Women-only space: who belongs?

This chapter was assembled in 2007, a little more than a year after Finding Voice and Community. It was addressed to the members of the Daily Kos feminist community. Given the title, I was not surprised that few people entered.

So backing up just a bit...

Towards the end of 1992 I came out to me daughter Jen and her partner Julie. It went very well. Julie hopped on to the internet and asked the members of her email list, Sappho (which at the time was the largest lesbian email list on the Net), for any assistance they might provide for Jen's father...me. I was given a couple of transgender email list names and did join one, called Transgen. It was literally a llifesaver. I had community. I had peers.

But I also joined Sappho...on January 12, 1993 and entered women only space...

Full Circle of Women, 1995 photo FCOW95.jpgAt the time I joined, I knew that a few other transwomen on the list but only one of them was out...Nancy Burkholder, ( the transwoman ejected from the Michigan Women's Music Festival in 1991). After about three months of being in the closet about my transsexuality, I came out when someone started badmouthing transwomen. I generally found lots of support. Since I had kept no secret about being Julie's parent-out-law, that meant they also knew I was the pre-operative transsexual parent who had been mentioned before. (In the photo to the left I am in the center bottom row and Nancy is on my left).

At the time, I was the only out pre‑op on the list. That meant that more than once I had to justify my existence in the space. After awhile other transwomen joined the list, including a non-operative transwoman. Eventually another pre‑op came out to the list.

About every three months (or less), the subject of transsexualism would come up, sometimes in not so pretty ways. I endeavored to avoid flames and attempted to educate instead. One works with the skills ones has. It was a lot like what I do here. There are many interesting posts from lots of interesting people on the subject. [If I had my shit together, there would be a link here to one of those discussions to give you a taste--ed]

Sappho was a list for women and about "generally" women's issues. The list was primarily composed of lesbian and bisexual women (the only thing that reared its head more often than transsexuality was The Great Bi Debate, as we called it) although I understand that Sappho was created by a Scandinavian heterosexual woman.

Eventually, Sappho spun off an e-list for older lesbians, called OWLS. I'm one of the founding members of that list. I've consider it my home on the Interweb. It is open to anyone over 40 who identifies as a lesbian. After a time that group spun off another list...for women-born women only. Being specifically excluded felt like a sword piercing my heart.

In 1994 I took all the Sappho and OWLS members who cared to read my posts with me through my surgery, using my diary that was posted to the lists as well as my proto-blog...and has been re-edited and is being posted here under the title Diary: retrospection (the diary at the link covers the end of that account...Just a taste - Robyn).

After my failed attempt to relocate to Seattle in the last half of 1995, I returned to Arkansas and got active. I mean, whatcha gonna do? I joined the National Organization for Women...and became interim co-president of the Faulkner County chapter for several months (the other co-president was a college student who was too young to sign contracts).

I also began making a major effort to heal the breach between lesbian separatists and transsexual women, through my involvement with the Women's Project in Little Rock. I asked if it would be okay for me to attend their 1996 retreat in northwest Arkansas and was supported in that effort by the leadership (support is a little strong...they said if I thought I belonged, they wouldn't stand in my way). But I was on my own in my interaction with the rest of the women.

I cannot presently locate my account of the event. I'm sure one exists somewhere. I could rewrite it, but there are scars. It was extremely difficult having to defend my existence. And it was very lonely. But in the end it bore fruit. If you have a copy of the expanded edition of Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, by Suzanne Pharr, the transsexual woman mentioned in the added chapter is me. I am also the transwoman she talked about in the interview she did in the July 1996 issue of Ms. magazine, (The Xena Issue) which caused such a stir.

I also attended the Retreat in 1997...and wrote about it in my newspaper column.

From Outside the Gender Prison: Women-only space [first appeared in Triangle Rising Newsmagazine, Little Rock, AR, May, 1997]

I ventured into women-only space again this past weekend. Alicia (my partner/spouse/wife/hersband/lover) and I attended the Women's Project Retreat at Lake Ft. Smith State Park with over 80 other women and girls (some of the women brought some female children with them). I know there were that many because I helped set up the tables and chairs for Saturday night's dinner and we had seating for 84 and that still wasn't quite enough. 

This wasn't my first experience with the Retreat. I went there last year as the first transsexual women to show up...at least the first who did so openly and hence the first to anyone's knowledge. And I was persuaded to talk about myself and other transsexual women and our views on women-only space, though my workshop was at the same time as the drumming workshop so not many of the women came to hear what I had to say. I was informed, however, that while many of the women had misgivings about my being there, most of them changed their opinions after I read a few of my poems on Saturday night (open mic).

Personally, I wished that it wasn't such a big deal. I would rather have just been there to soak up the atmosphere and have a relaxing weekend with my chosen community.

I'm not saying that I was universally accepted. There was definitely vocal opposition to my presence. But I'm used to that and have always believed that things could be worked out if only we could sit down and discuss our differences and similarities.

This year I was greeted warmly by the Women's Project staff, who have always been very kind to me, and told that they were glad that I came...and that they thought that my coming back exhibited some kind of bravery considering what had happened last year. I didn't see it myself. From my point of view, returning to the Retreat was far easier than foregoing the event. To stay away would have meant isolating myself to an extent from the community of women, something that would have been the harder path. And bravery, in my book, is doing something even though it is hard. Returning this year was the easy path...and the entire reason that I gave the workshop last year.

Transsexual women have differing views when the topic of women-only space arises. My point of view is that I don't want to be anyplace where I am not wanted, so I would choose not to attend an event that said that people like me were not desired. The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival had such a policy for several years, though they have apparently removed the requirement that the event is for "womyn-born-womyn" only. While I honored their past requirement, I did protest their stance...not because I didn't think that they had the right to exclude me, but rather because the women who promulgated the requirement also decided that they were the final authority on what constituted a woman and insisted on insulting transsexual women whenever they talked to us or about us.

I acknowledge that my life experiences are quite different from those of the vast majority of women. But couldn't we focus more on our similarities than our differences. In a time when the rights of so many people are in danger because of their "differentness," divisiveness amongst ourselves seems to me to be playing into the hands of those who would oppress us.

Let me publically thank the Women's Project for understanding this and acting accordingly.

That lead to a presentation to the membership in Little Rock, a speech if you will, which will be part of a diary published on Friday.




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The following is an excerpt...

Robyn's picture

...from the July/August, 1996 special issue of Ms., the "Xena issue.". Suzanne Pharr wrote an article entitled Taking the High Road. She also was interviewed. The first question and its answer is below.

How do we root out our own racism or homophobia or prejudice against poor people?
One way is to examine the place in yourself where you have experienced discrimination and imagine someone else there. If you've experienced sexism or had a hard time advancing at work, you might examine that closely and ask yourself, Could this be how a person of color feels in terms of discrimination? Could this be how a lesbian or gay man feels in terms of discrimination? We need a politics of empathy: If this is what it feels like to be me, isn't it possible that this is similar to the experiences of other people? What also breaks through is hearing other people's stories. I cannot tell you how important this is.

May I tell you a story? For 15 years the Women's Project has had a women's retreat in Arkansas. This year for the first time a transgendered person came, a post-operative male-to-female lesbian. On the first day, we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, and she said she would like to create a workshop on transsexuality. Only then did everybody realize she was a transsexual. All hell broke loose the next day. One lesbian couple came up to several of us who had organized the retreat and said: "How dare you let him stay in a dorm where our daughters are?" We said: "We stand on 15 years of fighting for sexual freedom. You have to deal with this..." Personally, I love femmy men and butch women because they break barriers. We have got to bust up gender roles.

Anyway, the next night this transgendered woman got up and told us about her life, what it felt like to be at a university in central Arkansas having no community, no intimacy, her only contact with other transgendered people occurring online. Eighty to 90 percent of the women in that room listened and changed their minds. They came up to us and said, "You did the right thing." This is an example of the power of story.

Stories must be built into our political work. We live in a time where people feel so disconnected and isolated. We have to speak that. The Right does that. They say, "We will give you a home in this church or this program and help you feel together by naming all these things as the enemy." They preach the myth of scarcity combined with the mood of mean-spiritedness: there's not enough to go around and someone else is taking something from you. We have to speak to people's better selves, find ways to make people in our communities feel better. Let's foster generosity and inclusion.

I was that transwoman.

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