Nonbinary inclusion in “women’s spaces”

Two different feminists I know recently brought my attention to “On the Design of Women’s Spaces” by Kat Marchán, and I’m grateful to them and to Marchán. The essay provides a useful “hierarchy of exclusivity” that helps all of us think about how our feminist spaces — geeky or otherwise — could make sure that our policies, names, and advertising are not accidentally being exclusive.

Recently, while speaking with a group of non-binary folks, a discussion came up about how many of us are uncomfortable in “women’s spaces”. We talked about what these spaces usually intend, how they word things, and how they could align what they want with what they say, in order to get more of us to feel comfortable.

I participate in some feminist spaces, some of which exclude men, and some of which fall under categories 2, 3, and 4 in the hierarchy Marchán describes. [Disclaimer: I am cis.] As Julia Evans describes, women-only spaces are a hack:

Imagine you have a program, and it has a pretty serious issue. It needs some deep architectural changes to fix it, but you can alleviate some of the symptoms by just changing a few lines of code. You don’t yet know the best way to resolve the larger problem, but you need to do something, so you start with a hack.

… and we’ve started with that hack, and now it’s one that dozens if not hundreds of online and in-person spaces are replicating. I’m glad for tools and examples that help us get past that first initial hack.

I’m one of the co-organizers of an up-and-coming feminist hackerspace, MergeSort NYC (next project night tomorrow night!). Our “About us” text already explicitly mentioned non-binary people. But after we saw Marchán’s piece and talked about it, we decided to more emphatically include non-binary people, by switching around the phrase from “women and non-binary people” to “non-binary people and women”:

We want to be a place where non-binary people and women can make things, learn, and work on projects without fear or intimidation.

It’s one small improvement, and one we’re glad to make. (And we continue to look into more ways — big and small — to be more inclusive, across many axes, and are considering where we’d like to be on Marchán’s hierarchy. Our membership policy evolves as our lead team changes, as our members’ views change, and as we consider new articulations and norms from feminist thinkers.)

If this topic interests you, and you’re near Washington, DC, USA, you might also be interested in “Being Nonbinary in Women-in-Tech Spaces: A Panel Discussion”, an event this coming Tuesday the 11th run by Spanning Tree, the DC-area feminist hacker/maker space. And I’d love to see links in the comments to additional essays on this topic.

2 thoughts on “Nonbinary inclusion in “women’s spaces”

  1. Aurian Azfin

    This is actually something I’m really relieved to read- as a nonbinary person, all the headlines I’ve read lately about “women and nonbinary” this, that, or the other, have made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially as an assigned-female nonbinary person. To me those headlines and articles say, “This is a women’s space, but I guess some of you can come too.” The emphasis on women makes it feel like it can’t be safe for ALL nonbinary persons- after all, many nonbinary identities include aspects of partial or temporary masculinity. Would they be safe? What about assigned-male nonbinary persons whose non-masculine identities don’t include femininity in them? I’ve also personally noticed a trend in openly nonbinary people frequently being assigned-female such as myself, which adds an extra uncomfortable layer of “Are you implying we’re really just misguided women?” for me when reading those headlines. But simply switching the word order suddenly makes me feel safe and genuinely included as an equal rather than a shoehorn inclusion, and I’m incredibly grateful to see that. I hope others take inspiration from this when designing nonbinary-inclusive spaces in the future.

  2. Selki

    On names: NIH has announced “the formal designation of sexual and gender minorities (SGMs) as a health disparity population”
    So I am wondering about using the phrase “sexual and gender minority safe space” which *to me* would include women, but the NIH description (seem post) doesn’t seem to include women. I’m wondering what others think?

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