Q: A number of campaign and community groups I am part of are struggling with questions around access to women’s spaces for trans women, and whether or not to agree with the line that ‘trans women are women’. I am biologically male and identify as a man, so I do not have direct experience of the issues, though I have always been opposed to all forms of oppression (including sexism and transphobia). Recently, some discussions have become heated, and I fear being accused of ‘white male privilege’ by one side or being a transphobe by the other. How am I/we to resolve this?
A: People like to huff and puff and say that the gender discussion in Britain has become a ‘toxic’, irresolvable conflict, that it’s too complicated. But the question of trans rights is actually simple: there are trans people, they face violence and discrimination because of their gender identity and we should stand in solidarity with them.
A relatively small, but vocal, group of feminists seems to have adopted a zero-sum approach to trans women (trans men and non-binary people tend to be omitted from the conversations). Their argument, when it comes to women-only spaces like refuges and changing rooms, is that only ‘biologically female’ women should be allowed in to reduce the perceived physical threat to cis women whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. The inclusion of trans women in the category of woman is seen as erasing the ‘biological realities’ of cis womanhood. To these ‘gender critical’ feminists, sexism is grounded in the specifics of their genetics and bodies and lived experience as girls and women as much as, if not more than, the social and cultural dynamics of patriarchy.
But there are feminists who have long argued that this biological definition of woman is essentialist. There is no universal ‘female’ experience: not all women menstruate, have children or breasts, are attracted to men etc. Trans feminists like Emi Koyama remind us that ‘there are as many ways of being a woman as there are women’.
Violence against women, perpetrated by men, is endemic and there is a need for spaces where women can feel safe, but excluding trans women from women-only spaces on grounds of safety is a nonsense. First, it ignores the fact trans women have been able to use single-sex spaces in the UK since the introduction of the Equality Act of 2010 and there is no evidence from the police or refuges that this has put cis women at increased risk. Second, it demonizes trans women, making trans gender identity out to be a predatory sexual pathology. A lot of this apparent concern for women’s spaces should be redirected at the government: women are endangered every day because refuges and rape crisis centres are under-resourced. In fact, sexual and domestic violence is a feature of misogyny experienced by all women, including trans women who are additionally vulnerable to abuse that targets their trans identity.
Trans people must be treated as real people, not imaginary predators infiltrating bathrooms. We should challenge transphobia as we would racism and be vocal in our support for trans rights to counter the noise made by those anti-trans voices in the media. The discussion has become mired in misinformation so we need to be learning the facts around self-identification, trans healthcare and single-sex spaces to lay them out to those who feel cis women’s rights are endangered. All of this requires engagement with trans people – in reading and conversation – to understand their experience of gender and the disproportionate degree of discrimination they face. In terms of immediate politics, we should support policy reform that makes transition easier and makes healthcare more accessible for trans kids who experience high levels of mental distress.
There are plenty of feminist cis women who support trans rights, so doing the same is not about abandoning women or your feminist principles. The discussion needs to move on from this invidious ‘debate’ over who is a ‘genuine’ woman to one that centres on giving all people the right to make decisions about their bodies and identities.
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This article is from
the March-April 2021 issue
of New Internationalist.
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