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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Politics of Safety in Women-Only Spaces: An Opening Statement for the Dialogue (2002)


by Emi Koyama
February 10, 2002
My name is Emi, and I am an activist involved in many issues, particularly around domestic violence, sex workers' rights, and intersex issues. In addition to having all those backgrounds, I am an Asian dyke, sometimes identifying as genderqueer but more often as "slut" as far as the gender identity goes. I have never attended Michigan Womyn's Music Festival or Camp Trans for economic and medical reasons (I have disabilities which make camping very difficult), but I have felt both positive and negative impact of the Festival in feminist/women's spaces that I navigate locally, including within the anti-domestic violence movement.
For me, the notion of women-only spaces evokes a particular blend of comfort, strength, and warmth as well as fear, pain, and disillusionment that is not like anything I have experienced in the society at large. I realize, though, I had not always felt this way, like when I was first awakened to feminism as a first-year college student volunteering on the local rape crisis line. Back then, things were simpler: not only did I believe that I could finally feel free, safe and respected in a women-only space, but I craved such a place, a haven from the pervasive male dominance in the society.

Needless to say, I was naive. I quickly learned that women-only spaces are not as safe or free as I had expected, but are rife with the same old racism, classism, ableism, and even internalized sexism acted on by women against other women, and became more selective about whom I consider my "sister." That is not to say that women-only spaces are the same as the rest of the society, because I think there are several important differences. On the positive side, feminist-inspired women's communities have afforded me the language and frameworks for addressing these violence and oppressions that occur among women. And I would be lying if I said I did not feel even a little bit safer or respected by other women than by men, even though these women can also act out violence and oppression toward me (or I toward them).

But there are also very different kinds of fear and pain that I feel are unique to women-only spaces that I could not find a word for until recently. Here is what I mean: When men act out their misogyny toward me or toward other women, it is a very horrible experience, but at least I have other feminists to validate my feelings. There is no fantasy that this world is safe for women, and I feel empowered through fighting back together against the violence and oppression against us. But when I go into women-only spaces, there are so many fallacies that claim how safe, liberating, and egalitarian these spaces supposedly are that it makes me feel crazy and invalidated for feeling hurt by other women. And when I try to confront other women for their racism, classism, ableism or other oppressions, I frequently get attacked, which is not much different from what happens when I try to address sexism outside of these spaces, except that I am accused of being divisive and left without the support of other feminists that I generally count on for my survival.

Ideally, I want women-only spaces to be a place where we can address ways in which we end up enacting various societal hierarchies among ourselves regardless of our intentions. Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying music, celebrating our collective strength, or just plain having fun, but it should not happen at the cost of women marginalized due to multiple oppressions. One of the common mistakes made by people organizing women's spaces is that they assume that women-only space is safe because sexism is the most damaging of all oppressions for all women, and therefore women should feel safe in a women-only space. As Cherrie Moraga [accent on "i"] pointed out two decades ago, "[t]he danger lies in ranking the oppressions. The danger lies in failing to acknowledge the specificity of the oppression."

We need to start from the acknowledgement that women-only spaces are not necessarily safe. The myth of safety perpetuates the invisibilization and denial of domestic violence and sexual assault that occur between women, as well as ways in which white women have power over women of color, middle-class women have over working-class women, able-bodied women have over women with disabilities, etc. Instead of using the myth of safety to justify the exclusion of trans people, we should be using the trans inclusion debate as an opportunity to examine myths we hold about our communities and ways they privilege a certain group of women over others.

So what policy should a women-only space have regarding the entrance of trans people? My answer to this question is to leave it ambiguous because world is full of ambiguities. I think it would be enough to say "this space is for women" and not privilege any particular interpretation; privately, of course, there can and will be multiple interpretations, which is as it should be. The problem is not where the boundary is drawn, but the fact that some people insist on drawing a clear, unambiguous boundary where there could not possibly be one.
Gloria Anzaldua [accent on "u"] wrote: "A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary... the prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants... Do not enter, trespassers will be raped, maimed, strangled, gassed, shot. The only 'legitimate' inhabitants are those in power, the whites and those who align themselves with whites. Tension grips the inhabitants of the borderlands like a virus. Ambivalence and unrest reside there and death is no stranger." While Anzaldua was mainly discussing the physical borderland created by the Mexico-U.S. border, trans people are also "raped, maimed, strangled, gassed, shot" as a result of the society's attempt to enforce an unnatural boundary.
I sincerely believe that, if we insist on drawing the national boundaries along the Rio Grande, dividing the region into the U.S. and Mexico, the people who have come from this region have the right to cross the borders freely at any time with or without documents. I also believe that if we insist on creating gender-specific spaces under the faulty binary view of genders, those who are marginalized and erased by the same faulty binary system have the right to be on whichever side of the line they want to be at any given time in order to maximize their safety and comfort.

This does not mean that I feel comfortable or safe with all or even majority of trans people who might enter the space under the non-policy that I advocate. But I do not feel comfortable nor safe with many other women either, and I have learned to live with that whether or not I like it. It is time for those fortunate people who have felt perfectly comfortable and safe within women-only spaces to examine their unearned privileges, and recognize that their perceived comfort and safety came at other women's expense.
If it were only about a music festival, I would not be compelled to criticize it as much as I do. However, transphobia is a big issue that face women's communities (as well as the rest of the society) everywhere, and so are racism, classism, ableism, etc. I criticize the women-born-women policy not only because I believe that trans people can make better judgment about which spaces they should access than clear and unambiguous policy would, but also because I feel that sentiments and rhetoric used to justify the exclusion are racist, classist, ableist, etc. in that they rely on the myth of safety and the women's universal victimization under the patriarchy.

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