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The thorny issue of transwomen inside women’s refuges

February 26, 2016

Feminists of the TERF variety (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) frequently claim that transwomen cannot be allowed inside refuges for women. Refuges are there to provide a safe space for women who have been attacked by men. To an outside perspective, it may seem that these are refuges for women who are afraid of men in general; your view might be that we should not be fostering this fear. But, there is a far more practical reason why men should not come inside; the specific men who caused the abuse might disguise themselves as victims in order to gain access to the refuge. This is greatly problematic because domestic abuse is about control; if the abuser gets into the facility, he can use his control to get his victim to leave the refuge and go back to a life of abuse.

That means that refuges are, unlike most institutions in the country, inextricably bound up with gender and sexuality. Only women who have been abused by men can find solace in such refuges; victims of other women are not safe there. I find there to be a disappointing lack of acknowledgement that women can abuse other women. There are centres for LGBT people, but this ignores the fact that a) abuses can be non-sexual and not related to domestic partnerships b) someone who is heterosexual but facing abuse by a woman may not wish to utilise the LGBT-specific services which are not tailored towards their needs. As an example, say a woman has been aggressively held in the sex trade. A good proportion of the pimps are women. A female pimp could in theory enter the refuge and via blackmail (say if the sex worker is an illegal immigrant) intimidate them into returning to a situation of abuse.

However, for now, TERFs in particular understand women’s refuges to be places where women refuge from men. That in mind, the appearance of anyone coming in is of the utmost importance. In other words, if you do not look like a woman, there’s a chance that you are an abuser and you must not come into the refuge. That means that any transwoman who does not “pass” as female should not, in the TERF’s opinion, come into the refuge. It is not beyond the boundaries of possibility that abusive men disguise themselves as transwomen in order to enter the refuge and manipulate an exit. The staff can only be so astute; there are many individuals to keep track of and no reason to stop two of them leaving together, if they say they are friends. Under his influence, she could be forcibly persuaded to go along with this lie quite convincingly.

I understand how this vulnerability and fear of the violation of the safe space leads people to assert that transwomen should be banned from the refuges. The problem with the discussion is the abject lack of empathy. When you tell a real transwoman that she is banned from a women’s refuge, you are telling her in bald terms that she does not pass for female. That’s upsetting to hear for any trans person; often they are early in transition, feeling fragile and insecure. Sometimes they are later in transition, but have been unlucky. The trans view is that, in an ideal world, if we do not pass, we will not be told about it. Nine times out of ten it is needlessly cruel and draws attention to something which we wish was considered less important than it is: biological sex.

Transwomen get annoyed with TERFs over this and by the same token, they could even be annoyed with the staff and residents of the refuges; who are these people to judge your appearance? You go into a refuge for help and get turned away because of how you look – that is how it appears to a trans person, because that is how it is. Bearing in mind that for anyone who must weather a discrepancy between the way they look and the way they feel, being treated a certain way because of how you look is akin to being told that your sense of identity counts for nothing. This is a major inflammatory point in the trans community. This is how TERFs who are actually well-meaning come across as bigots to trans people. The fact of the matter is that the expression sounds the same, however much it comes from a completely different place.

TERFs are also not thinking carefully about which options can be offered to transwomen instead. The scant resources for LGBT people tends to focus on the LGB. In some places, there are trans services; in most parts of the country, there are none. For trans people who identify as heterosexual women, these are not enough. Identity aside for a moment, bear in mind that a genuine abused transwoman goes to a shelter for the same reason that a cisgendered one does; because she wants protection from men or a specific man. Something that most cisgendered people don’t know is that the amount of abuse towards transwomen is proportionally high, particularly those who have worked in the sex trade.

Moreover, trans people do frequently end up in the sex trade for a few reasons; one is money for expensive treatment; another is due to drug addiction, caused by the mental health problems of being trans; third is the fetishisation of trans bodies, which is marketable in the sex trade. They may, also, end up in abusive relationships because low self-esteem leads to bad judgement in sexual / life partners. Trans people, for obvious reasons, almost always have low self-esteem at some point in their lives.

That makes transwomen vulnerable to much the same types of people as cisgendered women attending the same refuges. Particularly vulnerable, in fact. Any idea that transwomen should be more able to defend themselves because they are physically more masculine smacks of an abject lack of understanding as to how abuse works. We do not, when discussing other groups of people, suggest that only the weak can be oppressed. That would be sexist, ironically, against cisgendered women. Your biological sex matters far less than your perceived power. If you have low self-esteem, your sense of autonomy is low to start with; being female, sexually non-conformist, trans, a sex-worker, an addict, or unusual / unacceptable to society in any way puts you lower down the pecking order, and increasingly more likely to be objectified.

One thing that radical feminists often do not acknowledge is that the same misogyny that ruins cisgendered women’s lives also ruins transgendered women’s lives. Some of the more extreme TERFs may not see transwomen as being women, but in a way that is irrelevant; abusive men see them as women well enough to treat them as they would treat cisgendered women in the same situation – that is to say, disrespectfully and abusively. When we discuss domestic and sexual abuse, it’s really the behaviour of the abusers we should be focusing on, not the identity of the victims. The abuse all comes from the same place, and that is the problematic part of our society, not the transgenderism.

You can be afraid of men or a specific man when you’re a transwoman. You can if you’re a transman, or a gay man, or a straight man. It may be inadvisable to put these people all together, but we must acknowledge that a transwoman sees herself as being the same kind of victim as the women allowed access to the refuge. They may be cisgendered and she trans, but they are all women and all victims because they are women; because they are seen as mere women by their abusers. For all intents and purposes, it is the situation, however else it may appear. Saying “It’s not the same, because she had a dick once,” is exactly the kind of rhetoric that is instantly lambasted as transphobic. That is because it dehumanises transwomen – suddenly, her problems don’t matter simply “because she had a dick once”. Refusing to acknowledge the suffering of a victim in the same situation as you because they are different is a type of prejudice. It says: “I don’t care what you’ve been through; what about me?

In a way, both sides are guilty of this. But they are not equally guilty, because of systems of power. The systems of power, however much not themselves transphobic, will prescribe to the view that what looks male is male, and shouldn’t be allowed in women’s spaces. Transwomen are on the back foot of the debate to allow them access to these services, because few people who stick up for trans people are willing to criticise institutions that do good work, like women’s refuges; and certainly unwilling to criticise the victims themselves. I have long thought that we tend to pay too much credence to the opinions of people who are currently suffering and thus, not at their most fair and rational.

When someone is victimised, their opinions on everything don’t become sacrosanct. Practical implications aside, there will be some cisgendered women in refuges who don’t want transwomen there simply because when they see her, they see a man. You expect some of those women to fear men, but they are still making a faulty assumption; they see a person who still looks male and assume that person has male thought patterns, and assume that this person will use male intimidation or aggression. The idea that this person is simply another woman seeking access to the service will not occur to some of the cisgendered women there. Are they right to think in this way, simply because they have been abused? In all likelihood, those thoughts are born from prejudices that existed before the abuse and are quite separate from it.

Among feminists of all kinds, safe spaces are discussed a lot. But there is little acknowledgement that safe spaces are a generic idea balanced on a see-saw; as soon as you increase the safety of one area for one group of people, you make other spaces less safe for different sets of people. Anyone who knows anything about trans issues knows transwomen are vulnerable. The systematic barring of services that they could find practically or psychologically helpful stands to worsen that problem. When you pitch yourself on the side of trans people, or on the side of cisgendered women in refuges, you are basically having to choose who is more important: trans people, or cisgendered people.

Your answer will depend on your lean: majority need over minority need, because of practical constraints; female people over male people, because they face more historic oppression; minority groups over majority groups because they are generally the more vulnerable and under-supported. My personal view is that it is not unreasonable to have safety measures in place to prevent ripping apart the system and exposing it to misuse, and I recognise that failing to address transwomen’s rights is collateral damage to that process. However, we can reduce that collateral as far as possible. The situation must be understood, empathised with and handled sensitively. There is no need for absolute segregation of services.

I suggest a separate wing for transwomen and women who for various reasons see no point in being shielded from men, i.e. women who have suffered abuses from other women as well as / instead of men; and also for people who don’t mind sharing their space with transwomen. It would not be that hard to discreetly collect data from new admissions to find out what they are comfortable with. This wing could be smaller and handle overflow, rerouteing people who are not uncomfortable with the presence of a transwoman. This system also makes sure that anyone checking in as a transwoman does not actually have access to all the other women in the refuge. There also has to be the same range of support available to trans people. LGBT services should be attached to main services across the board, so that LGBT support is not so thinly spread across the nation.

For this to work, transwomen have to accept something which is hard to swallow. They would have to accept that, unfortunately and despite every effort, they do not always look like women and will in some ways remain different to cisgendered women. As a transman, I take personal pride in my differences to cisgendered men, and a healthy transwoman can feel similarly about her experiences. This is an attitude that develops slowly, and it cannot develop if it is stifled by lack of support and services. Whatever else society does, it must not treat trans people as though they are ugly and potentially dangerous aliens.

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From → Gender Politics, LGBT

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