The Exclusion and Embrace of Trans-women within Feminist Spirituality by Kelly Palmer


Women-only circles have long existed within the Goddess movement, the Red Tent movement for example exists as an inter-faith, grass-roots movement for women only to come together to claim safe and sacred space. But too often ‘women-only’ in fact means ‘cis women only’. Trans women are not allowed. This has been the topic of much heated debate in recent years, culminating last year in the publication of ‘Female Erasure’ an anthology of essays on gender politics and feminist spirituality that has led to calls for the editor Ruth Barrett to be expelled from her thealogical seminary on grounds of transphobia. Barrett and many of her contemporaries openly call for the exclusion of transwomen from women-only Goddess circles and respond to criticism by saying that asking for ‘women born women only’ space is not meant to be antitrans but simply carving out a space for people with similar life experience – in the same way that people of specific ethnic minorities may gather, or LGBTQ people. Surely, they may say, the answer is for trans women to create their own spaces?

There are two problems with this. Firstly, trans women are in a significant minority, making access to groups of other trans women practicing Goddess spirituality difficult. If a local woman’s circle is their only means to practicing their religion with others, and they are excluded by this on the basis of their genitalia, this exclusion is incredibly hurtful and undermines not just one’s ability to practice a faith but one’s very identity and esteem. Secondly, it is not just local, personal groups that are practicing this exclusion, but large and public gatherings, making very public pronouncements that trans women are not welcome. They have been excluded from womens rituals at PantheaCon in 2011 and Michigan Womyns Music Festival has a policy of excluding trans women from the entire event.

Those who argue for exclusion however would say that womens spirituality is for all women – but trans women are not women, they are men. Part of radical feminist thealogy is often that Goddess is embodied within the feminine form and within specifically feminine attributes such as menstrual cycles and childbirth. Yet this is a limited, derterministic view that fails to recognise the diversity of both the varieties of feminine form and the Goddess Herself. Trans women and men have worshipped and served the feminine divine in various eras and various cultures. Surely all people are of the Goddess? Androgynous and bisexed deities such as Swaitowid in pagan Poland and Galutur in ancient Sumer were worshipped by men and women alike.  Because the Divine is all of these things, so are Her worshippers.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument that spiritual feminists who desire spaces that are for cis women only have formulated is that of safety. Women are so often the targets of male violence and therefore women only space is critical. Issues of safe space and the triggering of trauma are valid concerns and it is important to listen to survivors and their needs. Nevertheless, there is an equally valid counterpoint to this; trans women are even more likely to have been victims of male violence. When some feminists insist that trans women are in fact men and have therefore grown up with male privilege and been socialised into the dynamics of perpetrating gender violence just as much as cis men, they completely ignore that fact. In a recent political debate in the US, radical feminists and fundamentalist right-wing Christians (surely an unheard of pairing in any other situation) sought to block the rights of transgender women to use public bathrooms marked for females. The reasoning behind this was that transgender women are men and were using womens bathrooms as an opportunity to harass and even sexually assault women. While there exist incredibly rare incidences of trans-on-cis female violence, as there do in the reverse (though there seems to be a scarcity of either incident in public toilets); predominantly the victims in this situation are trans women. Trans women demanded access to female public toilets largely to escape male violence, not to perpetuate it.

Violence against trans women is often underreported and data goes ungathered, but even with what is known – largely by news and crime reports – levels of violence against trans women were at an all time high in 2016. In the US as well as elsewhere, trans women of colour were at particular risk (Cifredo, 2016).

One of the issues regularly addressed by feminists in the Goddess movement (often invoking the Goddess in ritual to heal) is that of sexual violence. While Western women have an estimated 1 in 3 chance of experiencing sexual assault by a male, for trans women the figure is 1 in 2 (HRC 2017). One does not have to be a particular type of female to experience sexual violence (or even female at all, given the statistics of male upon male sexual violence are also climbing). Given the vast differences in risk however, it seems clear that this violence is perpetuated upon trans women because they are trans women. Surely there should be solidarity between two groups so potently at risk of the same phenomenon and part of the same dynamics of power-over and sexual control? The argument by Barrett and her supporters than trans women are men and therefore allied with the oppressors of women is absurd in the face of these realities. Transgender people are among the most marginalised peoples in the Western world because of their gender– surely Western Goddess worshippers should be rallying around them? To embrace, rather than exclude?

 

Kelly Palmer is a psychotherapist, ecotherapist and mother of three from Coventry, UK. She has recently completed a Masters in Women’s Spirituality from Ocean Seminary College and is a regular feature writer for The Fix and a bestselling fiction author writing under a pseudonym.

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Categories: abuse, Domestic Violence, Embodiment, Ethics, fear, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender, Gender and Sexuality, General, Goddess, Goddess feminism, Human Rights, Sacred Space, Sexual Violence, Violence, Violence Against Women

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26 replies

  1. I AM SO SICK OF THIS TRANSPHOBIA CHANT!!!!!!!!!! Ruth Barrett is simply speaking the truth! I am a Dianic Goddess worshiper,who worships with womyn born womyn only.This is my right! I don’t see the trans community demanding that the christian,catholic,jewish,muslim,etc.communities let them in.I certainly don”t hear them asking for men who disagree with to be fired. Trans people find being excluded based on genitali. hurtful,wow are you being serious?Womyn have and still are being excluded because of genitali! !!!! This is nothing more than men trying to take over every last space for womyn! Let’s face it when a trans gets elected it’s still a white man getting elected.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Teresa, I welcome your perspective here but also urge you to engage respectfully. The “all caps” and exclamation points denote yelling in this virtual communication medium, and our FAR comment policy asks that people “share with the intent of furthering dialogue and creating community.” It also asks that we “remember that the purpose of FAR is to further feminist dialogue while nurturing one another, even across our differences.” It is helpful to engage without making sweeping judgments, as this is not conducive to furthering dialogue. We do moderate comments and work hard to maintain a respectful space here.

      I ask all who might comment to please honor our comment policy: https://feminismandreligion.com/comment-policy/

      Liked by 3 people

      • Xochitl,I used all caps and exclamation points because as a Dianic womyn I feel I have to to be heard.This was not done as a form of disrespect. Dianic womyn are being bullied, abused,and erased.I simply can not imagine what would be the outcry if any other religious group was told they could no longer practice their beliefs.I agree with Barbara that the trans women bring their white male privilege with them and aggressively expect to get their way.I am not making a sweeping judgement.I live in an area that has a large trans population and have dealt with trans women for years and believe me they are not all sweet or respectful.As far as all the statistics about trans women being attacked and harmed I haven’t found that to be true here.Where I live it is womyn born womyn being beaten,raped,and murdered.I will always defend my right to worship with only womyn born womyn.Womyn bullying other womyn in defense of white male privilege is exactly what makes the patriarchy the happiest.I hope this helps you understand where I was coming from and I hope others who are very quick to disrespect. Dianics will take a moment to see our side.Peace and blessings to you.

        Like

    • Trans women being excluded based on genitalia is an example of women being excluded based on genitalia. It is that. It’s not different. Feminists long before me fought for the rights to not have our rights and reach defined by our bodies, and I applaud and support my trans sisters for their piece in supporting that goal.

      Liked by 3 people

    • It’s true that trans women I know don’t demand it. But the “angry but extremely welcoming Catholics” I know in a national (international too I think) group known as Call to Action has been very active in welcoming trans people as they see themselves. I went to an all day workshop of sharing by LGBTQ people and allies at their conference the week after Nov. 17 election of the clown/crazy person/dope Americans somehow elected president, and it was so uplifting to hear hugely welcoming speeches and conversations everywhere I went at the conference. At that conference and the upcoming one in San Antonio there will be talk of men being fired. Being excluded for any reason IS hurtful. And it was great to hear no one putting anyone else down for how they are. It gave me great hope for the future. I get hope reading this blog too.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I am also sick of the transphobia chant! How lovely it will be when we can see all women *as women* and not have to work about transphobia in our midst. Sadly, many women still insist on excluding other women out of fear and lack of education. I will continue to work towards educating people and hope that, one day, we will not have to deal with transphobia anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It is not “transphobic” to ask that people respect the wishes of women-born-women to create boundaries that are respected by other feminists. Just as Mexican, Asian, Philipina women have and are supported to meet with each other to explore their particular issues in more depth, cis or I call us menstrumal women deserve to meet with each other without protest. The trans person community is developing and growing and that is a good thing and helps to get sexism off the planet. As allies in the efforts to bring the patriarchy down- each group must respect other women’s requests for boundaries. Trans persons and their allies,
    I am assuming Kelly Palmer is an ally, have shut down the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. And this is seen by some as progress. I disagree. In my community, menstrumal women and lesbians have disappeared from the “Q” Center. Requests for meetings of cis, menstrumal women are met with hostility so I am hoping to open a Lesbian Feminist center that will speak to cis women’s issues. I’d like to see
    more emphasis on women’s health- such as creating a healthy menstrual cycle and an exploration of menopause. Health issues for trans persons are overlooked and marginalized and Feminist appropriate trans health care will have to be addressed by the trans community itself, with trans health clinics and research. The erasure of women is a serious concern for me and I do what I can to bring women’s concerns to the forefront and center of any discussion. I am pro-woman, not transphobic.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Ellen, I commented something similar on your recent anti-trans-inclusion Facebook post, which has since been either deleted or hidden, but this argument reminds me of the “punching up” concept in comedy. It’s funny if you’re punching up. The African American teasing the rich white executive, or the woman teasing the dude who mansplains — these are funny, and thus acceptable in most comedy circles, due to the cultural power structures of African American men to white guys, or of women to men.

      Many of us feel similarly about this when it comes to circles of exclusion. A “Black Men’s Circle” for networking and support meets the need of a more marginalized group, whereas a white men only group is, by definition, a white supremacist (and possibly patriarchal) group. A women’s business circle that excludes men is creating unique space for sharing among a more marginalized group, whereas a men-only business club replicates cultural patterns of oppression and exclusion and reinforces the position of the dominant group. Similarly, a trans-only space that does not include cis people provides safe sharing space for a more marginalized group, whereas a women’s spirituality circle that excludes trans women is *by definition* transphobic and cissexist.

      Trans women are women. Thus, excluding them from women’s spaces is oppressive. I am bringing women’s concerns to the forefront and center by affirming this and preventing the erasure of ALL women and ANY women..

      Liked by 2 people

    • Ellen, would my trans women friends who identify as lesbian be welcome at your Lesbian Feminist center? Would their health needs as women be addressed? It seems that some are contorting definitions around in such a way to sound inclusive when the goal is to exclude. It reminds me of those AstroTurf “citizens groups” that have names like Clean Air for All but are really just fronts for the coal industry.

      What we need is dialogue. It distresses me to see people dig in and get entrenched in a position to the point that there is no discussion. I would love to talk with cis women about their fears and help them learn. I have to wonder if those who want to exclude trans women have ever actually met a trans woman? As with being a lesbian or being an IBPOC, it’s not a path that someone *chooses*. As a cis woman, I have learned so much from my trans sisters. I once felt the same as other commenters here: I didn’t want to sit around with a man in a women’s circle whilst talking about menstruation! It was only after meeting trans women, watching their transitions over the years, listening to their stories of oppression that I realised the universal truth: These women are women. No, their experience doesn’t match mine, but neither does the experience of a Missouri farm woman. The oppression, though. The oppression these women go through is the same oppression that all women face, and it is in fighting that oppression, fighting that Injustice, that we can find unity.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. “Surely all people are of the Goddess?”

    My question too…

    Exclusion is a patriarchal tenet, no more acceptable in this context than in any other.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Hi Sara,
      I think you make a great point here: that exclusion reinforces or is a part of patriarchy. I think we need to really consider this, and how exclusion does this.
      I understand in particular movements how separate space can be “for health,” as Alice Walker reminds us. However, what goes into a just “ethic of exclusion?” I am not sure. I know, when working in groups, and particularly in my classrooms, that I tend to shut things down only when something represents violence or significant harm to the most vulnerable in a space. And as this author points out: trans women are an extremely vulnerable population: in terms of numbers, access, visibility, actual assault… and death.
      I wonder what it would mean for the feminist movement if we more fully embraced the diversity of woman-ness? (And really, hasn’t this been a problem– the exclusive defining of who counts as woman– from the beginning in the feminist movement?)

      Thank you for you thoughts.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Thank you for such a clear, well thought-out post. I have not been in the midst of any controversies about including or not including transgender women at gatherings such as the Michigan Women’s Musical Festival so can’t respond to with any personal experience. I do know a number of transgender women and would want to welcome them at any women’s gathering I host. Transgender women clearly forfeit any male privilege they might have been born to. Since we do live in a misogynist culture, identifying as a woman is not a step to be taken lightly. I imagine it takes great courage.

    When I was a girl, I identified as a tomboy, something adults tended to smile at. Boys did not have the same option. If they did not conform to expectations were taunted as sissies, bullied by their peers, and sometimes by their parents.

    Our culture is insistent that there are only two genders and the conventional societal roles assigned to those genders tend to be rigid and often oppressive. When a child is born, (or nowadays when there’s a sonogram or other tests) everyone wants to know is it a girl or a boy. Sometimes at birth gender is more ambiguous. (See Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex). There are cultures that have valued transgender people or people of ambiguous gender rather than persecuting them. I have noticed that the younger generation in our own culture is experimenting with gender fluidity.

    Though I am a cis-gender woman with a non-androgynous build, I have a still-vivid memory of standing alone on the playground at age seven speaking aloud to myself these words, “I am not a boy, but I am not a girl either.” I must have sensed even then how confining gender roles might be, and I wanted to choose none of the above. Having been forced to wear dresses to school and church as a child, I dislike wearing skirts to this day. As a woman in a misogynist culture, I am free to dress in pants, to wear my hair very short etc…Some men, including my husband, prefer skirts. They get away with it by calling them kilts, though I have seen younger men wearing flowing skirts. At the very least, eyebrows are raised as they are not when I wear men’s overalls.

    All of that said, I do value being in circles with women. I have been in women’s circles with transgender women. I see them as my sisters.

    Liked by 7 people

  5. I’ve been a Dianic and a member of Circle of Aradia, which was founded by Ruth Barrett, for more maybe three decades. The reports I hear from my friends are that it’s the trans women who are aggressive and are still acting like privileged men in threatening to destroy woman-born women’s groups. They’ve threatened good friends of mine. I am totally on the side of woman-born women. It’s because of the threats and aggressiveness of the trans women that the Michigan Festival closed and that Dianic rituals at Pantheacon were canceled and that workshops by other Dianics have been shut down. Women who used to be men and still often act like privileged, aggressive men need to learn to behave themselves.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Barbara,
      Hmmm. “Need to learn to behave themselves?” Like a “good woman” is supposed to do? I find the language here troubling. Women of color are also often characterized as overly aggressive and too masculine.

      I sat in a conference session once, listening to a story of how enforcement of “women only” (that is to say women assigned female at birth- afab- only) policies resulted in the exclusion of both trans women and cis women who were not seen as “women enough.” Definitions of “woman enough,” are at the heart of so much violence between/ among women. I beleive we need to embrace the diversity of woman-ness, culturally and biologically.

      I think there is far greater potential in inclusion here; particularly when exclusion is sometimes based on binary genital politics. After all, doesn’t characterizing penis/ phallus as male as aggressive as weapon reinforce a patriarchal ideal?

      Liked by 3 people

    • Barbara, I would suggest that many of these arguments are constructed and filtered through the personal lens of the person, and that the oppressor has a personal lens just as the marginalized do (It’s also notable that almost nobody considers themselves the oppressor), and whether or not someone considers themselves marginalized is constructed by how strongly they position themselves as the center or norm for referential definitions. This is postcolonialism 101. So, a white person who centers whiteness as the norm/standard against which all culture is measured will consider themselves marginalized when space is made for non-white perspectives, culture, and power. I saw this recently in some of the arguments happening in my locale in which white people calling themselves “The New Confederacy” consider white men to be marginalized by transforming culture to ensure that all people feel welcome, that Black people aren’t directly or indirectly threatened.

      From a perspective that doesn’t center cis women as the standard for womanhood and that doesn’t center genitalia as the definer of who a person is, Michigan Festival closed because they called themselves a “womyn’s” festival while continuing to marginalize women.

      Considering a Black person “uppity” for expecting equal rights or “aggressive” for the ways in which they advocate for their rights is considered “tone policing” and is recognized by all anti-racism activists as a complete derailment of human rights dialogue when people’s lives are on the line. I would make a similar argument for calling trans women “privileged” for expecting equal rights, and for labeling them “aggressive” for not accepting second class status. The feminist movement has long noticed ways women are dismissed as being “bitches” when they are assertive about their lives. Why is it okay to dismiss trans women as “aggressive” for fighting for their rights, which leads to saving their lives? Lives are on the line. Trans women are regularly murdered when people either target them for violence or react with rage upon finding out a women they are connecting with is trans, as if they have been intentionally tricked — and this latter incidence is a direct result of the cultural refusal to admit that trans women are women. It propels violence. It takes lives.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sara and Christy, I have not heard of anyone else threatening woman-born women with baseball bats with barbed wire wrapped around them.

        Back in 1992 in L.A., the police beat up a black man (whose name I don’t remember). This led to major riots, burning of buildings, more beatings. A white truck driver got a chunk of concrete thrown at him. All this was really big on the TV news. After several days, the man who’d been beat up by the cops came on TV and said something like “Can we all just get along?” You could still see the bruises and cuts on his face from the beating, but he was trying to bring peace to the riots, which eventually did calm down.

        In this situation with the trans women and the woman-born women, I ask why can’t they all get along? I’m beaming blessings to them all. At least I’m trying to. It’s difficult in such a thorny situation in which no one seems to be willing to compromise. Sigh.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Barbara for this viewpoint. This is exactly how I feel.

      Like

    • Violence against women is abhorrent in all forms, including the violence of denying that a certain segment of women aren’t women. No woman should feel threatened–no person should feel threatened–for claiming their personhood.

      Barbara, my friends have also been threatened. They’ve had “the sissy” beaten out of them. They’ve been beaten, yelled at, shouted down for not “being man enough.” And then, once they have been brave enough to claim their identities as women? They’ve had their children taken away from them by a transphobic court system. They’ve been evicted from their homes and denied housing by landlords. They’ve had numerous health problems because they have to hold their urine all day. They’ve been threatened on dating apps and are terrified to meet new people for fear of being beaten and raped.

      I’ve been threatened by what you call “women born women” many times. To say that only trans women threaten violence is beyond disingenuous. Some people are violent, and we are under no obligation to include violent people in our circles and communities. But to extrapolate that all trans women are violent because some are is discrimination, and it’s wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks to all for your thoughtful discussion of this important issue. Trans persons would be welcome at my lesbian feminist center if they were interested in our projects. There are many many places where trans persons meet and organize in Portland. There are very few if any places for menstrumal women.
      I feel that a feminist analysis of the female reproductive cycle offers that our own attitudes towards the menstrual cycle are deeply affected by misogyny. Many older lesbians and women I know feel very ashamed and dismissive of menopausal health concerns. I’d like to reclaim and create an atmosphere where the menstrual cycle is celebrated. In answer Rebecca, our center would welcome dialogue with trans persons and gladly work with them as allies against patriarchy. We would also insist that women respect each other’s chosen boundaries. that means respecting women born women space. So far trans persons I have had contact with are not especially interested in menopause or the menstrual cycle. I’d like to create a workspace where women got their menstrual period off work with full pay.
      Many tribal people conduct the timing of the cultures events according to the menstrual cycles of the women in the tribe. We could do this in this culture instead of running everything on corporate time.
      I do support trans persons efforts to get better health care and there is a clinic in our local Q Center that addresses those concerns better than I could. Thanks for the discussion of this issue. It helps bring to light disappearing women. Let’s keep it up.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When I was young and struggling with identity as a feminist, and not sure how to wear those robes, I found that amazing painting of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso. The painting was simply Gertrude Stein as Gertrude Stein, and thus in so many wonderful ways somehow, she seemed to me like a real Buddha.

    Like

  7. Thanks Kelly. So true, where you say: “Surely all people are of the Goddess?” Yes, and all creatures everywhere of the Goddess too. I find it impossible to separate Goddess from Mother Nature in any case.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Cisgender and transgender women wimmin wimmyn wymmin ALL need to feel safe. Love is an inclusionary power, Fear is exclusionary. There are emotional, physical, spiritual issues and situations for cisgender women to share, but while they may feel safer without trans-women there, trans-women have the same issues experienced but without the friendship of sisterhood extended to them because some of them still have penises or incomplete genital reassignment due to cost, health & healing issues, surgery availability, etc. If trans-women wanted to use their penises as a defining attribute, they wouldn’t go through surgeries, hormonal treatments, and medications to be as Female as they can be; not “feel male”, Female.

    All women need safe havens, a network of friends & acquaintances as well as access to health care and public services to help them in good times and bad. All women need some form of social and or spiritual life. Why not have the open circles to become acquainted before judging someone who so wants to be a woman or female that they go through tremendous physical and emotional pain to NOT be a man. How do you feel about women who transition to maleness? If they don’t have a penis, do they still get to go to all-female events if they want to? Are they barred from all male events? If you’re Pagan, how did your ancestors and pre-Christian predecessors deal with intersex, androgynous, and hermaphroditic people and deities?

    Has anyone ‘straight’ here thought about or considered what trans-folk go through to achieve their emotional and spiritual identities? Have you sat with a friend weeping and depressed because their life doesn’t fit the ideas or dreams they and sometimes their parents had about that person when they were growing up? Because they want to be what their hearts tell them were meant to be, they risk the loss of so-called ‘normal’ friends and often receive terrible physical abuse from family as well as strangers who judge them on their looks. Straight or lesbian or bi, Pagan cisgender women want safe spaces. Can some safe spaces be shared with women who identify as women emotionally and behaviorally but don’t have the same private body parts? What did the temples or ancestors do in your traditions regarding double-sexed people, or those the gods ‘transformed’ into a different gender? Did they practice exclusionary or inclusionary tactics? The Galloi were accepted in some places but viewed suspiciously in Rome, where maleness was literally ‘king’. The Galloi didn’t have access to our modern medicine to complete their physical transformations into women, as Agdistis became Cybele. Why the hostilities? “Can’t we all just get along?”

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I am a straight, cis woman who is in a relationship with a transwoman. It’s not a relationship that I sought out, but I discovered that you fall in love with a person, not a label. I do confess to previously having some of the feelings about transwomen expressed here. As a feminist, I was resistant to including women who had experienced neither the biological realities of being female not the oppression. But I have found that listening to my partner’s story has opened me up to new ways of thinking about this. I also know that, as my partner says, when you’ve met one transwoman, you’ve met one transwoman. She also gets frustrated with some of her community who still act like their testosterone levels need to be adjusted. She, on the other hand, describes how her eyes were opened to misogyny when she gave up her male privilege. She would also say that she was born female, has always been female. I believe we need to be open to including this way of being woman, and we can begin by simply listening.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Transwomen have “always” been women who were merely stuck in the wrong anatomy.

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  11. Thank you Kelly for articulating this issue so well. My struggles with encountering transphobia within Goddess Spirituality have spurred me into a fuller need to account for ways to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed (which takes on many forms) within my spiritual walk. It is my hope that, as a community, we grow to embrace rather than exclude; for me, this includes stepping back and listening to the voices and experiences of those who are marginalized.

    Like

  12. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your great post. It opens a great and honest discussion here and I am grateful for that, reading all different opinions.

    Liked by 2 people

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