Tag Archives: Rape and sexual abuse

Sarah Ditum – not “gender critical” enough

Sarah Ditum’s article in the New Statesman this week is very clever. I’m not going to link to it – New Statesman knows well enough that publishing Ditum’s ongoing campaign against my community will always attract a lot of traffic to its site – drawn by the inevitable controversy that follows.

This is business, make no mistake, and if the trans community gets hurt and make a fuss, well that will be good for business too.

Sadly, folks don’t read enough articles written by actual trans people to see through the holes in Ditum’s arguments, and this latest article in particular reads to the ignorant as being very comprehensive, reasonable and balanced. So, for those who have already read it and been taken in, here’s what’s wrong with it. For those who have not read it – don’t bother, it adds nothing new whatsoever to the feminist conversation and is in fact a warmed-over version of some very past their sell-by-date ideas.

I’m going to take us through the over-long article point by point to expose its manipulations and distortions, so apologies if this is also a long response.

1. The header image

The header image shows a pair of false eyelashes nestled in a makeup box. This is a trope – it signals the “falseness” of trans identities by boiling them down to how we adorn ourselves. It sets the tone subtly to undermine the “realness” of us.

2. The subtitle

“In the US and UK, politicians want to enshrine respect for “gender identity” into law. The only problem? There is no scientific consensus on what gender is.”

Right in the subtitle of the piece is the heart of what this article is about. There is a “problem” with enshrining respect for gender identity in law (i.e. giving trans people civil rights), because science has not explained gender identity yet.

In the same way, I suppose we can’t enshrine respect for gay people because science hasn’t fully explained them either.

We cannot respect what we don’t understand. Let that sink in for a moment.

3. The threat

” Alex Drummond, who is male and identifies as female without having had any surgical or hormonal treatment – and with a full beard”

Alex Drummond is a woman with a beard. Harnaam Kaur is also a woman with a beard. One is cis, one is trans. But Ditum wants us to be afraid of Alex. Ditum calls Alex “male” knowing full well the baggage that goes with that word is so much more than biological. She is effectively gendering Alex. Misgendering her, in fact.

Why can’t Alex just live her life in a way that makes her healthy and comfortable? Why can’t she just be accepted as herself? Ditum will show us how dangerous this all is, and in doing so will take us back to a very regressive place, where as long as trans women have all the surgery and make every effort to “pass” in conventional terms, they will be somewhat tolerated, but trans liberation must not be allowed.

4. What explains us?

Ditum lays out four possibilities for what makes gender identity.

a) Gender is hardwired in the brain.

The idea she cites as favoured and acceptable. She makes it clear that this is essentialist (I agree, and so do most trans people I know) and not popular with feminists (quite right). She infers it is popular with trans people – not so.

Ditum then goes on to imply there are only 3 other options (also not true):

b) A sexual fetish, ie. autogynephilia

This is where her earlier (disputed) assertion that there are more trans women than men comes in handy – we can just ignore how trans men don’t fit this theory, can’t we? Oh, and we can ignore all the research that debunks the theory, too (I particularly like this one that shows cis women have identical experiences).

c) Faulty thinking due to autism.

Ditum exploits the fact that there is a higher incidence of autism in the trans population to suggest that autistic people “latch onto” gender identity due to feeling different. As an autistic person myself, this disableism is very unsettling. The idea that autistic people cannot know themselves as well as neurotypical people has no basis in reality.

Interestingly, the link between autism and sexuality has been explored in the past in similarly problematic ways, but now it is no longer acceptable to speculate about whether gay men are gay due to faulty wiring (Alan Turing, anyone?), we have moved on to scrutinise and undermine trans identities instead.

d) A response to trauma

Another nasty contrivance. Kids that grow up different are far more easy to marginalise and therefore to bully and abuse. So of course the levels of trauma in our communities are higher, as within the LGB community.

Yes, they used to say being a lesbian was caused by abuse too.

Apparently there are no other ways to frame our existence. We’ll see about that later.

5. Trans children must be stopped

Ditum goes on to stick up for “poor” Ken Zucker, saying he “was attacked for not conforming to the current trans political line, and ultimately forced from his job”.

Zucker, if you are not aware, is a proponent of reparative therapy for both LGB and trans children. Zucker increasingly shifted the focus of his work away from gay kids and towards trans kids due to “political” changes. Imagine if Ditum was writing now about that political shift – away from it being ok to try and “cure” gay people.

All the reputable psychological organisations condemn reparative therapy for gay and trans kids, and Zucker was a lone proponent, ultimately fired by an independent investigation.

The man was a renegade, so why is Ditum not citing other research by people who work with trans kids, for balance? The article pretends to be comprehensive and even handed, but look at just a small sample of what’s missing.

Ditum later rehashes a tired old myth when it comes to trans children. Using the very scientific method of watching a TV documentary and listening to an anecdote, she concludes that trans children think they are trans because they like things associated with the opposite sex. She perpetuates the myth of desistance and misleadingly cites:

“studies suggesting 80 per cent of gender non-conforming  children go on to live in their original gender as adults”

Yes, this figure is true, but that’s because trans and gender non-conforming are not the same thing. Read this article to understand how this statistic is misused over and over again. There is also a better study that shows that gender identity in trans kids is equally as consistent as for cis kids. Not to mention (oh ok, I will) the other important recent study that demonstrates extremely positive outcomes for trans kids that receive treatment.

It is frustrating how much good work has been done to clear up these myths and yet how often they get trotted out to trap the unwary people who haven’t done the reading.

Has Ditum not done her reading? Or is she deliberately suppressing one side of the story – I will leave you to decide. Given the size of her platform, can anyone see the danger for trans people if she has not been fully ethical, balanced and diligent in her research?

A transgender child’s identification with another gender goes far beyond mere gender expression, and is extremely persistent. Often kids and parents talk about expressions and choices as some of the clues they had along the way, but obviously you cannot encompass years of gender dysphoria into a soundbite or even a documentary. And having seen the BBC documentary mentioned, Ditum is also guilty of having cherry picked the one line out of an hour’s programme that fits her own biased narrative.

6. Ergo we don’t exist

“arguably non-existent gender identity”

“In the absence of compelling evidence for brainsex”

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – we are still exploring the complexity of gender and biology. It is interesting that the lack of fully established evidence for brainsex spurs Ditum to fall back on possibilities that have even less evidence, including the entirely debunked theory that it is a paraphilia (autogynephilia, see above).

Like Ditum, I believe gender identity may well be multi-determined, and I am fiercely in the middle of the nature/nurture debate, as are most reputable scholars – it’s likely to be both. I do however see there are hints of a mosaic of brain and hormonal differences that, as Daphna Joel has discovered, are by no means binary. These findings back the notion of sex-similarity far more than sex-difference. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the entirely debunked theories of Simon Baron-Cohen and others, it is possible that there is biology at work here, as well as, of course, gender socialisation.

Ditum also cites “a response to homophobia” as one possible cause of being trans. As a person who identified as a lesbian for a decade as a response to transphobia and my reluctance to come out as trans, my challenge to Ditum is this – show me the evidence that there is more stigma attached to being gay than trans in this country and I will believe you. Show me a single study that prompted you to throw that one in the mix. Or are you just falling back on the tired old trope that trans women are “confused gay men”? Yes, there is an interrelationship between gender identity and sexuality, but they are not the same. Neither are they in competition with each other.

I lived a prosperous life as a lesbian and have suffered a massive loss of privilege and circumstance in coming out as trans. I came out not because it was advantageous but because my lesbian identity was a half-truth and not a full expression of who I am, and I could not continue to manage living in that half-truth.

8. Trans is a narrow option

“as the doctrine of gender identity draws tighter, options become ever narrower”

Again, where is the evidence of this? My experience of the trans community is that the more freedom to explore ourselves and be accepted we have, the more diverse narratives spring up, the more options become open to us and the more the walls between us break down. Where 20 years ago trans people were expected to live heteronormative lives, now many of us are out and challenging many of society’s preconceptions around gender.

My trans circle is fiercely feminist, distinctly radical, and demonstrates a range of possibilities from assigned female “trans dykes” who use she/her but challenge what it is to be a woman, to non-binary people who manage to live outside of gender entirely. People who ease their dysphoria through medicine and people who don’t. And yes, people who know themselves to be women but don’t go through a medical process, who face huge challenges because of that. It’s funny how the nonconforming trans people like Alex Drummond are held up as the threat, and at one and the same time it is our community that is supposedly narrowing the options. Meanwhile, ultra conservative trans people like Caitlyn Jenner falsely dominate the public’s idea of what it is to be trans.

An observant person might suggest that cis people keep narrowing our options, while we keep trying to widen them so that we can live more healthily and congruently.

9. Cis people know better

“The fact of suffering is not evidence that the sufferer has unimpeachable insight into the source of that suffering”

A clever one, this. Yes, it’s true in a way, but it’s also deeply patronising. As a person-centred counsellor I have learned time and again that my client, whoever they are, is the expert on their own life. What is certainly not true is that Ditum can claim any real ability to shed light on this discussion.

10. It’s dangerous to give us rights

Finally, after an awful lot of going round the houses, we reach the real point of the article.

Ditum is very clearly arguing against trans people having civil rights, citing harm to “women” (read cis women) as the reason.

So, Ditum has cast trans acceptance as conflicting with both the gay community and the cis women’s community. A classic capitalist tactic to divide the groups that could be working together. She could almost be working for a neoliberal elite, so helpful is she being to them. At least, her career is probably doing very well because her message is so helpful in preserving the status quo.

So what do we know? We know, in fact, that the people who are most at risk of sexual, physical and domestic violence are trans women, and we know that there has never been any real problem accommodating them. I have experience of working in trans inclusive women’s services and it was never an issue.

What Ditum ignores is the position a trans woman has within women’s spaces. She will be scrutinised and suspected and watched. She does not hold the power in that space. How exactly is she to be a danger to others?

Ditum also plays on a fear that it is in patriarchy’s interests to perpetuate: women must keep themselves apart to be safe. Never mind that this excludes women’s voices in society, as I discuss in this blog post. Men want women to be afraid of them. They use the threat of rape and violence to enforce that fear, to convince women segregation is in their best interests. Fear of trans women is just another way of establishing that status quo.

Meanwhile, gender non-conforming cis women and lesbians are sharing with trans women the often violent consequences of this fear, as they always have.

Let’s be clear, there is absolutely no evidence that trans rights will have any detrimental effect on women’s rights. The changes in trans rights and acceptance that have happened so far over the last 40 years have not created problems for women. The problems people like Ditum feared have not come to pass. In fact, the experience of trans women and the violence, sexualisation and objectification they experience has highlighted the fact of misogyny and added a useful perspective to the feminist conversation. Transfeminism is exciting and vibrant and has earned its place within mainstream feminism.

11. Trans people are criminals

So, one Swedish study from a long time ago that has been much critiqued suggested that trans women (and trans men, as it happens) are incarcerated more than an average population of women.

It also says that trans people are more suicidal than the average population, no surprise there given how we are treated. This is often misrepresented, as in this article, to suggest we are more suicidal post-transition than pre-transition, something that has again been thoroughly debunked.

I could point out, as others have, that the study is old, has not been replicated, and was a very small sample. But actually, in the case of the criminality statistics, I really don’t need to.

Instead, imagine if Ditum was quoting the incidence of incarceration of other minority women compared to the norm for all women – say, lesbians, mentally ill women, women of colour, women living in poverty, women who have experienced trauma. Now let her continue to say those incarceration rates are due to something inherent in that population, rather than the fact that we know marginalised minority populations have higher offending rates for complex sociological reasons.

Ditum then says that prisoners might pretend to be trans to get more favourable housing. Well, yes initially they might, but when they see the hoops they have to jump through they will probably think again. Nobody is suggesting that there will be instant prison transfers on an inmate’s say-so, meaning of course that the prisoner will have to live as a woman for some time in a men’s prison, and experience the full force of misogyny that trans women experience.

All incarcerations are risk assessed, as are hostel placements and refuge placements. The reality is, sometimes cis women are too dangerous to house in a women’s prison, hostel or refuge, and special accommodations have to be made. We don’t need a special rule that affects an entire minority group, because we already have rules in place to deal with violent, dangerous, and sex offending cis women.

Ditum fails to mention Vicky Thomson, who killed herself when she was put in a men’s prison despite having lived as a woman for years. Or Tara Hudson, who was also imprisoned and sexually harassed in a men’s prison despite having transitioned long ago. Or Mary, who was raped 2000 times in a men’s prison. She fails to highlight the women who really are at risk in all this, as if trans women’s lives don’t actually matter in the same way. She also fails to highlight that those women are likely to be in danger in women’s prisons too, if we continue to stigmatise and doubt their existence.

Then, apparently thinking it will clinch her argument, Ditum cites a case of a trans inmate having sex with other inmates. Not rape, let’s be clear, but sex. Because apparently sex doesn’t happen in prisons when there are no trans women around. It takes the presence of a penis and testicles (yes, of course Ditum has to mention these) for sex to happen. And note the wording – the trans woman had sex with the other inmates, no possibility that, excited by the appearance of a penis in their midst, they might have been the ones “having sex with” her. Because cis women are always passive?

Don’t let all this essentialism slide – who people are and in what way they can move through society is being brought entirely down to the shape of their genitals. Note how, in all her discourse, Ditum is actually pushing trans women back towards a medicalised model where they will have to have “full surgery” to be tolerated. She is pushing us away from people being able to live as Alex Drummond lives.

11. Trans feminists aren’t proper feminists

“Julia Serano, who insists on a definition of feminism that contains no reference to patriarchy”

Ditum grossly misrepresents Serano’s work. I would recommend reading Whipping Girl and Excluded, but here’s a blog about this, where, funnily enough, Serano mentions the reality of patriarchy, as she often does:

“In Excluded, I describe these “gender systems” – whether it be patriarchy, the gender binary, and so on – as being models that provide a fairly decent approximation of how sexism and marginalization function in our culture. However, like all models, they are necessarily incomplete, and there will always be instances where they do not accurately describe the world.”

Why would Ditum be so dismissive of the nuanced and thought-provoking (although not always perfect) work of a noted transfeminist? Isn’t this a balanced article that’s supposed to be looking at all sides of the issue?

12. Save us from this false ideology!

“There is a real danger that an unproven theory of innate gender identity is now directing treatments”

Again, where is the evidence? Treatments are outcomes-based, not theory based – doctors try to alleviate suffering, and continue doing what works best until a better solution is found. Despite quoting again that one discredited Swedish study, we know treatment outcomes for trans people are really positive.

The answer to the philosophical question of “who are we, really, when you get right down to it?” is not necessary to know that gender reassignment works for those who want it, saves lives, and saves the NHS a fortune in mental health services that will never resolve the issue.

Whoever we are deep down, being allowed the freedom to live in a way that resolves our sense of incongruence is good for us. And actually, what’s good for the individual is generally good for the people around that individual too. Allowing trans people to be happy and healthy is a win-win.

Also note Ditum mentions that one Swedish study and fails to mention the many many more recent ones – so much for balance. There’s a handful of papers on my professional web page to get you started. Hey, that one old, unreplicated study has done an awful lot of heavy lifting for gender critical feminists, it must be tired by now.

Conclusion: Not critical enough

Despite the length of the article, I think I’ve demonstrated Ditum’s cherry picking of information prevents this from being a genuinely critical look at the full story.

But for me, the biggest issue here is the way Ditum’s argument reinforces gender.

Gender is a social construct, this is rightly a tenet of feminist belief. Gender is the word we use for everything man-made about the differences between men and women. I use “man-made”advisedly, because nobody here is arguing that patriarchy is not a real thing. As I have argued before, though, this inevitably means sex as a man-made social class and legal status is actually a part of gender.

Cue my favourite training slide:

not biology

So, in trying to reinforce the legal segregation of gender, upon which all social construction of gender is built, Ditum is in fact propping up the very thing she claims to want to dismantle. She has argued (on BBC Newsnight, earlier in the year) that sex needs to be legally recorded for women’s protection.

Let’s put that to the test in the usual way: “In order to ensure you as a gay citizen are protected, we need to legally record your status as a homosexual on all your documentation.”

No way that could go wrong, is there?

So, here is a possibility Ditum never discussed. Women and men are not that fundamentally different, although there are all sorts of complex nuances to our neurological, chromosomal, hormonal, and social experiences that create variety in how we are embodied and how we experience and interact with the culture around us.

That culture is oppressive in a number of ways – it favours heterosexuality, masculinity, men, and the idea of oppositional sex, as Serano terms it (as well as whiteness, able-bodiedness, neurotypicality, etc).

Gender segregation, in the form of legal and social sex (really gender) assignment at birth, is one way in which the culture is oppressive. This legal and social process oppresses gay people, women and trans people. Trans people are fighting to exist comfortably within this oppressive system, but many of us are also fighting to change it.

Ditum, let’s be clear, is fighting to preserve it.

Post-script- added 20/5/16

Given how hastily I wrote this, in just one afternoon, I am overwhelmed by the messages of support it has had. The only response I had from Ditum herself is as follows:

ditum

A friend pointed out this is a fine example of “dead cat politics“.

Of course that is not what I am saying! I am saying, however, that gender segregated toilets are not a feminist invention, and not necessarily in the interests of feminism, but that reaction to fear of men and rape, legitimate as that is, can sometimes lead to decisions to back gender-enshrining legislation that isn’t ultimately in women’s interests.

So, some folks then brought up the risk to women from lack of appropriate sanitation facilities in India and Africa. White women appropriating the experiences of women of colour to further their own agenda? Surely not. So let’s get this clear:

We do not have to have gender segregation enshrined in law to make safe provisions for diverse people in diverse situations. There are times, of course, when people are getting naked and need appropriate privacy, and it’s important to provide them with that. Women’s safety and children’s safety are absolutely important. This safety and privacy is generally achieved by providing a door with a lock on it, along with other reasonable security measures like safe external access. I think you’ll find most UK toilets and most new changing facilities afford this safety and privacy, and women everywhere have a right to demand this. Desegregated does not mean not risk assessed.

If facilities are not safe for everyone to use, we should probably stop letting our boy children use toilets. And women should probably start worrying about the 64,000 registered women sex offenders who are permitted to use all these facilities.

Gender Segregation – For your own good?

I am reposting this from April 8 because it isn’t showing up in the sidebar.

TW for discussion of violence and abuse, including sexual abuse

A long time ago, I was vulnerably housed, living in a hostel in a city down South. Next door to me lived a couple, a really tall older man and a young adult man who had dwarfism. I’m going to call the smaller guy Paul, although his real name has disappeared from my head. I’ll never forget his story, though.

People have always told me their life stories – I guess I have that kind of face. Paul’s was pretty tragic – a childhood of terrible neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It was hard to hear – the worst thing I’d ever heard at the time, which given  the things I’d heard and experienced is saying a lot.

Paul’s companion was his “saviour” – someone who showed him love he had never known, but it soon became clear that this older man had a temper and was violent – sometimes I was called into the aftermath of blood, bruises, tears and apologies. They clearly loved each other, but I could see that what Paul had now was only good compared to the horror of his past – he was still being abused, and he was terribly vulnerable.

A journey towards separatism

Forward fast a few years and I’d pretty much become a lesbian separatist – I’d come out the other side of therapy for my own abuse from cis men, and I’d figured out the safest kind of world is a world without men in it, at least for me (okay, I admit that later I learned women weren’t as safe to be with as I’d hoped, but that’s another story for another time). Back then I worked for women-only domestic violence services, and I firmly believed they need to stay women-only (note: for me, that always included trans women).

But then the UK funding climate changed and the service I worked for started to work with men, amid resistance from myself and other workers.

[Image: a crying woman cowers in front of a man's clenched fist]

But that work with male survivors changed me. It turns out there are other Pauls in the world, that male/female is not the only axis of oppression that exists. I discovered that sometimes women really do abuse vulnerable men, that as well as being a man, someone can be queer or elderly or young or disabled or little or a person of colour or economically vulnerable. And most importantly, I discovered that despite the power imbalance, women and men are not fundamentally different and our experiences of abuse and trauma are not fundamentally different. I discovered gender as a continuum, and human experience as a continuum, and began to free myself from the simplistic, convenient, and binary models I had clung to.

Back then, we would say “yeah, but men should set up their own services, women shouldn’t have to look after men, it isn’t their job”, and that works so well as an argument when I think of this group of people “men” with the attached picture I have of someone able and white and well-muscled. But it sounds callous, if I’m honest, when I think of someone like Paul. Really? Not the job of an able, middle class professional being paid by taxpayers money to care about a vulnerable, homeless abuse survivor with dwarfism? That sounds a little different, doesn’t it?

I’m not suggesting that Paul didn’t have male privilege, far from it. I am simply suggesting male privilege is not the only privilege there is, and that he lacked many others.

At the same time, I felt uneasy – a service with “women” in the title helping men was a bit like Cadbury’s making gravy. The whole thing needed a bit of a rethink. Because “domestic violence” had become synonymous with women, and heterosexual women at that, it had coalesced around one particular form of oppression – sexism. Ageism, ableism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, classism and poverty (etc) were not getting a look-in or being treated as equally serious oppressions.

Perhaps this is because women’s organising does benefit from potentially having the weight of half the world’s population behind it. Women are not a minority, and maybe that’s an advantage they have over other oppressed groups. It’s helped them be the only oppressed group that’s consistently able to create publicly funded separate spaces.

Some time later still, I went to work for a mixed gender sexual abuse survivors service, and some of my feminist friends were angry with me – they did not believe there was such thing as a genuine male abuse survivor, they honestly thought that men could only be perpetrators. I was shocked, but I also understood – in a world where separatism had created a bubble in which we never heard about male survivors, it was easy to disbelieve their existence. What we saw more often was male perpetrators manipulating and abusing by playing the victim, a common story.

But by now my eyes had been painfully opened – male survivors do exist, male survivors of abuse by women exist. Even though the power structure between men and women is very unequal, on an individual level there are variations, and other power structures at play. For example, boys under 7 sexually assaulted by female relatives and then labelled as “seducers” based on their maleness have their child/adult power inequality erased.

My own history and the work I did was raising complex questions about gender, trauma and abuse that I needed to explore. I went and did an MA with a particular focus on gender and trauma. That journey led to me coming out as a non-binary transgender person, but it also opened my eyes to the many layers in the stories we tell ourselves about violence against women.

“For your own good”

Gender segregation – in domestic violence services, prisons, toilets, and other women only spaces is supposedly for women’s own good. We have to keep women and men separate because it’s thought impossible to expect the same standard of non-violence from men as from women. This constant threat of violence and micro-aggressions is part of what keeps women oppressed, even to the point where feminists argue for single-sex education so girls can “do better” despite the fact our country is ruled by an ex-boys’ school elite. Gender segregation keeps women out of power and yet it’s still seen to be in their interests.

When I wrote my dissertation, I came across evidence that feminist domestic violence services, in the US at least, were being controlled by an external, ultra-conservative agenda – the message to services, in summary, appeared to be “if you want funding for your shelters, then you must present and perpetuate the ‘women as powerless victims’ narrative” – any hint that women’s position in society is negotiable, changeable, evolving and conditional is erased to create a fixed condition of women as a static underclass. The reality, that some women are strong, violent, unassailable, powerful, has ironically become as unpalatable to the people defending these vital services as it has to the conservatives, and so we feminists working for an end to domestic violence found ourselves shoring up the very thing we wanted to dismantle. In order to support women in the world the way it is, we have given the way the world is an increasing solidity and sense of permanence.

All those years I spent in women’s spaces, I fought for their preservation. Even whilst knowing in my heart that gender isn’t a binary. Whilst knowing that I carried the male gaze and male socialisation into those spaces. That I identified as woman in some ways and man in others. That I myself was capable of both victimhood and violence (I was prone to physically lashing out as a youngster, something that’s hard for me to own up to).

It’s hard not to end up with more questions than answers when trying to think of ways forward. I will continue to stick up for women’s spaces, whilst hoping we evolve away from them. I hope that segregated spaces were a necessary part of the journey, but not where we’re going to end up. I want a world not of assimilation, of “not seeing gender” but of inclusion and anti-oppression, where there is an awareness of inequality and people’s vulnerability, and an empathy for difference in all spaces. This becomes increasingly necessary as we realise that many of the smaller minority groups will never have the resources or traction to create their own safe spaces. And as Audre Lorde famously said, we do not live single-issue lives, so our separation into neat, easy to delineate categories is more problematic than at first appears.

[image: photo of Audre Lorde speaking, with qotation overlaid "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not lead single-issue lives"]

More than anything, though, I would love to see an end to the way we construct and reinforce toxic masculinity. I fear that in this neoliberal world, it may be in some people’s interests to maintain male violence and its function of domination, control and security. It is not mindless – it serves a purpose in keeping our country economically strong and our race in a superior position. Subverting that role in whatever way we can, and that includes breaking down the myths that separate us, is tough, complicated but important work.

Gender Segregation – “For your own good”?

TW for discussion of violence and abuse, including sexual abuse

A long time ago, I was vulnerably housed, living in a hostel in a city down South. Next door to me lived a couple, a really tall older man and a young adult man who had dwarfism. I’m going to call the smaller guy Paul, although his real name has disappeared from my head. I’ll never forget his story, though.

People have always told me their life stories – I guess I have that kind of face. Paul’s was pretty tragic – a childhood of terrible neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It was hard to hear – the worst thing I’d ever heard at the time, which given  the things I’d heard and experienced is saying a lot.

Paul’s companion was his “saviour” – someone who showed him love he had never known, but it soon became clear that this older man had a temper and was violent – sometimes I was called into the aftermath of blood, bruises, tears and apologies. They clearly loved each other, but I could see that what Paul had now was only good compared to the horror of his past – he was still being abused, and he was terribly vulnerable.

A journey towards separatism

Forward fast a few years and I’d pretty much become a lesbian separatist – I’d come out the other side of therapy for my own abuse from cis men, and I’d figured out the safest kind of world is a world without men in it, at least for me (okay, I admit that later I learned women weren’t as safe to be with as I’d hoped, but that’s another story for another time). Back then I worked for women-only domestic violence services, and I firmly believed they need to stay women-only (note: for me, that always included trans women).

But then the UK funding climate changed and the service I worked for started to work with men, amid resistance from myself and other workers.

[Image: a crying woman cowers in front of a man's clenched fist]

But that work with male survivors changed me. It turns out there are other Pauls in the world, that male/female is not the only axis of oppression that exists. I discovered that sometimes women really do abuse vulnerable men, that as well as being a man, someone can be queer or elderly or young or disabled or little or a person of colour or economically vulnerable. And most importantly, I discovered that despite the power imbalance, women and men are not fundamentally different and our experiences of abuse and trauma are not fundamentally different. I discovered gender as a continuum, and human experience as a continuum, and began to free myself from the simplistic, convenient, and binary models I had clung to.

Back then, we would say “yeah, but men should set up their own services, women shouldn’t have to look after men, it isn’t their job”, and that works so well as an argument when I think of this group of people “men” with the attached picture I have of someone able and white and well-muscled. But it sounds callous, if I’m honest, when I think of someone like Paul. Really? Not the job of an able, middle class professional being paid by taxpayers money to care about a vulnerable, homeless abuse survivor with dwarfism? That sounds a little different, doesn’t it?

I’m not suggesting that Paul didn’t have male privilege, far from it. I am simply suggesting male privilege is not the only privilege there is, and that he lacked many others.

At the same time, I felt uneasy – a service with “women” in the title helping men was a bit like Cadbury’s making gravy. The whole thing needed a bit of a rethink. Because “domestic violence” had become synonymous with women, and heterosexual women at that, it had coalesced around one particular form of oppression – sexism. Ageism, ableism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, classism and poverty (etc) were not getting a look-in or being treated as equally serious oppressions.

Perhaps this is because women’s organising does benefit from potentially having the weight of half the world’s population behind it. Women are not a minority, and maybe that’s an advantage they have over other oppressed groups. It’s helped them be the only oppressed group that’s consistently able to create publicly funded separate spaces.

Some time later still, I went to work for a mixed gender sexual abuse survivors service, and some of my feminist friends were angry with me – they did not believe there was such thing as a genuine male abuse survivor, they honestly thought that men could only be perpetrators. I was shocked, but I also understood – in a world where separatism had created a bubble in which we never heard about male survivors, it was easy to disbelieve their existence. What we saw more often was male perpetrators manipulating and abusing by playing the victim, a common story.

But by now my eyes had been painfully opened – male survivors do exist, male survivors of abuse by women exist. Even though the power structure between men and women is very unequal, on an individual level there are variations, and other power structures at play. For example, boys under 7 sexually assaulted by female relatives and then labelled as “seducers” based on their maleness have their child/adult power inequality erased.

My own history and the work I did was raising complex questions about gender, trauma and abuse that I needed to explore. I went and did an MA with a particular focus on gender and trauma. That journey led to me coming out as a non-binary transgender person, but it also opened my eyes to the many layers in the stories we tell ourselves about violence against women.

“For your own good”

Gender segregation – in domestic violence services, prisons, toilets, and other women only spaces is supposedly for women’s own good. We have to keep women and men separate because it’s thought impossible to expect the same standard of non-violence from men as from women. This constant threat of violence and micro-aggressions is part of what keeps women oppressed, even to the point where feminists argue for single-sex education so girls can “do better” despite the fact our country is ruled by an ex-boys’ school elite. Gender segregation keeps women out of power and yet it’s still seen to be in their interests.

When I wrote my dissertation, I came across evidence that feminist domestic violence services, in the US at least, were being controlled by an external, ultra-conservative agenda – the message to services, in summary, appeared to be “if you want funding for your shelters, then you must present and perpetuate the ‘women as powerless victims’ narrative” – any hint that women’s position in society is negotiable, changeable, evolving and conditional is erased to create a fixed condition of women as a static underclass. The reality, that some women are strong, violent, unassailable, powerful, has ironically become as unpalatable to the people defending these vital services as it has to the conservatives, and so we feminists working for an end to domestic violence found ourselves shoring up the very thing we wanted to dismantle. In order to support women in the world the way it is, we have given the way the world is an increasing solidity and sense of permanence.

All those years I spent in women’s spaces, I fought for their preservation. Even whilst knowing in my heart that gender isn’t a binary. Whilst knowing that I carried the male gaze and male socialisation into those spaces. That I identified as woman in some ways and man in others. That I myself was capable of both victimhood and violence (I was prone to physically lashing out as a youngster, something that’s hard for me to own up to).

It’s hard not to end up with more questions than answers when trying to think of ways forward. I will continue to stick up for women’s spaces, whilst hoping we evolve away from them. I hope that segregated spaces were a necessary part of the journey, but not where we’re going to end up. I want a world not of assimilation, of “not seeing gender” but of inclusion and anti-oppression, where there is an awareness of inequality and people’s vulnerability, and an empathy for difference in all spaces. This becomes increasingly necessary as we realise that many of the smaller minority groups will never have the resources or traction to create their own safe spaces. And as Audre Lorde famously said, we do not live single-issue lives, so our separation into neat, easy to delineate categories is more problematic than at first appears.

[image: photo of Audre Lorde speaking, with qotation overlaid "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not lead single-issue lives"]

More than anything, though, I would love to see an end to the way we construct and reinforce toxic masculinity. I fear that in this neoliberal world, it may be in some people’s interests to maintain male violence and its function of domination, control and security. It is not mindless – it serves a purpose in keeping our country economically strong and our race in a superior position. Subverting that role in whatever way we can, and that includes breaking down the myths that separate us, is tough, complicated but important work.

Together in our differences

When I came out at work about my plans to undergo a medical transition, at first I didn’t even bother to go into “non-binary” and what that means, because it felt too hard for people to understand. I told colleagues a simplified version of my truth, which implied I was transitioning to live “as a man”. It felt right at the time, but I quickly realised this identity was just as suffocating for me as the assigned female identity I’d been lumbered with at birth. I rectified the situation, took time to explain non-binary to people. They were nice about it, but clearly they did not understand. I felt more authentic, but way out on a very bendy limb. I was a unicorn*, tempted to saw off my horn to appear like a less authentic but more believable pony.

Of course, if all us unicorns wore our horns out and proud, we wouldn’t seem so imaginary. But the reality is, most of us, cis or trans, spend time negotiating the varying sized gap between “fitting in” and “being ourselves”.

Was I lying to my colleagues when I implied I was a man? No – in a world where currently there are only two legal and social options, I’m enough of a man – maleness being a significant part of my gender story – to deserve to be included in male spaces, male toilets, male services, if that’s what I need to exist in this imperfect, either/or world.

If we start to erase my right to belong to the group “men” by citing my femaleness, my femininity, then we’re falling into dodgy territory where people need to perform a perfect version of masculinity in order to be acceptable. Hell no, that’s not the way to go – though of course trans people are under constant pressure to perform this perfect stereotype because our identities are continually scrutinised and questioned – any hint of femininity, female socialisation, female-typical or stereotypical behaviour, and I am invalidated, as people encourage me to widen my leg position, shorten my hair, lower my voice etc. to “pass” as myself.

I am not always given the space I need to be “the same, but different”.

not afraid

(I wish)

The tension between “sameness” and difference

I guess it’s normal to hide a difference if it comes with the threat of exclusion, but at the same time parts of ourselves can be suffocated, crying out to express “I am not the same as you!”

Trans people have our own unique experiences and culture, we have our own history of oppression and a profound difference in how we relate to our bodies, and how we culturally respond to assigned sex and gender. At the same time, when we are “othered” it marginalises us to the point where it becomes difficult for us to access things like services, toilets, social spaces and employment, so many of us spend a lot of time fighting for inclusion, and stressing our “sameness”.

Our dilemma is how to let the world know we are both different and the same; the dance many minority groups find themselves in, between isolating self-segregation and crushing assimilation.

Everyone has their own, entirely unique relationship with gender, sex and their own body. There are common themes, but none of them are absolutes. People need space to be different without risking rejection from the warmth, safety and security of the pack. Humans are suited to collective endeavour, but we are not a hive mind.

Organising across difference

Whether we focus on similarities or differences matters a lot when it comes to any kind of social organising. If we can only join together with other “people like us” to organise against oppression, or to create safety, there are problematic consequences. Organising around sameness and commonality risks erasing or excluding all difference. It also creates an inherently oppressive atmosphere in which assumptions are made about what “we” collectively think, feel and experience. It negates the need for us to work on our empathy and our ability to build bridges across divides.

Organising across difference lets the air in – people are free to not “fit in”, but to work together for something collectively beneficial. In a place where difference is celebrated and accepted, we are not always seeking to expel or exclude people, we are not focussed on doubting their legitimacy or vulnerability.

For non binary folk like me, there is an importance for both/and thinking that fights against the tyranny of the either/or: I have some experiences, feelings, history and biology that situate me as a woman. On the other hand, my predominant instincts from my earliest memories have drawn me towards male social rules, expression and behaviour, and in that I find I have a lot, if not more, in common with men. How I negotiate my relationship with the world given these complicated facts – how I identify, and where and how I wish to be included, should be up to me, as these experiences are inherently marginalising and render me highly vulnerable.

In an ideal world both parts of myself, and all the other parts of me that do not neatly fit this dichotomy, would be generally welcomed rather than excluded – there are some conversations that I do not feel a part of, but there are many, held under the banner of “women’s issues”, that certainly affect me.

The same but different

In reality, I am forced to conform to narrow ideas about who I am in order to negotiate my relationship with the rest of the human race; in my need to belong, I might sometimes grow tired of wearing my unicorn’s horn for all to see.

I am just the same as you, and I am nothing like you. Because mine is the minority experience, cis people have the power to choose whether to include me, accept me, believe me, or whether to use my differences to shut me out of spaces, conversations, civil rights, services, employment, toilets, and the safety of social inclusion; my being part of the human pack is entirely at the discretion of people who do not share, and may not understand, my experience and my difference.

*This blog was written just before I discovered the new, and infinitely improved, gender unicorn graphic

gender unicorn

Feminist organising across difference

I previously wrote about the need to be together in our differences from a personal perspective, but what I hinted at in that blog piece, I want to make more explicit here, in a call to feminism to stop centreing sameness and commonality in our organising.

I cannot possibly write more eloquently on this subject than Mia McKenzie did in this Black Girl Dangerous article, or punch up more effectively than the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag.

But the purpose of this blog is to build relationship and understanding between cis and trans feminists, and with regard to our particular differences I may have things that need saying.

Organising around “sameness”

In feminist organising, the need to emphasise “sameness” can be destructive, for all the notion of half the world united is deeply appealing. This idea of commonality prevents white women reaching out to their sisters of colour on issues such as FGM on a basis of anything other than shared biology. Differences can be erased in a rather appropriative way – FGM becomes a “shared female experience”. But FGM is not a biological inevitability and it is not something most white women are at risk from.

At worst, white feminists can appropriate the FGM experiences of women of colour to drive forward their own personal transantagonistic agendas, citing biology as some fundamental and unifying standpoint for women in a way that is erasing of their own relative advantages and freedom from such practices.

When commonality and sameness are a focus, instead of being united in our differences as feminists, trans women are witch-hunted into proving their similarities and shared experiences in order to be included. Or worse, their differences are used as reasons to exclude them.

It’s okay to be different

Let’s get it out there – of course trans women are different from cis women.

And trans women are different from each other. And you know what? cis women are all different from other cis women too. And yet at the same time there are many experiences of oppression that are shared, and they fall under the categories misogyny and sexism; the things feminism is specifically fighting.

Organising across difference rather than sameness changes the way we look at inclusion – people can fit some ways and not others, and that’s okay. We can unite to work together for something collectively beneficial, and still have spaces and conversations we don’t need to be a part of.

In a place where difference is celebrated and accepted, trans women are free to say “I have no need to be in a discussion about menstruation or abortion, but some of my trans AFAB siblings might want in on this” and it would not be a device to exclude them from women’s organising altogether, but simply a conversation they could step out of without feeling that it in any way compromised their position as women.

In a world where it’s okay to have differences, cis women would not use reproductive biology to exclude trans women from such things as discussion and services around sexual and domestic violence, which disproportionately affect trans women.

They would not, for instance, pull that old trick of citing pregnancy risk as the thing that sets apart a cis woman’s experience of rape – a notion that is not only demeaning to trans women’s experiences of rape, but also erasing of the experiences of infertile, post-menopausal or pre-pubescent cis female victims.

Is our movement mature enough for nuance?

There are aspects of sexism and misogyny that affect trans women, some that affect non-binary folks and sometimes trans men too. Because binaries and either/ors are generally an illusion, it is possible to build a stronger movement when we do away with arbitrary and simplistic sorting processes in feminist organising. We are fully able to have intelligent, here and now discussions – just who is affected by this issue in front of us right now? Who needs in on the conversation? How can we make sure they’re considered and included? How can we ensure our non-erasure of their differences?

Feminism has an important choice, and it is at the heart of the movement towards pro-intersectional feminism – do we homogenise, and then attempt to draw clear and arbitrary lines as to where that homogenity ends, or do we do the hard work of recognising that every different conversation we have in feminism will hold a different balance of power – who is most vulnerable in this regard, who needs to be held and centred, who can be overlooked, who holds the aces – this is a constantly shifting and nuanced story.

If everything is rape, nothing is rape

Trigger warning for discussion of rape, childhood sex abuse and consent

Self disclosure time: I have been a victim of actual rape and actual childhood sexual abuse from cisgender men, and although I had a lot of good therapy and do just fine I’m more than aware of the impact on any human being violated in this way.

I also work with rape and sexual abuse survivors in my professional life. I work from a feminist perspective, and I am adamant that this is not a gender neutral issue. As such, I have zero tolerence for anyone that blurs or distorts the definition of rape, and that’s what I would like to blog about today.

Extremist propaganda that equates just about anything with rape, if it is done by a man or a trans woman, is offensive to people who have experienced genuine rape, and is as unacceptable as the casual use of words like “frape“. “All PIV sex is rape” is one such distortion. The presence of a young trans girl in a girl’s toilet being described as rape is another. The final trigger for this blog, though, was a trans woman having consensual sex with another woman being described as rape if she (hypothetically) does not disclose her trans status. I recently encountered an earnest feminist discussion on the subject, among people who should absolutely know better.

Robin Thicke could not blur the lines any better than that – how are we supposed to teach young people about consent if these mixed messages are floating around? If a woman freely says yes, it’s still rape? If your rapist is a woman, it isn’t rape? If you don’t tell your partner everything about yourself before consensual sex, yup, that’s rape too? Huh?

I once was super alarmed to find out the woman I was seeing voted conservative. I must admit, I felt ill to think I had been sleeping with a Tory, but it taught me a valuable lesson – if you have a particular issue or prejudice against sleeping with any group of people, the onus is on you to get that cleared up ahead of time. Okay, so saying you would never date a trans woman (if you’re into women) might well indicate that you are a gigantic transphobe but that is still your choice – your body, your rules.

Let’s get this clear, it was not “rapey” for my then girlfriend to call me prejudiced for cooling on her when I found out she was a Tory. Nor was it “rapey” of her not to tell me, nor was it even “rapey” of her to present her political views in exactly the way I wanted to hear them – it was deceptive, and it was not her nicest quality, but it isn’t rape to deceive or conceal from a lover. It’s rape to coerce or force someone into sex, it’s rape not to gain consent. There are many, many shitty things that lovers can do that don’t fall into the category of rape – fraud, deception, cheating, trickery are among the many things that rape isn’t.

Of course, if a trans woman did not disclose her status it would likely be out of fear of violence or social isolation, and the unalterable reality of being trans hardly equates to the wrong-headed choice of voting Tory, so I apologise to trans women for making this comparison, but I hope I made my point.

There’s no doubt that some anti-trans propagandists want to create a deliberate association between trans women and rape in the minds of women, even going so far as to suggest the entire process of transition is an act of rape. And of course, because rape is such a triggering world for the tragically high number of women who have been raped, it is very easy to manipulate people with such an emotive argument – a classic example of what Naomi Klein would call “shock doctrine”.

Things to watch out for – these people always use the term “trans activist” rather than “trans person” to make trans individuals seem like part of an organised political movement, rather than diverse individuals trying as best they can to live their complicated lives. They put transphobic stories alongside other actually serious cases of actual rape and violence against women, to groom you into associating the two, entirely unrelated, things. Some Facebook pages in particular will share a high proportion of trans-related stories, as if to build a feeling in the audience that trans people are the main threat.

Recently I had to complain to my local pharmacy about a wall hanging that read “If a lady says no she means perhaps, if she says perhaps she means yes, and if she says yes, she is no lady”. This is rape culture, in a nutshell, as was the pharmacist’s obliviousness to the harm in this message. The message blurs the lines around consent, and the act of consent should be clear.

No feminist should ever blur the message of what rape is. Extremist, distorted views undermine what people like myself are fighting for; to end rape culture – they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.