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Expansion Politics

When Sarah asked me to write an article about women's space and gender challenges from a second-wave feminist perspective, preferably about the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, I thought, "That will be easy. I've been in women's space, I am a woman, and I have experienced the impact of male presence both in intentional and unintentional women's space. And I've been to Michigan three times: 1985, 1990 and 1997." When my partner challenged me about my perception of ease about this subject and my simplistic definition of gender, I thought, "#@*. I've been in women's space. I am a woman… I am a butch lesbian…. " I realized that my own gender identity is not so clear. As a butch lesbian I have a hard time identifying with men, but sometimes I have an easier time identifying with men than with women. However, I do identify with women. How does my presence impact other women compared to the presence of a man? Do I change the way I interact when I'm with men, or butch lesbians, or femme lesbians, or straight women? Do they change how they interact when they're with me?

I started reading some articles on the waves of feminism. I had a few more conversations about gender, and I realized this task was not so easy. I had some growing to do.

From Volleyball Battles to Trans-gender Wars
In 1985, the issue of the day at Michigan was that some group was hogging the volleyball court. To my knowledge, transgender politics had not yet begun. If you had asked me then if I thought a male-to-female transgender (MTF) person should be allowed on the land, I would have given you an emphatic "No." If you had asked me if a female-to-male transgender (FTM) person should be allowed on the land, I probably would have told you that their presence would not have bothered me as long as they did not have a penis. If you ask me today, I will tell you that it depends on how he lives.

For me gender was very simple, and women's space meant the absence of men.

We human beings tend to define things by the absence of their opposites. At least, we tend to define women in that way. Or, maybe it's just me. I have a twin brother, and people often ask if we are identical. My canned response is, "No, I do not have a penis." For me gender was very simple, and women's space meant the absence of men. Men are defined by their penises, right? Therefore, women must be defined by the lack of the same. So, women's space was the absence of men and penises. Simple.

However, we know it is not so simple and the first challenge with gender is defining it. There are so many variables that contribute to gender: sex, sexuality, culture, identity, etc. If we narrow gender to its essential factors, I think sex - and culture - and identity - and hormones are all of the essence. But, let's focus on sex for the sake of argument.

Recently I read about a few species in the animal kingdom (or shall I say queendom or world?) whose sex is dependent upon the temperature of the sand on which their eggs were laid or how far beyond the reach of their mother's tongue they fall. Sometimes, when the only male in the group dies, females actually morph to males. Most of us are also aware that some human beings are born with both sets of sexual genitalia. Their parents, rightly or wrongly, decide for them which sex they should physically be.

If a person can be born with both sets of genitalia, it must be possible for a person to be born with genitalia that do not match the rest of their psychosocial-physiological gender. I wanted to argue that a male-to-female transgender individual did not grow up with the same oppression, lack of power, and lack of privilege that I did. However, I can imagine they grew up feeling less than, or other than the group into which they were culturally thrust - a group in which they felt, to their core, they did not belong. They feel they are women and they inherently belong to that group, just as certainly as I know being a lesbian is not a choice for me.

A Music Festival of One's Own
I remember my first time at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and how wonderful it was to be in women's space. A space where women of different shapes, sizes, beliefs, cultures, colors, sexual orientation, etc. built a community void of men. The exceptions to this intentional void were the occasional shit suckers who were always loudly announced, only came out at night, and stayed only long enough to haul our waste away. In this women only space, I felt safe. I felt liberated. I felt like I belonged despite my sometimes androgynous, sometimes culturally male-oriented identity. I was a woman-identified woman among women. There was no oppression here. Or was there? Is there? What about women who weren't born with genitalia congruent to their psychosocial physiological gender identity? What about the men born in a female vessel? And, what about butch/femme/androgyny tensions? Are divisions of convenience oppressive?

Who can be the judge of who I am? Will the line get drawn on me?

I think there is a fundamental difference between cross-dressers who are male-identified men, and transgender individuals who live as women and do not feel comfortable in their male bodies. The latter do not want to look at their penises any more than I do. Who am I to not include them into the group to which they feel they wholly belong on the deepest level? I for one would not want to be excluded from this one-of-a-kind event, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, because I have a hairy face and occasional culturally assigned attributes of male thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. Who can be the judge of who I am? Will the line get drawn on me?

Given my previous arguments of being born with incongruent physical and physiological elements, and the innately profound self-knowledge of belonging, or not belonging, to a particular group; should female to male transgender people be excluded from participating in the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival? Does an FTM have the power and the privilege that only men can assume in our culture? Does he live as a man outside of the festival? My opinion is that he cannot have his tofu and eat it too. Since he identifies and innately senses his affinity with men, then he cannot simultaneously experience the same with women. Women's space is not about the absence of penises, and it is not about the absence of any culturally defined male attributes. It is about wholly identifying with and genuinely living as a community of women. Both conditions must exist or the allegiance is phony and untrustworthy.

When I was in college, androgyny was my goal. As a result, I wound up dating very incompatible women. When I moved to Madison, I found myself in a circle of lesbians who seemed to preach and certainly live by the butch/femme handbook. Although these roles are convenient and often pleasantly chivalrous, I found this particular subculture's attitudes and mores as oppressive as any other mainstream cultural imposition. We should be acting out of genuineness to ourselves, not out of obligation to others' demeaning or misguidedly assimilated demands.

The Work of Expansion
Being at the tail end of the baby boom, I find myself once again between two worlds. While I make these arguments about belonging to a group even when the appearance seems incongruous, I must admit my own struggle with wrapping my head around and accepting transgender reality. I want to be able to relate it to me and my experiences. However, I am limited in who I am, how I have lived, and how I live. It is my heart I need to open and to which I need listen. It is my mind I need to expand so that I can understand and embrace all that I do not know. My feminist foundation is deeply rooted in what is being referred to as the second wave. But, as the movement progresses and I open my Self, I'd like to continue to respond this way to the challenges presented in women's space: It depends not on my own narrow experience, but on continuous learning and growing from an openness to each other and our collective experiences.

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