Content note: This blog mentions transphobia, violence and sexual violence
The events at London Pride inflicted huge distress and threat on trans people. Ensuing discussions have not always been useful, but as someone who lived within the lesbian community I understand how embedded misconceptions about trans issues are. I decided to write a longer blog specifically for my cisgender lesbian friends, to help them better challenge in-community transphobia.
“It’s important to keep talking until everyone understands/agrees”
Unfortunately, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. Most people will go along with the prevailing feeling of the group as a whole. If it feels they can get away with saying something nasty about a minority group they don’t really care about or want to understand, they will take the opportunity to do so. Strong social disapproval of this behaviour works much better than patient listening and arguing.
This is also because expressing controversial views is actually a display of power, as I discuss here.
If the prevailing dialogue is saying “we’ve had this conversation enough, trans women are women and we need to stop debating this”, then that sets a tone for inclusive spaces where trans people feel safe to come in without feeling they need to justify their very existence.
If the prevailing dialogue is “there is still much to talk about on this issue and it’s ok to keep discussing it til everyone agrees”, then we will carry on having this same conversation forever, because transphobes will always exist. If we centre the transphobes, even the unconsciously transphobic ones, and their need to talk, then we will forever be making spaces difficult to access for trans people.
At some point a moment happens where socially something shifts in people’s imagination from “it’s free speech” to “it’s just not an ok thing to say”. Usually, people claim “free speech” only if they have sympathy for the arguments. If you are letting cis people talk at length about the legitimacy of trans people, you are at the very least enabling transphobia, if not somewhat sympathising with it.
“The protest sheds light on the issues”
Does the increased opportunity to say bad things about minority groups “shed light” on issues and resolve them? Just look at the emboldening of the far right across the world and their own insistence on their right to “free speech” for an answer to that question. Prejudice is not something you can debate someone out of – social non-acceptance of prejudice is a far stronger tool than debate. See the paradox of tolerance for more on this.
I was told by a number of people the protest on Saturday created “an opportunity”. But the protest in reality just reinforced trans people’s positions as outsiders.
This has made trans people much more afraid of attending LGB(t) events, particularly Prides. An online video where a Pride in London steward says “We don’t mind you being here, we appreciate it” (at the 3.50 mark) to the protesters doesn’t help things. Neither does the fact that Police did not act despite it being a public order offence, but did try to stop trans women shouting back at the protesters, who were shouting “dykes not dicks” and “men can’t be lesbians” at the time, whilst distributing leaflets calling trans women rapists.
One person told me I should be glad about the protest and I asked how he would feel if someone distributed hundreds of leaflets accusing him of being a rapist. Unfortunately, accusations stick, and these leaflets and the circulated videos and banner pictures will influence people. If you say hateful things about a minority group, it will socially influence people to think you must have a reason for doing so, and the respect given to the protesters will give their words even more weight.
Contrast the treatment of the privileged figures who led this protest (Julia Long is an established and well heeled white, middle aged, middle class, senior academic), with the treatment of other Pride protesters over the years. This photo, taken at Glasgow Pride last year, shows how young trans protesters are treated:
Listening over and over to transphobes and allowing their discourse to dominate lesbian spaces even though they are arguably a minority, means the community spends more time and empathy on the unfounded fears of transphobes than the very real fears of trans people.
This discourse is directly undermining potential and existing civil rights, as well as putting vulnerable trans women in increased danger. But it also silences younger cis lesbians, who are far more likely to be trans inclusive, and it reinforces power dynamics about who controls lesbian space.
“No one side of this is more oppressed than the other”
Saying this is tantamount to saying trans women are not women. If you think that, you are being transphobic. You might not want to think of yourself that way, but that doesn’t change it.
There is an enormous body of evidence to support the existence of trans people both historical, archeological, psychological and biological. You want your neat sex binary? Tough, it doesn’t exist. You want to believe that birth certificates and pronouns are biological facts that cannot be changed? Well, they aren’t.
Trans women are women. Trans lesbians are lesbians. So when a cis lesbian attacks a trans woman yes she is absolutely acting oppressively, because they are both women and only one of them is trans.
“But I’m being called a transphobe for not wanting to sleep with trans women”
Okay, first of all, your body, your choice. You can sleep with whoever you like!
But here’s the thing, if you would not consider dating a trans woman because you’re a lesbian, then you probably consider her to be outside your dating pool. And that means deep down you probably see her as outside of the category “woman”.
Sorry, but it really is transphobic to exclude trans women from the category “woman”. So, yes, you don’t have to date trans women, but making the statement that you wouldn’t date trans women reinforces the idea that they are not legitimate people for (cis) lesbians to date. All the cis lesbians who are dating trans women would very much disagree with you.
It’s transphobic to say that trans women can’t be lesbians and cannot date lesbians. This doesn’t mean anyone is forcing anyone to sleep with trans women, but it is saying you do not have the right to decide for everyone else what woman means, what lesbian means, or what transphobia is. Excluding trans women and the cis women who date them from the word lesbian or from lesbian spaces is transphobic.
“But lesbians don’t like penis”
Some trans women have a penis. And some lesbians are fine with that. If that’s not you, that’s ok. I lived as a lesbian for many years and I can tell you there are many kinds of lesbian with many different likes and wants. Dictating what all lesbians do and do not like isn’t ok.
Stigmatising anyone for being different is a truly horrible thing to do. There are all sorts of reasons trans women cannot or don’t have surgery. But saying things online like “I would never date a woman with a penis” is really, really hurtful and stigmatising. It doesn’t just hurt trans women, it hurts over-endowed intersex women too.
I couldn’t be around penises intimately for a long time when I was going through abuse recovery. It is totally ok to feel that way and not be stigmatised for that. There will be times when you need to share that information. Online, as a result of a discussion about whether trans lesbians are valid is not one of those times. To use your personal trauma around penises to invalidate trans lesbians is just plain manipulative.
Sleep with whoever you like. Your body, your rules. But just like Grindr statuses saying “no fats no femmes” can perpetuate systemic prejudice against certain bodies and presentations, so can unnecessarily broadcasting your negative feelings about some trans women’s bodies.
“But some trans people do bad things”
There are 64,000 registered female sex offenders in this country. A trans exclusionary radical feminist (Valerie Solanas) shot Andy Warhol, leaving him with a life limiting injury. A cis lesbian nurse (Beverley Allit) was Britain’s most notorious child serial killer. I also know a number of women who have been violently attacked, both sexually and otherwise, by cis lesbians, and who have been left with permanent injuries.
What do these facts have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing.
If I were to raise any of these issues in the context of trying to say there was something inherently problematic about cis women, that would be deeply problematic. If I were to talk about the cis lesbian violence cited above in the context of a conversation that was discussing lesbian exclusion from women’s spaces, or trying to portray them as more violent than other women. that would make me lesbophobic, pure and simple.
It wasn’t so long ago that het women were saying lesbians didn’t experience the same oppressions they did, had male energy, might make advances on them, were more likely to commit crimes, be violent, be sexually aggressive, etc. We didn’t get past that stage by over and over allowing homophobic rhetoric to be tediously discussed, but by shutting it down for the nonsense that it was. Because there isn’t a group of people alive that is devoid of criminal activity, and citing individual crimes in the context of a civil rights discussion is simply oppressive.
It’s transphobic to highlight individual misdemeanours of trans people as some sort of statement about the group. Of course it is. By all means call out problematic behaviour, but never on the basis that somebody is trans. That’s transphobia.
“Trans people are ok, but trans activists are going too far”
Every civil rights movement in history has been painted as evil. This is nothing new. I wince when I hear feminists coming out with the exact same nonsense we hear about feminism – “too aggressive, political correctness gone mad, pendulum swung too far, I’m being oppressed by not being able to say what I want to say.”
At a time when the internet is full of far right sock puppet accounts and 4chan-produced memes trying to stir up fights on the left, I don’t doubt that bad things are said sometimes by some people who are trans or purporting to be, and I don’t doubt that in every civil rights movement there will be the cool heads and the less cool ones.
But nine times out of ten the poor victim of these “terrible trans activists” has actually simply been told that they are transphobic, and doesn’t believe this is the case.
You are not being oppressed by being called transphobic. If you’re told you’re transphobic just say “I didn’t intend to be, but I will reflect on that”. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. You don’t need to defend yourself, and if you do, of course people will keep coming at you, that’s the nature of the internet. But people being called transphobes aren’t an oppressed minority, and aren’t going to have their civil rights taken away. Unless you think being humoured in bigotry is a civil right.
If trans activist is a dirty word I am happy to take my place alongside other dirty words like feminist, because it means we’re changing things and conservatives don’t want us to. We won’t stop until we’re equal.
I am personally non-violent, but the question of whether violence helps gain civil rights, the Stonewall bricks, the Suffragette bombs, will always be a lively one and I do think in any civil rights battle violence is going to happen at some stage, whether justifiable or not, because people don’t like to be oppressed, and oppression is structural violence that in this case materially affects the wellbeing and life expectancy of trans people.
In other words, trans people are dying as a direct result of transphobia. Trans exclusionary feminists, for instance, managed to argue for an exception to the Equality Act that specifically allows trans women to be excluded from the DV and sexual violence services they proportionately need more than cis women. Although most services such as women’s refuges that I train are actually trans including because they understand the need, it deters trans women from approaching services, and this puts them at increased risk.
Often privileged people tell minorities they are “not helping their cause” because it stops the privileged person having to look at their own complicity in oppression. Those who are not actively campaigning for trans civil rights are the ones not helping our cause, don’t blame trans people. We will be safe when people stop being afraid to stand with us or looking for flimsy excuses like one bad apple to distance themselves.
“I support you and want you to have rights, just not the right to be women”
The only civil rights trans people want are to be recognised as who we say we are, and accepted without stigma or prejudice. Saying trans women are men is unacceptable. Saying “why don’t you all just have your own bathrooms and be registered third gender” is SEGREGATION. This is unacceptable.
If you do not accept the enormous body of evidence supporting trans existence, and accept that we are allowed our place in society, you are transphobic. It’s that simple. If you want us to be segregated out of your spaces, you are transphobic. If you want to stop trans women being fully recognised as women, trans men being fully recognised as men, and non-binary people being allowed to choose which side of the current legal gender binary they fit or opting out of the legal binary, you are transphobic.
“I accept trans women are women, but I also believe men are saying they are trans women for dubious reasons”
Let’s be clear that this isn’t really much different from “trans women are men”, it’s just switching over to “some/most trans women are men”. I have heard all sorts of nonsense on this one. Autogynephilia, an entirely debunked theory, is one of the many ways trans women are sexualised and portrayed as deviant men. The word rape and trans women gets used in the same sentence so often that it naturally contributes to the climate where trans women are portrayed over and over as a danger rather than in danger. The alarmingly high incidence of sexual assault of trans women is evidence of the result of this narrative – trans women receive all the objectification of cis women with none of the protection.
Every day, trans women fail the test of being “woman enough” for cis people, and are expected to be held to cis people’s judgement. Are not allowed to decide for themselves who they are. Of course, this happens to all trans people, but for trans women there is the addition of misogyny, where being demeaned, objectified and considered “lesser” by virtue of their femininity is part of their oppression.
Misunderstandings of what the GRA reforms mean add to this panic. I say misunderstandings, I mean lies – in the media, online, everywhere, the anti trans lobby are trying to block these reforms, but they are really going after the Equality Act 2010 protections that we currently have. They want to reverse our civil rights.
It is the Equality Act that allows us to self-identify in everyday life – use toilets, changing rooms and services as we need, without a Gender Recognition Certificate. Trans women and men have actually been self-identifying and living their lives for many years, but the EA gave them some protection and rights in this. Not to wave their willy around in a changing room in front of kids as some transphobes suggest, that’s still indecent exposure and it will continue to be illegal, but to use facilities just like other people. We don’t have to produce a birth certificate at the door, and we have a right not to be harassed.
“But women only spaces are at risk”
Women’s refuges, prisons and other spaces come up a lot. My local Women’s Centre has allowed self-identifying trans women to use it since 1998. Transphobes were so outraged about this, in one incident a transphobic woman spat on one of the cis women who pushed for the change. The change happened, of course, because of cis women deciding they wanted to include trans women. They understood trans women are vulnerable and should not be left outside.
In my extensive experience of women only spaces such as domestic violence services and lesbian or women only events, trans exclusionary types are invariably in the minority. They are often bullies, however, who want to control the spaces.
How many problems have their been with the Women’s Centre’s policy in its 20 years of including self-IDing trans women? Exactly none. Not once has someone represented themself as a trans woman to gain access to the centre.
When I do training at the centre, it turns out the real problem is convincing trans women that they are safe there – it is still very under-used by trans women. This was also my experience working for trans including Women’s Aid organisations – despite 80% of trans people experiencing DV, they don’t feel safe to approach services, and of course this puts them at greater risk.
We didn’t need to fear that a man would slip under the radar and access a refuge, because we did thorough risk assessments before allowing access, just as prisons do. And in both cases, some cis women would be excluded for being too violent or unsafe to include.
If you drill into the “some trans women aren’t real, some are” rhetoric, you find that the proponents of this believe all trans women are men, but will tokenise compliant trans women who are happy to say “we are mentally ill, we are men really, we are only valid if we have surgery, and we don’t need any civil rights”. Studies clearly prove trans people are not mentally ill, but are just part of life’s natural diversity, and that the best way of confirming what somebody’s gender is is simply to ask them.
Why haven’t men taken advantage of the EA to invade women’s spaces like everyone feared? Why haven’t they taken advantage of the Irish legislation that now allows people to legally self-declare their gender? It’s simple. Men don’t need to go through any such nonsense in order to attack women, nor would these legislations in any way help them to do so. Making a statutory declaration, as they have in Ireland and propose to have in England, is a legal commitment, and doing it falsely would be fraud.
“We should have the right to self-organise how we please”
Actually, I agree with this. Transphobes should absolutely be allowed to set up their trans woman-excluding spaces if they want to. But in my experience, that’s not enough for them. Back in the 70s, when these ideas first came up, they dominated women only spaces, but increasingly cis women have fought to include trans women, and little by little “women’s space” has come to be trans inclusive. As this shift has happened, the transphobes have lost control of these spaces and the women within them, and that’s the real issue here.
When they protest younger assigned female people transitioning, it becomes quite clear how proprietorial they are over other people’s bodies and identities. Personal and bodily autonomy go out the window – people must live the way the transphobes dictate. It is all, of course, about power and control, and sowing fear is one of the best ways in which to control other people.
As someone who lived for many years as a lesbian, because it was a socially easier, less stigmatised identity, I abhor the way some lesbians try to police transness out of the community. It will always be there, because gender and sexuality are interlinked, although separate.
Many lesbians experience a spectrum of gender dysphoria issues, and many lesbians surreptitiously have these issues medically treated with hormones or surgery. But coming out as trans into the community is impossible, because a hard line is drawn where none really exists. There are lesbians with no gender issues, there are lesbians with some gender issues, and I know a few lesbians are open to me if not elsewhere that they would come out as trans men if it felt safer to do so.
Who would have thought, gender is on a continuum, just like sexuality.
When my partner came out as trans, I received an email that same day saying “now you are straight, you should remove yourself from this lesbian email group”. When I came out as non-binary, but still lesbian-identified, I received another email: “As a man, it’s disrespectful for you to comment in this group” these people were, of course, known transphobes, but their views were overly tolerated in my old social circles.
I didn’t leave the lesbian community and didn’t want to – it left me. It could not contain the huge diversity of people who resonate at some point with the word “lesbian”. The rules of belonging were too rigid, and too binary.
I realise this may not be true for everyone, but in the spaces I was in there is no way to get away from the fact that the lesbian community was institutionally transphobic and also biphobic.
“We need sex-based, not gender-based protections”
Anyone who knows me, knows I fundamentally disagree that we should legally assign gender at birth. It is bad for women, intersex people, and trans people. It is segregation, it enforces a binary where none exists, and it massively exaggerates the implication of being born with certain organs.
Gay people, black people, disabled people have protection in law from discrimination and can self-organise without legal registration. In fact, we would be horrified if we legally registered people for being gay.
I do not have a problem with legal protection for people based on reproductive capacity. We rightly should protect pregnancy, for instance, as a factor that can lead to discrimination. But this is not a woman’s issue solely, because men and NB people can give birth, and many cis women cannot.
A transphobe once said to me that rape of trans women is not as serious because they cannot get pregnant. Appalling when you realise rape of children or post-menopausal or infertile women is by implication also less serious. Or an infertile rapist is committing a lesser crime. Of course we cannot make such simplistic and nonsensical statements. Rape is traumatic for all those who experience it and all those who experience it, whatever their gender, have experienced someone having power and control over their body, the ultimate oppression.
Pregnancy, abortion, period tax, smear tests, are all important issues, we need to talk about them, but we also need to remember they are issues for some men and NB people, and not issues for some cis women. The myth is trans women are saying we can’t talk about these things, the truth is that assigned female people like me are asking we talk about them more inclusively and with more awareness. And obviously never bring them up deliberately to exclude trans women.
I do not need to be legally registered and socially labelled because of my uterus, but there are rights and medical needs I do have because of my body, or did have when I was younger. I also don’t need a shop assistant to call me by a particular salutation because of my uterus, in fact I am puzzled that any woman is fighting for this bizarre social convention to be preserved.
I do want there to be access to gynaecological healthcare, contraception, abortion, smear tests, pregnancy leave and rights, an end to period tax and ideally have tampons on the NHS. I want childcare to be valued and equalised. None of these are related to having to be legally registered as female or needing to have she/her/ma’am/Ms applied to me.
If I had been born without a functioning uterus but still assigned female, the idea that that would that have made me “less of a woman”, that rape would have been less serious, that I could have been decentred from feminist conversations as childless lesbians once were, is abhorrent to me.
The way Mumsnet users have been radicalised in the anti-trans crusade I can see we are slipping backwards to a time when women are considered walking wombs or baby-makers and very little else. Ironically, they call the cis women opposing this “Handmaids”. It is well known in trans circles that the influence of this radicalisation ultimately comes from the misogynist and evangelical right wing, not from the left but intended to divide it.
“Lesbian, not queer”
None of this is good for a healthy, diverse lesbian community. But older lesbians, if you want to know why more and more younger people are identifying as “queer” it’s to distance themselves from this nonsense, and to embrace a diverse community rather than a rigid one, in which trans people are included not universally shut out.
I personally don’t think we should lose the identity lesbian, but rather embrace the fact that it is ever evolving. At different times in its history it has been more about sexuality, or more about gender. Radical feminist Monique Wittig, for instance, saw all lesbians as “third gender”, but most modern definitions solely cite exclusive attraction to women. But “lesbian” is still a broad church. For some it’s about attraction to “female masculinity”, others to “femmes” and “femininity”. Believe it or not, there are even some self-identified cis lesbians who sleep with gay men, because sexuality is complex and diverse.
Of course, people are complicated and identity is complicated. When I organise, I focus on creating anti-oppressive space rather than space that excludes certain people. I look at what is going to be centred, rather than trying to create a pure monoculture. I organise across difference rather than encouraging people to focus on sameness.
Women centred/ lesbian centred space rather than women only space is one possible future for the increasingly complicated lesbian terrain. I would give anything to organise with and socialise with lesbians again, but things do need to change and I have no desire to set foot in spaces labelled women only, especially if those spaces exclude trans women or include me only by erasing my identity.
“What can we do, though?”
I’d like lesbians reading this to ask themselves some reflective questions. Have you spent more time in your life listening to transphobes that trans people? Have you spent more social time in spaces where trans people wouldn’t feel comfortable than in spaces where transphobes wouldn’t feel comfortable? Have you read/consumed the words of transphobes or “gender critics” more than the words of trans feminists like Julia Serano or CN Lester? Count the even slightly transphobic people in your life. Now count the trans people. How does that tally?
How might these things perpetuate biases you aren’t even aware of?
Now, please go and fill out the GRA consultation affirmatively, and share information about it, such as that from Stonewall and TransActual.
Get behind trans friendly cis lesbians like Ruth Hunt and Grace Petrie and share their words. Follow my Facebook page Trans Inclusive Feminism and subscribe to this blog. Learn ways to stop transphobic discussions running amok in spaces you hold or frequent.
Sometimes that’s about being firm and saying “trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are legitimate, and it’s oppressive to say otherwise”, rather than engaging in long-winded debates you may not be equipped for and that just give awful views even more of a hearing.
Please help trans people get civil rights, and ask your friends to do the same. Without you, we are looking at our rights going into reverse, and trust me, we are the canaries but this alt-right fuelled division will be after you next. All of us need to choose this moment to cease to be silent in the face of any hatred against marginalised people.