates with staff several rungs above them than exchanging advice with women colleagues. Others simply don’t feel comfortable sharing confidences in front of toilet stalls. They wash their hands in silence and, while they’re present, conversations around them halt.

And this has nothing whatsoever to do with gender presentation. The reason that women have always fallen into icy silence when I tried to pee near them wasn’t because I was too butch. It was because I was a stuck-up bitch who scorned their advice. Who knew?
Oh, but what about the mens? Well, this is the WSJ, so we can’t focus on women’s issues, even when they’re as normative as possible. “Still some of my male colleagues, who describe their exchanges in men’s rooms as monosyllabic at best, tell me they want to join the ladies’ room club. To which I say, come on in — but listen.”
To which I say, give me a fucking break.
Ok, it’s nice that women can get a break from men and have some of their own space. It’s valuable for minority communities to have such spaces. But these informal clubs cement power in conforming members and exclude non-conforming. Also, access to toilets is a biological necessity, not a luxury. Bearded ladies need access as much as those who might want to deal with “ripped panty hose.”
Fuck the ladies room club. Move it someplace else.

Gendered Spaces

Why Limit by Gender

We live in a patriarchy. People who are perceived as male have privilege over people who are not. This starts from very early childhood and continues through adulthood. Statistically, people raised as girls tend to be steered away from science, technology and math. Children internalize these messages, so as adults, people tend to think of men as being good at technology and women as not. This is easily observable by phrases like “the mom test” or “the girlfriend test” for software usability. Women are dumb, so if they can manage the user interface, it must be really good, because even a neophyte can handle it. Because your mom could never be a software engineer. Your girlfriend could never be a hacker.
There’s a million arguments already made about how mtfs share this sort of experience. Many are aware of their gender identity from early childhood and internalize all of this crap too. Finally, when they do transition, they get all the discrimination against women, and also all the discrimination against trans people. And ftms tend to also be around these kinds of places. We were perceived as girls through our childhood. I had a lot of access to technology as a child, but definitely felt unwelcome in my highschool’s computer room. The boys used tools like degrading pornography to enforce the male gaze and male dominance (and heterosexual dominance) to keep others out.
Women and gender minorities, therefore, tend have a shared experience around technology. It is an experience of being discouraged, of being not taken seriously, of being excluded.

New Feminism

The ETC had a kind of interesting talk about New Feminism. (There were some issues with it, but whatever). One of the speakers, Rosy, was making a lot of generalizations, which irked many, but I think there were some kernels of truth in what she was getting out. She heavily disparaged identity politics, saying they were an aspect of capitalism and market segmentation. MTV was trying to sell us our identity. I bristled a bit about this, since MTV is most definitely not selling me my transgender identity. It’s something I have to constantly fight for. I asked her about agency. If an identity is being asserted in opposition to corporate culture, what does that mean?
She said identity politics were narcissistic and had several problems. If we say women should be equal, well, equal to what? Should rich white women become just like rich white men? Furthermore, it creates a context of victimhood. In order to organize for rights around a particular identity, you need to say that identity is lacking. I think she meant to imply that there’s a danger there of failing to see intersections. She noted that there are situations where lesbians were the dominant political power. If you see lesbians constantly as an oppressed class, you won’t see where you’re oppressing others.
Of course, you sometimes have identities forced upon you by others and organizing around that is vital. In the feminist forum that I help moderate (livejournal feminist), we have rules about “oppression olympics” where we require that intersectionality be taken into account. I think that Rosy’s thinking and our thinking is very similar. Yes, there is an institutional, hierarchical power structure in society which privileges some identities and bodies over others (the Patriarchy!), but we all function within it and might be upholding it in ways that privilege ourselves. A white lesbian is still white. A upper class gay man is still upper class.
There aren’t that many places where lesbians are at the top of the heap. But when you’re talking about women-only spaces, such a situation can arise.

Focussing on Women

Comparing oppressions is rarely a useful exercise, but if you wanted to do so, there are metric you could use. I would pick unemployment figures and salary gaps to look at economic discrimination. I would use hate crime statistics and domestic violence statistic to look at safety issues. There are a few other metrics that one could employ. People who are out as transgendered do worse on these metrics than do heterosexual women. They even do worse than lesbians.
So if you were the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and you had a policy of only admitting people who had been born and raised as female and who were still female-identified, you would have a policy of excluding people who were lower on the ladder than you. I think most progressives can agree that there’s value in oppressed classes creating their own spaces. I think most progressives can similarly agree that there is not value in privileged classes creating their own spaces. A men-only event is different than a women-only event.
So excluding trans people is asserting privilege. Yes, it changes the vibe. But if a group of all-white women suddenly racially integrates, that changes the vibe too. If you bemoan that, you’re a fucking racist. Certainly, it’s more comfortable to be around people of your own race, gender, and economic class. But if you’re trying to do something political to benefit people who face gender-based discrimination and you’re all cisgender, bourgeoise, legally immigrated, white women, that’s kind of problematic. If you worry that changing that will change the vibe of your event, well . . . the response that springs most immediately to mind is “fuck you.”

Who gets Access

We’ve all heard the stories or perhaps even experienced a hostile male response to spaces that exclude them. I think the contexts of power and privilege make these replies different than trans people asking for access. Indeed, the entire justification and model of progressive, gender-exclusive spaces says these are different replies. But in the patriarcal challenge, the cisgender man says, “can I come if I wear a dress?” The annoyed feminist says, “no, fuck off.” How can we tell who is a man in a dress trying to start a problem and who is gender minority?

The Gender Police

We can judge them by how well they pass! Yes, in this fantastic model, we employ something I’m going to call the cisgender gaze. Gender normative people can feel empowered to determine how well transgender people are passing. It’s a fun diversion for cis people. And devastating to the identity of trans people! Yay!
When I try to explain the male gaze to people, I sometimes talk about a phenomenon that occurs on University Campuses in the US. Sometimes men will set up chairs along a bust walk way and make score cards like those used in the Olympics. A woman walks by and they all hold up scores on her attractiveness. 6.3, 7.5, 8.1. However, unlike the Olympics, these are just women trying to get to class who did not ask to be rated by their male peers. Indeed, they are no longer peers, there are judges and judged. A power structure is created where one class of people sits dominant over another class of people. Men judge women. In the context of a rape culture, this is especially alarming.
The cisgender gaze has a lot in common with the male gaze in that a rating and ranking system is employed. The people doing the rating have economic and social power (in a broader social context) over the rated. And we live in a society where the rated have to be concerned about experiencing violence at the hands of the class of people that is rating them.
Plus, this has the added bonus of kicking people where they’re already wounded. Trans people often have a lot of anxiety about passing, especially when they’re just starting on their transition. We can all wish this were not so. But nobody would transition if they did not with to be perceived as a particular gender. Furthermore, there is a safety issue when we try to get access to other gendered spaces, like toilets.
Would you tell a cisgender woman that she looks like a man and you would think she was one if you encountered her out in public? Then why the fuck would you tell a trans person that you were certain you could read them? Fuck you. A woman wh heard that would probably feel like shit about it. But some trans people are also fighting for their identity. I have to jump through a million hoops with the NHS. I have to come out to people. I have to struggle to assert my gender identity. You just told me I’m failing at a core aspect of my identity. I don’t even want to fucking hear that I’m passing very well today. Are we best friends? Do I get to tell you that those trousers might make your ass look big? No? Then shut the fuck up.
At last year’s ETC, we all went swimming naked in the Danube because it was hot as hell. I felt really weird being naked in front of other people, largely because of trans issues. At the time, it really felt ok. Now, though, I wish I hadn’t. People were talking to me last week about my breasts. Yes, they’re larger than you would think. No, they’re not especially masculine. I don’t want to fucking hear about my boobs from anybody, unless we’re snogging or something. They are not up for casual conversation! Again, shut the fuck up.

Up For Further Discussion

The change from Women Only to Women and Gender Minorities was made without much discussion. Nobody wanted to have an argument. Some people wanted me (and a couple of other transguys) to come, so the change was made.
That’s great for you that you don’t have to argue about who should access gendered spaces. But alas, I know you meant well, but then those conversations fell on my shoulders.
There might be a bajillion trans organizations and trans activist, but I’ve just come out in a foreign country where I don’t know that many people. I don’t know any such groups. I’m one person trying to get through multiple border crossings at the same time. I don’t have the resources to deal with extra shit..
My roots are in feminist spaces, in queer spaces, in women’s spaces, in doing tech. I’m not entirely pleased to be moving away away from certain aspects of my roots. When I first realized I was queer, I had several unhappy breaks from the institutions of my childhood. I lost my religion, for example. Former spaces of support suddenly excluded me. Now, it seems like the spaces that I found, that seemed so much better than the spaces that excluded me, are now breaking away also. This fucking hurts.

Naked Image

When I was last at the Tate Modern, I saw some video by Francesca Woodman from the 1970’s. She had a piece where she had stretched butcher paper in front of the large window of her loft. Light was shining through the window and through the paper. She stood naked behind the paper, so that her silhouette was visible and drew on the paper from behind. Then she tore the paper in a kind of provocative way, revealing increasing sexualized parts of her own body, until finally she stepped through it, tearing it all away and walking off frame.
I’ve been thinking about this piece a lot. I was first drawn to it because of the attractiveness of the artist, but the viewer is being asked to consider several things. By drawing on the paper, I think she was trying to create an idea of it as a canvas. We have a cultural idea that artists express themselves in a pure, cerebral form through their art. The canvas becomes almost an extension of self – but specifically, a very dualist kind of self. The canvas is not about the body, but about the mind.
Hélène Cixous argues that all binary oppositions eventually come back to gender. So when we put mind and body into opposition, immediately, we assign one of them to male. And, indeed, historically (and currently, alas) men are mind and women are body. These oppositions are also an implicit comparison, so the mind is more noble and pure than the body. The (male) artist is thus a triumph of masculinity. He expresses the true, the valuable and the pure of himself through his canvas. But if this is implicitly masculine, then women have greatly reduced access. They’re not artists, they’re women artists and that’s something different. Their body is thus always made visible, not just because it’s a site of difference, but because women are presumed to entirely be of and about the body.
By allowing light to filter around her naked body and through the canvas, Woodman makes this explicit in her work. The strip-tease aspect of her tearing makes a connection to sex and femininity even more explicit and invites a feminist analysis. Her drawings are torn to bits to reveal her body / herself, which / who then leaves. She breaks down the mind/body dichotomy, and, in so doing, her work is placed in the male gaze, which is not a site of empowerment. But she remains in control. There is no operator behind the camera. She controls what we see and when we see it, as much as she can, since the paper tears in unpredictable ways. By working within the male gaze, she makes it visible to the viewer.
I was also drawn to the aesthetics of the piece. It’s shot in her home. The attachment of the paper is ad hoc. The video is actually a series of takes. She tried this multiple times and put several of them on the finished tape. I like the experimental nature of it. I like that it’s about process. I think the aspect of it being in her home, which is an intimate setting (I mean that the way that small chamber music venues are described as intimate). She lets us into her life in a small way to make a statement about herself, her art and art in general.
I also admire her courage. There’s no metaphor for being naked on camera because it is the metaphor. She is actually uncovered, but never uncomfortable. It’s amazing.
So as I begin to think about making little films, I keep thinking of hers. I also think of her relationship to her body and the camera. I’ve spent most of my life striving to remain covered, living in my head. I don’t think I have the “wrong body,” but I think my identity was at odds with aspects of my body – not even in a way that I’ve been fully aware of. Which is to say, being naked on camera is not something I would ever have considered in a million years. No. No. No. What are you kidding? It’s another door that was closed – right next to all the doors that disallow crossdressing. These doors are starting to open for me. (Note that they should never have been closed in the first place.)
I’m working on a video of me giving myself a shot. It is uncovering. I thought of her video for courage to continue. My nakedness, though, is metaphorical. Do I want to put out there a picture of me in my bed room? Hesitating? Pausing? Failing?
Why do I want to do it? I have no idea. I try to get things out of my head sometimes and if you that with art, then how you do it is by putting it in other people’s heads. What does it feel like to have your identity hinge on an injection when you have a fear of needles? Well, here’s one answer.
I’m considering doing a piece with a bunch of still photos, slowly fading from one to another. In them I would be in the same location, in the same pose. I would start wearing a suit, hat and jacket and in each picture, remove one item until I was wearing nothing. (Why do I want to do it? I have no idea.)
I pass when I’m clothed. People see me as a man, which is what I want. But I’ve only done hormones and only for a few months. My body is ambiguous. Not even as ambiguous as I would like. It would be a stripping away of identity and of self. (Why do I want to do it? I have no idea.)
What is sex? What is gender? They’re both culturally constructed. My very body is queer now. I call all of these oppositions into question just by existing. My queer self is inscribed on my person, on my physical being.
I don’t want to be a shock value, though. I don’t want to be daytime TV. I don’t want to be a women’s glossy mag. I don’t want to be a bad joke. I want to be a person, clothed or unclothed. Woodman was dealing with the same sort of issues in her work, about how her image is transmitted and received. She can’t control what the perceiver thinks. Somebody like me could come up to it and think , “ooh, hot woman.” But if that person engages the work, they walk away with more than that. She does with pacing, timing, repetition of the same scenario. She’s got some advantage over me in that we, as a culture, acknowledge that cisgender women’s bodies exist.
So, I don’t know if it’s a good idea. I’m looking for thoughts.