Trans Women in Women’s Spaces: A Reflection on the Transition of Privilege and Belonging

Autumn is a junior Meyerhoff Scholar (M29), pursuing a BS in Chemistry and a BA in Gender, Women and  Sexuality Studies dual degree, and currently a student intern at the Women’s Center.

Content Note: The content of this blog may be triggering. Topics addressed by this blog include transphobia, menstruation, pregnancy, dysphoria, and gender-confirmation surgery.

When I first received an offer to intern at the Women’s Center, I was very excited. Throughout my years at UMBC, the Women’s Center quickly became my home away from home and was a place to feel safe, included, and accepted. I participated in as many events as possible and volunteered whenever I had the time. I even had the privilege of being able to facilitate Spectrum meetings for a semester before formally joining the staff. By working in the Women’s Center, I thought I would be able to help create an even better space for the people I shared the space with and new community members alike. 

However, even while writing this blog post, I experience imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is “the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications—was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.” I think that the sheer complexity of how this imposter syndrome is taking effect for me (and people like me with a pretty fraught, tenuous and ever-changing relationship with womanhood) is demonstrated in the carefulness of the words that I am using in this blog. This is a really multifaceted issue that deals with dysphoria, internalized transphobia, the differences of experiences between marginalized identities and intersectionality. 

Vaginas!? 

When I was born, the doctor looked at my genitals and proclaimed to the world and the government that “It’s a boy.” For those who know me, it is somewhat obvious that this label did not stick for the “normal” amount of time (read: the entire lifespan). If you’ve not caught on yet, I’m very much not a boy anymore and I identify as a nonbinary trans woman (I know its a bit of an oxymoron; gender is FUNKY).

gif of person dancing

I experience marginalization and oppression, but I also have privilege in this identity. I struggle with the privilege I have by being a trans feminine person that was able to come out early on in my life and that I was able to start my medical transition when I still was in high school. 

Even so, working in the Women’s Center at UMBC as a nonbinary, transgender woman is peculiar. Because of my experiences with transness and my body, I am not the best equipped to assist with issues that students may come to the Women’s Center to address. For example, I don’t have a vagina (YET!), and I didn’t grow up with one, therefore I don’t have the first-hand knowledge that comes with menstruating, pregnancy, or growing up as an AFAB person in a heterosexist and misogynistic society. 

This has made interactions with some community members weird when they ask for help with things I don’t have experience with. I’m deathly afraid of giving the wrong advice or having an interaction that makes someone uncomfortable. If a community member comes into the Center and asks about internal condoms or pregnancy tests (while I’m not uneducated on the subjects) I cannot give as good of an answer as someone with experience.  Even when I am pointing out the tampons and pads that the Women’s Center offers to the community for free, I deal with that fear and alienation. 

As a transfeminine person, I am acutely aware of how “womanhood,” as the greater society knows it, is defined in bioessentialist definitions. When doing the work that involves vaginas and helping people with vaginas, I am always reminded of the “essential” difference of my body and that I am not fully “them.”

I am wondering how much this anxiety stems from internalized transphobia that I have surrounding transgender women, including myself, not really being “full” women or that I don’t truly belong in a women’s space. Throughout my life, the topic of periods, reproduction and menstrual products have always been a sticking point for me and my experience: a constant trigger for my dysphoria. It’s a common trigger for a lot of trans women, not just because of the consistent TERF bioessentialist dog whistles, but because we as trans women lack the thing that is worshiped as a pillar of western societal femininity: the ability to reproduce. Of course, I want to acknowledge that this is a completely bogus measure of femininity because the ability to reproduce is completely disconnected to femininity. Femininity and reproduction are two distinct aspects of humanity that are conflated in a way that serves to not only enforce exclusion but to oppress those who do not fit the societal standards. To some extent, I believe that I’m invading a space that I really do not have the right to inhabit. 

Privileged Transitions

In terms of my transition, I am exceptionally privileged. I was born to an accepting family who supported me when I came out after my freshman (literally “man”) year of high school. Me coming out to them was a bit of an accident even, but it went well. I was able to access hormones soon after and I just scheduled bottom surgery for after I graduate from UMBC. I’m white and I pass as a cis woman reasonably well, and I have the resources to access my endocrinologist regularly and I am able to afford my medical treatment. I also have the privilege of growing up as someone who was assigned male at birth in a society that greatly values maleness, especially in science and in leadership. Because of my socialization, I am allowed a higher level of confidence and ownership in science and leadership than someone who was reared as a woman in the same fields.

All of these compounding areas of privilege greatly influence how I can exist in a space, and how much space I take up, especially at a women’s center. As someone who was reared as a male in our society, it sometimes feels really weird to go to events that specifically cater to women.

I also see my own experience paralleled in a previous Women’s Center staff member Daniel, as they had to grapple with the realities of being a trans man when working in the Women’s Center. In their blog post about male privilege, Daniel discusses how they strive to be cognizant of the space they take up within the Women’s Center because Dan’s privilege is not as cut and dry as one might see between a cis man and a cis woman. Their blog posts detailed how they saw themselves within the Women’s Center as a “white, medically transitioning, ‘passing’ man,” and how that influenced Dan’s participation. Even though they have the privileges afforded to white men, because of their transness, Daniel is precariously perched on the Glass Elevator and experiences marginalization at the hands of a heterocissexist society. Although the experiences of all trans people are not the same, I can deeply relate to Dan’s experiences as a student staff member at the Women’s Center.

Privilege aside, there is a level of marginalization that I experience in entering and being a part of the Women’s Center. Cis women come into this space and feel entitled to it. Me? I do… and I also pause. I enter the space tentatively because my sense of belonging is not always assured. 

Existing Within the Bounds of My Triggers

Throughout my transition, my dysphoria, anxiety, and depression has been pretty intensely triggered by the topics of menstruation, reproduction, and topics around cis-women bodies. 

I was really, really worried about this when I started at the Women’s Center because I imagined that it would be very hard for me to remove myself from potentially triggering situations when I’m working (such as a community member needing assistance with something). I still really struggle with this even as I am halfway through my internship. However, I’ve been a lot less triggered by these situations than I thought I would initially.

I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I feel like this ease comes in part from the ability to put boundaries between my own sense of self and my sense of representing the Women’s Center. Regardless of what this means about my self-esteem and coping, boundaries allow me to exist and operate in this work.

Ultimately, I think that it is okay and normal to be uncomfortable in some spaces. This discomfort is good. The oppressive nature of the gender binary and the heterocissexist society is diametrically opposed to the reality that trans people live so discomfort is inevitable. But when dealing with big, overarching systems of power that influence our lives, sometimes identifying that there even is a problem is the first step of trying to challenge the norms. In other words, without identifying the problem, it is impossible to generate a solution. It may seem like the big, overall problem is the Gender Binary™, but I think there is a smaller, more pervasive issue when thinking and talking about how transgender people fit within the model of a women’s center. 

I think that the problem isn’t that transgender people do not fit into the current framework of mainstream feminism. The real problem is with those who either knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate systems of oppression (read: most everyone), and don’t use their power or privilege toward the radical but simple process of affirming transgender identities. In spaces like the Women’s Center, trans people should not only feel welcome but also a sense of home and belonging–and it’s cis people’s prerogative to either build those bridges with intentionality and care or continue a system that oppresses everyone: the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

My transness is an integral part of my identity, and I’m exceptionally proud of it. However, I know that my belonging in the Women’s Center is not just tied to my identity as a nonbinary trans woman. In the Women’s Center, I am surrounded by people who support and care for me and it is in that where the promise of real and actionable liberatory justice resides.

FEMINIST KILLJOY ALERT: Stop Making Fun of Black and Brown Girls

Nandi is a Junior, English major, student staff at the Women’s Center, and member of the Retriever Poets slam poetry team

(Still from Girlhood (2014))

  Picture this: It is 7:25AM in your high school. You are a student there again (I know, bare with me). You are barely awake, as is the natural order of things. Then, from the stupor of the morning a voice rings out clear as the lunch bell, “GIRL BYE, YOU PLAY TOO MUCH. SEE YOU, BESTIE”. She strolls into homeroom, late like every day, in pajama pants with an Arizona iced tea firmly in hand. You wonder how she can muster up the will to socialize outside of polite grunts at this hour, and you decide that you’ll just never get it. She is extremely friendly with the teacher while she expertly swoops her baby hairs into little parabolas. Everyone in the room seems on edge. She is so outside of the norm that nobody quite knows how to handle her, so most just settle on annoyance. But really, what makes her so different? Perhaps it is the fact that on a girl who already operates at about a 7-9, darker skin just seems to turn everything up to 11. 

     Navigating the school system as Black and Brown girls is no easy task. Especially at a predominantly white institution (PWI) that seldom gives you the space to express yourself fully. Seizing the little opportunities that you get to be yourself is so crucial to staying afloat in a system that, due to varying forms of segregation in most places, was built specifically to exclude you. For a lot of girls, and women, that may look like having your favorite snack in your bag, doing beauty rituals every day, or laughing as loud as you possibly can whenever the mood strikes. But again, you are at a PWI so how is all of this being filtered through the white gaze? 

     Recently on Tik-Tok, the latest video format social media app, teens have been making a barrage of memes about the “Hot Cheeto Girls” at their schools. The jokes range from harmless self-roasts reliant on the Hot Cheeto Girl as a framing device, to downright racist depictions by white teens. Now, memes are memes, but examining the origins of our humor opens us up to exploring our internal biases and unspoken beliefs. The beliefs presented here are somewhat obvious and representative of known implicit biases in the school system. People feel that Hot Cheeto Girls are extraordinarily loud, which is underscored by the belief that these young women should be quiet. Classmates find them mean and abrasive, and we know that Black and Brown women are consistently seen as far more aggressive than their white counterparts. Hot Cheeto Girls are stereotyped as “ghetto”, which places them right in the cross-hairs of ALL the violent discrimination that the term evokes. 

     Being up against all of this racism, misogyny, and misogynoir and still choosing to be your authentic self takes a lot of confidence. The double-edged sword here is the fact that expressing this confidence daily renders these young women hypervisible. Hypervisibility is the way that people of color are subjected to higher levels of surveillance and judgement, which results in more focus on their shortcomings and failures. Constantly being under the microscope in this way is damaging because it carries over into other areas of life. Being conditioned by the school system and their peers to see themselves as too loud, too disruptive, too aggressive, and deviant just by way of existing in their bodies contributes to lower self-esteem overall. In short, it just isn’t fair to be the butt of everyone’s joke. 

(from @whorati0 on TikTok)

     I think that there should be more jokes in praise of the Hot Cheeto Girl. I think that we should recognize their inherent joy and infectious laughter. I think that working to cultivate more genuine self-expression in schools at every level is something that we should do more. This world, so wrapped up in oppressive, normative fallacies, would be far more equitable and inclusive if people took the time to challenge their biases before making fun of what is strange to them. Recognizing women of color’s voices, especially when they are loud and excitable, as valuable and vibrant is a small step that all of us in academia can take to realize this goal.