Toronto, Ontario (March 28, 2012): Today, the Ad Hoc Coalition Against the Cotton Ceiling (the “Coalition”) submitted a petition with more than 250 signatures to Planned Parenthood Toronto (PPT) to ask the organization to reconsider hosting an event that promotes the sexualization of females.
PPT is sponsoring a March 31 conference in Toronto called “Pleasure and Possibilities.” According to Sarah Hobbs, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Toronto, the purpose of the conference is to continue conversations that began at an earlier conference entitled “No More Apologies: Queer Trans and Cis Women, Coming/Cumming Together!”
The subject matter of both conferences is specifically sexual in nature. One of the featured workshops is entitled “Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling: Breaking Down Sexual Barriers for Queer Trans Women.” The workshop facilitator has defined the “Cotton Ceiling” as follows:
The cotton ceiling is a theory proposed … to explain the experiences queer trans women have with simultaneous social inclusion and sexual exclusion within the broader queer women’s communities. Basically, it means that cis queer women will be friends with us and talk day and night about trans rights and ending transmisogyny, but will still not consider us viable sexual partners.
The term cotton ceiling is a reference to the “glass ceiling” that second wave feminist identified in the workforce, wherein women could only advance so high in the workforce but could not break through into positions of power and authority. The cotton represents underwear, signifying sex.
The Ad Hoc Coalition Against the Cotton Ceiling objects to any analogy between sex and the “glass ceiling” as both politically and sexually inappropriate. Unlike women’s right to equal employment and professional credibility in the workplace, trans women are not entitled—individually or as a class— to have sex with “cis” lesbians, as they call us.
“Trans women’s access to lesbians as viable sexual partners should never be framed as a barrier to trans women’s sexual pleasure or to trans women’s equal participation in ‘queer women’s communities’,” said Elizabeth Hungerford, a spokeswoman for the Coalition.
Workshop supporters have suggested that “Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling” is intended to facilitate a discussion about the social construction of sexual desire. Even if this were the case, being a lesbian is not a prejudicial social construct to be overcome by expanding lesbians’ limited political consciousness around trans women’s “gender identity.” Indeed, many— if not most— lesbians are gender non-conforming themselves; and all lesbians openly defy the oppressive constructs of normative sexuality. Lesbians — like all women — have no social, ethical, or political obligation to make themselves sexually available to anyone, including trans women and individuals who have or had male bodies.
“’‘Lesbian’ is a valid sexual identity. The offensive notion of a ‘Cotton Ceiling’ prioritizes some women’s sexual desires over other women’s sexual boundaries. Lesbian sexuality is not a tool to service others’ needs or a mirror that shows others what they want to see about themselves. This workshop has no place in a conference about sexual health entitled ‘Pleasure and Possibilities’,” said Hungerford.
The Ad Hoc Coalition Against the Cotton Ceiling represents the 282 signers of the Petition asking PPT to reconsider the Cotton Ceiling workshop. The Coalition rejects the notion put forth by PPT that the sexual orientation of lesbians towards other lesbians with female-born bodies harms queer trans women’s sexual health or well-being. We also reject the suggestion that some lesbians’ sexual boundaries exclude queer trans women from engaging as full members of LGBTQ communities. Sexual access is not an in-group entitlement; it is not required for community membership.
All branches of Planned Parenthood can serve their equality mandate without reinforcing the unreasonable expectation of some trans women that their community inclusion requires full sexual access to other community members—specifically singling out “cis” lesbians to provide sexual validation. The idea that trans women are politically entitled to overcome a “Cotton Ceiling” barrier maintained by “cis” lesbians becomes particularly threatening when supported by the authority of an internationally renowned organization whose mission is to protect all women’s sexual and reproductive health. Reference to any women’s cotton underwear as representative of a sexual or political barrier to be broken is sexually inappropriate and politically indefensible in this context.