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!


§ 28 Responses to Our clothed bodies are not yours to strip bare*

  • Squid says:

    Wholeheartedly agree. Thank you CN.

  • Ughhh I was just thinking about this earlier–how stupid and hypocritical transphobic feminists are. How the hell are you going to deny someone else the right to define themselves, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to be who they are despite other people’s definitions, the right to exist without violence or violation, when that’s exactly what YOU are also fighting for? *head explodes*

    Excellent post.

  • Joyful Girl says:

    I agree with you completely; this makes me so mad I could cry.

    What is the origin of the hash tag? It looks like it started with women complaining about being flashed in public (unless my twitter feed just doesn’t go far enough back); when did it become about trans people?

  • Lisa says:

    Related to this article on the subject – with practically verbatim title?

    • cnlester says:

      Damn – I googled the title because I was worried it was already taken, but didn’t see that – I”ll change it later when I’m not on my phone. Thanks for letting me know

      • Lisa says:

        this topic – of some women’s claim that they have a “right to feel safe”, and what the basis of that claim might be, is one I’ve been working on for a while now, and the framing is starting to get some traction. So rather than just changing the title so it looks like it’s not related to the work me and others have been putting in to get that traction, instead you should acknowledge that your piece here is in relation to that previous work (even if not consciously/explicitly) and link back to that work. Basically to respect the context of trans women’s scholarship/activism in which your article exists.

        • cnlester says:

          More than happy to link back in a further reading section at the bottom

          • Lisa says:

            this wasn’t totally my point, which was that these arguments should be placed in their context, a context which has mainly been developed by trans and/or women of color in response to a particular kind of white cis feminism – not limited to radical feminism, also including white liberal feminism like the new statesman crowd. The whole “you’re hurting me by saying I’m hurting you and I have a right not to be hurt” thing is running a train over a lot of us right now, so this specific instance is best put in that larger context.

            a link is a good start but not the whole deal!

          • cnlester says:

            Happy to link but no time to revise – do tweet me anything you’d like signal boosting?

        • Jonathan says:

          CN’s piece was prompted, I think, by some recent nonsense from certain white UK media feminists – with the reaction: not all this &#%$*#!?*%!$ crap again?!??!

          But as you say, and as we all probably know, this is just part of something much bigger which has been ongoing like forever. Thanks for providing the larger context.

          • Lisa says:

            Yes I know the context. My point is that when you build on the work of trans women who themselves have built on the work of women of color, you acknowledge that. Even if you didn’t realise at the time the exact roots of your ideas – these things percolate, few of us are having unique ideas of our own even when they may seem that way.

      • Lisa says:

        could also refer back to Black women who beat this ground before I did, e.g. bell hooks:

        During a heated discussion with [a] white female student in a racially mixed women’s group I had organized, I was told that she had heard how I had “wiped out” people in the feminist theory class, that she was afraid of being “wiped out” too. I reminded her that I was one person speaking to a large group of angry, aggressive people; I was hardly dominating the situation. It was I who left the class in tears, not any of the people I had supposedly “wiped out.”

        Racist stereotypes of the strong, superhuman black woman are operative myths in the minds of many white women, allowing them to ignore the extent to which black women are likely to be victimised in this society and the role white women may play in the maintenance and perpetuation of that victimization.

        bell hooks, Feminist Theory: from margin to center (South End Press, 1984), p13

        or to Chrystos’ (1994) poem Those Tears about White Women’s Tears.

        • Lisa says:

          (oops – went back and added the poem before posting comment – Chrystos is not Black of course! didn’t mean to include her under the first sentence at the top! given that my whole point here is about doing honour to the herstories of our concepts…)

  • daira says:

    [TW sexual assault. Sorry if this is a duplicate, it didn’t seem to post correctly the first time.]

    I agree completely. It’s not just about situations in which people are clothed, either, in which entitled cis people assume their rights over trans* peoples’ genitals. I was sexually assaulted at a kink event (a public BDSM play party). I was naked in a hot tub and a cis man groped my genitals without consent. (He was ejected and banned from future events.) Although sexual assault is a crime and intrusiveness isn’t, and without minimising the former in any way, I honestly think they come from much the same kind of entitlement.

  • insufferablerayne says:

    Thankyou so much for writing this article. It constantly amazes me that my peers in the cis community think they have the right to demand access to private spaces of others when they themselves (especially cis women) cry the mantra “body autonomy for women”. How anyone can call themselves a feminist or decent human being when they are perpuating the very thing they are fighting against, I have no idea. Especially since transphobia is purely based on perception. It boggles my mind.

  • insufferablerayne says:

    Thankyou for this article. The irony of transphobic ciswomen demanding access to anothers personal space and privacy while simultaneously fighting to protect their own is amazing. Their transphobia seems largely based on outward appearance and perceptions. Their issue isn’t about protecting themselves, it’s about hatred.

  • Tracy says:

    Wonderfully written post.

  • Tracy says:

    Reblogged this on Tlm0000's Blog and commented:
    Well written post on a subject that most of us will not have to personally deal with, so maybe we don’t even realize it’s an issue? For that reason I am reposting it, our own little worlds can be so exclusive.

  • As a human being my private parts are private, that is why they are called private parts. What they are is nobody’s business unless I chose to share them, which I rarely do. In the human world today some women have penises and some don’t. We trans women are women so we feel the need to go where other women go. Most of us wish to keep our private part private and most women’s restrooms allow us to. When men can attack us women anywhere and anytime they chose these types of males are unlikely to dress up like a woman just to invade our spaces and attack us women rather be be trans or cis. And it is also a fact that in general many women and girls from the age that they can change babies diapers and from the time women are old enough are caregivers in nursing homes, hospitals, and schools for the severely disabled so that most women of all ages know what a man’s penis looks like. So denying trans women women’s restrooms is a false argument. As a trans women, I enter the ladies room like any other woman. Quickly find a private stall, sit down, and keep myself covered as possible, wash up and quickly leave. If I feel the need to adjust my makeup, I may do that. It’s my guess that this is how most trans women feel unless they are comfortable in chit chatting up other females. Many times I go in with another cis lady friend. Trans women are women and want to be treated as such. We are not men in drag. We trans women are not cross dressers who consider themselves to be males. We trans ladies are just ladies who have thrown ourselves into the mercy of the female world with all of its cat fighting and female intrigues and its emotional ups and downs. We trans female are also the targets of abusive and violent males who will abuse us in the same way they abuse other females. Macho men become pretend females to do this. As far as us trans females being competition for your cisgender males unless they are bi-sexual, I think you are pretty safe, but if we are we are, and we trans ladies join the female wars for male attention if that’s how we swing. Think about all of this, when you deny us our womanhood and say we are just guys in dresses. You, kid, we trans women are ladies in our own right because that is who we are. What makes you cis ladies ever think that we trans ladies would choose this way of life. Besides when did you cis ladies decide you were females. You were born that way, and so were we!!!

  • […] to you and trans women will only ever be male to you because the lives of others don’t count. Your ideology has taught you feel you have the right to free access to the bodies of others when you…. Your ideology has taught me to base a persons sex and gender purely on appearance. Your ideology […]

  • FairyFatale says:

    Reblogged this on The Pixel Pixie and commented:
    Thank you for putting common sense into words.

  • Anywave says:

    (critical tangent) Cis is not a community, white is not a community, patriarchy is not a community. [We] should not take comfort from talking about those crappy people in our cis community that have just not got on message yet, like [we] have. In this context Cis is not a blanket it is a hammer…

  • […]  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. When pushed, they claim that it’s in order to protect survivors of sexual abuse from something that might trigger them.  – “Our Clothed Bodies are Not Yours to Strip Bare”, by A Gentleman and a Scholar […]

  • […] Our clothed bodies are not yours to strip bare – C.N. Lester lets the wider population know they aren’t entitled to demand access to trans peoples just because they are curious or ignorant. […]

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