Known simply as the “women’s baths”

A space for women and children:

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.

Why scared of being denied entry though?

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. 

Ohhhhh I see – this is a man talking. This is a man talking about how calming and enchanting it is to have a swimming place just for women, away from unwanted male attention and the male gaze. This is a man talking about that while blithely ignoring the fact that by going there he is taking that pleasure away from all the women who are there at the same time. The entitlement is breathtaking.

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.

And fuck the actual women who feel the same way, because they just don’t matter.

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.

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.

He sneers at women for wanting to be safe and separate while swimming, just a couple of paragraphs after talking about the joy of being in a swimming place intended for women. He gets to enjoy being safe and separate, but women don’t. He gets to exclude men, but women don’t get to exclude him.

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.

So how does he know the women at the women’s swimming pool are women? Why does he like it precisely because it excludes men, when he argues that men can be women too if we just “accept that some women might look or be a bit different,” i.e. might be men? Why is it that the “accept men as women” rule applies to women but not to him? Why does he get to prefer a women-only swimming pool while women don’t?

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