Warning: This article contains descriptions of transphobia which some readers might find upsetting.
“Why can’t women just be allowed to be butch?”
“Trans women are wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
These aren’t comments gathered from Reddit, they’re words spoken behind closed doors by some of the most senior decision-makers and influencers in the UK’s women’s sector – the network of refuges and support services for survivors of gender-based violence. We know this because we both work in that sector. We’re writing this because the transphobia we are encountering, and are complicit in by not speaking out, is putting trans lives in danger.
Just last month, a domestic violence refuge published a statement referring to trans women (who they “do not work with“) as “transgender males”. Another organisation received over 100 abusive messages after spotlighting trans model and activist Munroe Bergdorf during Black History Month; staff were subsequently told that they can no longer mention Bergdorf on the organisation’s social media. This is the slow drip of transphobia, shutting out domestic abuse survivors who are statistically most likely to need access to lifesaving refuges and shelters.
This deprioritisation of trans survivors is a refusal to fight for the lives of those who are least resourced to flee violence. These survivors include the 16% (likely more) of trans women who have experienced domestic violence in the last year alongside 7.5% of cisgender women. This deep chasm of inequality is being upheld in the women’s sector, in direct contradiction to the spirit and fires in which it was forged by trailblazing anti-racist and feminist organisers in the 1970s.
All those decades ago, the creation of domestic violence shelters was truly a radical act; feminists gripped the issue of gender-based violence at its shadowy root and tore it out of the earth, forcing the UK to begin grappling with the endemic issue of domestic abuse. Yet in the present day, this radical work with its powerful history of supporting the most marginalised survivors (due to organisations such as OWAAD, Awaz, Brixton Black Women’s Group and Southall Black Sisters) has lost its way. Directors and chief executives now pour their power and influence into shutting trans and gender nonconforming survivors out in the cold.
As this landscape develops, with the anti-trans lobby trying its hardest to establish a gulf between cis and trans survivors, enter J.K. Rowling. In the middle of a pandemic and one week into worldwide protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, the multimillionaire Harry Potter author opted to use her considerable platform to take issue with the use of the phrase “people who menstruate”. Rowling followed up her disdainful tweet with a 3,700 word defence of her transphobic views. Her piece reminded readers that she had defended Donald Trump’s freedom of speech on the basis that “his freedom guarantees mine” – a view likely not shared by the thousands of children separated from their parents and caged at the US-Mexico border.
Rowling’s article, which was published on her own website, also disclosed that she is a survivor of domestic abuse. In response, The Sun decided to doorstep the man who had abused her and gave him a front-page splash to admit he had slapped her, in which he was quoted as saying, “I’m not sorry”. This abhorrent move from The Sun, which is congruent with its consistently misogynistic editorial line, was roundly criticised, including by trans activists. In an open letter sent to The Sun‘s editor, trans activists stated their “unwavering solidarity with all survivors of domestic violence, including JK Rowling,” and called on the tabloid to apologise and improve their reporting on domestic abuse.
Demonstrations of solidarity between trans and cis survivors emphasise how our liberation is tied up with each other’s. Rachel*, a worker at Rape Crisis, told gal-dem last month that transphobia runs counter to the fight for all women’s rights. She explained that trans women’s experiences and expertise are fundamental to the feminist struggle, and that working across survivors’ different but related experiences offers “an opportunity to expand and diversify the movement and make it bigger and more full of solidarity.” Just as there is no universal experience of womanhood, there is no universal experience of survivorhood.
Escaping domestic abuse is a potentially fatal experience for any of us. This becomes even more dangerous when, at the point of leaving, you are unable to access the safety and support you need. Forty-nine percent of women killed by a partner or ex-partner are killed less than a month after separation. Yet even though the stakes are this high, many survivors find their doors to freedom slammed shut by systemic oppression. Systemic racism means that Black women fleeing violence encounter police racism, dismissal and threats of deportation. Systemic ableism means that disabled women cannot physically access refuges. Systemic transphobia means that trans survivors, who are one of the most hidden groups of survivors, have an even harder time finding safety.
What underpins all experiences of domestic abuse are dynamics of severe imbalance, where one partner seeks to have power and control over the other. The ways that this power and control manifest in an abusive relationship will differ according to race, religion, sexuality, class, ability, immigration status, gender identity and more.
A migrant woman’s partner may threaten her with deportation; a Christian woman’s husband may emotionally blackmail her with the ‘sanctity of marriage’ to stop her leaving; a lesbian woman’s partner may threaten to ‘out’ her sexuality to her conservative family; a disabled or trans person’s partner may withhold or throw away their medication. All our experiences of abuse and oppression look different because we are all different, yet our struggles are inextricably linked. As Black feminist activist and writer Audre Lorde summarised: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
For Suzie*, a trans woman and a survivor, her experience of domestic abuse included physical assaults and threats from her partner that she would lose her home and children if she started living in her affirmed gender. Suzie received support from Independent Choices in Manchester, which has a specialist LGBTQ+ service – an incredibly rare and vital resource considering the decade of devastating public funding cuts which have decimated specialist support services. With powerful voices in the UK women’s sector seeking to leave this small minority of trans survivors with nowhere to turn, the current COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit women like Suzie the hardest, as many survivors also face oppression based on disability, immigration status or through being a sex worker, and are left facing increased violence and with ever-reducing ways to get help.
When we understand abuse as the gatekeeping of liberty, autonomy and self-determination, it is ironic that any survivor would position themselves as the gatekeeper of ‘woman’ or ‘survivor’. When ‘feminists’ like J.K. Rowling declare themselves to be the ruling authority on both, they violently exclude trans people. As any survivor knows, being dismissed, disbelieved or deprioritised is a matter of life and death. When cis survivors and services dismiss, disbelieve and deprioritise trans people, they knowingly put trans people’s lives in danger. Not only this, these ‘feminists’ are acting against the principles our liberation is founded on: autonomy, freedom and safety from violence. Domestic abuse is both cause and consequence of women’s inequality with men, and is deeply connected to oppressive understandings of gender. The abolition of fixed gender identities and their associated power dynamics liberates us all.
When so many cis women have broken free of men who defined and policed our existence and liberties based on constrictive gender norms, it’s understandable to feel defensive around conversations of gender. But when this defensiveness manifests as shaming and policing trans people’s existence and liberties in the (misguided) name of our own ‘safety’, cis women must recognise what we are doing: hiding behind our survivorhood in order to behave abusively.
Survivorhood means acknowledging one’s own experience and escape from a traumatic relationship. It does not mean you are by definition incapable of causing harm. Yet cis people’s fixed identity as ‘survivor’ seems to prevent their own acknowledgement of the damage being done – in fact, it seems to be used to justify it. Entrenched in our own victim-survivorhood, and incapable of recognising our capacity to do harm, we only ever see ourselves as persecuted or at risk of persecution, never the persecutor.
Many of us in the domestic abuse sector are compelled to do this work from a place of our own traumatic experiences at the hands of violent men. And we burn out from the trauma we’ve absorbed. As people who have worked in the domestic abuse sector, we believe it’s this exhausted place of prolonged trauma absorption where transphobia has taken root. This is not by any means an ‘excuse’. This perspective offers an attempt at an explanation, with the objective that cis people can unpick the harm being done and take steps to end this cycle. As documented in Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book Trauma Stewardship, common impacts of trauma exposure include a sense of persecution, fear, hypervigilance, an inability to embrace complexity and an inability to empathise.
Linda Stupart explains in The White Pube that for trans-exclusionary feminists, “victim status becomes so central to an understanding of self, that this trauma-identity becomes individualised, paranoid, and exclusionary, and thus weaponised against other (often more) marginalised people.” These factors are evidenced in the vitriolic campaign against trans women, where the existence of trans men and non binary people has been all but forgotten.
The impact is devastating. As trans survivor and activist Nim Ralph says: “With nowhere to go that either accepts us or explicitly understands the complex intersections of trans experience and gender-based violence, we are forced into the cold. Trapped between the silence of survivorship, and the solitude of transphobia, we have to carry those wounds alone.”
This is clearly evidenced in the harm caused by cis survivors to trans people, many of whom are also survivors of gender-based violence. It’s time for cis women to acknowledge and step outside of our own victim-survivorhood to see the bigger picture. In the fight for bodily autonomy, for freedom from gender-based violence and crushing gender norms, trans people are not only our allies, sisters and siblings but have always been leading the way.
Kai Cheng Thom, the Canadian author of I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, can have the last word here: “Abusers and survivors of abuse do not exist, and have never existed, in a dichotomy: sometimes, hurt people hurt people.”
So, cis women, it’s time to ask yourselves: are you really here for survivors, or are you just here for yourself?
*Not their real names
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