The Challenges of Trans Women in Female-Only Spaces

The Challenges of Trans Women in Female-Only Spaces

Tonight I want to talk about an issue I have seen play out many times and seen discussed privately many times and yet which is VERY touchy for people who are not trans to discuss publicly and still look like allies.

Probably touchy even if you are trans but I'll do my best.

This came up in a conversation with a cis female friend of mine after discussing my post from yesterday, and I want to talk about it because my hope is that it might help everyone to understand some of the nuance involved better.

A few caveats: Nothing I say here is intended to denigrate anyone and any claims I make are specific to my experience (both personal and observed) having known lots of trans people, being trans, and participating in all kinds of mixed gender groups.

But there is a commonly observed phenomenon that frequently occurs WRT to trans women and female-only spaces and it's useful to talk about it, why it might be happening, and what might be done to help everyone involved appreciate what's going on.

What happens is this:

Someone will start a women's group for whatever reason. This can be a chat room or a club or an IRL meetup of any kind. But the point is that they want a space to speak freely with other women only (and there are a variety of excellent reasons for this).

And because they want to make people aware that this group exists and invite other women into it, they put an open invite out.

Frequently, trans women will (understandably) want to participate in this space too. And often (though not always) the organizer is welcoming of them.

And when this happens (especially if there are multiple trans women earlier in their transition present), you sometimes see some significant portion of the conversation being captured by these women... often as the most talkative members of the chat.

Which itself is not that big of a deal. After all, some people are more talkative than others.

But often these conversations will turn to discussing trans/idpol topics or appear to be bids for gender affirmation.

And if this continues many of the chat participants slowly, awkwardly leave it because nobody quite knows how to tell the aforementioned young trans women that they're dominating the conversations in a way that makes people feel uncomfortable.

And in fact no one CAN tell them this because it's very difficult to explain why they feel uncomfortable without sounding anti-trans or hurting the feelings of someone who didn't even know they were making anyone uncomfortable.

Because it's hard to describe the problem in a way that doesn't frame either "the mere presence of trans women" or "sometimes trans stuff enters the conversation" as *problems* in and of themselves. Which they aren't! Most of the people ghosting are usually fine with both.

And I think that the bids for gender affirmation (which I'll explain in more detail shortly) are perhaps the most uncomfortable part of this for the other participants, even more so than the discourse explicitly turning to trans/queer topics.

Because the women/girls who tend to do this are overwhelmingly within the first few years of their transition, and often (though I'm grossly over-generalizing) have not yet developed a strong sense of either personal female identity or internalized feminine interaction norms.

And I want to be very, VERY CLEAR that I'm not judging them for this and most people who understand this are not either. I'll propose some solutions for the problem after I've discussed it more thoroughly.

But the behaviors I'm describing often make women who are not early-transitioning trans women pretty uncomfortable. I'm going to (anonymously) quote my friend here to illustrate the problem.

"I don't feel like I can tell them 'hey the reason people keep kinda not talking to you is that you orient every convo towards your transition or imply that you want gender affirmation, AND you imply that any pushback re: this behavior will result in you getting really mad.'"

To be very blunt, what many of the quietly withdrawing participants are thinking is, "You're being really cringe and it's a distraction and a nuisance and it's easier to just bow out than continue to participate with you here."

And of course this is very hard AND rude to say.

And there's a flip side to this which is that if you happen to be an out trans woman in a group and you don't do this, people will often perceive this as "oh you're one of the 'Good Ones'" and continue to have an uninformed model that trans women "tend to" be loud/cringe.

Instead of recognizing what's really going on, which is people in different life situations seeking to have different needs met by female-only spaces coming into implicit conflict.

I'm now going to pause and tell you all some very cringey stories about me because they'll help to illustrate some points I'm going to make soon and maybe also show you that this is hard-won experience instead of me being a jerk.

A thing you have to understand is that most people who are undergoing a gender transition have first undergone a MASSIVE internal struggle to make this decision, and throughout the process it is often fraught with fear and doubt and self-loathing and insecurity.

You're swimming through a sea of negativity, both internally and externally imposed, and you're desperately grasping at something that you want or need badly enough to upend your entire life in spite of the public humiliation and shame you almost certainly are enduring.

But during this period (and often for quite some time), you're massively assailed by self-doubt. You're being misgendered even despite your best efforts. *You* don't feel like you look like a woman when you look in the mirror (I can't speak to the FTM experience I guess).

You're desperately trying to affirm your gender identity in as many ways as possible both to persuade others and *yourself* that you're a woman in spite of plenty of signals that others don't perceive you that way.

And you're probably bad at it, which is crushing.

But when you do succeed, it's ELATING. You then feel successful at this thing you want more than anything, and it's a clear and obvious mark of your personal progress when people affirm your gender identity (because it's often hard for you to get this right now).

So you're thrilled when you get that affirmation and you're looking for it everywhere, whether you think about it in those terms or not.

I recall one time, very early in my transition, when I went out to dinner with a group of trans friends.

It was one of my first times presenting as female in a public space and I could NOT shut up about it to save my life. I was so excited that I felt permitted to do this thing that had never felt permissible.

I remember giddily asking one of the other women, who was a few years later into her transition, "God, isn't this so awesome? It's so freeing to be able to talk about our transitions and just be girls out on the town and not feel bad about it, and I feel so great!"

And she kind of winced at me and half-laughed and said, "Uh... yeah. But we could talk about other stuff than being women and our transitions too, you know? It gets old after a while."

Because the thing is that when you're first going through your transition it's all exciting and thrilling for you because what previously felt like white-hot taboos have opened up for you and it's all NEW.

And unfortunately, NEW also means you have no clue what you're doing.

Physically, this can manifest as going way overboard on what you _perceive_ to be symbols of femininity based on your experiences as a culturally male outsider looking in.

Clothes. Makeup. Hair. Body/voice/walk. You're focused on all of it, because you wanna do it right.

But the thing you may not have gained awareness of yet at this stage is that while those are things culturally associated with femininity, over-emphasis on the mechanics of them draws negative attention to you and makes people uncomfortable.

Most adult cis women aren't in a state of elevated excitement about simply being a woman, and the mechanics of your developing feminine identity, to the degree they can relate at all, are things they went through decades ago as children and teenagers.

And the hard part of coming into a new space, especially an ostensibly "female-only" space as a new participant, is it's difficult to gauge how much and what to talk about with respect to your new experiences and challenges and excitement.

Even if you've had lots of female friends throughout your life, you haven't participated in female spaces AS a woman. You don't have the context. You don't have many of the shared experiences. You don't understand the interpersonal interaction norms.

And because you're still trying to figure out where the lines are, this can be very grating. Social norms are harder to read and learn than presentation norms, and you may not get that women don't actually spend much time affirming one another's femininity. Why would they?

So when you're calling attention to your femininity even indirectly as a thing in itself, you're broadcasting to everyone that you don't fit in. This is especially true when it's constant, which it often is in the situation that we're talking about.

And this is even more true when discussing aspects of your transition or changes you're going through--puberty was a long time ago for most women, even if _some_ of the experiences you're having are shared.

One difference in particular that isn't immediately obvious to people is that other women's relationship TO a female identity and perception OF female identity vary wildly across women. Early in your transition, you don't have a lot of experience having a female identity.

So your excitement about displaying your femininity can come across as very shallow and grating to people who have had more time to internalize both the positive and negative aspects of their gender identity. Even if you claim to empathize, you haven't been in the trenches.

Furthermore, you probably haven't spent a lot of time internalizing female social competitive status norms as a participant, which differ from male norms, and they tend to be non-obvious as an outsider.

I'm not going down that rabbit hole right now because this is already way too long, but just watch Mean Girls as an initial case study. If you feel somehow insulated from or "above" about those dynamics, you probably don't get it yet.

And in fact, ignoring the dynamics of the space you're coming into and dominating it is an aspect of retaining an element of stereotypical male norms (and I hate to say it but also male privilege) that you may not recognize as such and which REALLY irritates many women.

Because they had to learn the hard way not to do this through years of painful interaction within female social hierarchies as they were growing up. You popping in and ignoring those norms feels very uncomfortable and male in what's supposed to be a "female-only" space.

Another quote from a cis female friend to illustrate this point:

And so now that I've explained this to death, I think an interesting question to ask is what is to be done about this dynamic when it occurs and how to avoid it.

Because frankly no one is served very well by it.

Some of the cis women who came into the female-only space for whatever reason they had originally feel uncomfortable with the behaviors/conversation on display, but also have little desire and nothing to gain by challenging it directly. So they bow out.

This increases the frequency of discussion dominated by the most vocal participants and the remaining women who maybe would have tolerated some of this are left with a limited group to talk to about whatever they actually wanted to talk about.

And the trans women engaging in these behaviors don't actually get to learn anything about the norms they don't understand because everyone they could have learned from has left the discussion.

Furthermore, their reasons for joining the group in the first place were probably LARGELY motivated by the gender-affirming permission to enter a "female-only" space, and when they realize it's mostly just early transitioning MTF people left it loses a little of that luster.

And this is too bad, because for many trans women being read successfully as female is a key goal. The opportunity to participate in social functions with other women is really the best possible way to adapt to a new social role.

If they don't learn how to do this, they'll continue to have this experience over and over again in different groups and observe that nobody wants to talk to them or hang out with them and wonder if it's because they're trans and internalize an extra dose of self-loathing.

Right. Awful. So what's to be done?

Well, no one publishes a comprehensive "How to Girl" manual and the people who needed it most probably wouldn't read it anyway, so I'm inclined to say they have to learn the same way everyone else does: hard knocks.

But that sucks for the women who are just trying to build fun female-only spaces to hang out in which are also really important to have for a variety of reasons and they shouldn't have to fizzle out like this either. It's so not fair to the organizers and other participants.

So there's a really obvious and simple solution here:

We just ban trans women from female-only spaces. 😓

That's a bad joke but it's basically what happens in practice a lot of the time. You get invite-only spaces that are carefully controlled instead of open invites.

But this is also very not-ideal as much as some people will take my bad joke and say, "No that's actually the solution," because it doesn't work in practice in most situations where you want to advertise your group (and also it's not very nice).

And it also perpetuates unfortunate narratives about "how trans women" are rather than appreciating that this is a transitional (hah) stage for most MTF people. As you settle into your identity, most people stop doing this. And they faster they clue in, the faster they stop.

Because they don't WANT to do this. They just don't realize that that's what's happening or why it's happening. In fact they very much want the opposite of this, which is to be accepted and successfully participate in the group (hopefully).

But most people don't have the energy or nuance or patience to adequately explain the entire contents of this essay to someone who is already VERY TOUCHY about their identity and very sensitive to being excluded and likely to react explosively, out of hurt.

So for starters, one thing you might want to do is privately PM someone doing this and share this thread and be like, "Hey, just FYI... you might wanna read this." And even that feels impossibly bitchy, I know. Conflict sucks. But you might be doing her a favor.

If you really want to be an ally to a trans person sometimes being direct (and kind) about behaviors that are making people uncomfortable with a very clear explanation of why and how that's happening can be the nicest thing you can do, even if it's personally unpleasant.

Especially if you're tactful enough to frame it in a nonthreatening way as being helpful for them.

Think less "confronting you about bad behavior" and more "older sister clueing you in on the rules."

Try to channel that vibe.

And if you think YOU might be this person, I have a few suggestions for you that might be helpful in building the bonds you're actually looking for when you try to participate in these spaces.

First, and this is true of any time you're entering an unfamiliar space, you should probably spend 95% of the time listening rather than talking. Not only is this respectful, but it helps you understand the vibe and flow of THIS particular space and what people expect there.

You'll avoid most of the pitfalls in this thread completely if you just keep your mouth shut and watch, and you'll learn a ton. You already got your affirmation! You're in the group! Take the opportunity to listen and internalize a little bit.

Second, take a moment to appreciate that no matter how far along you feel like you are in your transition, you still have a lot less experience being a woman than everyone else present and you have a lot to learn from them about adopting a feminine social role.

I'm a decade into my transition and I STILL try very hard to do this when women invite me into their circles. You have a lot of catching up to do as a person trying to jump into a totally different social role and it takes a long time. Plus, every group is different.

Third, recognize that if people aren't responding much to you, you might be not be participating in the way that people would prefer. Try to watch how other people engage and kind of match that pattern when you feel compelled to add something.

Finally, it's okay to need and desire gender affirmation, but recognize that this may not be the space for it and try really hard not to bring it there unless it's a very clear topic of discussion. This is literally what trans support and discussion groups are for.

Even though it's important to you (and it's okay and normal that it's important to you), this space may not necessarily be the space for that, especially as it relates to your transition. Look for other places to satisfy that outlet (or make your own).

Just because it's a group of women talking doesn't mean everyone is going to feel comfortable with you discussing your new-to-you experiences with female puberty and social dynamics (and in fact they probably mostly won't be).

It might be okay to share some of those things at times, as part of communicating what you're going through and sharing about yourself, but only AFTER you've established a rapport with people and developed enough closeness to share more personal issues.

And recognize that your enthusiasm for aspects of your newfound feminine identity may seem childish or exhausting to other participants in the group for whom those things are just everyday life that are barely worthy of commenting on, or even feel resentful toward.

More comments from my very active DMs right now: 😁

So my hope is that this thread might provide a framework for people who don't quite know how to address this issue when it occurs, and also to help people who don't realize they're doing it to see what they're doing.

Patience, sympathy, kindness, and humility go a long way.

I guess I'll take questions if you have them.

Q & A:

Okay this is a great question and it's also pretty hard to answer concretely because it's nuanced and situational and also dependent on tone, topic of conversation and frequency of occurrence. But I did promise to explain this more so let me try.

So this would be an interjection into conversation which has an implied purpose of highlighting the femininity of the speaker and doesn't add much else, often taking the form of a bid for attention.

And especially if it's a very stereotypically feminine-coded activity. A rather contrived example might be mentioning unprompted that you just got back from getting a manicure and sharing a screenshot of your nails.

And the obvious response to this would be that you want people to compliment your nails, which might affirm your idea of a common feminine interaction you may have observed at some point in your life or in media.

But also this is cringey if no one else does it.

And a more nuanced example might be finding ways to slip in references to an aspect of your femininity that are out of place in the conversation even if you're otherwise participating normally.

Like... hmm. I know what I mean but I'm struggling to come up with a good example. IDK. Cis girls, help me out here? This is your chance to say things that have annoyed you that you normally wouldn't. Anyone have better examples here?

Great example from my DMs:

More good questions/thoughts from my DMs last night and today below. First up: Interesting to note that this is far from a trans-only experience, and as many have observed applies to anyone who has struggled to understand contextual social norms.

Some thoughts on WHY some of these behaviors might be so cringe for people:

And I share these in the hope that maybe some trans people OR cis people struggling with these things might feel less bad about it and see that it's something that lots of people, both cis and trans, have difficulty navigating at times.

And it's particularly interesting to note that given the observable overlap between autism-spectrum type personalities and trans identities that what we might be seeing has a little to do with being trans AND a little to do with being bad at picking up social cues period.

One conversation from my DMs that I don't want to highlight so as not to embarrass the person in question centered around how often bids for gender affirmation can also take the form of calling attention to one's femininity by DISTANCING oneself from cringey behavior...

...in a way that reads as over-anxious that one might be perceived to be participating in it. It's the whole "Methinks the lady doth protest too much" thing. Pointing out how you're not unfeminine is still an attention bid for femininity when silence might do better there.

I hesitate to share this one because I think it was asked genuinely though also may be very triggering/frustrating for some people, but I think it's important to talk about nonetheless because I believe it's a common perception.

Unpacking a response to that could be a whole essay in itself but my quick and dirty take is that perceiving trans women according to these distinctions is misunderstanding or mischaracterizing internal experiences of trans people (for the vast vast majority of trans people).

And I highlight it only because it's a perspective I've heard shared directly to me on several occasions, usually by older conservative leaning men, and it's not rooted in the reality of people's motivations for transition or participation most of the time.

I would personally fall into the category that would normally be associated with "autogynephilic" trans women according to the classic definitions and trait clusters and it reduces something very complex to one aspect of displayed behavior that makes people uncomfortable.

And I don't want to go into the whole essay this requires right now but suffice to say that when you observe people bringing sex in, it's not really about a sexual fetish at all--you're seeing a lack of understanding about how to discuss sex in a socially appropriate way.

I'll leave it at that for now, but please also understand that this is a VERY hurtful framing for many trans people and elevates a damaging narrative about trans experiences that may appear to be correct to you, but lacks a lot of contextual nuance about internal experiences.

Another great question here that I'll unpack a little from my personal perspective:

So my first thought about this is that I think figuring out how pregnancy, children, and families fit into one's identity as a woman is something that almost all women have to go through whether cis or trans, and those things ARE a huge part of female social roles in society.

And an obvious difference is that trans women mostly don't have much to offer those discussions because they're barred from the get go by biology (with respect to pregnancy and female reproductive systems anyway, not necessarily childcare).

But understanding that those things ARE a critical and common part of female conversation norms is an important thing to accept, and even if you feel upset or left out it might just be one of the times where you listen rather than talk and try to empathize.

Also cis women shouldn't shy away from talking about those things just because it might be hurtful, because it's important for trans women to learn how to navigate those conversations too, and actually chatting about those things can be a great bonding experience.

You just have to recognize (as either a trans or as a non-reproducing cis person) that your role in the chat is to listen to the other person sharing experiences you can't necessarily relate to perfectly just like they do with some of yours because that's what friends do.

Where this gets sticky is if claims get made about reproductive/childcare issues being central or critical to femininity, and that's where hackles go up, because this is very much a framing choice (even if it's an important framing choice for you personally).

The flip side of this is that you really shouldn't try to relate to people on the basis of experiences you don't have, which is why it can make some people a little uncomfortable if trans people try to discuss female reproductive issues outside of their experiences.

One thing that's been interesting to note is watching some of my female friend groups mature and shift toward a different stage of life where many or all of them are having or have had children. The conversation moves in a different direction and I have less to offer there.

But that's totally okay! That doesn't make us not friends and it doesn't make me uncomfortable. I like hearing about their kids and their pregnancies and their mom-life stories because they're my friends and I care about what's happening to them and important to them.

And I think this is a very normal experience for many women whose friends have children and families when they themselves don't, for whatever reason. If your life experiences diverge, you'll just have to find other touch points to chat about that you still have in common.

And you can still share your joy and excitement and frustrations with each other even if you can't 100% relate to everything one another is going through. Many women doing the mom-life thing can feel similarly alienated by the experiences you're having sometimes.

Understanding that the point of many female social spaces is mutual support regardless of the specifics and chiming in WHEN it's relevant to your experiences and not when it's not and letting everyone share a little is bonding and good.

And then it's also okay to just decide that the space isn't serving your needs for discussion and moving elsewhere. But I wouldn't avoid talking about a contextually appropriate topic because it might make someone feel alienated--they need to get over that.

More fantastic comments from my DMs (thank you all so much for sharing with me, it's really insightful and helpful--please continue if you have something to add):

This is a very good perspective that had not occurred to me, and she's so right--one of the benefits of female-only spaces is a freedom from this implicit obligation toward men imposed upon women.

The bids for affirmation that trans women sometimes put out can feel very much like a violation of this norm because once again there's a demand to accommodate someone whose behavior may "feel" very male oriented and detract from the dynamic the space is supposed to offer.

On the topic of misunderstanding how other women may relate to their identity as a woman:

On the complexity of dealing with different perspectives in a shared female space (aka "women are not homogenous"):

Hopefully this post has been helpful for you if you have encountered this before or are struggling with it yourself! Please reach out if you have anything to add and I'd love to share it.