Wednesday, 6 June 2007

BDSM women's spaces and transphobia

When bending gender around can be described as a fetish, and you combine that with a sizeable population of transmen and transwomen in a smallish subculture, the results can be explosive, confusing and often pretty offensive.

Of all the arguments I've seen pan out in the BDSM community, the debates over where transwomen are 'allowed' to be and what they represent are often the longest and most heated.

We've had the argument over the personal ads, whether transwomen should have to put themselves in a separate category from other women so men don't have to look at their profiles. We've argued at great length about the London Ladies' Munch, who took a democratic decision to only allow physically transitioned transwomen in. I get what they were trying to do (which I'll explain later..) and think the move was well-intentioned, but it resulted in a lot of people using the contention over exactly what constituted 'fully transitioned' to have a grand transphobic rant. We've also had an argument about women's toilets at clubs and who should be allowed in them, which resulted in the same.

There's always people like me, with a few trans friends on and off the scene, who are completely bewildered that what's between someone's legs apparently makes them 'less' of a woman when most would say they have experienced the vast majority, or even their entire lives as women; who can't imagine having a 'girly' setting that would exclude them for not being girly enough and who don't feel they need to be segregated and start their own munch! And then there are the 'if it was born with a dick, it's a man' types, who will argue their prejudice into the ground if they have to. While some of these arguments come from men, the transwoman who caught the most flack were most offended, I think, when the arguments came from women. Women who wanted to exclude them.

The mainstream UK BDSM scene is pretty heterocentric and, as a bi, queer identified woman in a hetero relationship, there are parts of that heterocentricity that marginalise me let alone gender queer, lesbian and transgendered people. I know some lesbian SM communities turn their noses up at transwomen (and there was one SM dyke who was probably the most offensive of the lot) and people who engage in relationships with transwomen, but fortunately SM Dykes don't share that view at all.

I think the issue the Ladies' Munch were trying to address, originally, was the problem of predatory straight men who crossdress, or who are transvestites only in their scene persona. I get that this is a problem. The whole point, as I understand it, of the Ladies' Munch, just like the under-35 munches, is just to have an evening with other kinky people where you're less likely to get approached and preyed upon. I know that SM women get this all the time. When I went to my first munches, aged 19 or so, I was the youngest female - and female sub at that - by a mile, and did feel I got a lot of unwanted attention from much older men, waiting to approach me one by one. I barely got a chance to talk to other women until I learnt to feel more confident in those spaces. I get that women only munches are useful for noobs, particularly, but I still feel the emphasis of them is oddly heterocentric. After all, what is the point of a 'safe space' for women not to get preyed upon if they allow lesbians to attend but not straight pre-op transwomen? What is it about transwomen who do not yet have or have chosen not to have a body sex that matches their gender that makes them less acceptable or somehow understood as more predatory than lesbian women? I find this confusing.

What a number of people seem to miss is that there is a major difference between someone who fetishises female clothing and appearance and someone who has been born into a body that does not feel like their own. I think it's really important that women in the BDSM community begins to accept and embrace transwomen's presence and offer them support. There are sexist male dominants, and there are a lot of men who are made incredibly uncomfortable by transwomens' presence, probably more uncomfortable than most women. There are dominant men whose approach to transwomen on the scene is almost aggressively exclusionary and I'm still unsure of exactly what it is that makes them so uncomfortable when so much of the scene is based on assumption and appearance. But transwomen on the scene need women's support and to feel included if we don't want them to feel marginalised and so men begin to offer them the courtesy they deserve.

Most people can accurately guess whether someone is dominant or submissive by the way they present themselves (well, I get told I must be a dommay quite often, but I've stopped letting it bother me) and I don't really understand why it's so impossible to refer to someone as the gender they are presenting.

It seems to me the problem is all about how well someone 'passes'. If a transwoman is dressed up in high femme clothing, or has had cosmetic surgery on her face to 'feminise' it, or is generally 'convincing', she might be allowed in and accepted. If not, she's just 'a bloke in a dress'. Or even just 'a bloke'. For them, there is nothing more complex than that going on; there is no differentiation to make between a woman who has lived part of her life with the wrong genitalia, and a man who has a fetish for women's clothing. And that's no good at all.

I want to make it absolutely clear that this feminist space is trans-friendly. It's cross-dressing friendly. Hell, it's feminist-man-friendly.

But we still don't want no predators here. Simple as that.

19 comments:

Trinity said...

"What a number of people seem to miss is that there is a major difference between someone who fetishises female clothing and appearance and someone who has been born into a body that does not feel like their own. I think it's really important that women in the BDSM community begins to accept and embrace transwomen's presence and offer them support."

I think part of the uneasiness is that sometimes there is and sometimes there isn't. I dated a CD for a while, and he was actually something more like genderqueer if you got right down to it. Not a transsexual, but definitely someone who had gender issues and gender confusion of various sorts.

And I remember some other CDs at a presentation on crossdressing indicating similar feelings. One indicated that ze was seriously considering transition and "not sure" if ze was a man or a woman.

I think that's part of what scares people. They see that for some CDs, the bright line that most people talk about isn't there. And if that binary isn't absolutely maintainable, they start to become fearful. This specter of "predatory man in a dress" looms large in their minds, and the only way for them to feel less frightened is "prove you have a vag" if not "prove you had one from birth."

Trinity said...

And I think another bright line people want to exist that doesn't always is this idea that either

you have a genderfuck fetish
or
you're trans

so if you have any sexual thrill from genderbending, you can't also be transgendered or have gender identity stuff going on.

and in my personal experience that's actually not true. i know lots of people who like genderbending and genderplay who are also trans, and their transness is not less "legitimate" somehow because they also genderfuck in bed for fun.

verte said...

That's completely true, and really interesting. I'm afraid I've over-generalised. I'm still trying to educate myself on trans issues, but given the recent posts on women's spaces and the latest transphobe crap, I wanted to say something about the transphobia I've witnessed on the scene.

I wish I could say that the uneasiness was all about that, and it's definitely part of it, but I think it's more down to ignorance about gender issues or a desire to ignore or avoid the complexity of them. If I can track down a couple of the threads I'll post them.

SnowdropExplodes said...

Gender identity and sex identity are probably the most over-simplified aspects of human society. Using a simple binary system to describe so many different factors is just crazy.

This from belledame's post over on her blog "Fetch Me My Axe":

I'm not in your skin (this is key), I don't really understand it, I still have some doubts about the institution/medical procedures/whatever, but you do what you've got to do, sister/brother, I support you.

I think that sums it all up. And if "what you gotta do" involves identifying oneself as "woman" - I would hope that feminism would be much more "welcome aboard!" and much less, "Traitor! Witch! Heretic!"

Not that it's any of my business, of course, since I am neither a) a woman, nor b) a trans-person attempting to identify as a woman.

pepomint said...

You missed one major reason transwomen should be included in all-women's kink spaces: to get away from (straight) male predation, same as the cisgendered women at these events. Being a transwoman (or TV) makes one an exoticized sexual object.

If there is a predation concern, then institute a "no predation" or a "no come-ons" rule. This is a concern in some cases - I've had to snub a transwoman from events I was holding because she was just there to hit on people in a nasty way.

I think it's best to return to a privilege discussion, along a parallel with
bisexual-owned straight privilege
.

What are the particular male privileges that the organizers are worried about? Predation? The male gaze? Appearing as a man? Dominating the conversation through excessively loud or obnoxious behavior? Pick out whatever actions are problematic and ban them, and then talk with or possibly expel women (trans or not) with those problematic behaviors.

verte said...

If there is a predation concern, then institute a "no predation" or a "no come-ons" rule.

Yeah, that was the suggestion given to the munch organisers at the time, but instead there was an increasingly aggressive discussion about what constituted a woman. Personally, I thought it was a prejudiced choice they made.

You missed one major reason transwomen should be included in all-women's kink spaces: to get away from (straight) male predation, same as the cisgendered women at these events. Being a transwoman (or TV) makes one an exoticized sexual object.

Oh, very much so. That's partially why I think the particular transwomen who asked whether her presence would be welcome at the munch was hoping to attend. I'm going to direct her to your blog.

belledame222 said...

The protocol at the women-only play parties I've been to in New York has been: MtF's who live fulltime and FtM's who still identify with the lesbian/womens' community are welcome. but, no male genitalia on display in the public spaces.

belledame222 said...

--so, obviously there's no stipulation of any sort for munches or meetings or anything like that.

i think per "bright line"--i mean, no one follows anyone home to determine whether sie changes into boy drag for the rest of the week. it's honor system, i guess.

and frankly there are enough predatory women out there that i don't know that i'm more concerned about predatory crossdressers. i think if someone were really ill-socialized enough to use, like, an occasional panty fetish as a way to insist on being allowed in, it wouldn't get too far.

there is also a pan-gendered queer (well, it tries to be) play party occuring at approximately the same frequency as the women-only party (hosted by the same people).

i have not felt particularly great at the latter, but that had more to do with unsocialized single and apparently at least het enough to behave like yer average straight dick, men.

pepomint said...

belledame222: We have a similar problem with a San Francisco pansexual play party - even with heavily queer advertising, most of the play ends up being man/woman and the straight (or sometimes bi) guy creep factor seems to always make it into the party somehow.

I'd love to hear recommendations on holding a queer play party that allows all genders but avoids this dynamic. Maybe education is the key here.

belledame222 said...

yeah, basic social skills or strictly enforced etiquette (i.e. don't harass!) might be better than the usual methods they try (two men who come together have to make out before entering, no single men, higher entry price for men...)

belledame222 said...

...truthfully though, i'm starting to think that probably the best way to make sure such a party goes off okay is to make it private or semi private, so that someone's vetting the guests. it sounds undemocratic, and i'm not suggesting lookism or anything of that sort, but...i dunno, i don't even enjoy going to regular parties where i don't know anybody...

pepomint said...

belle: Thanks for the comments. I too prefer private parties, but at the same time want to improve the public scene.

Moving forward maybe I'll try to get some sort of "sex parties for men" etiquette class going, and then figure out how to get the men who need it into those classes.

Moira said...

I'm late to finding this, but I wanted to add something to the already excellent discussion here. Yes, I understand that genital surgery (or its lack) makes for a nice bright line to include or exclude someone by. But it's also very much an economic issue -- it excludes anyone who can't pay for the rather expensive procedures. For me personally? I changed my name in 2000 and even convinced the state of Texas to let me have an F on my driver's license. But I'm broke, having gone into bankruptcy paying for medical stuff to keep me alive. Coming up with the ten-thousand-plus dollars needed to get my plumbing fixed is a distant dream indeed.

Not all dyke SM groups are so inclusive. Bound by Desire here in Texas claims to include transwomen, but about a week after I was outed as a pre-op transsexual at a Ms. World Leather party, BBD's board changed their membership rules to exclude pre-op transwomen from their socials and events. "Don't take it personally," I was told.

Uh-huh. Nothing to do with me, nope.

It was years ago and it still hurts. Dammit. The Dallas folks are all most very supportive though, and their criteria for most women's only events are more liberal. I like being in women's only spaces. I'm not sure I'd have felt as safe doing a very intense interrogation scene (I was the one being interrogated, and I cried a whole lot) with straight men around. A woman's gaze, even a lesbian woman's gaze, doesn't feel nearly as threatening.

Richard said...

As a pansexual guy deeply in love with a dominant pre-operative transsexual woman simple knowing this sort of debate exists hurts me.

Not that I'm silly enough to expect better. Plain, ordinary straight people seem to have lots of trouble with gender.

verte said...

Richard:

I do apologise for causing you upset. I wrote the blog, probably not with as much knowledge as I should have about transgender, but there was a lot of transphobic crap going on at the time on other blogs and I wanted to contribute SOMETHING on the way the BDSM scene and community is also sometimes prejudiced towards those men and women. I have several pre-op friends, which is why, I think, those attitudes make me so damn angry on a personal level, too.

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