Does this use of "females only" carry a trans-exclusionary implication?
July 13, 2017 4:43 PM   Subscribe

An event on gender equity I've been asked to participate in has separate sessions, one open to "females only" and the other open to "all gender identities". I'm trying to guess the intended scope of these two terms (please take it as given that there are reasons not to explicitly ask right now).

The organisation in question is one that has a mixed history on transgender inclusiveness. Until recently, the corresponding terms would have been "women only" and "men and women", with the unspoken implication that all transgender people would almost certainly be expected to attend the "men and women" group unless they passed as cis women (I mean, probably: as a transfeminine person I don't usually feel welcome at gender equity events so I rarely attend).

The impression I have is that senior folks have been made aware of the transphobia implied by the original phrasing, and so now we have these new labels, "females only" and "all gender identities". My reading of this is that it's a superficial change: what they've done - but not stated - is used "all gender identities" as a more inclusive version of "men and women" (yay for non-binary inclusion!) but the the shift from "women only" to "females only" is... odd. To me it reads like a dogwhistle, because of the striking similarity to trans-exclusionary language used by some second wave feminists. Otherwise why make the change from "women" to "females"? I feel like what happened is that someone felt uneasy about the possibility of including trans women - who "merely" identify as women (sigh) - being allowed into the women's group, and subconsciously shifted to "females" so as to strengthen the implication that the "females only" group is being defined in biological terms, using coded language to avoid being forced to explicitly say something trans-exlcusionary. I doubt there's deliberate maliciousness here, but it's bothering me a little.

In any case, the question I need answered is whether other people - especially other transgender people - would read the same implication into the "females only" versus "all gender identities" that I'm seeing. I ask knowing that I have a tendency to get a little distressed about these things, and I'm trying to work out if it's worth quietly mentioning as an issue to anyone. My feeling is that if other transfeminine people would read it the way I do, then it's worth mentioning, but if it's just me then it's best to let it slide.

So is that implication there, or is this just my personal anxieties about gender coming through?
posted by saltbush and olive to Human Relations (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am a cis female, and if I saw an event labeled "females only", I would make a horrified face. The use of "females" to describe actual people is kind of awful, and I would be having a quiet word with someone, asking them to change it to something with less derogatory implications. So what I'm saying is, I'm not in a position to say how that feels for a trans person, but as a cis person its awful. So complaining need not even be from a trans perspective, if you are uncomfortable taking that stance. The only people who I have heard refer to women as "females" are generally unpleasant internet misogynists who think of us as lesser beings. Ugh.
posted by Joh at 4:54 PM on July 13, 2017 [57 favorites]

With the context you're giving about the organisation, I would read it exactly as you are. They use that language because they believe it is accurate and non discriminatory.

If I didn't know what you told us, I would assume I'm welcome, and let them try to kick me out.
posted by Promethea at 4:55 PM on July 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

As a cis woman, I would assume that the language change from "women" to "females" is intended to exclude trans women.
posted by metasarah at 5:10 PM on July 13, 2017 [47 favorites]

I don't identify as transgender (my relationship with gender is kind of wonky and I don't really align with 'woman,' but feel free to categorize me as cis), and if I saw "females only" even without the previous context, I would assume it's most likely (there's a possibility it's not, and I would reach out to ask, but I would otherwise assume it is) trans-exclusionary, or at least trans-insensitive, and warn any transgender friends thinking of attending about it. The context just makes it an even more of a red flag.
posted by brook horse at 5:16 PM on July 13, 2017

I would ask for my money back based on the term "females" being hostile toward pretty much any human who's not a cis man. I sympathize with a lack of good language for what I *hope* they're trying to accomplish, but that ain't it.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:30 PM on July 13, 2017 [11 favorites]

I'm a middle-aged bi cis woman who is pretty in the loop on trans issues, and I would think this was either cluelessly insensitive or else a dog whistle to folks with gender essentialist views that result in trans-exclusionary thinking. Also the term "females" has been so poisoned by the manosphere and milady fedora types that it leaves a rotten taste in my mouth. Because it wasn't offensive when my generation was younger, I still find myself accidentally saying the word in conversation, but I'm trying to unlearn it. I certainly wouldn't put it in writing, much less a description of a public event.
posted by matildaben at 5:35 PM on July 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

I'm a non-passing trans woman. I'm fine with gender-segregated groups. And I would even be fine with cis-women-only groups in situations where that served a real purpose. I could imagine, for instance, setting up a separate cis-only "allies" track at a trans-focused all-women event.

But yeah, I'll admit that — all else equal, with no other information — those group labels would make me a little nervous too, and I'd definitely be on the lookout for hints of TERFiness if I decided to attend either group.

(For what it's worth, the original "women" vs "men and women" phrasing wouldn't have registered as transphobic to me — though if I'd been told I didn't belong in the women's group, I'd sure have been pissed about that.)

I dunno. Is the intent to have the "women"/"females" group be all cis women? Because if that's the intent, then we can talk about whether that's a shitty thing to intend, but honestly in a weird way I'd be grateful to them for labeling the group in a way that hints at that intent, instead of making it sound inclusive and then giving me a hard time when I showed up.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:36 PM on July 13, 2017 [9 favorites]

I am a cis male and even I would give "females only" a good side-eye. It's impossible to tell whether it's being biologically essentiallist or well-intentioned but tonedeaf, but either way it definitely feels off.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:44 PM on July 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

(Though, like, I've also met non-TERFs who are just totally isolated from The Discourse who use "females" with no ill intent — including a surprisingly large number of other trans women who don't spend their time online and don't know it's Problematic and just use it by default where I'd use the word "women." So like let's not have this turn into "nobody should ever say this thing" or "this word is always a TERF tell" or whatever? A lot of people aren't SJWs or TERFs or MRAs or adherents of any other mobilized online linguistic ideology but just random humans using whatever words they've been exposed to.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:45 PM on July 13, 2017 [52 favorites]

Is this organization's leadership predominantly black? I ask only because I think "females" can be used much more broadly and casually in the U.S. black community than elsewhere. Otherwise, yes, I think you're right to read it as a red flag. With the previously mentioned exception, I'd find it a weird usage in a semi-formal setting regardless.
posted by praemunire at 5:55 PM on July 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

"Females" is indicative of nothing, most non-online people do not care, or even if they do care they don't assume everyone has been issued a directive on this word.

As a naive ciswoman, I would assume transwomen were included in "females." But if I were a coswoman attending this event I'd make an effort to contact someone in charge and clarify, and if no ill will, I'd urge them to change the phrasing and clarify. If it was transexclusionary I'd probably decline to attend and let them know why.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:56 PM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Sounds pretty TERF-y to me.
posted by Brittanie at 6:25 PM on July 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Cis woman here. In terms of the group's perceived friendliness to trans women, I would think that "females" is a worse label than "women."

I mean, despite the imprecise language, it's obviously meant as a group for women, including trans women, not just any random female (female dogs, female canaries -- but in any case, only those with vaginas/female sex characteristics allowed). So why not say it's for women? Trans women would probably be more sensitive to all the connotations and history involved, though.

That said, I also very strongly dislike being called a "female." It comes off to me as very disrespectful to refer to a person by their sex. It's like you're talking about an animal, not a human. Yes, I know people do it, and I keep my mouth shut when they do. But I personally find it rude and off-putting. For reasons that don't have a lot to do with the internet.

Why aren't the groups being called "women" and "all gender identities"?

"Female" isn't even a gender identity.

I ask only because I think "females" can be used much more broadly and casually in the U.S. black community than elsewhere.

There's a lot of grim history for why that is both more common and more disturbing, though. It's still an archaic way to refer to people, just with even more disturbing connotations than when you think of the racial history there.

Like I said, I don't like people being referred to as animals or using terms usually reserved for animals, like "a female." I find it disrespectful and inappropriate. Your mileage may vary.
posted by rue72 at 6:31 PM on July 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

There's a lot of grim history for why that is both more common and more disturbing, though. It's still an archaic way to refer to people, just with even more disturbing connotations than when you think of the racial history there.

All the more reason that I'm not going to police it if they choose to use it amongst themselves.
posted by praemunire at 6:59 PM on July 13, 2017

Trans but not transfeminine, I would be very uncomfortable with this change. It comes off as trans exclusionary but if it's not meant to be, then I would guess (since you say they have a mixed history on trans inclusion) that it's an uneducated attempt meant to include trans men, which... would also be bad.
posted by gaybobbie at 8:03 PM on July 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Could they be trying to include teen girls as well as grown-up women?
posted by SandiBeech at 8:30 PM on July 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Trans femme here, and I'd interpret it the same way you do.
posted by kylej at 9:00 PM on July 13, 2017

Thanks everyone. This is very helpful. Based on my knowledge of the organisation, I'd say it's unlikely to be deliberately exclusionary (I think they're well intentioned but a little out of their comfort zone), but given that the phrasing sounds weird to other people I might mention it quietly.

To clarify questions that others have asked:

- praemunire: The organisation is mostly white (which is itself an issue, but a different one).
- SandiBeech: All potential participants are adults, so it's not likely to be a "women and teen girls" thing
- Cosine: In the original context, the separate sessions are probably quite reasonable? I believe the purpose is to ensure that there is a safe space where (cis) women can discuss gender without (cis) men around. It's just not clear to me what implication transgender people are supposed to read into the "female" vs "all genders" framing.
posted by saltbush and olive at 9:12 PM on July 13, 2017

Do you know the session topics?
posted by pharm at 1:15 AM on July 14, 2017

Cis man, I am the sort of person who would normally defend male and female as good, value neutral language. However based on your description it does sound a bit weird.

*Extremely* speculative, I sometimes get the impression male/female is particularly seen as awful in a US cultural context and someone from a different background might use it more neutrally.
posted by curious_yellow at 2:29 AM on July 14, 2017

I would read those signs as meaning: cis women and FtM trans people are welcome in the first group and everyone is welcome in the second group.
posted by colfax at 2:58 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am trans. I would read it as exclusionary. They've figured out that "man" and "woman" aren't great descriptors for everyone, but they seriously think "female" is a better gender descriptor than "woman"? That's what pushes it past incompetence for me. Whether they're owning up to it or not, they only want cis women in that room. Maybe it's clearly articulated transphobia, maybe it's "we have no idea how to facilitate this event if we're talking about a diversity of women's experiences" (including trans women, gender non-conforming cis women and, from the sound of it, women of color), but I would bet anything they're expecting only cis women.

I would read those signs as meaning: cis women and FtM trans people are welcome in the first group

For the record, this ends up being a way of using trans men to marginalise trans women while otherwise ignoring trans men. If someone's organising an event and thinks gender assigned at birth is a good way to split people, they had better think long and hard about it because it's almost never right. Maybe there's a scenario where it makes sense, but I have no idea what it is.
posted by hoyland at 4:04 AM on July 14, 2017 [16 favorites]

As an additional note on the "cis women and trans men" thing, at this point, trans men have largely learned where we're not actually wanted or respected and won't show up to those events. If the organizers know that, they're just using us to marginalize trans women without even having to pretend to care about us. Rewind ten or fifteen years and you'd have gotten some people to show up who'd then get trampled on, but at this point not so much.
posted by hoyland at 4:08 AM on July 14, 2017 [7 favorites]

My sister is a trans woman and I've met a lot of her friends. Some of them, I wouldn't even have known they were a trans woman unless I had been told. So to me the idea of segregating 'woman' and 'trans woman' into separate groups for purposes like this is bizarre. The only event in my life that truly has been a 'women only' thing has been the act of childbirth, and even then, all the professionals involved in that were very, very careful to refer to my spouse as the 'childbirth partner' and not the husband or daddy or anything like that.

It sounds like they are trying, which is a start because it means that if they are told they are coming up short, they might be open to improving. A lighthearted 'oh hey, do you realize how this sounds?' might provoke a response of 'no, we don't, wow, we can try and fix this.' It might not, of course. But it's worth a try.
posted by ficbot at 4:19 AM on July 14, 2017

Literally just saw a discussion about this language elsewhere the other day and, yes, this is (unintentionally?) exclusionary. I agree with ficbot's approach to address it.
posted by hijinx at 5:58 AM on July 14, 2017

Worth a mention. If they aren't using "female" intentionally to sound clinical as a shorthand for "biologically female" or similar transphobic pseudoscience, they should probably know that's what it sounds like-- "You people with your newfangled bs gender identities can go hang out here, but this group is for cis females only. We aren't being exclusionary, this is science fact." As a ton of people have already pointed out, "female" carries a shitload of misogynistic baggage for anyone who's been exposed to the internet in the last 15 years or so, and if they are honestly just well meaning but out of touch, they would probably appreciate being informed that their wording sounds like both transmisogynist and cismisogynist dogwhistling.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 6:19 AM on July 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

im a straight cis dude but interested enough in these issues and have friends and acquaintances involved in all sorts of trans, gnc and trans-adjacent stuff. I think they are either being unintentionally dumb about their language choice (unlikely but I don't have any other context to say) or, as you suspect, attempting to be deliberately exclusive in their choice of terms.

from what I see a much more inclusive word-choice would be 'femme' leaving room for folks who don't even necessarily identify as trans women at all but are outside of dichotomous gender presentations. the events and groups I see doing this tend to include femme under the umbrella of "WTF" for "women, trans, femme" which leaves a lot of room for people who identify in any number of ways.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 6:38 AM on July 14, 2017

I'm trans femme. I don't know about intent, but the effect is (imo undoubtedly) trans exclusionary.

I would be uncomfortable for the reasons you described. I haven't polled my trans femme friends, but they've all expressed similar hesitation about language and signaling trans inclusion/exclusion.
posted by yaymukund at 7:45 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh my I just want to put in another vote for "possibly a clueless error" (though at an organization of this type someone should have caught it): I would have assumed that female--(only) if it was shorthand for "female gendered"--might have felt more broadly welcoming and inclusive to folks on the gender spectrum based on a couple friends or acquaintances I have who identify (whether privately or publicly) as gender queer/bi-gendered/female gendered but have made a decision to not physically transition and still mostly chose gender neutral or stereotypically male gendered clothing, presentation, etc. I can absolutely see how "females" as opposed to "female gendered" can be read as offensive (and loaded with MRA baggage) as an attempt at a broad umbrella term, but honest to god, as someone who doesn't spend much time in these discussions/spaces I would have assumed "female" was gender identity and "woman" was "assigned at birth based on external physiology/chromosomes." I've learned some important info this morning.

Not for nothing, but this is why diverse representation matters on leadership
boards (and in boardrooms, editorial offices, etc)! If there's no one from "x" demographic at the table there's no one to flag "hey, maybe good intent but this is not good for reasons you don't live with and think about on a daily basis."
posted by blue suede stockings at 7:58 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am a ciswoman. Given your update and that you don't think their goal was exclusion, I wonder if someone heard the term "female-identified" somewhere and sort of remembered it wrong? I think it is definitely appropriate to say something along the lines of "Hey, if you're meaning to include trans folks in the "females" category, a lot of people might not read that as including them...could we change the wording to [fill in the blank here that you would prefer]?"
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:04 AM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm a trans man and their revised phrasing comes across as specifically exclusionary of trans women to me. Whether it was intentional is hard to say -- the change in phrasing seems completely unnecessary though (which makes it a bit harder to assume positive intent, imo).

As others have mentioned, they may be trying to include people who are trans masculine with the wording change, but I'd certainly hope not, as most trans men don't identify as women/female and would be unlikely to even attend a session that's intended for such. I also imagine it'd be quite awkward for the women who attend were a trans man to show up to the 'female' session sporting a beard and deep voice (or otherwise fully presenting as a cis man).
posted by stubbehtail at 5:21 PM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Trans masculine non-binary here and I'd feel weird about their wording choice as well. It may be fine and just a poor choice of words.... but I've seen this kind of language used specifically to deny trans women access to women's spaces (and allow access to trans men) far too often. The "men and women" to "all genders" change seems like an effort to be non-binary friendly so that makes me wonder if their intent is genuine... but I'm pretty sure my trans feminine friends would not be so charitable as they have been hurt too many times.

If I were to see an event like this, I would think: Are there any trans women involved in the planning of the events? Are there any trans women involved higher up in the organization? Do you know anything about the women involved and their politics/track record? How have they responded to criticism of their previous events' treatment of trans folks? If I couldn't find tangible proof that it was safe, I would not recommend it to trans feminine friends.

So yeah, it might be worth mentioning to the higher ups. If it is genuinely trans inclusive, make that clear, put it in the description of the event (mainly so that no gender policing will occur if someone is not read as a woman).
posted by buteo at 6:00 PM on July 14, 2017

AFAB nonbinary but definitely nonmasculine here. At best I'd read that as "they only want fully female-identifying people, which leaves me out despite 47 years of living in a body that means others perceive me as female". More likely I'd read it as some kind of dogwhistle, details of which I didn't understand and don't care enough to dig into.
posted by Lexica at 9:18 PM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

it's the same mental calculus as when a dude approaches a femme who is reading in a public space to start a casual conversation. do we know his intent? no. do most femmes in that position want to engage with him? no, because he didn't get the memo on how to make us feel safe. he could have the best intentions, but i don't owe him shit

the event you described has the same chance of being inclusive as the hypothetical stranger has of being respectful in further interactions.
posted by yaymukund at 11:42 PM on July 14, 2017

Masculine binary trans man here. I read "females only" as transfeminine exclusionary and I'd probably be assertive and directly ask if the seminar was inclusive of trans women. If they say no, I'd then ask them if I'm allowed in based on my birth certificate. Once they look at me they'd probably say no to that too.

Better: 1) This workshop is for feminine-identified people welcome; and 2) This workshop is for all genders.
posted by AFABulous at 2:17 PM on July 15, 2017

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