Lesbian Space: Wimmin Born Wimmin/Man Made Wimmin–Whose Space Is It?*

By Jacqueline Anderson

In Lesbian Ethics Volume 5 No 2 Winter 1995

The March/April 1993 issue of Lesbian Connection contained a number of letters referring to an incident at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival (1992) where a transexual was asked to leave the festival. Virtually all of the letters were in support of the transexual’s presence at the festival and were vehement in their support. In general, the views were civil libertarian, that is, denying the transexual’s right to be there is not different from the homophobic bigotry of the larger society. This view supposed the transexual’s right to define as a womon. One letter offered a chromosomal argument concerning the presence of XX in some men and XY in some wimmin, suggesting that biology should not be decisive in identifying who is a man and who is a womon.

The vehemence of the letters was very disturbing. It felt as if these wimmin believed that things were so in order in the larger society that there might not be any reason for this space to be designated as for wimmin born wimmin. More disturbing, however, was that it seemed to be generally accepted that being a womon could be accomplished by “feeling like a womon” and being surgically provided with female genitals.

It seems to me that this speaks to a few important differences between now and the past with respect to what this festival means to lesbians. I believe that in the past “Women’s” was viewed as a code word for lesbian’s and that the festival was understood to be a lesbian festival which was open to het wimmin willing to be in and respectful of lesbian space. Even though the festival was a place to play and be free in ways not possible in our non-festival lives, the political significance of having such a space was not lost on many participants. I would argue that Michigan represented for many lesbians a victory, that is, that it was much more than a lesbian music festival.

Michigan meant, and continues to mean, I believe, lesbian independence and autonomy. It is a space created with lesbian energy, for lesbians and other wimmin. It provides the opportunity to live, for a few days a year, in a lesbian community. But something is different now. There are other festivals; many other festivals; even one that calls itself a “lesbian festival.” The presence of many others across the country has normalized these summer festivals while, at the same time, Michigan has become more inclusive. There is no question but that this greater inclusiveness has resulted in some significant alteration in the definition of community assumed by this festival.

The merchant area now allows both het merchants and, rumor has it, businesses that are owned by men. In the past, buyers could be reasonably confident that the businesses there were lesbian owned. The addition of the family camping area where boys from birth to three can camp with their mothers and the rest of us means the presence of males in what had been wimmin only space. It also means that lesbians who bring girl children to be with them without the presence of little boys have lost this possibility to some extent. These differences are not insignificant and may have some unanticipated consequences in the future.

A lesbian music festival and a festival of wimmin’s music are different. They create different atmospheres and different kinds of community. It seems to me that Michigan is perilously close to becoming a festival of wimmin’s music. Who has a right to attend hinges, to a great degree, on which identity is chosen and it would be better if that decision is not forced by a crisis. The larger issue here, however, concerns the meaning of “wimmin only” and “lesbian only,” for we cannot protect spaces that we designate as our own if we are not clear about what constitutes being a member of our group.

The presence of male children in spaces designated as wimmin only has been a persistent and divisive issue between lesbians. A common reason given by lesbians with male children for bringing these children into wimmin’s spaces has been that the exclusion of their children would also mean their exclusion. Some argue that male children cannot learn to be respectful men in isolation. The reasons for reserving this space have been provided over and over without resolution of the issue. So, I suspect that something very fundamental is separating us and it may be sufficiently fundamental that the separation is virtually permanent. However, it would be naive to suppose that allowing even male infants in our spaces will not have consequences of considerable import.

To the extent that Michigan becomes a “public” event, there are fewer and fewer reasons for excluding anyone. If lesbians and other wimmin were now full and complete members of the society, then it would make sense to subject any exclusions to careful scrutiny and demand good and sound reasons for such. But wimmin are not full citizens. The idea that because “they” have excluded us, we cannot justifiably exclude “them” borders on absurdity. This view would undermine virtually all of the organized efforts of “out” groups by demanding that those with the power to exclude have an odd assortment of rights. They have the right to exclude others and the right to insert themselves in the lives of the excluded others. This second right is given them in a spirit of “fairness”–a spirit of fairness itself developed in response to the injustice of their prior exclusion of others.

The view that a transexual male or female is without question a womon or a man in the same sense as those born female or male is in need of much more discussion/analysis. However, if little males are allowed to attend the festival, the principle of “wimmin born wimmin” has already been undermined and the exclusion of transexuals on those grounds does not seem justified. It also becomes an avenue through which big males might attempt to slide. That is not to suggest though that there might not be other defensible reasons for not welcoming the presence of transexual males in settings more consistently designated as open only to “wimmin born wimmin.”

The cultures in which most of us live and have been framed by function on the assumption that there are only two possibilities with respect to sexual/gender identity and the gender meaning selected for each sex has limited and strict parameters of acceptable behavior. Those of us who are homophiles are generally quite aware that our mating choices are in violation of at least one of those parameters, and often a few others. We do not fit the definition of what a womon or a man is supposed to desire and frequently violate the rules with respect to how a womon or a man is supposed to look, act and be. We have written and read much that concerns the socially constructed nature of gender and validated our choices through understanding that gender identities are socially constructed to serve purposes that are designer made for gender polarity and male hegemony.

The result of these analyses has been, minimally, resistance to biological determinism. Whatever it means to be female or male biologically, it does not mean specifically what the socially constructed idea(s) would require. The fact that lesbians and gay men tend to create cultures different from both straight society and each other suggests that we are different. It suggests that the biologically based social dyad required by patriarchy is false. Our capacity for constructing and defining our ‘selves’ is unquestionably rich.

The claim most commonly associated with transexuals is that they are biological errors, that is, in the wrong body. Since there is now the technology to change one’s genitals, it is possible to “correct” this error. However, it does not seem inappropriate to question both the claim and the nature of the “error.” If a womon is born with the wrong set of genitals and this can now be corrected surgically, then it would, of course, be morally and politically wrong to not welcome that womon as if she were born with the “right” set of genitals. Genitals, however, are not the issue; nor, in some cases, are chromosomes.

The issue raised by the claim that transexual males who identify as lesbians suffer an injustice if they are not, without question, welcomed into any lesbian community is in need of some serious consideration. If the requirement for admission to some lesbian spaces that the lesbian be born a womon unjustly excludes any lesbians, then it is a policy which should be reconsidered. Therefore, if a transexual male can be a lesbian, a case might be made that, at least in some instances, she has been a victim of lesbian oppression. But, one must be a womon before one is a lesbian, so we are back to the question of what it means to be a womon or a man. (I suppose that we can assume that a transexual female might also be a gay man.)

For some lesbians, a male transexual is simply a castrated man; for others, this view is intolerant and bigoted. It seems undeniable, however, that a genital alteration must be a response to some “feeling” that something is awry. But what exactly is awry? When a biological male says that he “feels” like a womon, it seems appropriate to question the nature of that feeling. Is that feeling related to the socially constructed definition of what it means to be a womon, that is, feminine? Those of us who are wimmin born wimmin who also love wimmin and who do not fit into the category “feminine,” do we “feel” like wimmin or men? (Hets often believe that lesbians who are not “feminine” want to be men and/or think that they are men.)

I suppose that my feelings are the feelings of a womon because I am born a womon. They are not the same as the feelings of some other wimmin. I am a lesbian; I love wimmin. I am a separatist; I love wimmin and I do not care much for men. I am also aware of other “feelings” that I have that are not consistent with the category “feminine.” Am I to consider those “feelings” as “masculine,” or “feeling like a man”? If I were asked to describe what it “feels” like to be a womon, I don’t believe that I could respond with anything meaningful that would not also be too specific to be more than a response to a question like, “How do you feel?”

I am African American, but I would have great difficulty describing what it “feels” like to be so. In spite of that, I am certain that others cannot know how it ‘feels’ unless they have lived in the world as an African American. So one might argue that being a womon has something to do with experiencing the world as a womon; that is, being acknowledged as a womon by others, and identifying or being aware of oneself as a womon. These conditions do not require that the person be a biological womon. A successful transvestite, for example, would qualify.

A lesbian publication recently contained a letter warning of a man identifying as a lesbian. Jacquelyn Zita, in an article published in Hypatia (Fall 1992), reports having heard a story concerning a self-defined lesbian separatist who lived and was active in a lesbian community in the late 1970s. She lived in a lesbian collective until it was discovered that she was genitally male. He was then quickly dismissed from the community. In this case, the decisive factor was genitals. If we require that a womon have the right set of genitals, then a transexual male is a womon and could also be a lesbian. This raises another possibility that, I believe, for some of us is a lesbian nightmare. Suppose a lesbian relationship in which one of the wimmin chooses to be altered and the other chooses to remain in the relationship. Do we now have a lesbian in a heterosexual relationship? The only condition in which the altered lesbian could remain a homophile would be for her to enter a relationship with a man. If she continues the relationship with her lesbian lover, she becomes straight, the relationship het, and both wimmin no longer welcome in our lesbian communities.

The transexual who identifies as a homophile confuses us and makes us suspicious. If a male believes himself to be a womon, and decides to be surgically altered, there is the assumption that he was formerly a gay man. His relationship with a man would then be as a womon in the wrong body. It is homosexual because both partners are genitally male. But the relationship does not become heterosexual even after the alteration, at least it is not considered to be so by the lesbian, gay male or straight communities. If he is attracted to wimmin, why consider a sex change? Remaining genitally male certainly provides greater access to wimmin without the stigma of homosexuality. If she discovers her lesbianism or bisexuality only after the sex change, what is it that she has discovered? Has she discovered that she wants to have sex with a womon as a womon? What could that mean?

Consider the stone butch of our community who believes herself to be a man in a womon’s body. She may use a device when she and her partner are sexual. She may use the male pronoun. If a lesbian uses a penile device, are she and her partner having het sex? If so, they remain lesbian because both have female genitals. If the stone butch decides to be altered, should she now be considered a complete man? Is he now having sex with his lesbian partner as a man? If genitals become the criteria for membership in lesbian community, then we will seemingly have to welcome male to female transexuals and reject female to male transexuals. But suppose our altered lesbian had been, as a lesbian, a valued member of the community–someone we respected?

My comments thus far have ignored the reported “feelings” of the transexual that they are displaced in the wrong body. We, as lesbians, as wimmin who have been told that our feelings for each other and absence of sexual feeling for men are both “wrong,” award some warrant to “feelings.” The definition of lesbian for many, if not most of us, is wimmin loving wimmin. But what if a lesbian does not “feel” like a womon? What if she “feels” like a man? Does she still count as a lesbian? Presently, of course, she does. What then is the status of her man-like feelings?

The normative relationship between female and male, feminine and masculine, womon and man is configured narrowly and there is little tolerance for deviance. Acting like a womon or a man is certainly not problematic. But how does one know if one is experiencing as a womon or a man? For example, I might act in ways like a man and enjoy the activities associated with men, including sex with wimmin. These actions make me feel certain ways. Are those the ways a man feels when he does the same things? What man? Can I be certain that I am not being man-like, that is, imitating a constructed idea of man? One possible way out of this confusion would be to re-construct the gender meanings–open them to greater variety–then many of these feelings remain within the realm of “feeling like a womon.” A gender reconstruction might take care of some cases, but I suspect that there would remain others who would still desire to be genitally altered.

Chromosomes by themselves are not consistently helpful in sorting out the wimmin from the men. There is a type of pseudohermaphrodite resulting from a defective androgen (described in Discover, June 1992):

…”she” often conforms to the male ideal of feminine beauty even more than the average woman does because her breasts tend to be well developed and her legs long and graceful. Her complexion is usually flawless and she tends to have the added height of a man. Hence cases have turned up repeatedly among female fashion models.

…[The pseudohermaphrodite is]… a genetic male who can’t become male–in short a genetic male whose visible sexual parts are those of a womon. Despite having a Y chromosome, hidden testes, and normal male testosterone levels, almost all such people unquestionably view themselves, and are viewed by others as women.

The article also states that these pseudohermaphrodites usually marry and adopt children. They tend to be well adjusted as wimmin with no indications of unusual emotional stress. In other words, they are able to live comfortable lives as wives and mothers. If this kind of man also identified as a lesbian, would we consider him as one of us?

The relationship between enforced gender roles and genitals and the persistent existence of transvestites–such as the Chevalier d’Eon during the 18th century, and the jazz musician, Billy Tipton, who died in 1989, both of whom were able to “pass” until death–pseudohermaphrodites and transexuals continue to remind us that there is something wrong with the cultural prescriptions. The question, in my opinion, is what exactly are we to make of the relationship between genitals and gender.

While the conceptual and philosophic issues raised by the transexual, transgendered, and chromosomally anomalous are interesting, our present concerns are political. I would argue that the particular type of pseudohermaphrodite mentioned, if lesbian, would qualify for admission into lesbian only space–possibly even space designated as wimmin born wimmin only. This man and the transexual differ in critical ways. The pseudohermaphrodite is born a womon, develops in most ways like a womon, is in the world as a womon. He has never been aware of himself as a man and cannot be a man. The transexual, by definition, has at some time been a man.

Lesbians are in constant struggle for ourselves and our issues to become visible, both in the gay and straight communities. Male to female transexuals who identify as lesbians and expect access to lesbian space threaten us with invisibility. They, in effect, are claiming that anyone can be a lesbian, even a man. That being a lesbian, and thus being a womon, is strictly about genitals and “feelings.” This ignores our personal and collective experiences and herstories; our sense of our ‘selves’ as wimmin and lesbians which may not be completely expressible, but is not unintelligible.

The entrance of populations with interests substantially different from ours can serve to re-focus and re-direct our attention. The stone butch is a womon–may have menses–may have been pregnant–may have birthed a child–will experience menopause. Her rejection of the feminine is only formally the same as the gay male’s rejection of the masculine. To reject the feminine is to reject vulnerability to male hegemony. To reject the masculine is to express the freedom to be anything one wants to be–including being a womon. It is an expression of power. Since the cultural meanings of a vagina and a penis are dramatically different, the stone butch and female transexual, to the extent that their ‘passing’ is successful, gain something. But so too does the male transexual. He gains complete access to wimmin and, if he identifies as a lesbian, access to wimmin who are not ordinarily accessible to men.

The acquisition of female genitals once an adult is not a package deal, that is, it does not bring with it any womon’s experiences as a womon. That the male transexual can pass–can fool the lesbians–does not therefore negate his truth as a man.

It may be that we need new language. For, the male transexual is certainly not a man in the same way as other men. But he remains, in some sense, a man and I am unwilling to concede lesbian status to him when he chooses a womon partner. However, I do believe that transexuals have important concerns. They are outsiders–they too must struggle for the right to exist. Yet, it is a slippery slope to conclude that to not welcome them into every aspect of lesbian and wimmin’s space and lives is to practice uncontrolled bigotry.

I would argue that transexuals present new conceptual challenges and unique political concerns. The right to live as we are in safety and with respect defines the political struggles of all ‘out’ groups and between us these goals are not in conflict. In a world that is hostile to difference, transexual lesbians are among the most different and sense themselves as outsiders even in communities that should, in their view, be the most sympathetic. I do not believe, however, that most lesbians are hostile to transexual lesbians as such, but rather unnerved by their not acknowledging their difference from us and their using the presumption of sameness to focus our attention on them.

As outsiders, transexuals might benefit from the strategy used by other out groups, that is, come together, define their interests and fight the larger battle in coalition with the rest of us to open the world to us all. It is counter-productive and a legitimate reason for us to be suspicious when they either ‘pass’ in spaces designed as “wimmin only” or “wimmin born wimmin only” and/or argue that they are identical to us.

Lesbians are present in virtually every civil rights, civil liberties and feminist arena. As a community, we strive to free ourselves of bigotry no matter how subtle its expression and respond to the most detailed concerns of wimmin and others. We are self-critical, sometimes in the extreme. So to be accused of bigotry and insensitivity because we sometimes want to be together as wimmin and as lesbians–in spaces that are limited and always fragile–by those with a specious right, at best, to be there can legitimately, I think, be viewed as an assault. I believe that our energy and theirs might be better used against our real enemies and not against each other.


*This paper was first delivered May 20, 1993 at the WITCH Lecture Series, Jamaica Plains, MA, and then on May 21, 1993 at Lesbians for Lesbians (LFL), Northampton, MA.