This blog has been a long time coming, partly because I’ve not known how to write it, and partly because I’ve been a bit scared. I’ve not been shy about the fact that I support trans rights, and think that doing so is a fundamental part of feminism (something you’ll know if you’ve read my Twitter). However, I also know so many cis women who’ve been targeted for pushback and pile-ons because they’ve spoken out in support of trans people in general, and trans women in particular (as trans women are the primary target of the currently slew of transphobic thinkpieces in the media). While I know this is nowhere near as bad as the abuse trans people get, it’s still scary.
But, it’s got to the point where I can’t not write this blog. Today, as I write this, The Observer alone published two transphobic articles, the latest in a long, long line of hitpieces on trans people published in mainstream newspapers. The Guardian US had to put out a statement condemning The Guardian UK’s decision to make its editorial stance firmly trans-exclusive. Attacks on trans people in the UK are on the rise (because, shockingly, mainstreaming bigotry against a group makes bigots less shy about expressing their hatred of that group). The “debate” over self-ID has caused untold harm and stress to trans people. And we are repeatedly told that this is all important and necessary, because trans rights are threatening cis women’s rights and putting cis women in danger.
I dispute this completely. I’m a cis woman, and a proud trans-inclusive feminist, and while there are many things in our current world that put me in danger, trans rights absolutely do not.
Why am I a trans-inclusive feminist? First and foremost, because trans people are people, and trans women are women. I’m a trans-inclusive feminist because feminism should be inclusive of all women, rather than centring financially stable, cishet, abled white women who do jobs that society deems “respectable”. I’m a trans-inclusive feminist because exclusionary feminism ignores nearly all inequality and injustice, and focuses instead on getting rich white women into the same spots as rich white men. (This is how you end up with ridiculous thinkpieces like “golly gee, isn’t it such a huge victory for women that Theresa May is PM?”).
These are the main reasons why my feminism is inclusive of trans women (and disabled women, and women of colour, and neurodivergent women, and women who do sex work, and all other marginalised women – and also NB people, who I mention not because NB folks are woman-adjacent, but because they don’t have male privilege). Because feminism has to be about more than me getting mine, or it’s not feminism at all.
Those are the primary reasons. But I do have others, which are a little more selfish. I’m also a trans-inclusive feminist because a world that’s safer and fairer for trans women is also safer and fairer for me.
How can that be? We keep hearing in the news (constantly, daily, from people – including people with regular newspaper columns – who keep talking about how silenced they are) that trans women’s rights are in conflict with cis women’s rights. We are told that we shouldn’t pass a law to make it easier for trans people to change their birth certificates, because this will somehow lead to an endless parade of perverts marching through every women’s changing room in the country, with no legal consequences for whatever they do. This is, as you might have guessed, a myth, and it’s not the only one. I’m going to tackle a few of these myths here.
Allowing self-ID will put cis women and girls in danger, because abusers will just say they’re women so they can get access to women’s spaces
I’ve seen a lot of discussion around this under the general umbrella of ‘reasonable concerns’. And for the people who are genuinely concerned, and not arguing in bad faith, I do empathise. There is a lot for women (all women) to be concerned about in the world we’re living in today.
The thing about concerns is, they’re a starting point. If you have a concern about a particular situation, your next step should be to look into it, do your research, and see if those concerns are valid and based on fact, or based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of self-ID. Many people think that self-ID for trans people is a bad idea because ‘if a man can just say he’s a woman, he can go right into women’s changing rooms and no-one can stop him’.
This isn’t what self-ID is. Self-ID has nothing to do with access to gendered spaces, because those are covered by the Equality Act 2010. Self-ID means that, instead of having to be medically diagnosed and spend two years living as their real gender before they can get a gender recognition certificate, trans people can make a sworn statement and then get a GRC. (By the by, any man who did go through this process as a way to access women’s spaces for nefarious purposes wouldn’t just have gone through an unnecessary bit of bureaucracy, but he could also be prosecuted for lying while making a sworn statement).
Self-ID will not allow men to enter spaces that they couldn’t before, because most women’s spaces don’t require you to show a birth certificate to get inside. If we look at countries such as Malta and Ireland, who already have self-ID, there has been no sudden spike in men pretending to be trans women in order to attack cis women – just as there hasn’t been here in the UK, for the nearly nine years since the Equality Act passed. (It’s not a coincidence that many rape crisis centres and domestic violence refuges are trans-inclusive, and have stated that self-ID would not change how they conduct their services; same goes for the NSPCC, an organisation whose entire purpose is to protect children from abuse and danger).
There is another, sadder reason that self-ID has never led to a spike in men pretending to be trans women in order to attack cis women – and that is because abusive men just don’t need to. Many trans women have talked about being hypervisible in public – something a potential rapist definitely doesn’t need. An abusive man who dresses up as his idea of a trans woman is going to have a lot of eyes on him, and that makes it very difficult to commit crimes. If a cis man wants to attack women, it is very easy for him to do so as a cis man – something we can tell by the fact that the vast majority of abusive cis men don’t pretend to be anything else.
Yes, there have been some extremely rare cases where an abusive cis man has pretended to be a trans woman, and has caused harm. But we can’t make laws against an entire group based on one or two cases of someone pretending to be part of that group. Banning trans women from women’s spaces because one or two cis male abusers have pretended to be trans is like banning men with broken arms from parks because of Ted Bundy. Rather than legislating against an entire group, we need to enforce the safeguarding laws we already have.
If a trans woman enters a women’s space, her appearance could make cis women uncomfortable
This argument is the nicer, more polite end of a particularly nasty wedge, the thick end of which involves a lot of very anti-feminist snarking about ‘masculine appearances’. I have seen so much vitriol directed against trans women’s looks (and the looks of cis women who support trans women) from purported feminists, and I cannot understand how anyone can claim to be fighting sexism while also implying that women need to be small, dainty and femme to count as women.
There are no physical ‘tells’ for trans women that some cis women don’t have. I’ve been read as trans in the past because of my height and my facial hair. (I’ve also had two transphobic ‘feminists’ yelling at me that I wouldn’t like ‘a “woman” with facial hair’ carrying out an intimate exam on me, which…actually I’d be fine with? Because, you know, I have it too, as do many cis women?) There have already been cases of butch cis women being kicked out of women’s toilets because people are reading them as trans. I don’t see how being yelled at or excluded from using toilets in public protects cis women’s rights, or makes them safer.
All women have the right to use women’s facilities, and it would be really great (and a victory for feminism) if we could use them without other users judging us on our appearances. The fight to exclude some women from the category woman because they’re not ‘womanly’ enough has a long and ugly history, and it’s not one I want to see continue.
Cis women still need trans-exclusive spaces because trans women won’t let cis women talk about their bodies
I have been part of trans-inclusive feminist spaces for a few weeks shy of a decade now. I have never – at any point – been told that I can’t talk about my body, or that I’m transphobic for doing so. And I talk about my body A LOT. A large proportion of the sexism I’ve experienced has been from medical professionals, who have looked at my various gynaecological issues (which have been screwing up my life since I was fourteen) and have essentially gone “Well, yeah, we COULD give you an endometrial ablation and lessen your pain considerably, but then you won’t be able to have babies, and we can’t have that. Yes, I know you keep saying you don’t want babies, it’s adorable that you think you know your own mind.”
I would say that a good 40% of feminist conversations I’ve started have been about medical gatekeeping and sexist expectations that cis women need to retain their fertility at all costs. No trans woman has ever yelled at me or called me a bigot. I have been politely reminded that these issues affect trans men and NB people with uteruses too, and so calling them ‘women’s issues’ isn’t strictly correct. Being asked to be a bit more thoughtful and accurate in how I phrase things isn’t ‘silencing’.
In fact, what I’ve experienced has been the total opposite of the myth. Trans women have had my back when I’ve talked about my frustration over not getting the medical treatment I want, because, surprise surprise, there’s a lot of common ground between us there. Trans women were hugely involved in the Repeal the 8th movement in Ireland (meanwhile, anti-trans activists were withdrawing their support because of Irish feminism’s trans-inclusive stance, and making some absolutely foul “Irish jokes” to boot). Trans people overwhelmingly support medical autonomy and the right to do what you want with your own body, and that is a stance completely in line with feminist principles and with the needs and rights of cis women.
Trans people are just reifying gender stereotypes/Trans people are “transing” kids who don’t conform to gender stereotypes, and giving them surgery and dangerous hormones that make them infertile
The first argument of these two always makes me laugh, because it’s such a tell that the person saying it doesn’t know any trans people in real life. Yes, I know some blokey trans men and some very feminine trans women – but I also know trans women who can’t stand dresses or makeup, and some trans men who love looking pretty. Trans people have as wide a range of aesthetic expression as cis people (arguably more so), and your aesthetic doesn’t make your actual gender more or less valid. As CN Lester pointed out at a talk I went to a while back, no-one says that Kim Kardashian is less valid as a woman because she dresses in a stereotypically feminine way – so why should there be a different rule for trans women?
The second argument is much less funny, and much more dangerous. I can kind of see why it’s such a persistent myth, because the prevailing media narrative even in trans-positive pieces is “we always knew little Simon was different from other boys because he liked dolls and dresses”. But I would have thought that it was apparent that a) this is a simplification intended to begin explaining the idea of trans kids to people who have no idea about trans issues at all, and b) kids don’t think “I play with dolls so I must be a girl”, they think “I know I’m a girl, and everyone says that girls play with dolls, so I guess I need to play with dolls so other people know I’m a girl”. If you listen to supportive parents of trans kids, many of them have stories about their children following stereotypical pursuits early in their transition, and then dropping them when they’re more widely accepted for who they are. Juno Dawson talks about always wanting to be the princess in games she played as a kid, not because she especially cared about princesses, but so she could be acknowledged as a girl.
Also, trans kids don’t get hormones. They don’t get surgery. (Intersex babies get surgery, when they’re far too young to consent to it, but you rarely hear anti-trans activists arguing against that). Trans kids, if they have supportive parents and access to a gender clinic, get to socially transition, and are maybe given puberty blockers – which are also used for cis kids who experience premature puberty. If a child decides a couple of years down the line that they’re not actually trans, they can stop taking these blockers, just like the cis kids who use blockers do when they reach a more appropriate age to go through puberty. And there is not a shadowy trans cabal trying to force as many kids as possible to change to a gender that isn’t who they are, because if there’s one thing trans people know, it’s how shit it is to be forced to pretend to be the wrong gender.
Gender is a social construct designed to harm women, and sexism is because of physical biology
Let’s start with social constructs. Something being a social construct does not mean that it isn’t real. Language is a social construct. Money is a social construct. All relationships are social constructs. Motherhood is a social construct, and ‘proving you’re a mother using science’ is about as impossible as ‘proving you’re a woman using science’, because the term, while it has been connected to biological function by society, is already implicitly understood to be broader than that. A doctor can confirm that yes, you have been pregnant and given birth – but there are women who’ve given birth who aren’t put in the social category ‘mother’, just like there are people born with vaginas who aren’t in the social category ‘woman’. You could carry out a DNA test, but if you have an identical twin, DNA could just as easily “prove” that your kid’s aunt is their mother. And these quirks of DNA are comparable to the quirks of DNA that mean XY cis women, some of whom have given birth to XY AFAB babies, exist and are just as valid as literally any other woman. People who know you can confirm that you’ve raised your child, protected, fed, clothed, cherished and punished them, but you don’t need to have given birth to the child to do that – just like trans women don’t have to have been born with a vagina to be women. Adoptive mothers are valid mothers, and trans women are valid women, and biology is only one factor in the social constructs of both ‘woman’ and ‘mother’.
Gender is a social construct, and you can argue that it has been tailored to harm women – if you look exclusively at recent, Western constructions of gender. If you look at constructions of gender in many pre-colonial non-Western indigenous civilisations, it’s a very different story. I would also argue that it’s gender stereotyping, not gender itself, that harms women (and backfires on men). Gender stereotyping and gender are not the same thing, just like stereotypes about ethnicity and being of a particular ethnicity are not the same thing. I have a sense of my own gender (even if transphobic people yelling at me on Twitter tell me that I don’t), and I have that sense of myself even while I totally reject stereotypes about what a woman ‘should’ do or be.
Moving on to biology. There is no biological definition of woman that includes all cis women but excludes all trans women, and no biological definition of man that includes all cis men but excludes all trans men. Some cis women are born without uteruses or vaginas. Some grow beards. Some cis men don’t have penises or testicles. Some cis men do not produce sperm, some cis women do not produce eggs. And personally, I find the argument that my womanhood is based on my biological function to be alarmingly regressive and anti-feminist.
Finally, discrimination based on biology. This definitely happens – as the medical experiences I described earlier show, I’d be a fool if I denied that. However, outside of a medical context, things become more complex. A lot of the discrimination faced by women (all women) is based on assumptions about our biology, not the facts of that biology. No catcaller ever gave me a gynaecological exam before he decided to shout at me. He just looked at my clothed body and assumed I had a vagina. He happened to be right, but he might not have been. It would still have been misogyny either way.
Trans women are claiming they have exactly the same experiences as cis women/It’s impossible for trans women to be women because they don’t have the same experiences
These arguments are two sides of the same coin, so I’ve put them together. One common argument is that trans women have male privilege until they transition (and also after, because transphobes believe they’re men). This is often said as something that is supposed to be so obvious it can’t be disputed, but, I dispute it. A young trans girl does not have the same experience growing up as a young cis boy, even if they’re both treated by the people around them as young boys. If you’re treated as something you’re not, you’re not going to have the same experience as people who are treated as something they are. Gay and bi kids don’t have straight privilege until they come out, even though heteronormative society will assumed they’re straight by default. People with invisible disabilities don’t have abled privilege until they reveal their disability. Non-neurotypical people don’t have neurotypical privilege until they reveal they’re neurodivergent. Having someone say to you “Wow, X people are so gross and awful, I’m so glad you’re not X” when you are X might mean that you escape some immediate physical violence, but it’s not privilege.
Yes, little trans girls and little cis girls have some different experiences growing up. No trans woman is denying that. (Like I said, I’ve been in trans-inclusive feminist spaces for a decade now, and I have literally never had a trans woman tell me that her experience is absolutely identical to mine). But the same is true of every intersection of marginalisations that women experience. I’ve not lived the same life as a trans woman, but I’ve also not lived the same life as a black woman, or a Deaf woman, or a thin woman. Doesn’t mean we’re not all women.
These myths are pervasive, and they’re part of propping up the biggest myth of all – that trans rights are in conflict with women’s rights. I’m a trans-inclusive feminist because this is clearly not true. Trans people and cis women have a huge amount of common ground in the fight for medical autonomy, in the right to be safe from abusers, in the right to not be discriminated against because we’re not cis men. I’m a trans-inclusive feminist because I’m an inclusive feminist, and I’m an inclusive feminist because an inclusive feminism is one that will work most effectively towards making the world safer and fairer for everyone, from the least privileged to the most.
(Edit: This blog originally stated that the GRC allows trans people to change their passports. It actually allows them to change their birth certificates – trans people do not need a GRC to change their passports. Thanks to the people who set me right on this!)