Double Union is dead, long live Double Union!

Update: Some people interpreted this post as supporting various transphobic ideas. I wrote a clarification post here.

As of today, I am certain Double Union is no longer a space that prioritizes people who identify as a woman in a way that is significant to them. This is because I have been permanently banned from Double Union for refusing to prioritize the inclusion of people who do not identify that way.

Some background: In 2013, I co-founded the feminist hackerspace Double Union. At that time, we envisioned a tiny space where the constant hurricane roar of sexism was damped down to a gentle breeze while we worked on our funky art and science projects. We decided to restrict membership to people who identified as a woman in a way that was significant to them for many reasons, one of which was to make sure we always prioritized that group of people.

This year, Double Union changed its membership criteria to “identifies as a woman or non-binary in a way that is significant to you.” To explain what happened next, I need to talk a little about gender and privilege and society.

As any trans person can tell you, the mere act of identifying in your own mind that you are a particular gender does not automatically result in society treating you as that gender–that’s one reason transitioning is so significant. Telling other people that you’re a man won’t make society at large treat you like one–that is, grant you male privilege–you’ll also have to look and act in certain stereotyped ways to get that male privilege from others. At the same time, because we define masculinity as fragile and easily destroyed, when someone publicly identifies as a woman–even partially–they pretty quickly lose most of any male privilege they previously had.

The problem for me personally with the change to the Double Union membership criteria is that some non-binary people are granted significant male privilege by society despite being non-binary, and that has repercussions for a group that, until recently, only included people with relatively little male privilege. It’s possible to be non-binary and receive more male privilege from society than someone who is a cis man–masculinity is complex and fragile. All non-binary people are the targets of transphobia and cis-sexism (the idea that your gender is determined by certain bodily features), but only some non-binary people are the primary targets of sexism (the systemic oppression of women).

After this change, an open question in my mind was: what happens when the interests of members who do identify as women in a way that is significant to them come into conflict with the interests of members who do not? Who will be prioritized?

Last week, I sent an email to the Double Union members list talking about how the Kavanaugh hearings reminded me of one reason why I want a space that, by default, does not include people with significant male privilege. I want a break from the constant background threat of violence–violence that will be covered up and swept under the rug because the person committing it has significant male privilege, the way Kavanaugh’s assault of Dr. Ford was swept under the rug. I talked about how Double Union was no longer that space, and asked if anyone else had experience dealing with this problem, specifically in a group only for members of a marginalized group that includes people who can pass as the privileged group.

The code of conduct committee let me know that I could not even discuss this topic on the members mailing list because it violated the code of conduct by making people who did not identify as women in a way that was significant to them to feel excluded and harmed. I told them I would not agree to this restriction. They banned me.

Whatever Double Union is now, it’s no longer an organization that prioritizes people who identify as a woman in a way that is significant to them. That’s fine; change happens and groups evolve. Double Union is now a place for women and all non-binary people and when the interests of those groups clash, they’ll probably continue to prioritize the inclusion of people who don’t identify as women in a way that is significant to them. I hope they will update the code of conduct to make this clearer; I certainly didn’t understand that my question broke the code of conduct, despite writing a good chunk of it.

Double Union is dead, long live Double Union! It was a fun experiment, and now it is a new, different experiment.

Post-script: Here are a few common criticisms, along with my response:

“You think non-binary people who present as masculine aren’t non-binary. ” Nope, I believe non-binary people are non-binary regardless of their presentation. I also observe that our society grants privileges to people based on a wide variety of signals, and someone’s gender identity is only one of those signals. I wish it weren’t so.

“Non-binary people are more oppressed on the basis of gender than women, all other things being equal. So when the interests of women and non-binary people conflict, we should prioritize non-binary people to fight oppression.” I definitely don’t agree with this. When it comes to gender, the less you are perceived as a woman, the better off you are, roughly. (“Woman” is the “marked” state of gender and “man” is the “unmarked” state–think of a cartoon character, unless it is “marked” female, it is assumed to be male, not female or non-binary.) Some but not all non-binary people experience more oppression than women, all other things being equal. Non-binary people who are granted a lot of male privilege are less likely to experience more oppression on the basis of gender than women.

“Even talking about non-binary people with significant male privilege reinforces the oppressive idea that those non-binary people are really male.” I don’t understand this. Some trans people can pass as cis; talking about that doesn’t reinforce transphobia. Some people of color can pass as white; talking about that doesn’t reinforce racism. This sounds similar to the idea that talking about oppression reinforces oppression, which I also disagree with.

“Non-binary people with significant male privilege don’t have the same experience as men because the privilege doesn’t match their gender identity, which can be oppressive to non-binary people.” I agree, it’s not the same experience and it can be oppressive. That doesn’t stop society from prioritizing their needs over those of people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them.

“All women’s groups should include all non-binary people.” I disagree. I think there are a lot of valid groupings of people along the lines of gender or features we currently associate with gender. I am in favor of groups only for trans women, people with uteruses, non-binary trans masculine people, people assigned female at birth, people questioning their gender, and people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them, to name just a few appropriate groupings.

“Some Double Union members are afraid of people with white privilege or cis privilege, but they don’t get to exclude all white or cis people. Therefore we should not exclude people because they have male privilege.” I don’t get this one; as far as I can tell the argument is that you can never eliminate differences in privilege between members of a marginalized group, so… you should never create a group that excludes people based on any element of identity? If one person is afraid… the group can’t have any boundaries at all? By this argument, Double Union should start including people of all genders. Personally, I’d rather put more effort into stopping racism and cis-sexism and other forms of oppression at Double Union, which is why I budgeted a significant fraction of our income for that when I was on the board of directors. I support groups for people at the intersection of oppressed groups, such as Black Girls Code. Double Union already has events only for members who are people of color and other marginalized groups; I want more of those events. My best guess for why this argument keeps coming up is that many people are socialized to think it is wrong for people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them to prioritize themselves as a group.