Gender Essay

CHAPTER THREE: Access to Woman-Only Spaces

The claim is made that there is no contradiction between trans rights and women’s rights. This is true in a fundamental sense. Trans liberation, gay liberation and women’s liberation all have the same enemy: the patriarchal system, its gender rules, and the false and bigoted ideas that reinforce those rules. Ultimately, these problems – and all the other cruelties of capitalism – can never be fully resolved short of world revolution, and even that would only be the next stage in the struggle, not a final victory. But in the meantime, in the practical struggles of everyday life, and in the struggle to build a united revolutionary movement, there are real contradictions. Denying that these contradictions exist does not resolve them. Just the opposite, it makes them worse. 

Trans people face discrimination and violence in housing, employment, public accommodations, education, health care and more. They are not just targeted for being trans, they are also a magnet for all kinds of homophobia and misogyny. Trans women are especially vulnerable, trans women of colour even more so. All trans people have a right to safety and respect, to equal opportunities, to equal access to services and public spaces. And they’ve fought for these rights: African-American and Latina drag queens played a key role in the Stonewall Riots. Even before that, trans people were active in the campaigning, demonstrations and riots that led up to Stonewall. 

At the same time, women have a right to their own separate spaces, services, and organizations. They’ve had to fight for these rights. Even on the “left”, women, who wished to form woman-only study or action groups were often viciously attacked as ‘splitters’ or worse. Women have a right to self-determination. It’s not a privilege. It’s a fight for survival in a patriarchal system which divides the human race into two sexes and enforces the superiority of one (men) over the other (women). 

This is not about keeping trans people out of woman-only spaces – it’s about keeping men out. If trans women, roughly 80% of whom are intact males, are defined to be women in every sense of the word, fully entitled – by law – to enter any and all woman-only spaces, and if anyone can become a woman by a simple process of declaration, there is no way for women to defend these spaces from men. 

Public toilets: 
Public toilets are a daily nightmare for many trans people. Many go without water for long periods of time to avoid having to use a public toilet. This is not just about assault and violence, although that’s a real possibility. It’s also about the kind of aggro that can ruin your day or your week without ever showing up on a police blotter. Public toilets are often dangerous places for women too. There are women who go without drinking water when out in public for the same reason many trans people do. 

A public toilet is a small enclosed space, often without witnesses, embedded in a patriarchal, oppressive society, a place where assault and bullying of all sorts – racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic – can be engaged in, often with impunity. In many parts of the world, the situation is even worse: the relative safety of single sex toilets – or of any public toilets at all – doesn’t exist, and the fight for safe toilet facilities for women is an essential spearhead in the fight against rape and sexual assault.  

We all have – or should have – an inalienable right to piss and shit in safety. To deny access to public toilets is to deny the right to be in public spaces. Adding third-space toilets, open to all, could be a partial solution, but this can be no substitute for a loud and determined campaign, supported by all of us, to make public toilets safe for everyone, whatever their sex, gender identity, or gender expression. This won’t eliminate the contradiction. There is still a conflict between women’s right to protect their spaces from men, and trans women’s right to access safe toilet spaces. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but denying there is a contradiction will just make it worse. “Reality,” as Phillip K. Dick wrote, “is what doesn’t go away when you stop looking at it.”

Dressing rooms and showers: 
More complicated, more nakedness, less privacy. From the comments I’ve read online, overwhelmingly trans people are very conscientious about any possible awkwardness, and many women are fine with their presence – but some, especially those with children, are not. It’s not only a question of physical assault, it’s also about the male gaze. Some public swimming pools in the UK have designated certain nights as for women only. I think the original impetus for this was to make the pools accessible for Muslim women, but those free-from-the-male-gaze nights have proved popular with women from many different faiths and none. 

Exhibitionism is a serious problem too. The prevalence of unwanted dick pic emails and messages on the internet should be a clue. Helen Joyce wrote in Trans that flashing is so common that many of her friends’ first sight of a male penis was from flashers. Flashing is not just harmless fun, and it’s not just sad old men making fools of themselves. It’s a projection of male power. This was brought home vividly to me when I heard the testimony of Helen Steel at a Woman’s Place conference. Her first memory of male harassment came when she was ten years old, playing in the woods near her house with some friends. A man approached them, exposed his penis, and started masturbating. She and her friends had to leave the woods and were never allowed to play alone there again. 

It would be nice if there could be a simple rule: go wherever your genitals fit in best. But it’s called transitioning for a reason. What if someone on hormones has female breasts and male genitals. Where can they be safe? It seems to me that the legalistic route, even if it could win a complete victory, would still not serve the purpose, because it focuses on definitions and fitting into patriarchal categories, rather than attacking them. It cranks up the spotlight on who is actually “legitimate” in a given space – and there will always be people who don’t look “legitimate” in any space. Rather, we should be attacking the whole idea of legitimacy. Dressing rooms are binary, people are not. 

I keep thinking of a story I read. (I can’t remember where.) A trans girl was describing her experience of bullying in high school. Using the boys toilet was a daily ordeal for her. It all came to a head one day, when a gang of girls dragged her into the girls toilet and said, “This is your space. You belong here – with us.” It seems to me that this is going on in large parts of our society now – and it’s a beautiful thing. Women activists and women of all kinds are reaching out to trans people and saying, “You are victims of the same patriarchal system, the same male violence that we are. Welcome!” 

But the patriarchal system is still here. Male violence still goes on, and women still need to be able to defend their spaces against men. There is a real contradiction here. You can’t resolve a contradiction by pretending it doesn’t exist. 

Trans women in shelters and rape crisis centres:
Trigger warning for these next few lines. They may be upsetting. These are not my words – they were said to me. 

What you don't understand… 
She told me 
Is that when you are raped
Everything that was there becomes a part of the rape 
The colour of a wall
The sound of the traffic
A barking dog 
Any of it can be a trigger 
You carry it around inside like a map 
The map of you 
The parts of you that can't stand to be touched 
From the time you’re a young girl 
Rape is something you have to always take account of 
Are you alone? 
Is it too late at night? 
Are you just going to be unlucky this time? 
You have to assess the rape potential of every new situation
You can never simply turn off the radar and forget about it
It’s like having an arm torn out, she said
Maybe you heal over, but the arm doesn’t grow back 

I believe that a female rape victim should have the choice of accessing female-only support. I don’t understand how this could possibly not be considered a basic principle. Women working in rape crisis centres should be free to include or exclude trans women, depending on what they think best serves the often very traumatised people they work with. They should not be coerced into opening their doors, either by law or by funding decisions. 

There is absolutely no reason for this to be played off against the very real needs of trans people, trans women especially, who are the victims of rape and assault, possibly at even higher levels. There is a desperate need for more resources for women, for trans people who often have nowhere else to go but women’s shelters, and for men who also get raped – and not just in prison. 

So much of the anger, rage and grief that should be directed against this fucked up capitalist, patriarchal, rape culture world has been turned into fighting each other over crumbs. Fundamentally, women’s liberation, gay liberation and trans liberation are not three different struggles – they are one and the same. All these struggles exist because of patriarchy. The same codes that enforce the subservient role of women also outlaw any deviation from the prescribed sexual and gender roles for men. We are all bleeding from the same wound. 

<– Chapter Two ***** Chapter Four –>

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