In The Guardian this week, lawyer and writer Shon Faye claims “trans people in Britain have recently been subjected to a media onslaught” — an almost laughable irony, if it weren’t so dishonest. The truth is that, while indeed many women and journalists in the UK have been covering and speaking out about questions surrounding the transitioning of children, proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, potential conflicts between gender identity legislation and women’s rights, and the attacks on those who question gender identity ideology, these articles and that activism do not by any stretch constitute an attack on trans-identified people.
By contrast, this week, a talk by author of Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body and spokeswoman for the Women’s Equality Party, Heather Brunskell-Evans, on pornography and the sexualization of young women was cancelled after she questioned the practice of transitioning children. A couple of weeks ago, a lecture journalist Julie Bindel was scheduled to give about her new book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, at St. Edward’s University in Texas was cancelled, due supposedly to her arguments around gender identity and support for woman-only space. Anne Ruzylo, a woman’s officer with the Labour Party was subjected to months of bullying by a fellow party member, and smeared as “transphobic.” Pushed to resign last week, every member of the executive committee quit in solidarity with Ruzylo, though the young trans-identified male responsible for the harassment was elected as women’s officer in his local party shortly thereafter. Last month, Linda Bellos, a longtime lesbian feminist activist, was uninvited from speaking at Cambridge University after saying she planned to publicly question “some of the trans politics … which seems to assert the power of those who were previously designated male to tell lesbians, and especially lesbian feminists, what to say and what to think.”
In other words, it is very clear who is under attack within the transgender debate: women.
In his piece, Faye dismisses the idea that efforts to allow trans-identified males into women-only spaces — such as rape crisis shelters and transition houses — represents a conflict, in terms of women’s rights. “Trans women live under the same system of patriarchy as other women,” he argues, only moments after acknowledging that women’s sex-based rights are largely rooted in the fact they can become pregnant. Indeed, women’s oppression under patriarchy began as a means for men to control women’s reproductive capability. As such, females, from birth, are forced into a gendered hierarchy that treats them as subordinate. While Faye may well experience different treatment as a gender non-conforming male — even sexual harassment or discrimination — it is not true that the root of that treatment is the same, or that his needs are the same as women’s, as he claims.
Faye has only been living as a self-defined transwoman for two years, meaning that for 27 years, he was socialized as a male, and offered all the power and privilege men are under patriarchy. He has no idea what it feels like to fear pregnancy, to be talked down to or over, to be discriminated against in the workplace, to live in fear of rape or abuse in private and in public, from the time he was a child. The fact that Faye is completely unconcerned and unsympathetic to the impact of his or another trans-identified male’s presence in a space specifically designated for women escaping male violence demonstrates precisely this. He feels entitled to access these spaces specifically because he does not understand the threat male people pose to women nor does he understand the extent to which gendered socialization shapes women’s experiences and men’s behaviour.
The shelter movement was initiated by feminists in the 1970s — a time when men could beat their wives with impunity. Domestic abuse was considered a “private matter,” and was ignored by both the police and by legislators. Women had no choice but to create spaces to protect one another and to heal. Even today, abusive men are rarely held to account by their communities or by the justice system.
But the transition houses built by women were not only safe spaces for women and their children, but were also spaces for consciousness-raising and political organizing. It is within organizations like Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, Canada’s oldest rape crisis center, that women learn they are not alone, that there is nothing wrong with them, and that the violence they were subjected to is systemic. In other words, the shelter movement has been central in terms of the women’s liberation movement — these were (and still are) sites where women protected other women, without relying on men or the state, and offered women the opportunity to politicize all they have suffered as an oppressed class of people.
While indeed trans-identified males may be at risk of male violence, it is on them to create the services, communities, and support they need. Women struggled and continue to struggle to fund and maintain their services and spaces, which are constantly under attack — seemingly moreso today than ever before. Those of us born female do have specific needs and experiences under patriarchy — needs and experiences that differ from males who transition to living as “transwomen.” The risk of allowing any male who declares that he “feels like a woman” on the inside into women’s safe spaces is vast. That Faye expresses no concern with regard to this risk only demonstrates his male socialization and inability to empathize with women’s material reality.
Faye writes, “I feel the call to be in solidarity with other women against this wherever possible,” but if he truly was an ally to women, he would respect our autonomy, our decades-long fight for rights and justice, and the spaces we created for ourselves and our sisters.
Trans-identified males deserve rights, support, and services just like everyone else, but it need not come at women’s expense.