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Bodies of water: who is welcome in women's spaces?

Liz Duck-Chong
·5-min read

There are few things I find more calming than being near water. Drawing a hot bath or driving to the beach early in the morning feels a bit like turning the volume down in my head, like cutting off anxiety’s dripping tap at its source.

When a friend first took me to McIver’s Ladies Baths in Sydney I was scared of being denied entry, but quickly became enchanted with the place, returning over and over. Known simply as the “women’s baths” among friends, the ocean pool just south of Coogee beach has operated for over a century, providing a space for women and children to swim and spend time, sheltered from both stronger sea currents and the unwanted attention of men.

As a trans woman, the place has held a particular importance as somewhere I have felt able to swim not just away from the male gaze but outside of a gaze at all. Joni Nelson wrote earlier this week that the baths are a place she went “for years when [she] needed peace”, a sentiment I can relate to. Trans existences are constantly under scrutiny, from the bodies we exist within, to the rights we hope to one day hold. Spaces where I’ve felt able to just exist, especially spaces designated for women, are rare, and I hold onto those that I find dearly.

This week, I was disappointed to learn that the McIver’s website contained a definition of women that included only “transgender women who’ve undergone gender reassignment surgery”. After an immediate backlash, this was amended to remove the note about genital surgery, and instead note that their “definition for transgender is as per the NSW Discrimination Act”, passing the buck onto anti-discrimination law that is unclear at best.

Related: Sydney women-only ocean pool under fire over transgender policy

This isn’t an uncommon disappointment for trans people: to invest in a place as hopefully somewhere that’s for us, only to have it shown to be explicitly otherwise. If you’re not trans you may not notice, but transphobia isn’t a marginalised, scared, or silenced perspective, it’s woven through the fabric of society. This phenomenon is known as cissexism, a structural belief of gender determined at birth, and trans lives as fiction. This allows the creation of myths about us, that if we are not women we must be men, if we are not truthful we must be hiding something, and must be predators, and that their womanhood must remain safe and separate.

When transphobes talk about womanhood as exclusive, they have to come up with reasons for this false distinction: this group has an attribute (genitals, physical attributes, life experiences, take your pick) which makes them women, so this other group without that attribute cannot be women. They reduce womanhood to a series of boxes to be ticked, like women are a monolith of experience, rather than accept that some women might look or be a bit different from them, and in the process miss out on the joy that comes from knowing and loving women of all different kinds.

I understand the need to feel protective about women’s spaces, especially public spaces like this one, but protectiveness at the cost of women already at a high risk of harm and violence feels less like closing the door of a clubhouse and more like locking a gated compound.

As I read the news this week, I wanted there to be a good reason why the website was worded as it was, why the follow-up was lukewarm at best, but there are no longer any excuses for a version of womanhood that’s not trans inclusive – you can’t protect women by kicking some of us to the kerb. What’s not to be gained by believing we are who we say? The trans women I know are extraordinary, resilient and caring – why wouldn’t you want your womanhood to include that, and to include us?

But even as it should, it’s important for us to continue to challenge what the category of “woman” means, and who is and has historically been allowed entry. The exclusion of trans women is the latest in a long and ongoing history of tightly defining womanhood, inseparable from racist, misogynist and colonialist ideas. Alex Gallagher wrote earlier this week about baths, beaches, and this obsession with policing non-normative bodies, asking if a space which “seeks to facilitate an alternate environment outside of that gaze loses its significance if it’s just another site for policing whose bodies are acceptable”.

If there’s any consolation in this saga, it’s in the community outcry to the original wording, and the ongoing calls for apologies and addendums of explicit trans inclusion. This is by no means the first time a place I love has shown itself to be unwelcoming, but it’s the first time I remember seeing this many loved ones and allies say it’s no longer acceptable.

It reminds me of the joy I felt, walking through the entry to McIver’s for the first time with a group of friends who were ready to throw down for my right to be there, a sentiment I’ve gone on to have as I brought trans friends and lovers to the baths, holding their hands, saying “you belong here, you’re OK”. They do, and we do.

I won’t be returning to McIver’s, not until the policy explicitly states that “all trans women are welcome”, but I will keep dreaming of that body of salt water; waiting for the day when they do better so I can throw my gold coin in the bucket, slip out of the day’s armour, and dive under the surface into the quiet deep again.