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Back You are here: Home Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity - [Archived] ISGD How to create safer spaces for sex and/or gender diverse people

How to create safer spaces for sex and/or gender diverse people

SafespacesDespite identifying as trans, and being on the collective for a Reclaim the Night rally billed as ‘trans inclusive’, Sasha Sanford still felt apprehensive at the event, and asks: how can identity policing of trans, intersex and other sex and/or gender diverse people, in spaces autonomous of cis male people, be addressed?

13 December 2010

In the context of social justice organising, how can spaces and communities be formed where people might feel safer; spaces where it feels like our experiences, our resistance to oppression, and the understandings we have of ourselves are treated with respect – where our right to self-determination is acknowledged?

And how do we take responsibility for how we act, tackle the privilege we are extended by society, and be supportive in return?

The experience of becoming involved in social justice organising – activism that tries to challenge misogyny, whorephobia, ableism, transphobia, capitalism and queerphobia – has made me feel that effective social justice is often situated by activists in relation to creating safer and mutually supportive communities.

The problem of ‘othering’

These are spaces in which we feel we can exercise self-determination, and can work towards an understanding of ourselves without being framed as ‘Other’: without our legitimacy as human subjects being questioned.

The framing of a person as ‘Other’ fundamentally positions them as different to the normative way of being human,  and thus as not deserving of human rights or support. It is a move towards dehumanisation and disempowerment on the part of privileged groups who seek the maintenance of that privilege.

I feel it is crucial to acknowledge that structural oppression partly functions by making certain groups ‘Other’ to a dominant and privileged group.

In this context effective social justice necessarily involves resisting a politics based on static, singular identities – because these are often constructed via the exclusion and othering of people who are not seen as fitting a given singular identity.

Othering is the key means by which policing the borders of identity occurs. As a corollary of this, I feel that spaces that are made autonomous (not inclusive of) cis (non-trans) male-identified people leads to the policing of gender expression, which can cause the othering of trans or gender-variant people, and thus render the spaces unsafe for trans or intersex, sex and/or gender diverse people.

This can be the case even if there are explicit statements against such policing. I feel that more discussion on the relation between safer spaces and autonomous spaces needs to take place in our communities and norms surrounding gender policing need to be altered.

Furthermore in relation to spaces that are made autonomous of cis male-identified people – as blogger Cedar at Taking Up Too Much Space notes – there are few autonomous spaces for all women: most spaces are in practice autonomous spaces for white, able-bodied, middle/upper class women who are cis (not trans or gender variant).

It is also the case that sex workers are sometimes positioned as Other in feminist spaces to people who do not engage in sex work, and people of colour or disabled people implicitly positioned as Other to white or able-bodied people – this othering amounts to an attempt to curtail the self-determination of sex workers, people of colour and disabled people in feminist spaces.

Shortcomings of Melbourne Reclaim the Night

This article is in part a response to 3P’s piece in last month’s issue of The Scavenger, in which 3P called out the Melbourne Reclaim the Night organising collective for not making the event this year a safe enough space for trans and gender-variant people, especially for trans feminine folk.

I feel that this is because not enough was done on the night to reiterate that the policing of gender expression within the space of Reclaim the Night was a form of violence and would render the space unsafe for people. Most of the information on gender policing was only available on Facebook, which is not an accessible enough location, and not enough was put on the posters we made.

As a trans person on that collective, I want to relate my experience during the event, and situate the short-comings of our organising of Reclaim the Night within a broader conceptualisation of what safe (and unsafe) spaces for trans, intersex and other sex and/or gender diverse people might look like – especially in spaces autonomous from cis male people, which Reclaim the Night was.

I am responding here as an individual, not on behalf of anybody else. I also acknowledge that as a female-bodied person with a gender expression that is increasingly masculine, I occupy a position of privilege.

Reclaim the Night is a rally, march and then often an after-party which is held every year to show resistance to the culture of misogyny and sexual violence which exists in our society, with a specific focus on the struggle to end sexual violence and assault.

It was originally held to protest the curfew against women going out at night – and it maintains a focus on public space while acknowledging that family and intimate structures in our society result in the majority of sexual violence occurring between people who know one another – not between strangers.

Reclaim the Night is about moving through space, and being in spaces safely. Who can do this? Who is allowed? Who can be in a space without feeling self-conscious, being stared at, or facing the threat of verbal or physical assault? Who can be in a space without having to self-monitor, and be constantly concerned about their level of safety and comfort, to the point where they feel anxious and exhausted?

The privilege of being able to move freely through space has been noted by anti-racist theorists, queer theorists and feminist theorists, in particular Sara Ahmed. Structural oppression functions to limit a person’s self-determination by policing the spaces they can move through and be in.

In public spaces, if attention is drawn to your appearance for being feminine-presenting, for being disabled, for having a gender expression seen as ‘Other’, for being a person of colour, your movement is hindered by the threat of violence. This can be from police/security guards or from other individuals, and the result is it is more difficult to occupy space and move through it.

Within public spaces, cis or trans people with a femme/feminine gender expression face this form of policing on very frequent basis – being “too feminine” can even be a crticism in some feminist spaces or feminist theory – although masculine presenting/androgynous people are also subject to these experiences.

Spaces autonomous of cis male people must be created with this in mind. To create a space in which a person’s gender expression will be called into question renders that space unsafe for them; it curtails their self-determination by inhibiting their movement through and belonging in that space.

A history of trans exclusion

Spaces autonomous of cis male people must be carefully navigated because of a history of these spaces being “women born women only” – as explicitly exclusive of trans people – based on the politics of singular identity categories legitimately positioning people as “Other”.

I feel that these autonomous spaces are created with the intention of being temporary communities in which misogyny can be minimised.

For cis women to exclude a person who experiences misogyny – whether that be because of a feminine gender presentation, a ‘female’-sexed body or an androgynous gender expression – is to assert that cis women have privilege over trans people.

What is more, it conveys the message that cis women are able to disregard and render invisible trans people’s experience of misogyny by excluding them from supportive spaces. Cis women do not have this right.

When writing information about Reclaim the Night not being for cis women only, I framed this in terms of the event being “trans inclusive”. However, as Cedar notes, “inclusion” suggests that cis women again are in the position of power where they can determine who can be included in autonomous spaces and functions to undermine the self-determination of trans women.

Furthermore, I feel any assertion that trans women can be excluded from autonomous spaces on the basis of being triggering is located in a transphobic culture that perpetuates violence against trans women.

It is invasive as it involves the presumption of what a person’s body is like: one person is reading another as male-bodied, as having a ‘male’-sexed body, and as therefore triggering. This also acts to invisibilise and demobilise people who are intersex.

This exclusion of trans women creates a situation in which “passing” as a cis woman becomes necessary for a person’s safety and inclusion – this delegitimises those who do not want to incorporate the particular gender presentations as part of their own.

Crucially, such an exclusion is a calm denial of that person’s experience – a person who identifies as a trans woman or trans feminine is told by cis people that their body in some way is centred in masculinity – despite this person not identifying as male.

Finally it completely undermines the experience of trans people who are survivors of sexual violence, and who need access to safer spaces in which misogyny is minimised.

I would like to add that no suggestion was made on the Melbourne collective that trans women should be excluded from Reclaim the Night – I was at every collective meeting and I am sure of this.

This suggestion would have completely undermined the aim of Reclaim the Night to be a safer space that was striving to end misogyny. However, claims of this kind are still regularly made in some feminist theory. Resisting transphobia – and whorephobia and racism – within some feminist theory is, I feel, a key means by which we can act to change feminist spaces.

I would like also to add that as a member of the Reclaim the Night organising collective, I did not feel marginalised or treated as ‘Other’ by the other collective members, but rather felt supported.

Gender policing

At Reclaim the Night 2010 there was explicit information about the event not being cis women only. However, there are subtler ways in which gender policing can occur even in this context.

Gender policing occurs when someone is asked, “Are you trans/genderqueer?”, “Have you thought about transitioning?”, “Do you take oestrogen/testosterone?” The assumption that all trans people are trans women or trans men also invisibilises the experience of many people who do not feel that they exist within either a male or female identity, which is alienating.

A space not being transphobic does not equate a safer space for trans folk necessarily. My own experience on the night was one of apprehension. I suddenly felt uncomfortable in the space, which was a fairly clear alarm that not enough had been done to reiterate that gender policing was not okay, despite not experiencing anything that I felt was gender policing that night.

The threat of this kind of policing can exist if you are trans in most public spaces; however, safe feminist spaces should strive to ensure people know enough about trans experience to not engage in gender policing. I feel that autonomous spaces should be based on self-exclusion: if a person feels that they identify as a cis male, then they can self- exclude.

What do safe spaces for trans, intersex and sex and/or gender diverse people look like?

From a personal perspective I can say that spaces which feel safer to me as a trans person are ones in which there is an acknowledgement of the struggle of trans people to resist oppression – where trans issues are talked about but individuals are not tokenised.

Spaces that feel safer to me are ones in which people are sensitive of pronouns, and either avoid using pronouns or use the pronouns a person has asked for; spaces in which people do not ask personal questions about a person’s body – or their life in general in relation to sex or gender.

Safer spaces are also spaces in which people do not assume the identity or body of anyone, or assume that trans people necessarily identify as male or female at all. Where no assumptions about anyone’s sex or gender are made.

Finally, spaces in which it is acknowledged that transphobia and gender policing act to undermine the feminist struggle to end misogyny are safer spaces.

The Melbourne Reclaim the Night organising collective will be getting together again next year, and anyone who would like to be part of the collective should get involved. Next year I will work to ensure there is a grievance crew who can be approached on issues of identity policing and safety, more information on Reclaim the Night posters about gender policing, and a flyer to be distributed on the night.

If anyone has other ideas, please feel free to contact me, as well as leaving comments below this article.

Suggested further reading:

Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

Embodied Revolution blog

That's revolting!: queer strategies for resisting oppression edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

GenderQueer: voices from beyond the sexual binary edited by Joan Nestle, Clare Howell and Riki Wilchins

Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender by Riki Wilchins

Transgender History by Susan Stryker

Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of sex by Judith Butler

Sasha Stanford has just completed the second year of their Arts degree, majoring in gender studies and politics. Sasha is interested in social justice and environmental organising. You can contact Sasha at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 

Comments   

0 #1 Natasha Curson 2010-12-22 06:01
Fantastic, clear-headed post, about which I find little to disagree with but much to think about. Might contact you directly as suggested in the new year. Thank you for being so clear about the problems, and pervasiveness of "othering"
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