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NOWSA redefines ‘women’

Lane Sainty reports on a controversial motion from the annual conference of the Network of Women Students Australia.

Image via Eva the Weaver, Flickr.

The primary conference for women-identifying students in Australia has changed their definition of ‘women’, sparking debate about who should be allowed in women-only spaces.

At the annual conference for the Network of Women Students Australia (NOWSA), held at Edith Cowan University in WA from July 14 – 18, conference attendees passed two motions presented by the Trans Caucus regarding the NOWSA definition of women.

The first motion added the word ‘currently’ to NOWSA’s definition of women, which now reads: “people who currently identify as women or currently experience oppression as women”. This change effectively bars individuals who have formerly identified or experienced oppression as a woman.

The second motion states that NOWSA 2014 encourages women’s groups and spaces to adopt the new definition and “explicitly condemns” such groups using ‘non-cisgender male’ as a defining term.

While proponents believe the motions will allow for greater inclusion of trans women within women’s spaces, others within the queer and women’s student community believe the motions will alienate trans men and people who do not identify with the gender binary.

Queer Officer at the University of Western Australia and NOWSA Trans Caucus member Natalia Verne says the original definition was changed because it “could have included trans men and other people who formerly experienced oppression as women, but now do not due to their identity change.”

“If you start to apply that logic, you can then use a similar kind of logic to exclude trans women from women’s spaces,” Verne said. “If you start including trans men in women’s spaces, trans women are often excluded for similar reasons. As a trans woman, that’s quite threatening to me and I would like to be included in women’s spaces because I am a woman.”

Verne argues that trans men should not be allowed into women’s spaces as “they are men and should be treated as men, not as men-like or some other form of men.”

However, some feel the changed definition is exclusionary rather than welcoming.

Charlie Jackson-Martin, a trans man and queer activist at Sydney University, says the changed definition erases any lived experience that people may have had as women prior to transitioning to a more masculine presenting gender.

“It is unfortunate that to address the vital issue of making women’s spaces accessible to trans women, NOWSA felt the need to exclude another large portion of the trans population: trans men,” he said.

Jackson-Martin describes the new definition as “strangely grounded in very binary notions of gender,” and rejects the idea that “transitioning trans men are capable of detaching themselves from all former notions and experiences of womanhood [to] become cisgender men, with all the associated male privileges that come with this.”

NSW Women’s Officer for the National Union of Students Amy Knox was reluctant to comment on the motion due to her status as a cisgender woman, pointing out that she is included in either definition.

However, Knox said she has noticed a growing movement towards the use of ‘non-cisgender male’ as a defining term in campus women’s groups. She said that while the phrase is used with good intentions, it can carry problematic implications.

“It does erase the experiences of trans women as having lived experience as a woman, as it suggests they might be a non-cisgender male but not quite a woman,” Knox said.  “Also it means that this term includes a lot of people who perhaps do not have lived experience or identify as a woman, such as non-binary or genderqueer people.”

“While non-binary and genderqueer people definitely should have a space, the women’s space where women are talking about very specific oppression is not ideal,” Knox said. “I think there should be a movement where gender queer and non-binary collectives are set up instead of taking over existing spaces which cater for different oppressions.”

[Image: Eva the Weaver, Flickr.]