I was trying to think about how to explain "non-binary" to a bunch of Gen X feminists and I think that what's happened over the last 15 or so years is that the actual meaning of the word "woman" has subtly but completely changed.

In the 90s, for feminists, woman was a political category, used to describe people who experienced specific forms of oppression. People with vastly different experiences of gender all organised together under that banner to fight for equity and social change.

In those old days, many people who felt only political affiliation used other words to discuss their experiences and feelings of gender like "dyke". But this was necessarily exclusive of people who were, say, primarily attracted to men.

Then, suddenly, transition became much more accessible for trans men in particular. As a wave of men transitioned, women in queer spaces decided to rethink the boundaries of those spaces.

In the process, 'woman' gained additional baggage related to experiences and expressions of gender. Cis women would not have noticed these changes, but some of the gender nonconforming people did and grew increasingly alienated from the concept.

New categories for gender were invented to create spaces for excluded people and as locations of political activism. (Ideally) spaces dedicated to fighting sexism became exclusive of these new categories and inclusive of people that they would not have welcomed earlier.

And actually what I'm trying to do is explain to myself why I felt so comfortable at a women's college and have come to have a binary male identity, something I normally try to avoid thinking about.

But I think it goes like this: as a youth, I was hyper aware of gender and the limitations it placed on me. The profound unfairness of it all was outraging. When I learned what a feminist was, I became one.

I hated that feeling of exclusion when things were defined as for boys only because it meant I couldn't access them. I joined the fight for access.

Being in "co-ed" environment meant being constantly subject to scrutiny about how well I was performed my assigned gender role. The borders were policed to protect the privilege of cis boys.

A women's college did not, internally, have that kind of policing for afab people (or nominally, trans women who were able to overcome the massive barriers in place at the time to change their legal gender).

After I graduated, it felt like gender expectations were gradually increasing. One day, I found out, to my actual surprise, that for many women, the category "woman" was an affirmative thing they liked rather than just a shared oppression.

So yeah, now I'm a bloke, but also, still, fuck the gender police, fuck sexism.

Previous definitions of "woman" as a political term were obviously also contested and often excluded trans women. Incorporating gender expressions in was the path that has lead to greater inclusivity for trans women. It's my impression that USian feminists are majority trans inclusive now.

However, there are other paths that could have been taken. Trans women experience sexism. "Woman" could have remained primarily political.

This process was also extremely painful for the people it dislodged.

Indeed, the whole process has centred cis het women and been formed around their comforts and prejudices.

It's not too late to repoliticise the term and, indeed, perhaps this is already occurring in the US. Britain, on the other hand . . ..

Also, these categories will continue to evolve and change. It's tempting to think of this in terms of social progress, but I do want to note that inclusivity is often treated as a zero sum game where growing in one direction means leaving behind people in another direction. Excluding marginalised people is not inevitable.

Changing understandings of gender by cis people / memories 

In this post, I am looking back at feminist spaces which I have been and how they've dealt with gender non-conformity.

In the very early aughts, the Portland Oregon Lesbian Avengers had a conference. The local organisation of trans women was also involved in the planning and had an event running alongside. One of the members of the Portland Lesbian Avengers was a trans woman. Some of the people who came for the event were also trans and genderqueer - the spectrum of people included was extremely broad.

Around 2004-ish, a feminist scholar gave a very well-attended talk at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut about gender and politics. Near the end, she raised the question that if there are no policed borders on gender around who is a a woman, what is a woman's issue and who is allowed to speak for women. She argued that this was not actual a problem for feminism or feminists. Anybody who found it politically useful to advocate for themselves as women should be able to access that. The greatest problems facing women were still caused by systemic sexism, not who got to be in the club.

To my dismay, the undergrads seemed entirely unconcerned with this conundrum and wanted to work on the "larger problem" of gender liberation for everyone. Which is another way of saying that people at the margins of acceptable womanhood had no allies.

Changing understandings of gender by cis people / memories 

In 1990, Patrick Califia penned a sci-fi novel that contained within it the idea of women's commune that included a settlement of "passing women". That is, trans masculine people. People who passed as men in the world at large, and perhaps took T, but still wished to be in a community of women. This concept was widespread enough that the term "passing women" was included in the list of who was welcome at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival - an event became increasingly defined by transphobia as the lines around womenhood were redrawn.

One year, Kate Bornstein incorrectly wrote that the Michigan Festival had changed it's policy to be trans inclusive. Issuing false press releases to this effect was a tactic of trans campaigners for nearly a decade. That year I fell for it and went to the festival. There were conflicts about this inside and outside the festival. Attendees generally fell along a generation divide of boomers vs younger people.

I specifically remember one woman speaking heatedly about the policing of gender, wondering why trans masc people were let in if everybody was supposed to be a woman. The transphobia of the festival turned against the "passing women" they thought they were protecting.

This whole concept of womanhood is completely foreign now, to be on the verge of being unimaginable. And yet it existed.


Changing understandings of gender by cis people / memories 

@celesteh Thank you for this thread. As ever, your reflections and insights prompt me to reflect on and question my own experiences and assumptions.

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