[Note: There are several acronyms used throughout this post. If needed, you can hover your mouse over them to view meaning.]
In an online conversation about the use and application of the acronym “TERF” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist [sometimes the E is said to stand for “Exterminating” or “Eradicating”]), a friend argued the semantics of calling something “women or female space” when what is meant is “space for women who are Female Assigned At Birth (FAAB).” As she put it, “Why is it OK to use the terms woman or female to describe FAAB spaces when you know very well that there is a conflicting view about the accuracy and appropriateness of those terms?”
Inevitably, conversations about separatist spaces intended for females devolve into assumptions or projections that such spaces are inherently “anti-trans.” The label “TERF” is applied to any female who admits to finding value in taking space as a woman who was born and raised female.
The “accuracy and appropriateness” of the words “woman” and “female” have come into question mostly in queer/trans/LGBT circles. What is considered status quo in the community in terms of being inclusive and accepting of trans people is agreeing that gender and sex should be determined and defined solely by individual identity without exception or qualification. Within this understanding, what makes one a man or a woman, male, female, or other, amounts to simply stating, “I am a [woman/man/other].”
One of the events that has been central in these discussions, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which is intended to be for Womyn Born Womyn (WBW) only, is an example of what was meant in my friend’s question above. Her contention is that space determined for WBW should be named more specifically for whom it is intended. That to name it a “Womyn’s Music Festival” and not include all women is to suggest that trans women are not women. She and many others also take issue with the language “Womyn Born Womyn,” because in their view, anyone who identifies as a woman was also born a woman. What they see in the intention for WBW space is the deliberate exclusion of trans women from the sex and gender classifications of “female”/“woman”—in addition to their exclusion from the actual physical space. The simple solution, in this case, could be to rename the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival the Michigan FAAB Womyn’s Music Festival; that is, if this were just about semantics and the specificity of intention in the branding. However, it is not, and it never has been. This assertion, I will address later within this post.
The language and terminology found to be acceptable in these conversations is ever changing. Some of the currently used acronyms are as follows:
FAAB/MAAB – Female or Male Assigned At Birth
CAFAB/CAMAB – Coercively Assigned Female or Male At Birth
DFAB/DMAB – Designated Female or Male At Birth
There is some dispute about the use of all of the above as potentially an appropriation of language coined by and for the intersex community. It is difficult to tell, what is true about that by searching online. I list them though as examples of what is fairly regularly used in discussions about trans and non-trans people. Additional words that are commonly used are trans, transgender, transsexual, cis, cissexual, cisgender. Rather than attempt to define these words myself, I am copying definitions from internet sources. If you are already familiar with these terms, feel free to skip past the following section.
Transgender – An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers, and other gender-variant people. Transgender people may identify as female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF). Use the descriptive term (transgender, transsexual, cross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not choose to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.1
Transsexual (Transexual) – An older term which originated in the medical and psychological communities. Many transgender people prefer the term “transgender” to “transsexual.” Some transsexual people still prefer to use the term to describe themselves. However, unlike transgender, transsexual is not an umbrella term, and many transgender people do not identify as transsexual. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.1
Cissexual and Cisgender are terms for non-transsexual people, whose assigned gender matches their assigned sex.2
When a person is cisgender, they identify as the gender that matches the sex that they were assigned at birth. Cisgender is, as such, a complementary designation to the term transgender. 3
A transgender woman is a person who was assigned male at birth but who identifies as a female, while a cisgender woman is a person who was assigned female at birth and identifies as female.3
“Many sexuality educators, LGBT activists, and individuals who are cognizant of gender politics use the term cisgender to reduce the stigma associated with a transgender identity. It is easy for people say things like “transgender as opposed to normal gender” when describing individuals who identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth; however, that implies that transgender people are not normal. Using the term cisgender, in contrast, does not assign a relative value to either gender identity. Instead, it accepts transgender and cisgender identities as equally valid ways to experience gender.”3
“Cisgender” and or “cis” are purported to be and presented as “non-offensive.” They are said to be words that simply mean “not-trans.” Not all women labeled “cis” agree that it is “non-offensive.” I, personally, do not care for what it implies in terms of assumed comfort level with my body and or gender role expectations. It is not my identity, though it may be how some identify me simply, because it is true that I do not identify as trans. According to the entry “Cisgender” on Wikipedia, the term “cissexual” implies congruence of body, mind, and gendered expectations, while “cisgender is a slightly narrower term for those who do not identify as transgender (a larger cultural category than the more clinical transsexual).”
Like woman and female, cissexual and cisgender are somewhat debatable in definition within queer community. In theory, someone who is not dysphoric about their body, but dysphoric about their gender, could be considered cissexual and transgender. “Cis” is never really applied that way. Its primary use seems to be to distinguish trans from non-trans people and to establish a power dynamic between the two, with “cis” people, male and female, understood as privileged over—and the oppressors of—trans people.
This framing of non-trans people as the oppressors of trans people is widely accepted among liberals and progressives. More and more we see efforts to accommodate this understanding with changes to laws regarding sex-segregated spaces, so that anyone who identifies as either woman or man is allowed to be in the respective sex-segregated space based on his or her gender identity. This means that some women will have traditionally recognized “male bodies,” and if such women are in, say, a locker room, where nudity is commonplace, it should be understood that some women will have penises and some will have vaginas and anyone who has a problem with that should just “get over it”—they should get over their “cis-sexism,” their “cis-supremacy,” their “transphobia,” and do whatever they must to address their own comfort level, other than exercising their “cis privilege” by making the trans person feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in such spaces. This is understood to be the kind and inclusive thing to do, though for some non-trans women, this is a very confounding situation: we are torn between what makes us feel safe in physically vulnerable spaces, wanting to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, and not wanting to be oppressive or to act from a place of privilege. But what is expected of us then in sex segregated spaces is that we assume anyone in such spaces is there because they identify as women. That requires us to forego our instincts for determining and knowing the sex of those in our presence, which is generally what we also use to gauge our level of relative safety. To be clear, I am not saying that trans women themselves are a danger. Historically and statistically, there is no better way to gauge our relative safety as females than understanding who is male in our presence, which, in traditionally understood sex-segregated spaces, would be no one.
In the conversation I mentioned at the beginning of this writing, I had a powerful Consciousness Raising (CR) moment. What has always bothered me with the framing of non-trans women as privileged is the denial of the subjugation of females as female (as biologically defined). If being women who were designated female at birth means being inherently privileged over women who were designated male at birth, what does that say about our experience of subjugation that is a result of being born and assigned female?
Radical feminism, as I understand it, has always attempted to address oppression as class-based. My response to my friend’s question is what made me feel like I had a personal breakthrough with the language about this: If we are going to dismiss the significance of our bodies and how oppression affects females (conventional meaning) based on the fact of our female bodies, then let’s talk about it in terms of class and not bring our bodies into the conversation at all. This breakthrough resulted in the creation of new terms and acronyms:
SSCAB – Subjugated [or perhaps Subservient] Sex Class Assigned at Birth
DSCAB – Dominating Sex Class Assigned at Birth
I am inclined to use “subjugated” over “subservient,” because when looking at the definitions, though I think both could apply to many, subjugated implies that something is being done to us, whereas subservient almost sounds voluntary. I believe subservience comes as a result of being subjugated. It is a resolution to be compliant when there really is no choice.
This framing also works for race and (actual or assumed) economic class, and probably in many other areas of class-based oppression as well.
Getting back to why I believe that a rebranding or a change in the semantics around the name of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival would not end the decades-old battle, I have come to this belief through an active participation in these discussions for more than twenty years, during which time I have heard it expressed in no uncertain terms. “Taking space as womyn born womyn is inherently hateful.” If you accept that “cis” women have power over trans women, it follows that non-trans women taking space that does not include trans women would be seen as hateful and oppressive to trans women. People often assert that this is parallel to white women taking space that excludes women of color. That is to say, WOC are and should be allowed to take separatist healing space, but white women should not. Oppressed classes of people have a right to healing space away from their oppressors; oppressor classes of people do not. I actually disagree with that in terms of healing spaces, but that is the logic in the analogy, so if non-trans women defined as “cis” and therefore as oppressors of trans women remains the accepted framing, a simple change in branding will only affirm the projection that the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is an anti-trans event. Whereas, examining the idea of non-trans women as SSCAB and trans women as DSCAB, the dynamics are quite the opposite.
I believe that even without finding the exact language to convey true heartfelt intention into words, intention can be understood. In a sense, “intention” is the language with which subjugated classes of people have traditionally found common ground. Rarely are our oppressors honest in the language they choose to explain the disparity in our positions. So, spoken or unspoken, I understand intention to be an important aspect of communication. And I have always understood the intention for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to be a healing space for womyn who were determined Subjugated Sex Class Assigned at Birth, even if the language traditionally used has been “Womyn Born Womyn.” It has never been a hateful event. If it were understood as that, SSCAB women who consider themselves trans allies would not be fighting to change the intention to include trans women—why would anyone fight to include their loved ones in spaces they actually experience as hateful themselves? I contend that these allies do not experience the festival as hateful, but have accepted the framing of themselves, non-trans women, as privileged over trans women. As women of good conscience, therefore, they have felt driven to correct what they understood as an injustice. I understand and appreciate the intention of love in their efforts, even while I have experienced this as oppressive and hurtful both to myself and the festival community; in fact, I find it harmful to the larger community of SSCAB women and the larger still community of SSCAB and DSCAB women who care about justice and healing and ending oppression.
Throughout these discussions, I have always also experienced what has felt like racism. That is true, in part, because of the appropriation of racial narratives used to compare the plight of Dominating Sex Class AB women (who, for the most part in these conversations, have been white [or Dominating Race Class Assigned at Birth]), with that of African Americans as they have historically been treated in the United States. Disregarding the intention for WBW space at Michigan is said to be the trans equivalent to liberating lunch counters in the Jim Crow–era South. One white trans woman, in a fairly major LGBT publication, compared the producer of the MWMF and her commitment to the intention for WBW space to George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who ordered fire hoses to be turned on nonviolent African Americans protesting the injustices of Jim Crow, the denial of legal rights, and the unconstrained lynching of black folks. I find that as outrageous in retrospect as I did when I first read it. And the climate for being critical of trans women, even when the focus of the criticism is racism, has been so hostile that such a blatant and racist appropriation can be made by a white person, in supposedly progressive community, followed only by the sound of crickets; this resounding silence in response to a white trans women’s racism is not unusual.
If we examine the racial comparisons under the new framing, however, it looks quite different. To be someone who is Dominating Sex Class AB, Dominating Race Class AB, and (actually and/or presumed to be) Dominating Economic Class appropriating the narratives of people who are Subjugated Race Class AB and Subjugated Economic Class, the offense is clear. And for Dominating Sex Class members—women-identified or not—to insist they be allowed in the healing spaces of women who are Subjugated Sex Class, trying to heal themselves of the effects of being SSCAB, we can see the entitlement and privilege and how it is informed by their socialization as dominating class members. And within this framing, we can see it and name it without questioning or challenging anyone’s gender identity.
So regarding “TERF,” in relation to this context, I (and I’m sure most anyone who has been determined a “TERF”) understand that it is intended as a pejorative term. It is dismissive of the expressed concerns and analysis of SSCAB women who understand how the dynamics of living under a patriarchal culture that assigns subjugated and dominating sex classes harms and oppresses people who are SSCAB. “TERF” is intended to intimidate SSCAB women from speaking out about their oppression at the hands of DSCAB people. The fact that some DSCAB people identify as women does not change the fact that they are likely to exercise and benefit from DSCAB socialization and privilege. For me, this understanding and framing is clarifying and even inclusive. It allows me a way to speak about my need and desire for SSCAB women’s healing space without dismissing the gender identities of trans women. It also calls on trans women to examine how their lives are informed by being socialized as DSCAB people and validates the experience SSCAB women have of much of the trans activist movement as dominating, bullying, and abusive to SSCAB women who want SSCAB women’s space.
I understand that there are likely to be many non-trans women who would refuse to acknowledge trans women as women. In fact, if they are reading this, they may be resenting my use of “non-trans women” this very moment. They may feel like this entire post indulges trans women who are, in their view, men. I feel like I can understand where these non-trans women are coming from, but I personally want to be open to respecting the possibility that trans individuals are finding their truths and doing their best to live them. That means, I am willing to take folks at their word and be as respectful as I can regarding their identities.
However, over the years, I have certainly become more jaded and distrusting than I was when I started having these conversations. I feel the positions and the actions of some trans women have been abusive and hurtful. I find that I am less open to new friendships with trans women in particular, because of the current predominant trans political ideology. I have also removed myself from the “queer” community, because it has been complicit in the aforementioned abuse. Ironically, the so-called “inclusive” community does not feel inclusive to me, a SSCAB woman, because I am unwilling to deny the weight of what it means for me to be SSCAB.
For the record, I do not expect women who were born female to simply jump on board with this language. I do not expect them to resolve to the use of free-floating definitions for “female” and “woman.” It is certainly much simpler not to have to break things down with multiple terms and so many words. So, so many words. In a way, putting this much thought and time into explaining the need for boundaries feels almost apologetic, when what one wants to say is simply, “No! No means NO!” In the context of understanding SSCAB women as resisting domination and oppression enacted upon them by DSCAB people, I do not believe that SSCAB women should be required to give up or expand upon the definitions of words they feel they need to name their oppression or their oppressors. Perhaps, with time and healing, this will change on an individual basis. Perhaps it will not.
Before I end, I do want to address the violence experienced by DSCAB women. Using this language and framing of DSCAB/SSCAB is not intended in any way to excuse or deny the violence DSCAB women experience. It does mean, however, that DSCAB women need to place the violence in a proper context that makes DSCAB men responsible — the men who are the perpetrators of 99 percent of said violence. And the framing of SSCAB women as “privileged” for not experiencing violence specifically as a result of being DSCAB women needs to end. The violence DSCAB women experience at the hands of DSCAB men is a direct result of a patriarchal culture that insists that some people must be dominating and some must be subjugated. Some DSCAB women may be reluctant to acknowledging and then healing what it means to be socialized as DSCAB people, because it means giving up the benefits of privilege and power, as well as admitting that said privilege and power exists for them. I hope, though, that understanding how domination is enacted upon them as individuals and as a class—especially when it includes violence—will move some, challenging as it may be, to consider this new framing.
What I am suggesting here is not very different in intention than what I and many other SSCAB women have been saying for years. This is only a change in language and framing that I hope brings about more understanding regarding the need some SSCAB women have for SSCAB women’s space. Unlike the “cis/trans” framing, SSCAB/DSCAB doesn’t deny the lived experiences of women who were designated Subjugated Sex Class at Birth. It also exposes the aspect of the “cis/trans” framing that has romanticized the experience of being women who are SSCAB. That we “pass” as women is about our bodies and our “beauty,” the value of which we understand to be determined by our ability to please the Dominating Sex Class. This is not a privilege. Calling it privilege is akin to fetishizing our sex class subjugation. The framing of our subjugation as privilege is a twisted and manipulative reversal and an exploitation of our socialization as SSCAB women. There is healing that needs to be done around that.
Even still, I am inspired by the possibilities that this reframing has for healing and change. I feel more open already. I know there are and can imagine there will be more trans women who are actively working to heal their DSCAB socialization, and I will be as open to them as I have been to anyone who is actively working to heal their various and layered oppressive “isms.”
Since I began this writing, I have shared the ideas and done some tweaking for the sake of clarity, thoroughness and spelling etc. I feel uneasy that it falls short in terms of showing concern for the ways in which SSCAB women do contribute to the difficulties that DSCAB women face. Someone is surely and sarcastically saying to themselves, “ya think?” Please believe me, I am concerned. I would not be writing this if I was not concerned about all sides. I don’t believe that SSCAB women and DSCAB women need to be enemies. This is doing none of us any good.
I’ve tried to approach these conversations and remain in respectful dialogue as much as I can, though there are times when I have been snarky or impatient or insensitive and ultimately hurtful. It is my goal to be more and ever thoughtful with regard to how I participate in communicating with other people so that even if the person I am talking with fiercely disagrees with the conclusions of my thinking, we can still end recognizing each other’s humanity. People can agree to disagree and not stop loving each other. Love only really gets lost when we become unwilling to treat people with some amount of dignity and respect. That seems like a fairly universal truth and it requires all parties to be invested in, not just our ability to one up each other over differences and disagreements, but in finding and elevating the commonality that connects us, even if the only thing we can imagine we share in common is that we are human and living on the planet Earth.
I was thinking last night about how my brother and a friend of his, when we were kids, used to go up to this creek near where we lived at the time and catch crawfish. His friend had a bit of a cruel streak and he would cut the eyes off the crawfish he caught and then toss them together to fight each other. This was amusing to him. Now imagine being in pain, blinded and afraid then tossed into someone else who is also in pain, blinded and afraid. Sometimes I feel like that is what we go through in our struggles for justice and healing. We’re all hurt. And we are hurt purposely by an outside force that seems to thrive off our pain. And while we fight each other, we are not focused on undoing the root cause.
A friend of mine said in another online discussion, “if this was truly a discussion about patriarchy, power or misogyny I’d be all for it.” She and I seem to disagree that there is value and healing in separatist space. But I think we do agree that we would all be better served and healed as individuals and as a community if we focused on fighting patriarchy instead of each other. I’d like to think that is possible.
It is unfortunate that in writing this and putting it out publicly, I do so with an understanding that I may receive not only criticism and challenges to my ideas, but actual threats of violence and acts of intimidation. This has been the case for many SSCAB women who have given voice to their resistance to the “cis/trans” framing. I find that disheartening, but I remain encouraged by the words of Audre Lorde when she said:
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.”
I look forward, with hope, to your thoughtful response and analysis.