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Defending women-only spaces

Lesbian sex shows and parties worth protecting

The day before the Diva’s Den sex show, my friend called to see if I wanted her extra tickets.

“A couple of our friends decided not to go,” she said. “They’re protesting the fact that it’s women only.”

My friend’s friends, non-trans dykes, were angry that trans guys-FTMs-would not be welcome.

I have to say this pissed me off and drove me to do what I have wanted to do for a long time-write about why women-only space is necessary, and why asking for women-only space is not automatically anti-trans.

Ever since Diva’s Den began in 1998, some members of the queer community have complained about its women-only policy. Karen Ayotte, one of this year’s organizers, says the policy is simple: “If you are woman-identified [trans or non-trans] and you feel comfortable in your role in the women’s community, you are welcome.”

But the event is not open to those who identify as men-whether FTM or non-trans. Ayotte and the Vancouver Dyke March society, which took over organizing Diva’s Den in 2004, are currently developing a survey to find out whether queers think the policy should continue.

Before I say anymore, I should clarify where I’m coming from. I am a 36-year-old femme, non-trans dyke, attracted to “masculine women,” (butch, genderqueer, etc). My other identities/communities include Jewish, SM, feminist activist, writer (in no particular order). I first encountered discussions about women-only space and trans identity 10 years ago, in feminist organizations for women survivors of abuse, where I supported the right of trans women to be included both as members and as clients.

So what is women-only space, anyway?

I believe that women-only space should be determined by identity, as opposed to biology: it should be for people who live in some way as women-who identify as women and are perceived as women at least some of the time.

Event organizers should use an honour system and leave it up to people attending a women-only event to think about their own identity and act accordingly.

Some people wonder whether it makes sense that a women-only space is open to butch women, or to other “masculine” women, yet not open to FTMs who may have lived many years as women and as members of the dyke community. If you ask me, if someone both considers himself male and is perceived consistently as male-not only by the mainstream but by the queer community-then he should not attend events designated as women-only.

I’ve never heard any protest against men-only queer sex events. Jealous as I might be of all the hot sex parties that fags have, I don’t assume that I should be invited to them, and it seems like most people in the queer community feel the same way.

On the other hand, women-only space is often challenged. This is partly due to plain old sexism. There has always been protest against women-only space, since the very beginnings of feminism.

A fair number of queers also believe that we live in a “post-feminist” world, where arguments for women-only space are hopelessly outdated.

But it doesn’t make sense to ignore the social and historical and political context that makes women-only spaces necessary at explicitly sexual events like Diva’s Den and other sex shows or play parties.

My tiny queer world may be questioning rigid definitions of gender but in the world as a whole, it’s a different story. In general, men have much more permission and opportunity than women do to express themselves sexually.

Creating, performing in or attending sexy events is a key part of queer women empowering ourselves and celebrating ourselves.

Mixed gender queer sex events are fabulous and important and essential for our community. But women should still have the option of going to women-only events. Diva’s Den is the one women-only event that I know of in the calendar of sexy queer shows.

Although it would be simplistic and supremely insulting to say that FTMs transition in order to gain male privilege, it is also naïve to deny the reality that being perceived as a man instead of a woman leads to some very real benefits. Those benefits include having many more opportunities/permission to participate in openly sexual events.

Exclusion is not always a negative or discriminatory act. Exclusion is unacceptable when it denies people’s identity-for example, when Rape Relief excludes trans women because they claim that trans women are not “really” women.

Exclusion is also unacceptable when it concentrates power or resources in the hands of one group at the expense of another-for example, when our community centre is located in a building that is inaccessible to people who cannot use stairs, effectively excluding some people in the queer community from accessing resources that supposedly exist for everyone.

Excluding men from Diva’s Den does not deny anyone’s identity or exclude anyone from access to power or resources. On the contrary-it provides a rare opportunity for women to celebrate women’s sexuality.

Some people have proposed that the queer community should operate from a “big tent” perspective-that is, all queers are welcome: dykes, fags, trans people, bisexual people, two-spirited people, intersex people, etc. I totally agree.

And I also think that there is room within the big tent for small tents. Because we all need to support each other, but we are not all the same.