For as long as the human species has existed, so have trans people. They make up only a small fraction of the population – and yet the discourse around them has become increasingly hostile, vastly overshadowing the small number of individuals at its centre. Why, in the past few years, have the rights of this extremely marginalised group become something everyone feels they need to have an opinion about?
Under the Equality Act, trans people have been using bathrooms, changing rooms and public services that fit their gender for many years. But calm discussion about trans rights is now rare. The government’s recent announcement that it is scrapping a reform of the Gender Recognition Act, which would have allowed trans people to self-identify, has ignited this discourse once again. Those against the reform – including feminists who identify as “gender critical” or “gender abolitionist” – argue that male sex offenders could “opt in” as female in order to enter women-only spaces. This risk, although not impossible, is slim; when researchers at the UCLA School of Law studied the relationship between equality laws and reported crimes in public toilets and other gender-partitioned facilities, they found no evidence of increased safety risks when transgender people used spaces that corresponded with their gender identity.
All women’s fears are valid, however they come to be. Our long history of assuming women’s narratives are inherently untrustworthy still lingers. When a woman says she is in distress, it’s like her words come with a pop-up ad saying: not to be taken at face value. Feeling truly heard when we talk about our distress, whatever form it takes, still seems like a rare thing; as though when we say we feel hurt, sad or scared, some kind of “hysterical” or deviant undertow is assumed. This is as true for trans women as it is for cisgender women.
Last year I published a book about women’s health called Hormonal: A Conversation About Women’s Bodies, Mental Health and Why We Need to Be Heard, exploring female biology (and all the mythology therein) and how the historical oppression of women’s bodies shapes our perception of ourselves and others. I spent a year interviewing women from different walks of life, doctors and scientists, and months in the British Library reading old medical texts and feminist literature.
The narrative vehicle was my own experience of suffering, by virtue of having a female reproductive system. I’ve known pain and mental distress, but none of this makes me think trans women are any less “real” than me – nor that the term “woman” is being erased by the existence of trans people who want equal rights.
Part of what has made this subject so bitter is a dispute over inclusive language, such as “people who menstruate”, but the trans people I know are far less interested in policing language than they are in having their existence legally recognised. On the matter of language and people’s preferences, it’s only where real listening happens, and defensiveness softens, that good intentions can become clear.
Are there experiences that make a woman real, anyway? Periods? Giving birth? Many women don’t experience the latter, some don’t experience the former. Or perhaps it is about knowing what a life spent reeling from the objectification of men feels like? Dealing with sexual violence and harassment? But, no: trans women face sexual violence, too.
When cisgender women argue that trans women can’t possibly know what it’s like, the subtext is: they haven’t felt what I’ve felt. When “I” and “me” are the immovable foundations of an argument, the ground doesn’t shift. Hierarchies of pain and persecution offer no prospect for progression, only short-term vindication. Trans women can be seen as “real” women without their biology being used as an oppressive tool against them.
On the matter of oppression – and who has felt it the most – the argument Michel Foucault made in The History of Sexuality (Volume One) is still relevant today: for centuries, the female body has been the subject of medical scrutiny, and positioned as a place of madness and weakness. A tyranny of truths about what is “normal” has persisted ever since. There is a connecting thread between insulting terms like “hysterical” and the #MeToo movement’s examination of why so many women’s experiences have been disbelieved. We can hold all of this to be true while also recognising that trans women suffer because of the same systems – toxic masculinity, misogyny and sexism – that cisgender women experience. The common enemy here is male violence. Men should be held to account for their actions, not those who have survived them.
Of course, belonging to a minority group does not preclude someone from being threatening or aggressive. It is true that some of the arguments in both directions have become abusive. Abuse is a malign force whoever it comes from, but the actions of a few are being used to define entire groups. The tribal nature of social media leaves little room for nuance. I can strongly disagree with JK Rowling’s views on trans people while believing her account of abuse, and condemning the Sun for giving a voice to her abuser. These positions are not mutually exclusive.
Both personally and professionally, I’ve seen how the internalised shame of sexual assault can manifest throughout people’s lives. I know how essential women-only spaces are for survivors. But we cannot reach the point where a traumatised trans woman tries to access a women’s refuge or support group and is turned away because this “debate” has radicalised so many people that she is now viewed as dangerous. Where else is she supposed to go?
When I say “woman”, I say it in full knowledge and celebration of the different ways of being a woman. Different prefixes open the umbrella to take in variation. The dialogue around trans people’s lives is bringing out the worst in people who are hurt and worried; their hurt fanned by those whose interest in trans issues has become a targeted obsession. Something has to change. The internet is not one massive living room; it is an interface between people who have real lives online and off. And the majority of this community don’t want a fight – they want safety and domesticity; to be able to walk to the shop for milk without fearing abuse.
Trans people are saying they are frightened and in pain because people are questioning their rights, and we’re not listening. Where will this end?
• Eleanor Morgan is author of Hormonal: A Conversation About Women’s Bodies, Mental Health and Why We Need to Be Heard