Part 1: The penis in women’s spaces.
The Women’s Circle
In a grassy area by the river, twenty women stand in a circle. They’re in a women’s retreat; they’ve gathered for a radical body-positive exercise. The exercise centers on the Yoni (the Tantric word for a woman’s genitalia), and will include nudity and self-exploration.
Nineteen of these women are vulva-clad, vagina-equipped natal, cisgender women. One of these women is trans. While she might not refer to her genitals by the words ‘penis’ or ‘testicles,’ that’s what they are anatomically. And, though transformed by several years of female hormones, her genitals are likely to be understood as “male genitals” by most women present.
This is the challenge we face: Do we allow the trans gal to participate in the exercise (which includes shedding all clothes and touching one’s genitals), or do we specifically exclude her, for fear of triggering one or more of the other women?
As a facilitator of SexPositive events, I’ve agonized over this question. (It doesn’t help that I happen to be trans myself.)
I’ve recently reached out to my friend Jimena Alvarado, PhD. A Portland-based professor of feminism and social justice. Jimena was happy to dissect this with me.
“My predisposition is always to lift up the voices of the most marginalized,” Jimena told me.
From Jimena’s model, excluding the trans woman is untenable so, it becomes a question of managing the expectations of the other participants.
“It’s up to the organizer, the event leader;” Jimena said. “They should have framed the event in such a way that all present understand and agree with that inclusivity.”
Photo by Tiffany Combs
Genitalia and Oppression
We talked about the symbology of the penis. Jimena and I immediately agreed that penis-owners have historically hurt vagina-owners in many ways. Some of these ways have specifically included the penis as a weapon, as an instrument of harm. Some of the women in the circle could be survivors of rape or sexual assault. So, it is really important to start by openly acknowledging that history, and that symbology. And by directly addressing those concerns.
The event leader can explain that, while there is an obvious similarity between a trans woman’s genitals and those of a man, this person’s genitals have received years of female hormones. They respond differently, they carry a different energy. While a man’s penis is an object of great pride, a trans woman’s member is often a source of dysphoria and shame. A man’s penis swaggers and struts, conquers and acquires, penetrates. A trans gal’s genitals generally carry none of this energy. Speaking in generalities, a man’s sexuality is urgent and assertive, and can be invasive. A trans gal’s sexuality is docile, patient, hesitant, fragile. (I’m speaking in broad strokes – each individual is different.)
Hopefully, such explanations can put the other women at ease that the trans gal is just another woman — albeit one with an odd-looking Yoni.
Kicking this around with another cis gal — a human rights activist — yielded another gem: if we started excluding whole demographics because of abuse we experienced from humans with similar features, we could find ourselves excluding a whole race, or everyone with blue eyes, or all ectomorphs, etc.
The Gym Locker Room
Photo by Bruce Mars
A common scenario used by trans exclusionists is the women’s locker room at the gym. it might be startling or upsetting for a woman to see a naked person in the gym locker room, and to find that person has a penis.
One gal recently told me that her first day at her gym she walked into the locker to be immediately confronted by a very naked 70-year-old (cis) woman. And that was startling for her. I asked her what could have made the situation better. She said, “well, the old woman could have covered up.” Then she added, “or, I could have fewer hangups about the naked human body.”
I invite you, the reader, to consider things you might encounter in the gym locker room that might be startling. A naked trans woman? A naked old woman? A naked handicapped woman? An amputee? A little person? An obese lady? A person of a different race?
I’m not judging you. Some of these might startle me. And I would work through it, and try to consider it a growth experience. I hope you wouldn’t be the person that goes to the manager and says, “uhm, excuse me, but there’s a woman in a wheelchair in there, and it’s making me uncomfortable. Can you ask her to leave?”
All of this is predicated, of course, on the basic premise that trans women are women. And that identity is not driven by surgeries or body parts. For some, this is an easy concept to embrace. For some others it’s a point of debate. For others still, it’s unfathomable. The author of this article aims for dialogue with the first two groups – with the sad understanding that the third group will reject most of her premises.
This article is the first in a series of four articles. Next in the series: “The Cotton Ceiling.”