It shouldn’t be controversial to maintain women-only spaces

A women-only health spa in Toronto has recently come under fire by a vocal group of transgender activists and allies as a result of their admission policy. Body Blitz Spa operates two clothing-optional locations which feature pools and saunas and offer therapeutic treatments. Body Blitz has been a popular oasis in the city for women of various backgrounds, age groups, and body types for a number of years.

That may change. The spa has been accused of transphobia after an individual posted a complaint on social media stating that Body Blitz refused entry to their partner, who identifies as a transwoman. While the ensuing controversy might lead one to assume that the establishment excludes trans people, this isn’t actually the case. The spa isn’t technically female-only — their policy is to admit only females and male-born trans people who have undergone a full physical transition. In other words, no male genitalia.

To most people, this policy is neither surprising nor controversial. However, shortly after Body Blitz published a (since deleted) post on their Facebook page to inform patrons that they were reviewing their women-only policy in an effort to provide a comfortable environment for everyone, the page was flooded with angry comments and reviews, some of which were from people outside of the Toronto region and even Canada.

NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo was quoted saying:

“Remember lesbians and gays banned from change rooms of health clubs? This is the same thing.”

Some lesbians and gays might have a problem with DiNovo, who is in a heterosexual marriage, leveraging their struggles in order to draw a parallel to an issue that is fundamentally different in nature from homophobia. Notably, many of the women who advocate for female-only spaces are lesbians. Discrimination against homosexuals centers on baseless beliefs about how males and females should behave and relate to each other and has never involved existential debates. Because sexual orientation is objectively determined, it’s always been clear who we’re referring to when we talk about LGB people, the resistance to whom has only ever appealed to questions of morality.

While DiNovo’s comments may appeal to those concerned about gay and lesbian rights, there’s a key difference between sexual orientation and gender identity: sexual orientation describes the preferences of individuals, whereas queer theory dictates that everyone has a gender identity, whether or not they agree. As a result, we’re all expected to participate in this ideology, thereby modifying our views about our own lives and our basic knowledge of the world.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) defines gender identity as:

“… Each person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It is their sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum.”

Whereas it’s often said that gender identity is unrelated to biological sex, the OHRC states that “sex… includes a broader notion of ‘gender,’ which can be described as the social characteristics attributed to each sex.”

Even people who view gender identity as a legitimate concept can’t seem to agree on how it works.

Bill C-16 passed at the Senate on Thursday. Under this new Canadian legislation, which follows similar laws in a number of Western countries, a person can determine their gender or sex via self-declaration at any time and for any reason. It’s considered a human rights violation to question it. No criteria, physical markers, or tests have been identified to determine trans status. As an inherently individualistic idea, gender identity isn’t tethered to any external reality and is therefore considered immune from qualification or broader critical analysis.

If an individual’s identity doesn’t impinge on anyone, it’s easy to accept it at face value. But when an individual transitions into a group of people who face different challenges, questions will naturally arise about whether opportunities reserved for those who are marginalized in their own right will be inevitably claimed by these new members, once again making it more difficult for the original members to get ahead. Already, we’ve seen a handful of examples of males who transitioned later in life showered with praise and handed awards reserved for women, who have spent their entire lives enduring patriarchy as females.

Remarkably, troubling philosophical questions remain unaddressed. If gender identities are determined on an individual basis with no parameters around what they mean, it follows that there can be as many genders as there are human beings. If each individual has a purely self-determined identity, then, by definition, these inherently unique identities can’t be shared with anyone else. No one person can experience another person’s thoughts or feelings to verify that they are thinking or feeling the same things. How can males, or anyone for that matter, know that they feel like a woman? Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept the tautology that a woman is a person who identifies as a woman, the logical conclusion is that “woman” can mean anything and therefore means nothing.

And yet women exist.

Despite a lack of clarification and broad consensus on this, women are vilified simply for asking questions. We’re expected to abandon all prior experiences and notions of ourselves, most especially those that relate to our female embodiment and the oppression that stems from it. Sex-based protections have been effectively dissolved. When it comes to female-only facilities, human rights law is clear: a male who claims the identity of “female” or “woman” can’t be turned away. If a woman has concerns or is in a vulnerable position, her options are to somehow get over it or leave. What this tells women and girls who are survivors of male violence is that females’ right to refuge and privacy away from males is negotiable and that they come last. This is an insidious form of grooming that tells women and girls that they are hysterical for recognizing the epidemic of discrimination and violence directed at them and that they must prioritize the feelings of others over their own sense of self-preservation.

Though frequently twisted, the argument here isn’t that trans people in particular pose a threat. The issue is that as long as gender identity rests on self-declaration, it is impossible — and illegal — for females to distinguish between males who simply wish to live as transgender women and other males. This is an unwarranted burden to place on women and girls, who shouldn’t be obligated to have or divulge a history of trauma in order to justify maintaining independent spaces (not that it makes a difference when they do anyway).

The right for any group — particularly if vulnerable and marginalized — to have their own autonomous spaces is a basic principle of social justice and critical to their well-being. Women’s freedom to share their experiences and thoughts, and to organize without the presence or interference of men — their oppressors — is a fundamental tenet of feminism and has been essential to our progress. Similarly, women who have common needs as a result of discrimination in the form of ableism, racism, homophobia, biphobia, poverty, etc., have the right to exclude other women in order to promote their own interests, since only they can fully understand their particular challenges and advocate for them. There will always be opportunities for such groups to support each other in solidarity and join together where their interests intersect.

Many women sympathize with the struggles of trans people and are happy to support and accommodate them on their journey. As the implications of gender identity politics and laws become clearer, however, difficult discussions will need to take place. Expressions of trans identities are in constant flux. Some people see themselves as a man one moment and a woman the next, neither, or a bit of both — the list is endless. Although it’s still commonly assumed that trans people take hormones, change their presentation and undergo full sex/gender reassignment surgery, this is not necessarily the case, as these are individual choices that aren’t required in order for trans status to be recognized (at least not in Canada). Many transwomen now forego bottom surgery. While it’s widely claimed that being trans isn’t a choice, as trans people suffer from dysphoria and transition is a means of survival, an increasing number of people now identifying as trans say this is not true for them and that dysphoria is not a necessary component of trans identity.

Women who are learning and trying to wrap their heads around this don’t deserve to be bullied. Today, women are told that our understanding of biological sex is false — that sex is, in fact, an illusion that we have to let go of unless we want to be considered violent bigoted transphobes.

You don’t have to interact with the fringes of the trans activist community to hear these claims. In a televised debate in October 2016, Nicholas Matte, a lecturer and PhD candidate employed by a top Canadian university who teaches subjects including race, lesbianism, feminism, and women’s studies, dismissed sex as a “popular misconception,” explaining that “it is not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex.” There are plenty of examples of activists and allies referring to “female penises” (there’s a less polite term for this if you google it but proceed at your own risk) and “women with penises.” We’re told that transmen have always been male and transwomen have always been female (what these people have transtioned from is then unclear).

In this worldview, there’s no objective reality. The controversy around Body Blitz’s no-penis policy is a case in point.

The fact that this postmodern ideology is at odds with pretty much every major authority on human biology doesn’t seem to matter. What the vast majority of well-educated people understand about our species turns out to be tragically flawed. Countless sources, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, still clearly delineate the male and female reproductive systems with no ambiguity about penises being male sex organs, yet women in particular are being gaslighted, smeared, no-platformed, and threatened with violence when they repeat these facts.

Stating basic facts about human biology says nothing about the humanity or value of people who identify as trans and to claim that disagreeing with an individual’s self-perception is tantamount to hating them or driving them to suicide is manipulative and disingenuous. Any gender identity skeptic who denies a trans person a job or housing or is otherwise cruel or violent toward them isn’t behaving that way because they’ve considered the philosophical underpinnings of their beliefs and decided that they are wrong. More to the point, women who speak about their own lives aren’t implicated in the discriminatory actions of others. The people who kill and harm females, trans people, and other gender non-conforming people are almost invariably chauvinist, insecure men whose masculinity is so critical to their sense of power that they seek to harm those they consider beneath them.

Transwomen are exposed to a great deal of violence through the sex trade and on account of racialized violence. There’s no question that trans people need support. Ultimately, trans people understand their needs best and should be the ones to advocate for themselves. The same is true for women and their self-determination through feminism. While women and transwomen are different in important ways, different and equal are not mutually exclusive concepts. This understanding can lay the groundwork for collaboration on the issues that concern us all.

Under no circumstances should women be expected to deny their own material reality and constrain their thoughts according to the psychological states of others. Nor must they prioritize the interests of others above their own. In a diverse society where there are competing rights, a balance must be struck in recognizing everyone’s entitlement to liberty. A state whose mandate is to force its citizenry to validate others’ sense of self and adopt their views is inconsistent with democratic principles and leaves vulnerable classes of people open to exploitation and abuse.

Brandy Sudyk is a Toronto-based compliance analyst who writes about feminism and social justice in her spare time.

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