If You Want Me To Not See You As An Enemy, Stop Doing The Things My Enemies Do: An Open Letter to Z Budapest
A little background: I’ve been going to PantheaCon, an annual convention for pagan spiritual groups and communities, for many years. It’s a really fun con, with some amazing workshops, discussions, rituals, and parties. At the 2011 con, some transgender women tried to attend a ceremony that was advertised in the program as open to women, and were told they could not enter. Predictably, this set off a lot of controversy and discussion (see the links at the bottom of this page for a good roundup), as well as inspiring the organizers of the First Annual Conference on Earth-Based, Nature-Centered, Polytheistic and Indigenous Faiths: Gender & Earth-Based Faiths, at which I led a discussion on masculinity and spirituality.
This past weekend was the 2012 PantheaCon and there were a lot of presentations and talks about gender and spirituality. The con did a fantastic job of making room for some incredible presentations. However, Z Budapest led another ceremony that was limited to “genetic women only”. In response, Thorn Coyle invited people to sit quietly and bear witness before the ceremony started. (You can read Thorn’s invitation here and further reflections here.) Before it started, Z Budapest made a brief statement, in which she said that she is not the enemy of trans people. As an ally of transgender people, I feel the need to respond to her.
Dear Z Budapest:
I come to you as an ally of both women and transgender people across the gender spectrum. As a cisgender man, I have no direct interest in your ceremonies, and as an ally to women, I support and honor the work that you and others do to create spiritually meaningful events for women. I also value the work that you and others do to explore the divine feminine and create a safe space for women.
I have no problem with spiritual communities that focus on or limit themselves to particular groups when there is a clear intention behind it. I respect the desire to build traditions and practices among people who have common experiences, cultures, perspectives, and values. And I also think that your actions demonstrate a lack of understanding about gender and gender diversity that are blocking the building of alliances and communities that could support each other. Instead, I see hurt feelings, anger, and disconnection.
If one wants to offer ceremonies and rituals that center on women’s experiences around menstruation, childbirth, or menopause, then it is totally reasonable to limit attendance to people who have had those experiences. However, your choice to phrase your ritual as open to “genetic women only” shows your lack of awareness around the current understandings of gender. For example, I wonder how many of your participants have had their genes tested. I certainly didn’t see you asking for lab slips at the door. Given that it’s possible (as one example) to have a body that looks female and has XY chromosomes, the only way one can really know what their genes are is to have them tested.
Further, it ignores the existence of women who, for whatever medical reason, have not had those particular experiences. You’ve been quoted as saying “But if you claim to be one of us, you have to have sometimes in your life a womb, and ovaries and MOON bleed and not die. Women are born not made by men on operating tables.” Does that mean that a person with XX chromosomes who doesn’t menstruate isn’t a woman in your world?
That’s part of why we shifted away from using language like “genetic male” or “genetic female” to discuss transgender people. It’s simply not relevant for most people’s daily language. Your using it in the description of your ceremony shows either an ignorance of the evolution of the terminology or an unwillingness to use the language that has developed to help us navigate these issues. Part of the purpose of those event descriptions is to help you reach the people you want to reach and set whatever limits suit your events best. Basic communication skills suggest that you’ll get the results you want if you use language that your audience will understand. Currently, cisgender is the accepted word to describe people whose bodies and lived experiences of gender are more or less aligned. I strongly suggest you use it, if only to avoid the miscommunications and hurt feelings that will inevitably arise if you continue to avoid it.
In conversations with various people this past weekend, a few of them said that they prefer to not use the term cisgender because it’s not the word they came up with to describe themselves. I don’t know if that’s part of your resistance to it, but you are in a position to model the language that most accurately and fairly describes what I think you’re trying to articulate. Other terms simply don’t do that.
Yes, the term cisgender came from transgender people, but I’m not sure why that necessarily invalidates its utility. And in my view, it serves a valuable purpose by moving non-transgender people out of the position of being “normal” and by extension, removes transgender people out of the position of “abnormal.” (You can read more about that here, if you feel moved to do so.) Given that cisgender people weren’t creating a term that can be used to describe both cisgender men and cisgender women, I think it’s only fair to use the one that is linguistically and logically complementary to transgender. In my experience, the resistance that a lot of cisgender people feel to using the term is almost always a sign of their cisgender privilege. Taking some time to unpack that and work through it is well worth the effort. I hope you will both engage in that process and support other cisgender women to do so.
When you told us that you are not the enemy of transgender people, I wanted to take you at your word. But I see your actions and I see a disconnect between the two. If you want me to not see you as the enemy of transgender people, then I invite you to not do the things that their enemies do. I invite you to use language that doesn’t rely on seeing transgender people as abnormal or deviant. I invite you to use language that reflects the genetic diversity that complicates our cultural notions of sex and gender. And I invite you to model that for your communities so that gender equality can flourish.
Yes, the term can feel clumsy at first. But I promise you that with a little practice, it’ll come much more easily. It will help you demonstrate that your desire to not be an enemy of transgender people is real. It will make it easier for people to trust that you respect them, which will then make it easier for you to set the boundaries that you want for your community and your rituals. And it will help you continue to be a leader and role model for others.
I also invite you to go beyond saying “I am sorry I hurt your feelings.” While that statement is helpful, it doesn’t demonstrate a willingness to make amends and change your behavior. From my own personal experience, men saying that to women doesn’t get us off the hook for the pains that our actions can cause. Neither does it get cisgender people off the hook. If you want to show that you are sorry, you need to listen to the people who have been hurt and change how you choose to act. If you don’t, then we have no reason to think that you mean what you say.
It is not an easy thing to be a public figure, especially when others are angry because of something you did. And just as I have learned some of my most valuable lessons when women told me that I had done something that hurt them, you have the opportunity to learn something from the transgender women and their allies who have shared their feedback with you. I ask you to set aside any defensive reactions you might be experiencing and approach this with the same open heart that you would ask me to bring, if you or another woman challenged me. Otherwise, it’s going to be hard for any of us to trust that you mean it when you say you don’t want to be our enemy.
PS I also invite PantheaCon to require groups that wish to limit attendance to events to a specific gender to use the word cisgender when appropriate. You also have an opportunity to model accurate language and set boundaries as needed.