Saturday, 2 August 2008

Gendered Spaces

A while ago, I was discussing transitioning with a friend, and she asked me what I would miss. I said, getting fucked and all-female safe spaces.

What Kit Does In Bed will be dealt with in a later post. For now, I'm trying to work out my relationship with gendered spaces, the female ones I'm leaving and the male ones I have to learn to deal with.

I've always been a firm believer in the necessity of female-only spaces. I went to an all-women Oxford college - which is now, alas, admitting men in the interests of getting more funds. St Hilda's College appeared in the news from time to time, as its Principal tried to manoeuvre the Governing Body into a vote in favour of going mixed. The University gave it less funding than other colleges, because it could not fund 'discrimination', in this instance the non-admission of men.

In the wider context of Oxford University, St Hilda's provided a few much-needed things. First, it focused upon women, who are still marginalised within the University. Men still get more Firsts, the legacy of an academic tradition which has taught men for about a thousand years, and women for maybe eighty. The women's colleges were founded, and fought for, by dedicated women only three or four generations ago, when women's education was a contested issue. Oxford seems to think we can do without them now, female education being taken so much for granted. I disagree.

Second, women form a slightly smaller percentage of total admissions to Oxford, and that is inclusive of the all-women intake of St Hilda's - one of the larger colleges. Going mixed reduces the number of women getting access to an Oxford education.

Third, some women, for personal, religious, or social reasons, would prefer to be in an all-female environment at university. St Hilda's particularly attracted Muslim women, who now no longer have that option, and must chose between living in a mixed college and missing out on an Oxford degree.

There are still a few all-male institutions in Oxford, all attached to the Roman Catholic Church and doubling as monasteries or ecclesiastical establishments. There is no doubt that Oxford as a whole does not discriminate against men, and it seems harsh that the one all-female college should have been forced to admit men, or else be kept short of funds by the University.

I spent four years there, and while the majority of my friends were male, and my social life quickly expanded outside the college, I appreciated it as a space to return to. I'm going into this now because in recent months I've had to rethink which spaces I'm comfortable in, and which spaces it is appropriate for me to be in.

One of the spaces I am worried about losing is Sh! They have an amazing shop, selling sex-toys, books, outfits and other cool stuff aimed specifically at women. They also have a door-policy that men may enter with a woman, or by appointment. This is something I've found entirely positive in the times I've been there en femme. Given the shame, secrecy and misinformation surrounding female sexuality and pleasure, environments like Sh! do a lot to demystify sex toys and make buying them a comfortable and empowering experience for women. I have, in the past, chaperoned my boyfriend there; now, if I go there presenting as male, I need to take a female friend along.

I don't remotely begrudge this change. I've spent enough time in these spaces to know how good they are. If my presence in them now makes them less safe and secure for women, then I have no place there.

The more difficult question, though, because it is unavoidably defining, and pushes me into the much-loathed binary, is - which loos should I use?

I have a mental map, now, of the pubs and cafes in Oxford in which I have successfully passed as male in the gents. I started at my local, and worked outwards, gaining courage each time. In London, I use the gents' everywhere, as a discipline. The logistical irritations - or having to queue for the one cubicle, of paranoia about looking sufficiently male, of terror lest you run into a male friend or acquaintance - are compensated for by for the small sensation of triumph I get when I am not argued with or challenged.

In the last week, I have had two experiences which caused me to question myself seriously.

The first was at a cocktail bar in Soho. I was out for the evening with friends, and had on a camp but definitely masculine outfit - a black vest-top, combat trousers, and clunky Army Surplus boots. I also had a brand new clippered haircut.

I walked into the gents', having to edge round the owner and a friend of his who were deep in conversation in the outer doorway. As I walked past them and down the corridor towards the gents, the owner called after me, 'Excuse me?'

I turned, making my strapped-down flat chest obvious. 'I'm sorry?' I said, in the monotonous low growl which is the nearest I can get to a man's voice.

He stared at me for a very long moment, and I stared back, pretending not to know what was bothering him. Then he shrugged, and turned back to his friend.

Clearly, he was bothered enough to stop me - but not quite sure enough of his ground to tell me straight out that I was in the wrong place. This is just the level of uncertainty that I like about my presentation.

The second incident was when I was with my mother. I'm very recently out to her, and the subject of which loos I use hadn't yet been mentioned, so when she took me arm and we wandered over to the ladies', as she and I have been doing together since I was a kid, I didn't have the guts to pull away and bolt into the gents', despite being strapped down, packing and clearly presenting as male.

I found I had forgotten how to do female body language. I couldn't quite pull my personal space back in to its old area. And - this was the killer - I looked like I knew I shouldn't be there. I've conquered this look for when I walk into the gents', but I can't revert to my former feminine confidence on demand.

As I was walking out again - feeling much too tall, and more uncomfortable in my skin than I have in years - a party of six ladies ran into me. They looked at me, looked at the sign on the door, looked at each other, and started a conversation in a language I didn't know, but whose subject I could guess. For me, that moment was much more awkward and humiliating than being questioned at the door of the gents'.

I've reached the conclusion that I don't fit in either space any more. There will always be someone who reads me as the wrong thing, as the excluded, shouldn't-be-here gender. Because that's what I usually am.

I enjoy misfitting, I like causing confusion. Part of me is worried, for my own safety, for the feelings of other people. Also, I am beginning to believe that there really isn't much space for a person like me, and that as I get older I will have to pick a side and stick to it, and either transition medically or revert to a butch-lesbian variety of female presentation. For now, though, I'm going to be as complicated and confusing as I can, because gender is not binary, and people are not that simple.


Desiree said...

I'm with ya. None of my friends (save for my internet ones) know I'm genderfluid, but I always have an awkward pause on my boy days when I start to walk for the mens room before correcting myself, and head for the womens room. In a school in Thailand, they have mens rooms, womens rooms, and restrooms for trans people. I guess the closest we have to that here is unisex restrooms, but those are usually only in malls and airports. What's a boy/girl to do?

Mab said...

I like your bravery with the person who stopped you.

A male friend of mine feels like he wants to be allowed into the women-only spaces - because he sees himself as a guy who is not an arsehole (his words). I do see the value in women-only spaces, but look forward to a world where they would not be necessary.