Argument for Stronger Trans-Inclusion
at the Lesbian Sex Mafia
Important Note: On February 17, 2008, the Lesbian Sex Mafia announced the results of the vote on a motion to remove the rule "If you have a bio-penis, please keep it covered" from LSM’s party etiquette. The motion passed by a majority vote of LSM’s membership and the rule has been removed!
A month earlier, on January 18, 2008, LSM held a members-only meeting at the LGBT Center in New York to discuss this party etiquette rule. Throughout the almost two-hour-long meeting, pledge and full members of LSM spoke both for and against the rule. The first 48 signatures of our petition were submitted for LSM’s records, and a number of the argument segments that we collectively wrote were spoken as part of the proceedings and submitted for inclusion in the minutes. At the end of the meeting, LSM full members voted on a motion to remove the rule from LSM’s party etiquette policy. The minutes for that meeting were then compiled and transmitted to the LSM full members who were unable to be present at the meeting along with a confidential ballot. The deadline for voting was Saturday, February 16, 2008 — and LSM announced that the motion passed on the following day.
We want to thank everyone who took the time to sign our petition, to write such considered and passionate responses, to talk with us over email and LiveJournal and the telephone and in person, and contributed to our thoughts, strategies and the argument below. While this is a marvelous victory, we know this is just one step in the greater fight for trans-inclusion and sex liberation in our communities. We’ll be continuing to work at LSM to improve our policies and make the organization more inclusive, supportive, educational and hot for everyone. If parts of this argument are helpful to you in organizing for stronger trans-inclusion in your community, please feel free to redistribute this language. Just drop us a line to let us know where you’ve reposted — and how your fight is going, too.
In peace and solidarity,
The Folks at CC4D
Who We Are, Inside and Outside of LSM
We are a group of cisgender, genderqueer and transgender members of the Lesbian Sex Mafia and allies. In late 2007, we started meeting to discuss strategies to remove LSM’s now-defunct party etiquette rule “If you have a bio-penis, please keep it covered.”1 Together, we have discussed and debated and written and revised the following collective argument. Since the Lesbian Sex Mafia uses a modified version of Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct meetings, we began our argument with our proposed motion. The arguments thereafter have been split into sections that can be comfortably read in two minutes, which is the time limit for speeches during LSM’s membership meetings.
Safety & Comfort, part 1
We have been hearing from a few people that they know they will have a gut reaction to the sight of a penis at a party; that they will cringe or feel uncomfortable or unsafe. It is important not to confuse safety with comfort. Everyone has the right to be safe at our parties. A primary goal at all of our parties is to make sure that no one is in any meaningful danger — that play is safe, sane and consensual. But it is important not to confuse being safe and “feeling safe” — when people talk about feeling safe they generally actually mean feeling comfortable, and that is not something we are similarly entitled to. Especially at a play party — a space where everyone entering understands that intense, possibly upsetting things will be happening around them. Where most forms of play are concerned, it is widely agreed that having a visceral reaction to someone else’s scene doesn’t mean that the people involved in the scene are doing anything wrong, nor that the person disturbed by it has any right to stop them so they can feel safe. We are asking people to remember that their reactions to trans women’s bodies are their own, and are not a response to any danger trans women actually pose to them. We are asking people to treat their feelings at the sight of trans women’s genitals the same way they would treat a similar reaction to any other scene they found overwhelming or disturbing to witness, rather than putting it into a special category wherein it’s acceptable to make rules about how others should behave so we can feel safe.
LSM is not intended to be a safe space, except in the limited sense of “safe, sane, and consensual,” which is about avoiding real danger and has nothing to do with always feeling comfortable. LSM is intended to be an educational space, and an exploratory space. These goals are irreconcilable with the idea of a safe space. It’s impossible to learn and to play without taking any risks. If the primary goal of LSM’s space was for it to be completely safe, we would forbid anything that might trigger people or make them feel threatened — and nothing at all would happen at our play parties.
Safety & Comfort, part 2
The notion of safety and comfort is very tricky in a space where people regularly do incredibly disturbing things to one another. LSM allows people to beat each other with fists, flails, canes, bats, chairs, whips and anything else handy. We allow people to run needles and hooks through other people’s flesh, and run scalpel blades over skin to release blood and leave scars. LSM allows people to do rape scenes, gang takedowns, daddy/mommy play, torture and interrogation, service, vampires and animal role play. Given the right facilities, LSM allows people to piss and shit on each other. What every player does and desires in the scene is not safe or comfortable for everyone else. Play that is fully negotiated, safe, sane and consensual may, nevertheless, be deeply disturbing to people. However, feeling disturbed or uncomfortable is not a criteria that LSM, under any other circumstances, uses to interrupt and stop a scene. This policy, though, does just that by declaring that some people’s bodies cannot be viewed at a party and sends the message that those bodies (not even particular acts) are too disturbing or uncomfortable for others to be acceptable.
In effect, what the policy asks trans women to do is consent to being treated differently from everyone else in the group. And in consenting to that, we ask trans women to accept the unspoken premise that their comfort and safety is less important than the comfort and safety of those who feel uncomfortable with them, and must be sacrificed.
Respecting Women’s Space vs. Respecting Trans Bodies?
It seems to be a common sentiment that this policy isn’t important or harmful because “all we’re asking trans women to do is respect women’s space.” But — leaving aside for the moment the fact that LSM advertises itself as a women and trans space — this seemingly straightforward request to “respect women’s space” is not as simple and harmless as it seems.
Trans women are often already starting from a place of deep ambivalence toward and shame about their bodies. It can be tremendously difficult to have your physical body seem to be in conflict with a strong and deeply held sense of self, and to have that body interfere with other people perceiving and accepting you as the person you know yourself to be. This is only made more painful by living in a society that tells trans people that both their bodies and their identities are wrong, and refuses to engage with them based on who they are rather than what they look like. This policy mandates and reinforces that shame, imposes it from outside. At the very least, in asking trans women to hide their bodies away where they can’t upset anyone, we ask them to concede that our feelings of ambivalence and discomfort about their bodies are valid, and a reasonable basis on which to decide their behavior. We are asking these women to agree with us that their bodies are dangerous, to be as deeply uncomfortable with them as we are and act accordingly.
A Transwoman’s Perspective
A trans woman that we spoke to gave us this statement:
I am a transgenderqueer woman who is not a member of LSM. More accurately, I am woman who is beginning to recognize that play parties and sex-positive spaces are not liberating, safe spaces where I feel accepted and welcome enough to be able to be vulnerable.
The last few Submit parties and the Desire party I went to I’ve cried while walking home, cried on the subway, cried at home. As queer people, I’m sure that most of us share the experience of being the only one, the lonely one, the one who has to tolerate the bile and abuse that other people throw at us, the freak.
Like a lot of women, I have issues with my body. I’m fat, I’m ugly. But I also have the shame of being transgenderqueer. I’m told that I’m dangerous, I’m the person who will break communities apart, create schisms, if people even talk about me. I make women’s spaces unsafe. I’m the rapist of your childhood. I’m the rapist of my childhood. I am one of Them.
I’m not allowed to have a cunt. My cunt can’t be seen, it can’t be touched, it can’t be pleasured because it will make the space unsafe. My cunt can only be the hidden, hideous it. My cunt can’t be part of me.
I’ve found that at play parties I can only take the role I was taught to take as a child. I can pleasure other people, I can fuck them with my mouth, my hands, I can make them cum, and I’m really good at that, but I am not allowed to be pleasured. I’m not allowed sex. I can cause pain, I can take pain, but I can’t be cherished. Instead of joy, I’m told to feel shame, live in it and breath it, to be shame.
I feel all this each time I go to a party alone, hang around shy and awkward a bit while no one talks to me, and then leave. So I’m sad and lonely and try to work through my sexual trauma by myself. It’s getting too painful to even try to get a date, to put that hope out there. I get flagged for posting in women4women sections, and where I’m supposed to post in craigslist is the miscellaneous section, and there is no button for t4women. I can be a she-male, I’m perpetually the first time for someone who wants a chick with a dick. At Paddles, I’m really attractive and wanted until I tell them I’m trans, and then suddenly I’m challenging. I’m anything but just another girl.
This is my sex life, my reality. I am so hungry for touch, and the only thing I can do is hug myself.
A Survivor’s Perspective
We spoke to a survivor who shared this statement with us:
I know some people say that this policy is to protect survivors from being triggered by the sight of a “bio penis.” The truth is, anything can trigger me. I can walk down the street and get triggered. I can stay at home and get triggered. I can get triggered by something someone says, by how I feel, by what’s going on in my body. There are lots of things at a play party that could trigger me, and they are not trans women’s bodies.
My triggers are just that. Mine. It would not be fair or practical to ask you to try to protect me from my own triggers. They are my responsibility. I was robbed of my choices when I was abused. In owning responsibility for my triggers, I take that back. I own my experience. I get to decide what I do about it. I get to ask for help if I want, or go resolve it myself if I want. Nobody has the right to protect me from my choices.
I know what it’s like to be isolated from the community support I need. I know what it’s like to be shamed about my body. I know what it’s like to not be seen as a whole person, to be reduced to the gender box someone put me in. All of that is what perpetrators did to me. That is what LSM is doing to trans women, and it does not protect me, it hurts me. In fact, it triggers me. Thinking about how people justify this policy as a way to protect me turns my stomach into a twisting ball of knots.
I don’t want your protection. It comes at too high a cost. And I’m not just talking about the cost of trans hatred and fear in my community, which is a high enough cost for me. I’m talking about the cost to my dignity and right to choose for myself. By thinking you need to protect me, you are sending me a message. You are saying that you have no faith in my ability to care for myself. That you see me as helpless and as a victim, forever. That you would rather protect me than listen to what I really need. That you would rather decide to hide “penises” away than to set up policies to effectively deal with harassment and violence in our community. Is that the message you want to send to survivors?
A Transmasculine Argument Against This Policy
Another problematic aspect of the policy is the attitude it displays towards the transmasculine members of LSM, and the relationships they have with their bodies. Many female-assigned people who identify as male relate to their genitalia as male — one woman’s clit is another man’s dick. Furthermore, hormonal treatment can alter the shape and size of female-assigned genitalia so that the only difference between them and a “bio-dick” is the size. A policy against the sight of “bio-penis” at parties that allows transmen to expose their bodies is inherently disrespectful to some people’s relationship with their bodies, and in fact to their entire identity. It implies that no matter what they call themselves, trans men are still female with female bodies. This policy as it stands is invalidating and exclusionary for many people on the transmasculine spectrum.
Another unexpected consequence is that this policy serves to reinforce sexism and misogyny by privileging male bodies over female bodies. LSM is a strongly feminist organization — it is perhaps the only political stance we are consistently willing to take — and would never do so deliberately. But in saying that male-bodied and male-identified people can engage in activities barred to female-bodied and female-identified people, we give men rights and privileges in our space that not all women have. We do that by reducing people’s identities to their genitals, and not fully respecting their authentic genders.
If we use a vagina to determine who is “female enough” to expose their bodies in this space, then allowing trans men to use their bodies implies that they are not “male enough.” Asking trans women to keep their bodies covered reduces their entire identity to the one body part that makes them “too male.” This is exactly the sort of essentialism and biological determinism that feminism has been fighting against for decades — that our bodies determine who we are and what we are allowed to do. We would be on much safer ground to do away with such criteria all together, and welcome all trans bodies and identities, rather than imposing our own meanings on them.
Women’s Space, part 2
People have asked about the meaning of women’s space, and whether people who “want” penises exposed really want a women’s space, or whether they would be more comfortable in a mixed space. This side-steps the question of trans women being, first and foremost, women. In a women’s space — especially one like LSM, that presents itself as a women and trans space — all women should be welcome on equal terms. There should be no reason for trans women to feel more comfortable in a mixed space — they’re not mixed, they’re women. Sending trans women to a mixed space is in effect saying that they have a mixed gender, that their bodies are in some way not women’s bodies. This is both unfair and untrue. If we accept that trans women are women — which we, as an organization, claim to do — it follows that their bodies are women’s bodies and we must accept them as such.
It has also been pointed out that, while there are many spaces throughout the city where penises can be exposed and played with, LSM is one of the only spaces where one can go and be confident of not encountering a penis. This is not exactly accurate. It’s true that there are pansexual spaces where, supposedly, all bodies are welcome. But leaving aside the question of whether trans women would feel safe and comfortable showing their bodies in those spaces, what is lacking is spaces in the women and trans community where this is true. There is nowhere in New York where pre- or non-operative trans women can go to be surrounded by and accepted as women where they are welcome to show and use their bodies — where they can be fully accepted as women within the women’s community, bodies and all. We do want women’s space. More than that, we seek to strengthen and build women’s space, and we want a women’s space where all women are equally welcome and can participate on equal terms.
The Surgical Implications of This Policy
The entire point of play parties is for people to play and have sex with each other. Many of the ways we play here — from spanking and flogging to getting each other off — often or usually require people to take off their clothes. In asking trans women to “respect women's space,” we are also asking them to accept that play parties have an entirely different purpose as far as they’re concerned — that they can attend, and they can watch (and even engage in forms of play that involve staying at least partially clothed, as long as they always stay conscious of what they are wearing and doing, how they are positioned, and whether anyone can see their body), but they can’t participate in the same ways everyone else can.
Unless they’ve undergone major surgery.
Often in discussions like these, the assumption exists that if a trans woman has a firm and abiding identity as a woman, she will get gender confirmation surgery (often referred to as sex reassignment surgery) and her body will not be an issue. But the fact is that for many women, gender confirmation surgery takes years to achieve, while other women will never have it; their reasons range from inability to afford the enormous cost, to complicating medical conditions, to concerns about the painful recovery and the possibility of highly unsatisfactory results. More fundamentally, no women should need to have major surgery in order to be a full member of our community — yet that is the effect of our current policy. We would never dream of asking any other group to accept major surgery in order to play at our parties the way other people can, the way we intend our parties to be played at. Doing so is completely counter to LSM’s stated purpose. As was mentioned in the initial motion, the LSM by-laws state, “Transsexual women who live their daily lives as women are among the intended membership of LSM and are not subject to any terms of membership, application for membership or membership procedure that differ from those of any other woman.” A surgical requirement for full participation could not be a clearer example of a way in which trans women are being subjected to terms that differ from those of other women.
Penises as Symbols of Male Power
It’s been asked why a trans woman would want to be nude or use her penis at a party anyway, and how that is consistent with her identity as a woman. But there are cisgender women in this room right now who identify strongly with their strap-ons — their cocks — and wish to show and use them as a part of their sexual selves. We do not question that desire, or imply that it invalidates their female identities. And a trans woman’s desire could be much simpler and easier to understand. If she wants to receive sexual pleasure rather than only give it, she must use the genitals she has. If she wants to be fully accepted in this space on the same terms as everyone else, that also must involve permission to be nude in her current body. Neither of these desires is all that difficult to understand.
We play with and accept many forms of masculinity in this space. We are welcoming to butch women and trans men, and we allow people to wear strap-ons and use them to fuck others. Even for those who can only understand a trans woman’s genitals as masculine regardless of how she herself views them, masculinity itself is not beyond the pale here at LSM. A penis is only the ultimate arbiter of maleness if we choose to view it that way. There is nothing about a penis that is inherently so powerfully male that it should negate a trans woman’s female identity and gender expression, and the femaleness of her body. And there is nothing about a trans woman’s genitals in and of themselves that endanger the women around her. Penises may have that power when they are used to enact violence, but it is unfair of us to project the ideas we associate with penises onto the bodies of trans women and then expect them to act as if the most relevant thing about their bodies is the meanings we have decided they hold for us.
The Problem of the Deceitful Cisgender Man
Another concern we’ve heard is that allowing the sight of penises at our parties will allow cisgender (or non-transgender) men to sneak in, presumably disguised as trans women. But changing this policy will not change who is allowed to attend our parties — if cisgender men are not sneaking into our parties now, they won’t be able to without this rule. This argument is painfully close to the transphobic lesbian separatist arguments that were used to purge trans women from women’s spaces during the 1970s and in the sex wars of the 1980s — that trans women themselves were men in disguise sent to infiltrate and corrupt the “pure female energy” of these spaces. Similarly, queer women were made unwelcome in straight feminist space, and kinky or butch women were unwelcome in vanilla lesbian space, because they were perceived as predators. LSM itself was formed in response to that violence, to create a space for women to explore BDSM away from persecution. Do we really want to continue the cycle?
If we don’t have rigorous and clear policies about how and when we would eject a person from a party, then we should. We need an anti-harassment or anti-violence policy. Who does one talk to when one feels harassed at an LSM party? Who intervenes, and how, and how is it decided whether intervention is necessary? Do we have Dungeon Monitors or LSM Representatives who are trained in conflict resolution? These are all questions we should know the answers to if we want everyone to be safe at our parties. Rather than regulating trans women’s bodies just in case cisgender men are trying to sneak into our spaces, we should take on the significantly more relevant (and inclusively framed) topic of one party-goer harassing another. An inclusive and discerning policy that applied to all party-goers would effectively handle the hypothetical deceiving cisgender man.
The alternative is for LSM to be responsible for policing the genders of everyone at our parties. Such an endeavor is both grossly unwieldy and morally repugnant. We are not impartial gender experts. Our goal should be to create an environment of mutual respect and safety from harassment and abuse, rather than to question people’s genders and police safe and consensual behavior.
We Can Make This Nightmare End — and We Should.
Another thing that we have heard over and over again from people is how much people do not want to have this conversation. Many of us have been deeply involved in other fights around trans-inclusion in recent years, and the debate is often extremely intense and emotionally gruelling. “This is a nightmare! Why can’t we just get to the good stuff?” some have wondered, while others have said, “I’m not here for the politics, I’m here to play!”
We hear you. But the Lesbian Sex Mafia is an incorporated educational non-profit in New York, and the oldest women and trans BDSM organization in the country. LSM does a service to the community by bringing in presenters from all over to put on monthly demos on different topics, like the Mummification Exploratorium happening after this meeting (the January 18, 2008 Members-Only Business Meeting). LSM throws kick-ass sex & play parties twice a year and creates a strong educational and social space for women and trans folks to explore their sexuality as they choose. There really is nothing else like it in the city. Which is why we are fighting so hard to make it a more inclusive space for trans people, and women-folk of all kinds with all sorts of genders and bodies.
Even more, with the integrity of our conversation here in New York, LSM can model solid policy and process to other BDSM and women’s organizations across the country — and people most certainly do look to LSM to lead the way. Some may think that policies like this only effect a small number of people — those who join LSM and those who attend our parties — but the ramifications of our policies go much farther than that. People travel from near and far to attend LSM events — especially our parties — and the internet has opened up these discussions to an international audience. People come to us, they see how we do it here, and they take our ideas home with them to their local groups. Quite simply, it matters what LSM’s policies are because people all over the world care about what LSM is doing.
How could LSM policies actually follow LSM’s stated purpose? The scrutiny that we’ve brought tonight to this party etiquette rule cannot be the end of our conversation about trans-inclusion, resources for survivors, gender liberation and sex-positivity. We support and strongly encourage LSM to form a committee focused on trans-inclusion to examine the entire organization and work collectively to bring back recommendations to the membership. We also strongly support a committee focused on survivors of violence and abuse with a similar purpose. This party etiquette rule does an end-run around the hard work it will take to make our parties, and our organization, safe and welcoming for women and trans people. We need to closely examine how LSM can substantively stand in alliance with women, trans folks, and survivors beyond our parties, recognizing that none of those categories are mutually exclusive.
We are asking you to consider — there is another way for us to be together, to learn from one another, to be allies and lovers and friends — and to fight against this system which seeks to pit us against each other, as if there is only so much safety in the world, only so much equality to go around, and that those of us getting fucked by the short end of the stick need to sacrifice each other to survive. Our oppressors will always give us opportunities to sell each other out — we must fight that. We are beautiful, all of us. Our desire is beautiful and dangerous and wonderful.
Stand with us and cast your vote in favor of our motion to remove this rule from LSM policy.
Not an LSM Full Member? Make your voice heard by signing our petition!
4. According to the LSM By-Laws, as amended by a vote of the membership on October 19, 2007, membership in the Lesbian Sex Mafia is open to all women 18 years of age or older, including transsexual and intersexed women who live their daily lives as women and all female-born transgender people who have a connection to and respect for the women’s community. For more information about LSM Membership procedures, visit http://www.lesbiansexmafia.org/membership.html.