Our clothed bodies are not yours to strip bare*
June 4, 2014 § 28 Comments
I was eighteen years old and, despite coming out three years earlier, was at my first ever queer club night. The university one, so it wasn’t exactly fancy – organised by the LGB soc – they claimed that there weren’t enough trans students to make it worth adding the ‘T’. It took less than half an hour before a cis lesbian tried to make me ‘admit’ what type of genitals I had. “I’m so freaked out right now,” she said, “I don’t even know what you have in your boxers.” I tried to end the conversation as quickly as possible while she told me how weird I was, and went home that night feeling oddly betrayed.
I don’t go to predominantly cis queer spaces any longer, and the main reason for that is people like her. Some didn’t stop at questions, figuring that they had the ‘right’ to check. One Pride I was punched in the groin by a cis woman who didn’t like that I had made her ask ‘are you a man or a woman?’
I say that as background to a conversation happening today between several prominent UK feminists, culminating in possibly the worst hashtag of all time – #NoUnexpectedPenises. Because it’s not that they’re transphobic (of course not), or that they think trans women are men (they’ve learnt not to admit that) – but that trans women aren’t female, and if you invite someone who isn’t female into women’s spaces then you might accidentally be inviting a penis into a woman’s space, and then the sky falls down. Not that this isn’t a long-running issue in modern feminisms – but it did get a little shot in the arm today.
I’m not a woman and I don’t seek access to women’s spaces – reason enough not to have commented on the issue. And yet. Of recent, several feminists who don’t want to be called transphobic have tried to draw a distinction between ‘woman’ and ‘female’ that allows them to exclude MAAB trans people and claim FAAB as their own. To these feminists, I am female – no matter how I describe my gender, my ‘sex’ (in their really quite rubbish understanding of biology and sociology) will always and forever entitle me to entry in their club. Except, or course, that it doesn’t – because, for all that they claim it’s not about policing appearance, I have been harassed and assaulted precisely because my appearance puts my ‘sex’ into dispute.
Having elided the categories of ‘trans women’ and ‘women with penises’, they’ve decided that they can tell by looking – and that they have a right to. When pushed, they claim that it’s in order to protect survivors of sexual abuse from something that might trigger them, ignoring:
– The countless cis women who’ve been assaulted who object to having that claim made in their names
– The fact that rape can be and is committed by people of all sexes, genders, and in every imaginable way. ‘Females’ can and do rape others. Rape does not just happen with a penis.
– That a body part does not equal a rapist. It’s just a body part. It can’t make someone innocent or guilty of abusing another person.
– The fact that trans women are one of the most vulnerable groups when it comes to risk of suffering sexual violence – but apparently their histories of abuse are not as legitimate as a cis woman’s. Positing a penis as innately ‘rapey’ and pretending that all trans women have penises (or have somehow magically been ‘tainted’ by having a penis) posits trans women as inherently dangerous – a disgusting premise, and laughably untrue – in that ‘laugh while you cry’ way.
It shouldn’t need saying, but we say it every time because of claims to the contrary – no one is arguing that people cannot decide which genitals they’d like to have in their private lives. But how that can be stretched into a right to decide which CLOTHED bodies are allowed in a public forum escapes me.
How is it that anyone would think they have a right to know what’s under a stranger’s clothes? To deny them access to gatherings, to essential services, based on the assumption of the nakedness beneath their clothing? How can they claim that it is feminist to do that?
Gay blogger Andrew Sullivan lambasted Laverne Cox this week for her decision to keep her private parts private. Trans people, apparently, should be willing to answer questions about our genitals if we ever want to garner basic respect – there’s a paradox. In Atlanta, two trans women were violently assaulted on public transport, to the cheers of onlookers, because several cis men decided that they had the right to demand access to the women’s naked bodies. For all that it’s dressed up in the language of concern and personal empowerment, I fail to see how these so-called feminist demands differ from the wider cultural notion that trans people are defined by our genitals – and that the rest of the world has the right to look at them, judge them and abuse us because of them.
I count myself lucky in this situation – I’ve never had to deal with worse than a grope or a punch (not that that was easy). Many, many trans people – particularly trans women, particularly trans women of colour, face far worse. This isn’t a petty dispute, a differing of opinion, a side issue. This idea that it is acceptable, appropriate, for trans people to be policed and abused because of the supposed state of the most private part of our bodies lies right at the heart of anti-trans violence and oppression.
And shame on any feminist who thinks it’s acceptable to prop up that system in the supposed name of liberation and equality.
* Title has been changed to reflect its use in a piece by RadTransFem, who has left some important comments below regarding the wider milieu in which this debate exists. Go forth and read!