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Women's Center Opens A Door
Author(s): Lucas Conley, Globe Correspondent
Newspaper: Boston Globe
Date: April 13, 2003
Page: 12 Section: City Weekly

Since 1972, the house at 46 Pleasant St. has been off-limits to men. This month, that bar was lowered - just a bit. Here, more than a fitness club or golf course, the gender distinction is an important one. For more than 30 years, women have relied on the Cambridge Women's Educational Center as a safe zone. While not a shelter, the women's center, as it is known, hosts dozens of support groups each week. Survivors of battery, incest, and sexual abuse meet regularly. Others come to the center for book groups, community action discussions, or simply to trade opinions. Some of the groups are led by social workers and clinical psychologists. Some are based on peer counseling. Yet among its members, the center has always been known as a place where all women, regardless of age, race, or class, can meet.

Starting this month, the center opened its doors to transgender individuals.

"It was clear that whatever the decision, there would be a significant group of people who didn't like it," said Mary Quinn, the center's director.

The center asked members to opine in person, in writing, and online. Meanwhile, there was a forum at the YWCA where people from the transgender community - "open to anyone," Quinn stressed - could come to discuss the policies.

The center also formed a transition committee to address issues surrounding the conflict.

Ultimately, the center's eight-member board, comprised of volunteers, decided to open the center to transgender women. Now, when entering the center, one is given a slip describing the change. As could be expected, the language on the handout is every bit as complicated as the issue: "We welcome those who were born women who identify as women, and those who identify as women and choose to be identified full time by others as women."

"It's been a real struggle," said Quinn. "I certainly came into it without a lot of information. Someone once asked me where I stood on the transgender issue and I looked at them and said, `What's the difference between transgender and transsexual?' I genuinely had no idea."

She's not alone: distinctions in the transgender community are often confused by outsiders. Generally, the term transgender is reserved for those whose psychological gender identity differs from their physiological gender, while a transsexual is a person who wants to change his or her physiological gender in order to live permanently in the new gender role.

"Queer theory," said Quinn, "espouses the view that gender is fluid and no one is male and no one is female; there's this range, and people change within that range. We don't hold to that theory, but we do acknowledge that there are people who either are, or believe they are, trapped inside the wrong body."

In December, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino signed a city ordinance protecting citizens from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression.

When the center first opened, only transsexual women who were "post-operative" were considered. It may have been a progressive decision at the time, but later many criticized the distinction as one of class rather than gender, as it excluded those unable to afford the operation.

Now, the center faces new criticism from those skeptical of the sanctity of a women's safe zone that allows transgender women.

"We are allowing survivor groups to choose whether or not to be open to male-female transgender people," said Quinn. "And because we know that some of those groups are going to be closed to the transgendered community, we'll be starting some groups specifically for battered, transgendered women and transgendered women who are incest survivors."

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