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.
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