Creating Trans-Inclusive Space Means Unpacking the “Trans” Umbrella

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July 7, 2011
By: Tynan Power/TRT Columnist*
Recently, I was part of a small team that organized an LGBTQ Muslim retreat-the first in over five years. It was a resounding success. Over three days, 70 LGBTQ Muslims shared laughter and tears, prayer and dancing-even a rare lesbian Muslim wedding.

Yet, as with many LGBTQ gatherings, we ran into some gender trouble.

In many orthodox Muslim spaces, gender segregation is de rigeur in both worship and social gatherings. As progressive, feminist and queer Muslims, we had no intention of mimicking that model. Yet some women who registered told us they wanted women-only space in the shared dormitory-style rooms and shared bathrooms. To meet that need, we designated floors as women-only, men-only and mixed.

The first indication we’d gone wrong came from an FTM friend of mine.
The gender separation would require people to choose a gender, alienating genderqueer trans people, he said. It didn’t seem very trans-friendly, so he wasn’t sure he wanted to attend.

We regrouped, creating rooms specifically for trans people. My FTM friend was satisfied with our efforts, so he decided to register.
Ironically, though, he didn’t want to register for the trans space. His concern had been raised as an ally to genderqueer people. My friend himself transitioned years ago, identifies as a man, and views his trans experience as private medical history that he shares with some, but not all. In a gender-segregated space, he belongs with the men.

Only, by then, the men’s rooms had all been booked. He had three options: “out” himself by staying in the “trans-only” space, stay off-site at greater cost and distance from the retreat center, or choose not to attend. He was leaning toward not attending at all. Some juggling went on behind the scenes. Space was found in the men-only section.  It worked out-for him.

Still, we received more emails from trans people and allies, asking whether the event was really safe and inclusive of trans people. We kept trying to address trans needs, but it seemed like we just couldn’t get it right.

Looking back, our challenge wasn’t meeting trans “needs.” The problem was unpacking what we were lumping together as “trans” needs. The trans umbrella covers a lot of ground-and it should, when fighting for our rights collectively. Yet the “trans community” is an amalgamation of many different identities and experiences. To be truly inclusive, we have to “unpack” those identities-just as we have to “unpack” LGBTQ to consider the unique needs of lesbians or bisexuals.

Trans people share some concerns and experiences, but there are many we don’t share. Genderqueer people and trans people who identify “within the binary” as men or women have different challenges around language (like pronouns) and gender-segregation. Trans people of any identity who have not physically transitioned have different daily struggles from those who have. MTFs and FTMs have transition trajectories that go in opposite directions, making our challenges very different.

One lesson I took from the retreat was this: listen, carefully, to what’s actually being requested. We heard a simple request for women-only space; our complicated response spawned new problems. We could have refused to create women-only space beyond sleeping rooms, explaining our belief that traditional gender segregation is rooted in sexism-and that heterosexist norms don’t belong in queer space. We could also have responded simply by creating a women-only area, without creating men-only space no one requested.

I don’t think the LGBT Muslim retreat was unique in the issues we faced-or in the ways we stumbled. We would have stumbled less if we’d thought harder about what it means to be “trans-inclusive.” Still, we managed to create a wonderful retreat that was warm and welcoming. In the end, no one stayed away or felt alienated because of our gender flubs. Like any LGBTQ organization in which the “T” matters, though, we’ll continue to strive to do better, listen harder and learn more.
Questions about the FTM experience? Comments or ideas? Email Ty at tynanpower@yahoo.com.

*Tynan Power is a parent, a writer, a progressive Muslim leader, an interfaith organizer, a (very slow) runner, mostly a big goof, sometimes taken too seriously, loving, gentle, queer and queer-cultured, a pen geek, often dehydrated, and full of wanderlust. He also happens to be a transgender man.