Womyn-born-womyn (an alternative spelling of women-born-women; see article on Womyn and more accurately termed Trans woman exclusionism) is a political term used by some feminists to establish themselves as feminist, woman-identified women and is an extension of the concept of womyn. Some feminists, intersex people, and transgender people object to the term and the biological determinism (or biocentrism) they argue that it represents.
The term was developed during Second-wave feminism
to designate spaces for, by, and about women who were born as girls, raised as girls, and live as women. Though transgendered and intersex people have been present in women's only spaces for decades (often in the closet
), the term garnered wider attention in response to the exclusion of transwomen
from womyn-born-womyn only spaces such as the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival
Some women, especially separatist-leaning feminists, argue womyn-born-womyn policies are a strategic and important means of resistance and survival and a means of unlearning internalized misogyny unrelated to and independent of transculture and politics.
The controversy has sparked scholarly discussion.
Womyn-born-womyn policies center around the idea that women's experiences under patriarchy
are unique, learned, and transformative. Troping Judith Butler's assertions that gender is a performance, womyn-born-womyn creates spaces wherein the enforced and policed performances of "girl" in patriarchy can be reshaped outside of the presence of those not subjected to those limitations. Transgender women are excluded because they have not lived under the strictures of the enforced performance of "girl," having instead been subjected to the performance of "boy". Advocates of womyn-born-womyn spaces argue that the experience of having been born and raised as a "girl" under patriarchy is not one that transgender women share with womyn-born-womyn. This issue parallels the experiences (and frictions) in black communities between light and darker skinned peoples. Although the varying shades are generally seen as "black," the experience of race within that spectrum can be dramatically different.
Womyn-born-womyn policies ask that all women respect the life experience of others and "police" themselves regarding whether they were born as, raised as and currently live as women. Some would argue that this is in the same vein that white people would be expected to respect, understand and self-select out of people-of-color spaces in small steps to dismantle a history of racism and the ancillary privilege of constant access to the "other," transsexual women are asked to confront for themselves the differences between living as a transkid and a girl. Others would argue that this interpretation is exactly inverted, with trans women marginalized and ignored in both heterosexual and cissexual-woman spaces. Transsexual women do not have to "confront for themselves" the difference between living as a transkid and a girl, having acutely experienced that difference every day of their lives.
One point which is sometimes lost in this debate is the context of what kinds of space can legally function as womyn-born-womyn only spaces. One example of this is the Canadian case Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon 2005 BCCA 601, where the judgment allows any group protected by section 41 of the Canadian Human Rights Code to restrict its work to a sub-group of the group it was created to serve. In this case, it means that a women's charity may limit its services to only certain kinds of women.
There have been several notable instances where transgender women have been denied access to or even been evicted from women's spaces.
Supporters of 'women-born-women' policies make the following claims:
- Most transgender women do not have the experience of growing up female in a sexist society and as such have no embodied experience of the culturally prescribed position of "girl".
- All transgender women have received and, in some instances, benefited from male privilege especially late transitioners.
- Oppressions are not the same, although they are linked. Thus, being subjected to transphobia is not tantamount to be a girl, just like racism is not equal to classism, even though the two are closely interlinked.
- All oppressed peoples should be allowed to make spaces aligned through a commonality of oppression to heal and recover without explanation and solely through the ease of lived experience.
- Transgender women may make cisgendered women in the space feel uncomfortable, especially in the case of pre-operative transwomen.
- Policies that do not exclude transgender women would allow men to enter the space if they simply wear stereotypical women's clothes and claim a female gender identity.
- Many women's only spaces provide a safe shelter for cisgendered women who have been abused or sexually assaulted. Such cisgendered women might feel threatened by the presence of transgender women.
However, critics of such policies argue that:
- While transgender women did not grow up with recognized as female or as girls, they did grow up with female gender identities and thus should not be considered 'second-class' women any more than would a woman who grew up with other physical differences.
- Having experienced privilege in the past, particularly unwanted privilege, does not excuse oppression in the present.
- Although transgendered women did not experience sexist oppression growing up, they experienced other forms of repression which are its equal, viz. society's transphobia
- Many transgendered women have experienced sexist oppression, even if not from the day of their birth.
- If exclusion of transgender women because of access to male privilege is appropriate, then banning female-bodied people who have not had access to male privilege but are gender variant is hypocritical.
- Thus far, there are no known instances of cisgender males claiming female gender identity as a means to access women's only spaces. Using this theoretical risk to exclude an entire class of women from women's spaces is not appropriate.
- While transgender women may make others feel uncomfortable, the discomfort of the majority is not an acceptable reason to exclude minorities. An analogous situation is that of many workplaces prior to second wave feminism. Many men felt uncomfortable allowing women into places that had traditionally been open to men only; however, the discomfort of men was not adequate justification for denying rights to women.
- Many also state that there is no universal experience all cisgendered women have that no man or transwomen have also had. Since there are ciswomen who do not menstrate or have children and women of different cultures, religions, classes, etc. have very different experiences growing up.
- Many transgendered women have experienced gender-related threats and have survived sexual assaults. Denying them access to appropriate facilities for treatment and shelter compounds trauma with indifference if not outright hostility, and perpetuates the myth that trans women transition for sexual reasons.
- Excluding trans women from women's spaces can result in completely isolating them from a public life (as public restrooms are almost always gender-specific and unisex public restrooms are relatively few and far between). In many regions, trans women cannot legally use either public restrooms assigned to their birth sex or of their identified gender.
Sex as a binary division
Establishing women-born-women policies results in other difficulties in addition to the problems faced by transgender women. Enforcement of such policies is not always straightforward. Some female-identified but gender variant women, such as butch lesbians, boidykes, etc have reported privacy invasions due to questions whether or not they were indeed 'women-born-women.' Paradoxically the major victims of such policies are less likely to be the small population of transgender women, but the far larger population of gender variant women such as butch lesbians.
Because such policies take as a given that sex is a binary division even in biology, they make intersex individuals invisible. As many as one child in a hundred is born with a physical intersex condition. Many of these people are raised as girls and most identify as women in adulthood. Such individuals may often however, have ambiguous bodies or genitalia. These female identified women may be the inadvertent victims of such policies as well.
While some transgender women may be less able to pass and thus unable to access women-born-women spaces, other transgender women after complete SRS may be completely unrecognizable as transgender. Indeed some transwomen have reported being evaluated by examinations from gynecologists who remained unaware of their transgender status. Thus, for some transgender women, accessing women's only space is possible as long as they remain closeted. So, far from ensuring that all transgender women are denied access, the policy is for some transwomen much like the don't ask, don't tell policy in the US military.