Rape Relief v. Nixon, transphobia, and the value of women-only space: An interview with Lee Lakeman

Although the Nixon v. Rape Relief case was settled back in 2007, with a dismissal of Kimberly Nixon’s request to appeal the B.C. Court of Appeals decision (that decision being that “Vancouver Rape Relief has the right to prefer to train women who have never been treated as anything but female”), the case continues to be a source of controversy. In an effort to address misinformation, accusations of “transphobia”, and to give Lee Lakeman the opportunity to respond to some points that came up in an interview The F Word’s Nicole Deagan did with Susan Stryker, I spoke with her over the phone last week. I’ve posted the audio and the transcript of that interview below.

Meghan Murphy: Can you give me some background on this case?

Lee Lakeman: It must be 15 years ago now…What happened is that a male-to-female transsexual, although we didn’t know whether Nixon was a transsexual right away, arrived at a training group — that’s a pretty easy thing to do because Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter has a pretty open policy about who can train; we have three screening questions that are kind of the bottom line – if you get past the first three screening questions which essentially show that you’re willing to learn, then you’re welcome into the training group. But at that point, and this is many years ago, it was fairly obvious to everybody that it was women-only.

So when this person appeared in training group (I wasn’t there) – the three women who were on duty identified this person as either not living as a woman or not always having lived as a woman. One of them took Nixon aside and asked politely “How long have you been living as a woman?” and then explained to Nixon that we had a commonly held belief that women are born into oppressive circumstances and shaped every day of their lives from the day that they are born by being labeled girls and women and therefore treated as girls and women and that that’s the experience we use all the time to talk to rape victims and assaulted women when they come forward. That’s the common ground that we use to establish a peer relationship with them.

So what the women explained to Nixon was that Nixon didn’t have those experiences and therefore would not be invited into the training group. The next day, Nixon went to B.C. Human Rights and complained of being mistreated.

MM: As you know, some people, as a result of this specific case have accused Vancouver Rape Relief of being what they call “transphobic”. Can you respond to that?

LL: I’d say it’s an easy and a silly accusation really. Rape Relief has been part of calls for human rights legislation that would protect transsexual and transgender people and would have been happy to make common cause with Nixon about other things that had happened. For instance Nixon says there was once a job as a pilot that Nixon lost — I can’t remember exactly why it was dropped but it certainly had to do with transsexual rights and you know, we would have been willing to support that fight and there were other fights about housing, jobs — basic things that we would be willing to fight for. What we weren’t willing to do was to say that our group has to change it’s membership criteria.

MM: And I know that a lot of people seem to have confused the Nixon case with the idea that women’s shelters would refuse to help trans women who had been raped – what are your thoughts on that? Are those issues related?

LL: No they aren’t related. It was clearly argued in court that we did take calls, we had taken calls, and that we referred whenever we could to appropriate services and we sometimes had directly helped and so that was not an issue in the case. One of the elements that people don’t know is that Rape Relief operates as a collective, so women who come forward to help are intending to join the collective and to be a clear part of the decision-making once they’re in the collective and that’s what was at stake in this situation.

MM: Along those lines, Susan Stryker, in her interview with my co-host, Nicole Deagan, said in reference to the Nixon case that she is “not a fan of separatist spaces” so I’m wondering if you can comment on that and comment on the value of women-only spaces? Is women-only space important, particularly within the context of Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter?

LL: Yes, it’s critically important. I mean, not everyone needs to be a fan of separatist spaces and you don’t need separatist spaces to do everything or every kind of revolting but you do need to do separatist organizing if you want to fight back as a group of Aboriginal people, for example, which this law has affected; if you want to fight back as a group of women, you need, at some point, to say “men can’t join the group” and you need to, at some point, say, “Even though sex and gender may be on a continuum, where are you marking the line on the continuum for who’s in your group?” You still, at some point, have to decide where is the boundary around your group and the group that you’re trying to work for or work with.

MM: My understanding is that what this case was about was about Rape Relief being able to define their own membership. So when you say this law affects Aboriginal people, is that what you mean?

LL: Since our case, there have been other cases in which Aboriginal people used the arguments that we built in court to defend their right to be only Aboriginals in their group. It’s very important. If you believe that class and race and gender are key categories of struggle in our society then you have to, at some point ask yourself – are working class people allowed to exclude the rich from their group when they want to talk to each other about what the strategies should be and how they should move forward? Are racialized people allowed to have a group of their own? In Canadian law there is permission for such things and the law says, yes, it is discriminatory in the sense of the total, literal use of the word; yes, you are deciding who is going to be in your group and you are allowed to say – my group is not for all Aboriginal people – it’s only for the people in this band or it’s only for the people involved in this issue…You’re allowed to do that and you’re certainly allowed to say: “we don’t want white people in our group, we don’t want men in our group or we’re not fighting primarily for people in any other place on this continuum – we’re fighting for this group and because we’re fighting for this disadvantaged, already named disadvantaged group, we’re allowed to make those decisions.”

MM: My understanding is that there are other places where men and in this case, transgender people could volunteer at Rape Relief, just not in this specific capacity that Kimberly Nixon wanted to? Is that right?

LL: We have had, for a long time, a mixed group that operates technically outside of Rape Relief but it’s still a committee of ours that raises money and works as a mixed group in support of Rape Relief. But within the shelter, within the rape crisis line, within our building, it’s women-only and it’s women-only for a reason. We did not want battered women who come to the front door to have to confront this issue and decide – because they would have to decide –“Is this person a danger to me?” “Is this person in drag?” “Is this person real?” – and that’s exactly what they would have been facing.

MM: And finally, another comment made by Susan Stryker that I wanted to give you the opportunity to respond to — she questioned why Vancouver Rape Relief wouldn’t just let someone volunteer who wanted to volunteer and asked why Rape Relief “cared more about expressing their transgender politics than they did about the potential affect that it could have on the reduction of services to other people.” So I think that’s implying that Rape Relief chose to go to court and fight this and that could potentially take away from services?

LL: Well there’s two key points. We didn’t choose to go to court, we were taken to court by the human rights complaint. We, in fact, tried to settle out of court, tried to offer alternatives to Nixon, including regrets for Nixon’s hurt feelings, we tried fairly hard to stay out of a legal battle because it didn’t seem to us that either transsexual rights or women’s rights were going advanced by asking the court, “the man”, to decide it. So that’s the first thing – it was not our call…It was definitely not our call. But having been dragged into it, we had no alternative but to defend ourselves because it does matter to us that we had built a service and a self-organized collective in which we’re entitled to make those decisions and we did not have to fold up because somebody had a different idea.

MM: Thank you so much for talking with me about this. I’m wondering if there’s anything else that you’d like to add.

LL: I guess I want to say that all this material is written down. If you go to the Rape Relief website, you can see the things that were argued in court, the newspaper clippings, the press releases that we did — it’s hard for me to remember the point-by-points, it’s so long ago now but there are also many things written intelligently and comprehensively in the Feminist Law Journal and in the Canadian Women’s Studies journal.

Rape Relief v. Nixon, transphobia, and the value of women-only space: An interview with Lee Lakeman
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.