Transwomen in the women's spa

Over the summer, I had a lively e-mail exchange with a Toronto, Ontario friend, Rachel.

A spa we sometimes visit was embroiled in a dispute; a Toronto transgender woman tweeted that the when her partner called to arrange a surprise visit as a gift, the spa refused to to admit her. (Source: CBC News article, posted here.)

How the matter came up during the attempted booking is not stated. (I cannot help but imagine a Pythonesque moment, when John Cleese says: "Right, then: 2 p.m. on Wednesday. Now, your guest doesn't have a willy, does she?") 

At Body Blitz, a soak in a series of thermal pools at various temperatures is completed as a circuit, and may be done nude or in a swimsuit. The spa cited a no-male-genitals policy (which I do not see on the web site) and said that they "support the LGBT community and recognize that this is a sensitive issue. However, because Body Blitz is a single-sex facility with full-nudity, we are not like other facilities." 

Rachel asserts that a transwoman does not have the same status as a woman assigned female gender at birth, saying: "There is a small part of me that bristles at the idea that a trans woman can assume sisterhood with cisgender women and demand equality at Body Blitz, when for millennia women everywhere have suffered and struggled for the most basic of human rights and continue to do so."

And she most definitely does not want to see male genitals when she has booked into a female-only spa. She fears the sight may affect other patrons because of painful past incidents. 

My view is that if that woman has transitioned (with or without genital reconstruction surgery) and can produce proof of female identification, e.g., a driver's license, she ought to be admitted. Her transition—which is even without surgery, arduous—will not impede or dilute the fight for human rights for any population. 

You might wonder, Why does that woman still have male genitals? I don't know (and it is none of my business), but an increasing number of transwomen are refusing surgery. Jae Alexis Lee has posted a list of  reasons here.

The prospect of seeing male organs disturbs Rachel. (It seems that no matter what, her brain is flashing, Men in here!) I wonder whether—to help patrons like her to accept the physical diversity of this group—a woman who still had male genitalia would wear a swimsuit, which I grant sounds repressive, but may be a temporary middle road. In the last five years, I'd estimate that at least 80% of patrons wear suits, so she'd be in a majority.

Rachel says she would be upset to see such a woman nude, but sometimes times change faster than our comfort level. In Ontario, any resident can now refuse the binary designation for the province's identity documents, designating an X instead of M or F. This tempest in a salt pool is only the beginning.

Of course another solution is to open such facilities to a mixed clientele: male, female and X: everybody in the pool! I've spent plenty of time at hot springs where mixed nude bathing was the custom, but Rachel does not want that, either. I'd be sorry to see that all-women haven go, too; there's a kind of bonding. I'll never forget one woman of about fifty who sat at the edge of the frigid plunge pool for twenty minutes, weeping into the bodice of a cherry-red two-piece, then saying, "I can do this". In she went, and the whole room burst into cheers.

But for now we circle the issue of what is a woman. Maybe there are varieties of women. If we look at other species, some fish turn into another gender; parrotfish have sex organs of both sexes. We humans continue to learn about the range of chromosome complements, hormone balances and phenotypic variations, challenging our ideas about both sex and gender. 

Though I dip into essays about gender theory and feminism, I prefer to think about how we choose to relate to one another as we make our way through life. Even essays written fifteen years ago can sound dated. In 2009, Germaine Greer wrote in "The Whole Woman", "No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if (they) were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight."

I know several transwomen or their families who are not in agreement. And what of those women who were born with a uterus and ovaries, and no longer have them? Just try telling them they lost their real-woman status.

After being confronted by my own startled response in the past, thinking about it, meeting more transwomen, and speaking to friends who work with their communities, I have decided that if a person believes she is a woman, I will accept her as one. Otherwise, I would be one of the persons who relegate her to society's edges, and that is not a world I want to support. 

Where will this all end up? Will people look back in fifty or eighty years look back and find the matter quaint as ladies-and-escorts entrances at taverns?

I am grateful to my friend for her thoughtful e-mails. She may never be comfortable with that woman in the spa, but she is questioning her conditioning. 

We have those moments as we mature; yours may be about something else. I'd learn a great deal if you would like to tell us. 



  




24 comments

Laura Jantek said...

Brilliant and thoughtful; thought provoking; I love the analogy with separate tavern entrances. Thank you for this as at any age we need to review and assess our ideas. When world pride was in TO Ryerson had an evxellent photo exhibit on transitioning. I understood so much; often heart rending

Susan said...


I'm in full agreement with your statement: I have decided that if a person believes she is a woman, I will accept her as one. Otherwise, I would be one of the persons who relegate her to society's edges, and that is not a world I want to support.

However, to bring another dimension to this issue, I am still thinking about the case of Rachel Dalziel, the white-born woman who, as an adult, began to self-identify as black - and received huge public condemnation and backlash.

So... does anyone have the right to self-identify as whatever they believe they are inside?


Duchesse said...

Lauran Jantek: I've seen similar exhibits and if viewed with an open mind, definitely help us to question conventional attitudes.

Susan: Oh yes, that case. We might consider whether race is a human construct, or scientifically valid. Bill Nye (The Science Guy) explains that here: http://bigthink.com/think-tank/bill-nye-race-is-a-social-construct

Re "the right to self identify as whatever they believe they are inside": who would we prefer to see as the authority: the individual or the state? I'd rather see the individual claim the moral right, but realize that can lead to some mistakes and unintended consequences. Some cultures freely accept variation, such as intersex persons, while others force a binary system.

As Nye put it, "We're different tribes but not different races... we're all human."

materfamilias said...

Absolutely with you here. I've been watching a number of young people make their way into and through the world as a different gender than what their genitals pronounce -- and one or two of them refusing the gender binary altogether, the young soul who spent their life until 20 as my nephew in particular (and I have a tough time with the plural pronoun, but try to honour their wish, a small effort really). I would not add one iota to their pain, the struggle already being so tough. (we're still crossing our fingers, holding our collective breath, to see if my sister's child, brimming with talent, good looks, intelligence, sweetness, will emerge--the cost on mental health is so high).

Ros said...

All of this, and thank you.

I've had some luck explaining to my father that it doesn't matter if he understands why a person is Trans, he just has to treat them as they ask and he polite. And also that he shouldn't ask about their genitalia unless he was willing to talk about his circumcision/vasectomy/shaving routine of choice, and that seemed to get through how invasive that line of questioning can be.

John said...

I don't like the idea of a one-sex-only club in any situation. I think we should be inclusive and polite. For me, inclusion means that transgender people can use the facilities in which they feel comfortable. Polite means that we should probably all cover up from time to time. This is no hardship. --Louise

Roberta said...

thank you for this timely and thoughtful post. I am pleased to see the gender as ID (driver's license, etc) concept going away, even if slowly. 25 years ago my son was at a Chicago preschool that was trying do away with race as an identifier, because many of their kids were mixed race. Asking a child to pick one parent over the other was painful. But the racial makeup of their school affected their federal funding.

I think we will look back on this era eventually as we might at Jim Crow. two drinking fountains? How ridiculous! But I also think the actual prejudice and discrimination will take much longer to go away. The library I work at recently established an ALL gender bathroom, with very little comment either way from the community. They accept it as the changing law and practice of public institutions. We were very heartened by that.

I see how your friend may feel the loss of her women-only space. We are so harassed by men on a daily basis, it is a rare thing to feel completely private and safe. But perhaps she will see that this customer feels exactly the same harassment and probably more, and is looking for the company of women for the same reasons.

Madame Là-bas said...

We live in a changing world. I have no experience with transgender issues so I can only imagine what it is like to be uncomfortable/unwelcome in different situations. Perhaps the best we can do is to try to be accepting of all people.

lagatta à montréal said...

I don't really feel it is any of my business, as trans people are often treated horribly and even face violence, and I don't go to spas or places where I have to undress in front of people I don't know well. At the Jean-Talon market, there are new toilets that open onto the street, and are for anyone. They are also more acceptable for disabled people, and have baby-changing tables.

But I do have lesbian friends who resent the loss of a women-only space (this is a contentious issue within and among the LGBT+ communities).

Sammye Broline said...

I understand this argument, and I am sympathetic to the challenges facing trans people...including the child of a close friend...but I am MUCH more concerned about the loss in US of health care for ALL of us. Yes, that loss of coverage is especially targeted toward women and girls, and I'm very angry about that, but I also demand proper health insurance coverage for boys and men. I think fussing about bathrooms and spas is being used as a political distraction from what needs to be our priority, which is health care for everyone.
Sam

lagatta à montréal said...

Oh, even in countries where there is a national health system (such as the UK and Canada) there are challenges and underhanded partial privatisations, making the system no longer fully accessible for all, whatever their income.

But I really don't see these two issues as in competition. And please remember that not all people commenting here live in the US.

Duchesse said...

Sammye Brolin: I believe your comment addresses •health insurance• rather than "health care" in the general sense. Transpersons must continually manage a medication regime that is complicated and, unless someone has blue-chip insurance coverage, expensive. (Many policies will not fully cover the medication, and those that cover surgical procedures are rare.)

The inclusion of transpersons in our public or private space is not a "political distraction", though I did not address their health care issues in this post.

Duchesse said...

lagatta: Yes, it's a hot issue when "womyn-born-womyn" (a term I often see) debate whether to accept transwomen as women. Prime example is the Michigan Womyns Music Festival: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_Womyn%27s_Music_Festival

Duchesse said...

Mme Là-bas: I read somewhere that a young boy and his mother were in a supermarket when he saw a transperson who was in the midst of transitioning. He said, "Mommy, what is THAT?" His mother calmly said, "That is a human being."

Nancy said...

Well, Germaine Greer was wrong about one thing - Lili Elbe desperatly wanted female organs so she could carry a child, and died in an attempt to fulfill that desire. What a shame for everyone involved in what you mentioned. It seems there should be able to be some compromise but I surely do not know what it is. And as someone status post hysterectomy with removal of ovaries, I feel not one bit less feminine than before.

Venasque said...

Having a uterus, ovaries and the ability to bear children is not what makes you a woman - it's what makes you female in a binary world. As far as I am concerned you know what you are and who am I to say you are not as I do not live in your body.

I simply do not understand the toilet issue at all. In Europe it is very common to have one toilet for all. No one seems to clutch their pearls over it. As far as the spa is concerned, perhaps the transitioning person could agree to wear a bathing suit - problem solved.

Duchesse said...

Venasque: The person who wanted to enjoy that spa is not transitioning, she •is• transitioned- and that is the source of the problem: she identifies as a woman but has male sex organs which might be seen, given this spa's nude-or-not policy. I like that statement... "I do not live in your body." I am guessing you know that a transition does not necessarily involve surgery.

As for the toilet issue, here in Montréal, one-occupant non-gender-segregated toilets are common, especially in small restaurants or the like. I have never seen anyone clutch his or her pearls, and I would notice.

John said...

I guess the other thing that bears mentioning in this is that the spa, by law, cannot determine who is a woman. That is a determination made by the individual or by law. It is a difficult and slippery place to go when one discriminates against someone for their gender. I hate to get all legal on this, but this is about a person's right to do something that others do.

I have a test for these things in my head: if you take out the name "trans" and insert the name another traditionally set upon group, would this stand?--Louise

Duchesse said...

Louis: Good point. The sap is not determining whether she is a woman, or barring her because they think she is not. (That's my friend who thinks she is not.)

The spa says they have a policy of "no male genitals", not "women only", and there is a distinction. So, interesting to explore the legal point: is current gender invalidated by possessing the sexual characteristics of one's former (assigned, and now denounced) gender? And what if one denies gender altogether?

John said...

I don't know. Any lawyers in the house? I would think it's like a ban on topless women: in Ontario this bans have been held to be illegal.--Louise

Venasque said...

I do understand that transitioning does not necessarily involve surgery. That was exactly my point. A bathing suit would solve the problem of not seeing male genitalia for other women using the spa, while still being inclusive of those who identify as women. I think what is needed here is a little compromise.

As far as gender neutral toilets are concerned, that's one of the reasons Montreal is a great city :). It knows how to wear its pearls, not clutch them.

Duchesse said...

Joha: There are some readers who are lawyers but I'm not sure this is their area. However, we can bet there are lawyers all over this kind of situation. In Toronto, where this happened, I know a few who would be itching to represent the plaintiff.

As far as Ontario's topless issue, see: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/calypso-water-park-women-topless-ottawa-ontario-1.4212143
I try to keep abreast of the issue. (Sorry, could not resist.)

But, bottomless is not OK in my former province.

Venasque: That's what I thought too, but some persons I know think that "inclusive is inclusive" and that if a woman can go naked there, each and every woman should be able to enjoy that if she wishes. Some of us like our change delivered in a disruptive manner, others prefer it phased in- if we "prefer change" at all!

Rita said...

Personally, in a situation where 80% of the women ARE wearing bathing suits, I would thing that the trans woman who didn't, was an attention-seeker.

Duchesse said...

Rita: We don't know what this particular woman would have done because she was not admitted, but there are all kinds of attitudes and approaches which I have seen in the trans persons I have known.

Of course a transwoman who has male genitalia is going to draw looks- and maybe comments. Some transpersons I've met are just sick of stares, or of having to endure very personal questions when persons- even health care providers- are informed or notice they are trans. (One young transman I knew called it 'prurient interest". I said, "It is not necessarily prurient, but it is interest, because many persons have never met someone trans." Another young man who transitioned to being a woman invites looks through her dress and makeup, because she sees it as a form of activism: "We're here."

About those suits: when I first went to that spa, it felt so good to be in skinny-dip mode, so my friends and I would go suitless. Then we got older, and felt self-conscious, so for several years when we wore swimsuits, but it wasn't much fun. Swimsuit in a sauna, ecch. Now we've gone back our 'birthday suits": this is what an older woman's body looks like and it is just fine. In a way we have become activists too.