I was at a conference last weekend when a woman commented that she understood the need for occasional separatist space for spiritual events – that is, space reserved for people of the same sex. She understood why people might want and enjoy that. But what she couldn’t understand was when she sees a space reserved for Women Born Women Only. She felt this was discrimination pure and simple against transgender individuals and she was fairly heated about it.

So, as I am a part of a Women Born Women Only group, let me try to explain.

I have done spiritual ritual and participated in religious ceremonies in mixed groups, in women only groups, in women born women groups, and alone with my husband. The experiences are very different.

I remember back when the debate was simply one of nature vs. nurture – People argued that it was one or the other that was primarily responsible for making us the way we are. French philosopher and social theorist Simone de Beauvoir was clear that women were made not born. We are born female, but it is our culture that shapes us into women. So for a long time, nurture seemed to be winning the argument over nature.

Our understanding is a little more nuanced now; we know that both our genetics and our life experiences interact to make us who we are.

I’ll leave genetics aside for biologists to debate. My field is sociology, which tells us that our life experiences, even as infants, shape babies very differently depending on whether they are identified as male or female. My favorite example I would tell students was when researchers dressed an infant in yellow and put it in a crib with a pop-up Jack in the Box. When the lid flipped open and the surprised baby began to cry, they told some adult couples it was a boy, others that the baby was a girl. The couples’ reactions were very different depending on the sex they thought the infant was. They thought the girls were afraid and wanted to pick them up and cuddle them. The boy infants seemed to be startled or annoyed, the adults said. Leave them alone for a minute and they would get over it.

In real life, that would mean that girls learn that crying gets attention. Boys don’t.

Female babies who are several months old are even carried differently from males. Typically, when carried in the arms, girl babies are facing the person carrying them, learning to interact in relationship with facial expressions. They teach us to interact with them as they are learning to interact with us. Boys, for some strange reason, are carried facing away, looking at the world. This is even done by people who think they don’t differentiate between the sexes at that young age.

This gender socialization is repeated in a million ways throughout our lives. We learn what it means in our culture to be male or female from our parents, religion, peers, teachers, media, and so on. Some times the message is subtle, such as with toys or clothing that is either tough and lets us explore or fabric that tears and dirties easily. Other times it is more obvious, such as girls being taught to clean house and boys to carry out the trash.

Of course, there are differences based on things like class, race, ethnicity, religion, and generation. I grew up climbing trees, but I also learned that it wasn’t in my immediate interest to beat boys at chess. Learning to be male or female is a cultural experience rather like jazz music. The underlying melody is always there, but there are multiple variations on the theme.

A group announcing it is reserving space for Woman Born Women Only is saying it is creating a place for people whose life experiences resonate to the same melody. It is a place where people can be less on guard, more authentic, as they have similar expectations for behavior based on a lifetime of experience. Some of these behaviors are based in biology, but more are based on how our culture teaches us to interpret the behaviors based in biology.

The woman at the conference was correct. Transgender people have typically been discriminated against. Our culture isn’t yet comfortable with the idea of gender fluidity, much less the reality of it. But blaming the women who prefer space that is reserved for Women Born Women, shows a lack of understanding of the underlying dynamics of both gender socialization and the discrimination women have faced because of it.

People don’t need to agree, but it would be helpful if they understood. Of course, if we didn’t make such a big deal out of gender in the first place, all of this would probably be moot.

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