Why Limit by Gender
We live in a patriarchy. People who are perceived as male have privilege over people who are not. This starts from very early childhood and continues through adulthood. Statistically, people raised as girls tend to be steered away from science, technology and math. Children internalize these messages, so as adults, people tend to think of men as being good at technology and women as not. This is easily observable by phrases like "the mom test" or "the girlfriend test" for software usability. Women are dumb, so if they can manage the user interface, it must be really good, because even a neophyte can handle it. Because your mom could never be a software engineer. Your girlfriend could never be a hacker.
There's a million arguments already made about how mtfs share this sort of experience. Many are aware of their gender identity from early childhood and internalize all of this crap too. Finally, when they do transition, they get all the discrimination against women, and also all the discrimination against trans people. And ftms tend to also be around these kinds of places. We were perceived as girls through our childhood. I had a lot of access to technology as a child, but definitely felt unwelcome in my highschool's computer room. The boys used tools like degrading pornography to enforce the male gaze and male dominance (and heterosexual dominance) to keep others out.
Women and gender minorities, therefore, tend have a shared experience around technology. It is an experience of being discouraged, of being not taken seriously, of being excluded.
The ETC had a kind of interesting talk about New Feminism. (There were some issues with it, but whatever). One of the speakers, Rosy, was making a lot of generalizations, which irked many, but I think there were some kernels of truth in what she was getting out. She heavily disparaged identity politics, saying they were an aspect of capitalism and market segmentation. MTV was trying to sell us our identity. I bristled a bit about this, since MTV is most definitely not selling me my transgender identity. It's something I have to constantly fight for. I asked her about agency. If an identity is being asserted in opposition to corporate culture, what does that mean?
She said identity politics were narcissistic and had several problems. If we say women should be equal, well, equal to what? Should rich white women become just like rich white men? Furthermore, it creates a context of victimhood. In order to organize for rights around a particular identity, you need to say that identity is lacking. I think she meant to imply that there's a danger there of failing to see intersections. She noted that there are situations where lesbians were the dominant political power. If you see lesbians constantly as an oppressed class, you won't see where you're oppressing others.
Of course, you sometimes have identities forced upon you by others and organizing around that is vital. In the feminist forum that I help moderate (livejournal feminist), we have rules about "oppression olympics" where we require that intersectionality be taken into account. I think that Rosy's thinking and our thinking is very similar. Yes, there is an institutional, hierarchical power structure in society which privileges some identities and bodies over others (the Patriarchy!), but we all function within it and might be upholding it in ways that privilege ourselves. A white lesbian is still white. A upper class gay man is still upper class.
There aren't that many places where lesbians are at the top of the heap. But when you're talking about women-only spaces, such a situation can arise.
Focussing on Women
Comparing oppressions is rarely a useful exercise, but if you wanted to do so, there are metric you could use. I would pick unemployment figures and salary gaps to look at economic discrimination. I would use hate crime statistics and domestic violence statistic to look at safety issues. There are a few other metrics that one could employ. People who are out as transgendered do worse on these metrics than do heterosexual women. They even do worse than lesbians.
So if you were the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and you had a policy of only admitting people who had been born and raised as female and who were still female-identified, you would have a policy of excluding people who were lower on the ladder than you. I think most progressives can agree that there's value in oppressed classes creating their own spaces. I think most progressives can similarly agree that there is not value in privileged classes creating their own spaces. A men-only event is different than a women-only event.
So excluding trans people is asserting privilege. Yes, it changes the vibe. But if a group of all-white women suddenly racially integrates, that changes the vibe too. If you bemoan that, you're a fucking racist. Certainly, it's more comfortable to be around people of your own race, gender, and economic class. But if you're trying to do something political to benefit people who face gender-based discrimination and you're all cisgender, bourgeoise, legally immigrated, white women, that's kind of problematic. If you worry that changing that will change the vibe of your event, well . . . the response that springs most immediately to mind is "fuck you."
Who gets Access
We've all heard the stories or perhaps even experienced a hostile male response to spaces that exclude them. I think the contexts of power and privilege make these replies different than trans people asking for access. Indeed, the entire justification and model of progressive, gender-exclusive spaces says these are different replies. But in the patriarcal challenge, the cisgender man says, "can I come if I wear a dress?" The annoyed feminist says, "no, fuck off." How can we tell who is a man in a dress trying to start a problem and who is gender minority?
The Gender Police
We can judge them by how well they pass! Yes, in this fantastic model, we employ something I'm going to call the cisgender gaze. Gender normative people can feel empowered to determine how well transgender people are passing. It's a fun diversion for cis people. And devastating to the identity of trans people! Yay!
When I try to explain the male gaze to people, I sometimes talk about a phenomenon that occurs on University Campuses in the US. Sometimes men will set up chairs along a bust walk way and make score cards like those used in the Olympics. A woman walks by and they all hold up scores on her attractiveness. 6.3, 7.5, 8.1. However, unlike the Olympics, these are just women trying to get to class who did not ask to be rated by their male peers. Indeed, they are no longer peers, there are judges and judged. A power structure is created where one class of people sits dominant over another class of people. Men judge women. In the context of a rape culture, this is especially alarming.
The cisgender gaze has a lot in common with the male gaze in that a rating and ranking system is employed. The people doing the rating have economic and social power (in a broader social context) over the rated. And we live in a society where the rated have to be concerned about experiencing violence at the hands of the class of people that is rating them.
Plus, this has the added bonus of kicking people where they're already wounded. Trans people often have a lot of anxiety about passing, especially when they're just starting on their transition. We can all wish this were not so. But nobody would transition if they did not with to be perceived as a particular gender. Furthermore, there is a safety issue when we try to get access to other gendered spaces, like toilets.
Would you tell a cisgender woman that she looks like a man and you would think she was one if you encountered her out in public? Then why the fuck would you tell a trans person that you were certain you could read them? Fuck you. A woman wh heard that would probably feel like shit about it. But some trans people are also fighting for their identity. I have to jump through a million hoops with the NHS. I have to come out to people. I have to struggle to assert my gender identity. You just told me I'm failing at a core aspect of my identity. I don't even want to fucking hear that I'm passing very well today. Are we best friends? Do I get to tell you that those trousers might make your ass look big? No? Then shut the fuck up.
At last year's ETC, we all went swimming naked in the Danube because it was hot as hell. I felt really weird being naked in front of other people, largely because of trans issues. At the time, it really felt ok. Now, though, I wish I hadn't. People were talking to me last week about my breasts. Yes, they're larger than you would think. No, they're not especially masculine. I don't want to fucking hear about my boobs from anybody, unless we're snogging or something. They are not up for casual conversation! Again, shut the fuck up.
Up For Further Discussion
The change from Women Only to Women and Gender Minorities was made without much discussion. Nobody wanted to have an argument. Some people wanted me (and a couple of other transguys) to come, so the change was made.
That's great for you that you don't have to argue about who should access gendered spaces. But alas, I know you meant well, but then those conversations fell on my shoulders.
There might be a bajillion trans organizations and trans activist, but I've just come out in a foreign country where I don't know that many people. I don't know any such groups. I'm one person trying to get through multiple border crossings at the same time. I don't have the resources to deal with extra shit..
My roots are in feminist spaces, in queer spaces, in women's spaces, in doing tech. I'm not entirely pleased to be moving away away from certain aspects of my roots. When I first realized I was queer, I had several unhappy breaks from the institutions of my childhood. I lost my religion, for example. Former spaces of support suddenly excluded me. Now, it seems like the spaces that I found, that seemed so much better than the spaces that excluded me, are now breaking away also. This fucking hurts.