Women-Only Classrooms: where to draw the line?

I had an inquiry, years ago now, which begged the question as to what "women only" meant in my classroom. I had a transgender student contact me about joining my classes. The inquiry was light and polite:
"I have had an interest in joining a belly dance calls (sic) and my friend  _*_*_*_*_  recommended you with high regards. My only concern is that
I'm a male to female transgendered individual and I want to be sure that you do not have any issues with that.

Thank you for your time!


I admit this one gave me a lot to think about. So much so that the original author pinged me again thinking I had simply forgotten to respond. In fact, I was giving it very serious thought, hence the delay, and I reached out to my mentor for additional advice. This is the mail I wrote to my mentor:
"I could really use some perspective here, and hoped you could offer some. Any thoughts you can share would be helpful.

I have almost always had a "no men" rule in my classroom--a couple bad experiences in my first years of teaching, and voila! I adopted the no-men rule. I appreciate a women-only space, and enjoy the safety and unique energy this creates. I have definitely seen the good and bad in allowing men in the classroom, and made this choice for myself and have never questioned it.
I have recently gotten an inquiry from a male-to-female transgender about coming to class. She is a friend of a current student, and now (the potential new student) has written me the second of two very friendly mails asking if she may join my class.

Knowing that you also have a women-only policy, I am curious where you draw the line in your classroom. To me, it is dismissive to consider this "just a man in drag". But for other students who have come to my classroom knowing it is a women's-only space, they may not see it that way and may be made uncomfortable. What is my responsibility as their teacher in drawing a distinction?

On the one hand, I have a strong instinct to want to support this person in their desire to walk their path as a female, despite their biology. I want to open my door to them with a genuine welcome from a source of compassion. On the other, if I do allow them into my classroom, am I confusing my "no men" policy by essentially saying that a man can be in my class as long as they act effeminate and wear a skirt?

It has bothered me that I could not articulate an honest answer for the this person who inquired,  particularly being that they are a friend of a current student.

I am grateful for any perspective you can offer from your own experience and your own heart.

Thanks in advance,

 I received a very considerate reply from my mentor:
"Shay, this is an interesting question...
Most men who "act effeminate and wear a skirt" are just looking for attention in class-the reason that I don't allow biological males.
However, if a non-surgical male comes to the studio and acts female, i.e., blends in and doesn't make the ladies uncomfortable, I can turn my eye and not know what is going on. However, this does not happen; males who are not going for the surgery and are really living as female sincerely will ask me politely and I will tell them no (if they still have a penis, they are technically still male in my eye.) And, males who aren't going for the surgery, and just assume that since they are "acting femme" they can get into the space, give themselves away because they ask me belligerently and then argue with me when I say no.
So, that leaves actual male-to-female post ops, to which I have no objections. They have made the choice to permanently live as a woman, and they are a woman as far as I'm concerned.
So, it's a multi-layered situation and one that is unique to each region.
I do caution though, that if you let a "living as but still has a penis" into the studio because you like him/her, you are opening up argument from any guy who wants to fight about it. And, they will.
Let me know what you decide. It's a provocative topic."

 I thanked her for her advice, and asked about workshop environments, to which she replied:
"I do allow men in workshops. No problem there. It's only for a day or two.
(Male Student we both know) just did one of my workshops. But he's an exceptional male. He's flamboyant, but knows how to get along with women. 

I just can't have them in the studio on a regular basis because their "maleness" makes the 99% of women customers uncomfortable.

It's unfortunate because there are some guys, like (Male Student) and a few others, that *could* be in the studio, but it opens the doors for the troublemakers. And, the reason that they could be such good male students is because the understand why they can't come and don't argue about it. "
In essence, our discussion surrounded the idea that when it comes to a defensible policy, it is simplest to define gender from a biological standpoint. Namely, if you have a penis, you are a man. This simplicity helps in both the immediate and the long-term--clear, concise, and brooks less debate or argument from the many sides of the gender spectrum. Of course, as my mentor put so succinctly, ironically, men who would seamlessly fit into the class culture also happen to be the ones who would fully understand why they can't come and wouldn't argue about it. This is why so many of the respectful replies from men in the past broke my heart--the ones who raised the least fuss about my no-men policy were probably the men best suited for our classroom! The ones who threw back barbs or tried to smear my name on the internet were the ones who were only making the decision to not admit them easier.

So based on trusted advice and a lot of soul-searching, I replied to the inquiring student with what I felt was straightforward, polite, and didn't invite some lengthy debate:
"Thanks so much for your interest in my classes, and for the polite reminder to respond. I just got back from a glorious vacation, and that means playing catch up on "real life'!  I also wanted to give some thought to your mail and make sure to send you a considered response.

My classes are a strictly "women only" environment. Your situation definitely gave me a lot to think about with regard to where you fit regarding this policy. The bottom line is that the simplest way to define the male/female distinction is biologically; and as such, regardless of how you choose to self-identify, you would still biologically be defined as a man.

I am afraid I don't know of any other ATS or tribal studios in the area with differing policies--all of them are women-only as far as I am aware.  If you are interested in other styles of bellydance, I do know of some instructors and studios who last I heard welcome all genders, which I am listing below:

Saqra: http://www.saqra.net
Tayissa Blue: http://www.tayissablue.com/instruction.html
Delilah and Visionary Dance Studio:

I wish you the best in your dance journey, and hope your holidays bring you much joy,
The reply I received, which I will not post here, was lengthy, mostly civil, and in many ways very thoughtful; but it bubbled with passive-aggressive language and made assumptions of bigotry and ignorance on my part. I opted to not engage in further discussion of my policy or invite debate or possible further insults to my character. I was left wondering what about this situation I may not have understood; but I won't know because I didn't inquire further. For instance, should I have asked her outright if she had a penis? I didn't think it was an appropriate question, and she didn't offer this information herself. 

I honestly felt bad that this person felt slighted by me with regard to my policy. She didn't understand how badly I wanted to find a way to be supportive of her in her life path and how I had taken that so seriously before responding to her inquiry (efforts she couldn't have known about of course). But I didn't want to turn this into an emotional or overly personal discussion. I felt polite and succinct best served the situation. So ultimately it was what it was--a considered opinion, I didn't have anything more constructive to say on the subject without dragging things on, and so I left the last word to her. However the taste it left in my mouth was not good.

Yet again addressing the women-only policy in my classes reminded me the kind of debates I don't want to have to have. I want a classroom that is drama-free, safe, comfortable. But my own "simple" policy is not always simple, is still something I am not fully comfortable with, and the boundaries of my policy are something I am constantly evaluating as new situations arise.

No comments


On this blog I share my personal posts about cooking and knitting, travel and other musings; while I will blog about dance-specific topics over on the Deep Roots Dance blog:

I hope you will enjoy both my sites. Thanks for visiting!
Powered by Blogger.