Musings on Female-Only Space
I’ve always felt strong connections with other people born and raised female, especially those who aren’t what women are supposed to be, whether or not they see themselves as women. I’ve bonded deeply with other dykes, queer women, detransitioned women, female-bodied genderqueers and trans men. Even when I was trans, the fact that I was born with a cunt and treated certain ways because of it made a huge difference to me and I knew it had a profound impact on how I turned out. There have always been FtMs who acknowledged and valued their experience of living as female and I could relate more to them than to trans men who insisted the only difference between them and other men was their transsexuality, which they saw purely as a medical condition. Now I’m even more conscious of how being female, particularly having a body whose femaleness was questioned many times, helped create who I am.
There are certain things I can only talk about with other female-born folks, not only cuz I trust them more but because they have similar embodied knowledge and lived experiences and can understand on a deeper level what I’m trying to say. There’s a lot I can only truly communicate to other women who’ve denied their femaleness and tried to undo it with testosterone and/or surgery, shit that’s otherwise too painful to share or that other people can’t fully understand because they haven’t lived it.
My womanhood is grounded on living in a female body in a patriarchal misogynistic culture. That’s not the only way to understand womanhood but it’s the one that makes the most sense to me. I want to connect with other women who think and feel similarly and sometimes I want to go to spaces founded on that understanding of womanhood. Thus far, my primary experience of female-born woman-only space was attending the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival last year and I’m looking forward to attending this year too.
One of the things I liked best about that space was how dyke-centric it was. Women of other sexualities are present and welcome but the overwhelming culture is very lesbian. Over the course of my life I’ve had more access to mixed LGBT and queer spaces than I’ve had to specifically lesbian spaces. When I was younger I went to some events that were lesbian centered or organized but most of the groups I attended on a regular basis were mixed and lesbians and women in general were often in the minority. In one of my gay youth groups I was often the only woman present. Most of the young women who attended that and the other group I frequented were bisexual rather than lesbian. The mixed gay club I went to with my friends in a nearby city was predominantly male and sometimes hardly any lesbians were present at all. Likewise, the youth dances I attended were also mixed and typically gay male dominated.
By college I’d started to dissociate from my lesbianism. Up until that point I’d seen myself as both a trans boy and a dyke, someone who straddled the “butch/FtM” border that was much discussed at the time. I thought I needed to choose between one or the other and eventually decided I was “really trans”. Later I went back to seeing myself as a mix of man and butch and saw this as coming to terms with being genderqueer and having a fluid, complicated gender.
I thought of myself as genderqueer for years, which for me meant that my sense of gender shifted and changed but remained in a specific range. I’d go from feeling like a man to feeling like a butch dyke to feeling like a genderfreak/third gender, to not feeling like any particular gender at all. At the time, I still equated butch dyke with “not a real woman”. I saw dyke as female but thought it could be it’s own gender separate from woman. Occasionally I felt like a woman but that made me very uncomfortable.
I was more reluctant to talk about still feeling like a dyke and at first only discussed it in private with people I trusted, though gradually I started talking about it more openly. This was partially because being trans was seen as far more spectacular, new and interesting and also because a lot of the queers I hung around with would say disparaging things about lesbians. I had to first become comfortable claiming dyke as a part of what I was before I could claim it for my whole self.
I was so certain that I was genderqueer and that I’d always have a shifting sense of gender that was hard to explain or pin down, that the stability and clarity I now feel as a lesbian is still shocking. I feel a happiness and sense of peace and strength as a dyke that I didn’t even know I was missing during my genderqueer days. What then seemed like complexity now looks more like confusion and like I was trying to make the best of a very fragmented sense of self.
Despite the sense of power I now feel, I’m still making up for years of lost time. It feels very odd being twenty-nine and just figuring out what it means to be a dyke in this present society. I’m also coming to find that calling myself queer and spending most of my twenties in the radical queer scene covered up a lot of differences I have with other queer-identified folks. I have specific issues as a female who’s only into other females that my friends with different sexes and/or sexualities don’t have. It seems absurd that it took me so long to figure that out but I have to remind myself that I spent years not even knowing I was a dyke. At this point in my life, I feel a strong need for time alone with other dykes, both dykes with a history of FtM transition and/or denial of femaleness and dykes in general.
At Michfest I got to experience both of those connections. I met women who’d spent decades of their lives resisting this wretched society and creating lesbian and woman-centered culture. I saw more butch women there than I’d ever seen before in my life. It’s amazing to go from a society where feeling alien is so common that I just take it for granted to a place where not only is what I am not freakish, it’s celebrated in all it’s infinite variations. I left there knowing in a deep way that the world I’m forced to live in on a daily basis is not how it has to be, that we can take space and build cultures out of our visions and values and whole other realities are possible.
I was also able to meet other detransitioned lesbians in person for the first time. It was, to the best of my knowledge, the largest group of detransitioned women meeting together in the same physical space. I got to meet women who I’d only previously talked to online or over the phone. It was especially meaningful to finally meet one woman who’s been an essential support during my detransition and helped me think through and deal with a lot of intense shit. Together, we presented a workshop on our experiences called Detransition Perspectives, which we will be co-presenting again this year. Being in a space that centered being born and raised female and living as a lesbian in this culture was incredibly healing and vivifying for all of us. Many of us felt that if we’d had access to such a space when we were younger we would’ve never transitioned and would’ve found peace with ourselves a lot sooner. We talked to other women there about transitioning and then reclaiming our womanhood, both at our workshop and outside of it, and received tremendous support and love, more than I could’ve ever imagined possible.
Michfest gets a lot of shit for centering female-born women and at this point the controversy and how it’s talked about pisses me off. We should be able to meet together to discuss, analyze, celebrate and heal from the experience of living as women in patriarchal culture and more specifically as lesbians. When people attack that space I feel like they’re attacking the reality that being born female and brought up to be a woman makes a difference, that lesbians have our own unique issues and right to create own culture and more personally like they’re denying my own life and how I understand it. The idea that being born female is irrelevant and has nothing to do with being a woman makes me mad. For me and a lot of women it does.
I’m pissed that I have to try to explain to people that my life is real, that I’m not just making it up to hurt a subset of trans women and their supporters who take offense at the notion that femaleness and womanhood are interconnected. These particular activists seem unconcerned that denying women access to female-centric spaces could be harmful to women who have suffered damage specifically relating to having a female body and/or upbringing and who are largely invisible and erased from this culture because we’re not what women are supposed to be. I don’t deny that trans women suffer their own unique damages and erasures from living in this society but that doesn’t mean that our experiences are the same or that their suffering counts more than female-born women. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only trans women I’ve encountered who’ve offered any sort of support towards me and other detransitioned women, who even acknowledge that our experiences are real and matter, also recognize their differences from women born female and our right to have our own spaces apart from them.
While I admit that spaces like Michfest are important because of their healing potential, I resent feeling like I’m supposed to prove how much I’ve suffered and hope my suffering is enough to show I really deserve a space of my own. I don’t want to be reduced to a open wound. I don’t want to tell strangers all the ways I’ve been hurt for being female. There’s a lot I only tell people I trust, mostly other women who’ve lived through similar shit. I’ve already disclosed plenty of examples on this blog and if you can read through it and still deny being born and raised female had a profound effect on me there’s not much else I can say to convince you. The idea that I have to prove victimhood to have a right to claim space is repulsive because having such spaces isn’t about being a victim. For sure, one of the reasons these spaces are valuable is because they can help women heal from damage we’ve suffered living in this fucked up world but they’re also important as places where we can enjoy each other’s company, have a good time, talk about our lives together and create culture. They’re expressions of our power and joy rather than weakness.
I get the feeling that many people think I’ve forfeited my right to my own space by claiming the perspective of a female-born woman and because I’m not following the script that some trans activists and their supporters have decided is the one and only acceptable truth. This is probably what infuriates me the most. Not that there are people who disagree with me, of course there are, but that a disturbingly large segment of people, mainly in the queer and trans community and also among liberal and radical allies, have ruled out that multiple perspectives exist and need to be taken into account when discussing these matters. Such people seem to think that disagreeing with trans activists is the same as hating them and wishing them harm or actually constitute an act of violence. Not all trans women’s voices have been held up as being “right” and beyond criticism. That “right” belongs to a specific subset of trans activists. Other trans people who disagree or contradict them are dismissed or even, illogically enough, called “TERFs”.
As someone who spent a great portion of my youth in radical queer and trans communities, this lack of dialogue and debate is obscene. The radical queer/trans scene had trouble handling dissenting opinions in the past too but it’s gotten increasingly worse in the last few years. There have always been a range of different political views and perspectives amongst trans people, even among those who considered themselves radical. More and more, it seems like a certain strain of trans political thought, along with the personalities that promote it, is trying to dominate and dictate what the “true” trans perspective is, who can talk about sex and gender and how.
I mostly don’t care if people agree with me or not. I’m a detransitioned dyke, I’m used to looking at the world differently than most of the people around me. I don’t understand why people can’t leave me and other women who value female-only and lesbian-centric spaces alone. Spaces like Michfest have a distinctive character because of the lives they focus on and the women who worked hard to build, refine and preserve those spaces over the years. If this kind of space doesn’t appeal to you or reflect the kind of womanhood you’ve lived, create your own space, don’t try to shut ours down.
These attacks on female-only space reflect general trends present in mainstream and queer culture that erases female reality in general and lesbian reality in particular. I’ll forever live in a body that’s been marked by these erasures. I lived out the idea that femaleness was totally disconnected from womanhood and I’m still recovering from that. The queer culture I absorbed and inhabited encouraged my dissociation from myself, taught me to celebrate my fragmentation, reinforced my internalized lesbophobia and helped obscure my sense of self for most of my adolescent and adult life.
I think queers and trans folks are sincere in their desire for liberation. I believed very strongly in what I was doing at the time but looking back on my life now I see many ways that culture and the ideas it promotes helped me self-destruct. Queer culture often ends up playing into the hands of patriarchy by ignoring and downplaying oppression faced specifically by female-bodied women and lesbians. It’s influenced far more by the dominant culture than it wants to admit.
I’m grateful to the women who’ve spent decades of their lives working to create and pass on radical lesbian culture and wish I’d gotten a chance to connect with them earlier. I’m willing to defend and expand the spaces they worked so hard to build. It would be wrong to benefit from such spaces and the people who made them possible and not speak out in their defense when they come under attack.
I’m one of many young dykes who’s found much of queer culture alienating and unsatisfying and now want to embrace and make a more distinctly lesbian culture. There’s more of us than many realize because a lot of us are still hiding out in the queer scene and don’t feel comfortable sharing our perspectives for fear of ridicule and rejection. I think we have more power than we realize and it’s important for us to see what the women before us have done to understand what is possible, what we can do. We need to get together to heal and to work through the mindfuck of living in heteropatriarchy but more importantly we need to get together to hang out, discuss, debate, analyze, teach each other new skills, create, play and remake the ourselves and the world.