Struggling with defining personal ethics
Some years ago I had a friend with whom I lunched on a weekly basis. At that time he was on a job team that had something particularly difficult and complex to accomplish. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal except that, frankly speaking, the manager was terrible. He wished to hear only that things were finished; he didn’t want to hear about or assist with technical details or difficulties. As he became more… disinterested, more hostile to listening to the team members tell him anything he didn’t want to hear, he added someone he liked to the team — a guy who was (pardon my bluntness) basically a brown-noser.
Unsurprisingly the team started fracturing soon thereafter, as the brown-noser picked someone to scapegoat to his boss — my friend. It was a rather painful time for both my friend experiencing this, and myself as listener, since I could see what was happening. I tried to gently urge him to start looking for a job right away so he could leave as soon as possible… but he really wanted to believe the team could indeed accomplish its goal. As it turned out, he was right — the team staggered to a shaky conclusion point. The very next day my friend was fired. Because he lived some distance from me, and it was his work that was close to me, we put our weekly lunches on hold.
Fast forward to now: I get an IM (Instant Message) from my friend suggesting I look at a particular web page. I do so; it’s some girl’s blog. I read a few entries and am not terribly impressed; I’m thinking she seems to be rather… self-centered? Kind of has a chip on her shoulder for some reason… might want to work a bit on her grammar and spelling. Maybe she’s still in her teens or early twenties? No idea; don’t really care since her chatter about herself is not very interesting to me.
I IM my friend back, asking why I should look at this webpage, and he asks me what I thought of it. I tell him that I don’t know the girl but she seems… kind of a prick? He types back: “ROTFL!!” and then tells me: this girl… is the brown-noser — who has had a sex change and is now a she.
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There is an on-going argument in some of the women’s spirituality circles I know of regarding trans women. The majority (I think?) of folks seem to see them as just another woman, but there are some — notably some members of the female-centered Dianic tradition — who consider them women who were not born women, and who therefore are not qualified to join their circles, any more than men are.
This is, of course, an extremely complex issue which (since I am not myself a Dianic, so am speaking as an uninformed outsider) I am simplifying horribly in order to discuss some of my thoughts. I would urge you to research it yourself if it interests you, so as to have a fuller understanding of the varying ramifications of the question. My personal issue is that I have some sympathy for both sides.
This disturbs me for a variety of reasons. As someone of a fair degree of privilege who is aware I harbor unconscious and ingrained cultural prejudices, I try hard to recognize them and root them out in my ongoing efforts to become a more compassionate and kinder person. I happen to believe that people should be able to be who they think they are, to some degree — rather than having those in power define what boxes we all must inhabit. For example, I don’t think someone should be able to define themself as the Queen of the United States, but I do think they should be able to at least define their personal gender without fear of violent repercussion. This would seem to indicate I think trans women are indeed women in every philosophical sense of the word. There are, after all, women born women who cannot give birth, just as trans women cannot. But on the other hand…
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When I started the Women’s Spirituality program at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology I was surprised to realize there were no men in any of my classes. Initially my hackles went up about excluding men — and then I discovered there were no men because no men wanted to take the classes. So I mentally shrugged and continued my classes with just women. It was a first for me, and it slowly taught me a very important lesson: women really are different when there are no men around. They’re more open, more willing to talk and share experiences; shy women who ordinarily say nothing will eventually step forward and speak, even if tentatively.
I found this fascinating, and the classes were intellectually challenging, emotionally engrossing, and truly encouraged me to grow as a person. I was delighted to discover just how much I enjoyed being a woman amongst women — odd though it may sound, I’d never truly experienced that before. I didn’t really register that this was happening, however, until my experiences in two other classes — each taken at a different time — where one or two men were also present.
The difference was startling. In one of the classes the single man present didn’t understand or agree with one of the basic precepts upon which the class was built. Thus, instead of all of us deeply exploring this fascinating concept, the majority of class time was spent by the professor and one or two of the women trying to educate and convince the man of the concept’s validity. I am not a shy person, but I — along with the majority of women there who had already done the reading — spent most of that class in silence. I was too disgusted to try calmly asking him why he hadn’t done the suggested reading before class, rather than wasting all our time and money by effectively insisting on a 101 level class for him alone.
The second class had two men in it, and was equally aggravating, though for a different reason. In that case the (female) instructor almost doted on the men: asking them questions about both the class topic and themselves, encouraging them to talk more than everyone else — and perhaps worst to my way of seeing things, hushing the women so the men could talk more. One of these men had the courtesy to try involving the women students as well, and I suspect he was a bit embarrassed about the whole situation. The other man, however, ended up happily monopolizing everyone’s time as he rambled on about himself. In a class with two men and 17 women, it would not surprise me to discover he talked more than everyone else combined.
In my admittedly prejudiced opinion, neither of these classes accomplished their stated educational goals, nor would I recommend the instructors to other students. I haven’t been in a class with a man or men present where the professor managed to keep the men from monopolizing the course, though I presume it is technically feasible. More difficult, I suspect, would be getting the women to open up while men are present. Further, from the reading I’ve done women perform significantly better scholastically when no men are present. This does not really surprise me, since I’ve also read that, for example, black students perform better when no whites are present. What this tells me is that the presence of the culturally powerful silences — even unintentionally — the culturally disempowered… and that cultural training is more powerful and pervasive than we realize.
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Which brings me in incredibly roundabout fashion to my personal issue with newly trans women. I know trans women are neither monolithic nor homogenous — any more than any population group can be adequately represented by only one or two individuals. I understand being trans* can be terminally dangerous, and I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone — especially since as a woman myself I too have experienced fear of men in certain situations. However, I am somewhat… put off by the attitudes of some of the trans women I’ve met or read about. I understand that up until transition they were culturally men, with all the privileges which our society awards (however unjustly) to men — and it can be a shock to suddenly lose that sense of innate superiority.
That, I think, is what bothers me: the feeling that some — not all, of course — trans women feel entitled not only to their previous levels of privilege as men, but also somehow to yet more privilege — due to… what? Their now being women? Their unusual gender status? News flash: acting in a self-centered, arrogant, and demanding fashion isn’t pretty regardless of gender. Further, transitioning is not a magic wand of personality-change: if you were a good person as a man then you’ll likely be a good person after transitioning to a woman as well. The opposite, of course, is equally true: if you were an asshole as a man, it’s a good bet you’re still going to be an asshole as a woman.
That, I think, is why I have some sympathy for the Dianics’ position in this argument. It’s hard enough for women to find safe spaces to be themselves, without having to spend all their time trying to teach a trans woman how to be a woman — how to share space instead of trying to monopolize it. Having someone relatively newly transitioned demanding they be included and treated as the center of attention — just as they were as a man — shatters women’s ability to truly share and grow within a circle.
I’ve not yet figured out how I feel about this, but I do know that I don’t want to treat all trans women the same because they’re not all the same — just as I don’t treat all women, or all men, the same. I think I’m going to take it on a case by case basis, and see how that works… and continue struggling to be sensitive to the needs of both the Dianics and the trans women.
I’m going to open this with a disclaimer: I am not trans*. I am something called bi-gendered or gender-fluid. What this boils down to is that I straddle gender lines somewhat. In my mid-twenties, I struggled with my gender identity for several reasons only to realize that I’m simply non-binary. That being said, I have several friends that are trans-women or trans-feminine and have watched them through the struggle with it. I have watched them be excluded from various things because of the gender they were assigned at birth. I have watched them go through a very literal and very painful second puberty.
Think about that for a second. Remember how much puberty sucked for you? Now, imagine having gone through it once feeling like your body was betraying you because it was developing in ways that felt simply wrong. Then, years later, going through it again so you can get your body to match even superficially the fundamental you that is in your mind, your heart, your soul. And doing it with very few role models out there to turn to. Not only that, being rejected by the very role-models you wish to mold yourself after. Sometimes these folks get stuck in a very long and very painful second adolescence.
I know that as an adolescent, the world revolved around me. Even though I didn’t like myself very much at the time. There were things in my head that didn’t match up to what was outside it. And I was dealing with mental illness that wasn’t very well understood and was being, to some extent under-treated. I was very lucky that, in those painful transformative years, I had strong role models. The women in my family are very much Steel Magnolias. They’re also mostly Baptist, so there is lip-service paid to men being the heads of their families. In practice, the women often do all the de facto running of things.
These women taught me how to be a strong woman, how to value myself, and how to value others. They taught me how to go into the world with compassion, thoughtfulness, and curiosity.
The argument that trans-women were socialized as men and therefore will not be able to respect other women in women-only spaces tends to strike me as fear and prejudice. I have known trans-women that were pushy and overbearing. I have known women assigned female at birth that were pushy and overbearing. I have known trans-women that were loving, nurturing, and gentle. I have known women assigned female at birth that were loving, nurturing and gentle. Give me any stereotype of the feminine or the masculine and I most likely have known a woman, assigned female or not, that fits that stereotype.
Most trans-women I have known may not have gone through the social mill the first time being told that they were lesser because they were women. Many, however, have gone through an equally, if not rougher, gauntlet of being told they were freaks, abominations, and aberrations.
Most trans-women I have known seeking to be in women’s only spaces are not there seeking to monopolize the space. They are there simply looking to find somewhere that they can find those role-models and confidants that they could not ask for in their first adolescence. They are there to try to find a space in which they can learn how to be strong, compassionate, loving women instead of terrified, lonely, uncertain girls.
It is the duty of women, whether assigned so at birth or self-declared, to help other girls and women find their strengths and find how to co-exist from a place of acceptance and of power. And that means whether that woman was able to claim the label from birth or if they were only able to claim it after the struggle of feeling they have been put in the wrong box, they need role models that teach acceptance, inclusion, and equality. Not one more group that tells them that what they know in their souls is wrong and to be thrown into the dark by the very people that should be holding their hands.
tl;dr: We as women find it a duty and a privelege to to help girls learn to be women… as long as the girl is going through her first adolescence and was assigned female at birth. Why do we find it so hard to do the same for a woman that is going through a second adolescence late in life?
Nicely put, Greg. I can see your ethical grappling happening as well. :) Also like the gaming example.
My main issue is that I worry I’m potentially condemning the many of a minority because of my discomfort with a very few within that minority. OTOH, past trying to deal with each case individually — which is what I’d do, frex, with the gamers too… I don’t know what else to suggest to myself, you know?
Reading about this, I can definitely see your words mirroring my own in terms of the internal struggle between exercising too much privilege, and absenting ones-self from the conversation in acknowlegement of that privilege. At the end of the day, though, there is no one answer, which you yourself pointed out.
Complete egalitarianism – while laudible – is difficult in practice because we already do not live on a level playing field. It is considerably weighted towards certain paradigms, hence the very existence of privilege. Therefore, if certain people want to try and counteract the effect of this imbalance by creating a safe but exclusive space, then it is arrogant in the extreme to chastise them for doing so. This is true whether it is men demanding to be included in a women-only-space, or transwomen demanding something similar.
Just because I self-identify as a feminist, does not give me the right to insist that I be included in all feminist groups. I am not applying for a job, where it is discriminatory to disallow me based on prejudice. I am instead asking to be a member of a community. And if that community chooses not to accept me, the proper response is to find one that will. Not harass them with the notion that my opinion is more important than theirs, the people that run the community.
Now, do we tend to feel more sympathy to certain kinds of people, because they belong to a group that has a history of people doing bad things to them? Certainly. To those of us at the top of the privilege pile, it’s the pink elephant in the room, staring at us, judging us. But that doesn’t negate the fact that relationships are never binary, never black and white, and that you have to not be afraid to always examine your responses, and understand all the angles. Because when you have done so you can concretely say: “I sympathize with this person’s plight as a member of X group. That doesn’t change the fact that they are not someone I want to build a community with.”
In point of fact, the purpose of civil rights in general was a strike against *codified* discrimination as well as psychological discrimination. When the infrastructure of society is bent against you, then working to change the status quo is a basic human necessity. Such is not the same when you are one person demanding that a small group with little intrinsic power accept you as one of them, and this is true whether you are nominally part of the sort of people this group would accept. It would be like a misogynistic gamer demanding that he should be able join my gaming group, simply because he is a gamer.
Basically, this is a long winded way of saying that yes, details are always important, and you are absolutely right in maintaining that each situation needs to be considered separately, while maintaining a careful balance of respect for all parties involved. Because one person can only say what works for them, and nothing else.