Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Reflections on MWMF & Exclusive Spaces

For the past few weeks, since the most recent news storm about Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF) and it’s infamous trans policy (or non-policy?), I have been trying to figure out why I have nothing to say about it.

Actually, I always have felt somewhat disconnected from MWMF as a trans issue. For one thing, it confuses me. For another thing, after six years of involvement in trans activism, I still have not been sure why I should care about it. Lately I’m beginning to understand why I have felt this way.

The short version of the conflict – at least, one short version – is this: On the one hand, Camp Trans asserts that trans women are women, and should therefore be allowed into the women-only space of the Festival. On the other hand, MWMF asserts that non-trans women need women-only space where they can feel safe from sexism and sexist violence.

Camp Trans is right. Trans women are women, are “real” women, are as womanly as any woman. But that does not mean that a trans woman is “just like” a woman who was assigned female uneventfully at birth and has been unproblematically female ever since. The experiences are different.

MWMF is right, too, that non-trans women deserve safe space, and that some MtFs enact sexism and male privilege. I think they’re wrong to assume that a space reserved for women who were assigned female uneventfully at birth and have been unproblematically female ever since is necessarily “safe.” The truth is that women, any kind of women, can enact sexism on each other. Women, any kind of women, can do violence.

And that brings me to the reason that this issue has never fired me up, in either direction. I don’t feel the need to protect exclusive spaces, or the desire to get into them, with the same intensity that some people do. In fact, exclusive spaces usually have not worked well for me.

This year in particular, I have had to learn that people “like me” are not necessarily my best allies. A few trans people have withheld support from me when I needed it most, and said some very oppressive things to me in the process. A few straight, non-trans people have supported me in ways I never knew to hope for. I have had to reevaluate where and how I look for friends, and who I trust with my vulnerabilities. It doesn’t mean I run away from trans community or from exclusive spaces. But I don’t elevate them or assume them to be safe, either.

Last winter I was at a Jewish conference where the majority of attendees were rich, white, straight, non-trans Ashkenazim. The majority were mostly not too savvy about minorities. One morning, I went to a difficult workshop where I was marginalized as a queer trans person, and left out to dry by another FtM. Afterwards at lunch I shared a table with six people who’d also been in that workshop. They were all straight non-trans folks, mostly People of Color, mostly folks I’d just met that day. Right after we sat down, another person from the workshop - a straight white woman - walked up to me at the table and stage-whispered, “Is it okay if a straight person sits here?” I said “sure,” trying not to laugh, and she sat down. No one at the table corrected her assumption that they were all queer. When she started grilling me about trans issues, someone distracted her and gave me an out. I was a numerical minority at that table in almost every way, in both privileged and not-privileged ways. But everyone there was looking out for me, just as if they were my own community. Actually, they were my community.

Later on during that same conference, a woman I had met only briefly was looking for support. She was stressed out and annoyed, because she was being marginalized as a Mizrahi by Ashkenazi dominance, both in general and in that specific moment. She said she wanted some time with the other non-Ashkenazim and/or People of Color. Together with two other friends we looked for non-Ashkenazim she could caucus with, but all of them were busy. Instead three Ashkenazim, two of us white folks, ended up going back to her room to share in an Iraqi Havdallah ritual and to be there with her as she expressed her anger and frustration. Some hours later she noted with pleasure that the three of us had provided the supportive space she was looking for, even though we weren’t a caucus. Of course it would have been nice if we could have found the people in the first place. But right then, we were able to be the community she needed. I felt so intensely right, and so privileged – in more ways than one – to be a part of that moment. I realized that diverse groups can sometimes be even safer and more supportive than the exclusive spaces I was used to looking for.

None of this is to say that exclusive spaces are bad. Sometimes they’re really useful, particularly for consciousness raising around a particular identity-related issue. There is role for exclusive spaces in building sustainable, supportive, and just community. But exclusive spaces do not in themselves constitute community. A group that’s defined by a single social identity can’t function in isolation forever. Eventually you have to come out, so to speak, and meet your allies, and maybe even your enemies. Then you start to find out what community can look like.

So, what about the MWMF debate? After all this, I still don’t have much to say about MWMF. I could outline why I disagree with the Festival organizers. I could outline why I disagree with some Camp Trans folk. For me the bottom line is that the whole argument assumes identity as a basis for community. And that’s not how I define community.

I know people have strong feelings about MWMF. I understand those feelings, but I don’t share them. MWMF is just not my fight. I’m not saying other people shouldn’t care. The argument is worth having, if only for all the thought and discussions it’s generated about exclusive spaces and about trans folk in feminism. If that’s where your passion is, then go for it.

But while you go for it, I hope you will also go out of your way to find and build diverse supportive spaces, as well as exclusive spaces. Even if it means reevaluating who you trust or like or whose opinion you value. Even if it’s harder than being with people “like” you. Even if it feels uncomfortable, even if it feels unsafe. It’s amazing and healing and wholesome when people who were supposed to oppress you turn out to be on your side. You deserve those kinds of allies. You’re not going to find them in a clubhouse posted “Members Only,” and you’re sure not going to find them by standing on the porch and waiting to be let in. Eventually, you have to go find a clubhouse with different signs. And if you don’t find one, you have to build it.

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