Monday, February 08, 2010

I had some letters lately about the whole women-only sex party discussion. So I chose this one as an example to use in addressing them.

(edited for length) "I was struck by Kate's assertion that "there is nothing morally or ethically wrong with being gender-exclusionary for the purpose of self-perceived safety," as long as the exclusion is not executed in a "mean" way.

The first thing I notice here is the use of "self-perceived" as a modifier for safety. I think if someone's safety truly was at stake, then all possible and reasonable precautions should be taken. While perception of safety is also important, I don't find it as compelling of a notion on which to be exclusionary.

Taken one step farther, I could very easily imagine this statement with some substitutions:
1. "There is nothing morally or ethically wrong with being race/ethnicity-exclusionary for the purpose of self-perceived safety."
2. "There is nothing morally or ethically wrong with being sexuality-exclusionary for the purpose of self-perceived safety."

In all of these cases, all of the "excluders" have an extremely real perception of their risk; that is, they were not just excluding other groups "for the fun of it," but because they truly believed themselves or something very important to be at risk in the presence of the excluded group. This perception makes the exclusion justifiable, perhaps, but does it make it right?

Just the same, as some women have the perception of risk around individuals with male genitalia (or around all subgroups of transgendered peoples), does this make it OK to exclude them? And is exclusion OK as long as it is delivered in a nice way?

I know that these subjects are very amorphous, which makes it hard to define boundaries. And I know that "slippery slope" arguments are often very slippery.... and yet, I still DO think that it is a slippery slope from saying that "there's nothing morally or ethically wrong with being gender-exclusionary for the purpose of self-perceived safety," to saying that "there is nothing morally or ethically wrong with being X-exclusionary for the purpose of self-perceived Y."

I got several letters with the same basic type of argument: because it’s wrong to exclude a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation, then it’s always wrong to exclude anyone, ever.

Now just let me say: I think this reader, and the other readers who wrote to me, mean well and are good people who want to be kind and fair. Okay? I acknowledge that. I also support safety, respect, and acceptance for all trans people, however they wish to express their gender.

But let’s just deconstruct this argument, because it’s intellectually lazy, and I cannot abide that. It is a popular one, I’ll give it that. I have certainly heard this line before – oh, so many times - about any sort of “blank-only” space.

And Kate Bornstein has certainly heard it too. There is probably damn little that Kate hasn’t heard of or thought of about gender issues, so even if I didn’t viscerally understand something Kate said, I myself would be inclined just to take it on faith.

That aside, this argument just makes me snort and roll my eyes. To me, this does not even rise to the dubious level of a slippery-slope argument. (Which are by definition, wrong.)

This is just nursery-school thinking. The rationale for this type of argument is: all identities are the same. Race = gender = age = sexuality = nationality = religion. In this worldview, all those statuses are precisely the same weight, the same importance, and they all have exactly the same effect on both the individual who wears them.

And that’s clearly not true. Those identities all have different histories, and they are all different in how they affect us. For one thing, some of those social groups confer certain types of power upon people within them. Others don’t. It is not wrong for a socially less-powerful group to create space for itself and specifically bar the presence of a socially more-dominant group. Especially when in doing so it in no way robs the dominant group of something it has both a need and a basic human right to equally access: education, housing, transportation, medical care, jobs, ect.

Men, as social group, have historically been dominant over women. Obviously there are individual exceptions, and the level of dominance has changed gradually through the course of recorded history, but that’s mostly been true and to some degree still is. Thus, we do not need to protect men from the injustice of not being able to access a certain social gathering.

Here’s what I would ask anyone who thinks that any exclusion of anyone, anytime, is wrong: how come you’re not all upset about public restrooms? Because those are gender-segregated. You ask any trans person, and I predict they will tell you that public restrooms are a difficult issue, and much more pivotal to their day-to-day life than an annual sex party.

So how about it, ladies - are you going to use the men’s room at the mall, or the airport, or the movies? If you’re really opposed to women-only spaces, you would. And you wouldn’t be the least upset about having a man come into a women’s restroom, or a women’s dressing room in a clothing store, or a women’s locker room at a gym. I am willing to bet that some of you would say “But that’s different!” I don’t think it is.

It is true that some people would like to unfairly discriminate against less-powerful social groups. That’s wrong. But that’s not what’s happening here. The fact that women-only sex parties occasionally happen actually does not mean the terrorists have won.

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