Gendered spaces are very prickly for those who are transgender or gender nonconforming. Even though the United States has evolved to become a much more co-ed society, gender equality is alive and well, and single-gendered spaces are more numerous than the average cisgender person realizes. These spaces range in magnitude from dressing and restrooms to clubs and organizations, all the way to schools and single-gender universities.
The Seven Sisters, the collection of all-women’s colleges which once broke glass ceilings for being the first universities to provide exceptional, world-class educations for women, have been in the news a lot recently regarding admissions policies and trans students. Yesterday, Barnard College in New York City, became the latest women’s college to allow trans women. The decision has been hotly debated for many years, and I applaud Barnard’s emergence into the twenty-first century.
One the flip side, a New York Times article that was widely popular last year documented the surge of trans men coming out while attending the all-women Wellesley College. The article describes scores of trans men who pushed to make the college’s rhetoric more gender neutral, a shift from sisterhood to siblinghood. The article revealed trans men seeking positions of power in student government and being hesitant to support the admission of trans women into these traditionally women’s spaces.
As a trans-masculine person, I find stories like this extremely troubling. Women’s spaces are sacrosanct, meant to protect and foster academic and social discourse surrounding women’s rights, healthcare, and role in society among worlds of other things. Trans men, regardless of socialization and first-hand experience with the crippling effects of misogyny, have no inherent right to these spaces. We certainly have no right to shift the discourse away from women and coopt their space for our own use. We should, of course, participate in the fight for feminism and lend our voices to discourse when appropriate. The rights of women—including trans women—are just as important as our own, and we have no right to step on them in our reach for acceptance and equality. In fact, I don’t believe trans men should attend women’s colleges for these reasons.
Fraternities and sororities are also incredibly contentious spaces. Many national Greek organizations bar trans people from joining. Personally, I avoided contact with these groups, preferring the safety of queer spaces, but I certainly understand the appeal. Greek organizations that allow trans members are, at present, few and far between, but I’ve signed four separate Change.org petitions just in the past week attempting to change those policies. Progress in this area is likely to be slow and painful, but it will eventually come.
Possibly the most uncomfortable and unavoidable gendered spaces are public restrooms. Conservatives and transphobes have used this issue to demonize trans people for years, stating that trans people want to use cross-sex bathrooms so that they can prey on and sexually molest unsuspecting individuals, primarily children. Such rhetoric has intensified since Caitlyn Jenner came out. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee joked that he wished he could have been able to use transgenderism as an excuse to shower with girls in high school. Reality TV scumbag Michelle Duggar has, in the wake of childhood sexual abuse allegations against her son, doubled down on her previous comments that paint trans women as child molesters, apparently blind to the overwhelming irony. Several states have considered laws to prevent trans people from using proper restrooms. Many of them failed, but that does not mean that trans people do not regularly face harassment and violence in restrooms.
This violence, along with the recognition of genders beyond the binary make gender neutral restrooms so vital. Many are single-use, which ensures safety and privacy. I personally use gender neutral restrooms wherever they are available. I have dedicated a substantial amount of time in ensuring their existence and expansion at my undergrad alma mater, as well as lobbying to increase their presence in governmental buildings.
Our society plays by some very wacky gender rules. When it comes to navigating heavily gendered spaces, it’s good to be very alert. At the first whiff of danger, get out. If being threatened with physical or sexual violence, it is not worth sacrificing yourself to make a political point. If I’m in a public place, I may only use the men’s restroom if it’s a single-use or I’m in a gay bar. I don’t pass, not even a little. Passing comes very much in handy in existing in gendered spaces, but for those of us who don’t, can’t, or don’t want to, things are always much more ambiguous. My threshold of feeling safe does not have to be yours, I can only speak for myself.
The way we collectively experience gender is bizarre, and it could very well be limiting to our society. However, it is a fact of life. Stay safe out there, stay in your lane, and don’t give up the fight.