Asserting our rights

Trans women should be calm and careful in asserting our rights, and possibly even circumspect; but we should not back down from asserting them. Some people need wheelchairs. Conceivably, some people might be boorish in a wheelchair, banging it against others, or deliberately blocking space making it difficult to pass. That is not a reason to deny anyone a wheelchair, and this is a good metaphor for gender recognition as we are equally unlikely to be boorish. Getting recognition might make us more relaxed and confident, so able to listen and respond courteously when challenged, rather than lashing out because frightened and hurt.

Debbie Hayton, writing in the noted transphobe publication The Times, argued against Lily Madigan, a trans woman taking a place in the Jo Cox Leadership Programme, which is aimed at women. I don’t know what that programme is like, but imagine it will draw out talents of self-expression, and aid in building confidence to use those talents. Those of us socialised as boys need to think carefully before taking places in schemes designed to compensate the rather different formative experience of girls, she says: as if the training will not be appropriate.

The bargain we have with society is that we are treated as women: honorary women, or asylum seekers. That means we enter women’s spaces. If we don’t, we are more marginalised. There is no place for us.

Debbie also wrote for The Morning Star, which has a smaller circulation and Marxist heritage. It has published trans-excluding feminism based on a class analysis of the class of men oppressing the class of women, not seeing the possibility of moving between those classes. Under self-declaration, how do women distinguish between a trans woman and an opportunistic man? asked Debbie. Well, self-declaration is irrelevant. I don’t carry my GRC around with me. I usually carry a credit card with a feminine name. That is, if challenged I could show evidence that I am generally treated as female, if my clothes, hair and actions are insufficient for anyone.

My psychiatrist said I was not psychotic- not suffering from delusions- but the diagnosis of transsexualism was based on my own determination and self-understanding. That determination is equally shown by my change of name and change of documents. If for gender recognition I give the additional guarantee that I intend to live in the acquired gender life-long, I don’t see what a specialist’s diagnosis adds to it.

Debbie Hayton argues that being a woman means having a woman’s reproductive organs, generally, or some disorder of sexual development which women have. She is associating with people, a strange coalition of conservatives like Rupert Murdoch and gender-critical feminists, who assert that only cis women should be treated as women, and not trans women. However the fabric of our lives depends on being treated as women. We could never reach an accommodation with the conservatives, whose world view requires that we do not exist and who will enforce that world view on us given any chance.

We might reach an accommodation with the feminists. How can the restrictions gender places on people be broken down, as both groups desire? We can’t do that by abrogating our rights.

The Labour Party

Personal remarks in the loos: “Your thighs are so slim! I wish I could wear boots like that!” She put forward a slightly chubby leg, and said she had to wear extra-wide boots to get round her calves. Mmm. I thought, too late, of ripostes: “I love your bewbies! Mine took ages to grow this big. Do you think I should have implants?” Or, more self-deprecatingly, “Well, I have a man’s skeleton. It does not please me, particularly.” Then again, she might simply have been complimenting me. She did not actually say “I love your tranny legs”.

I was a little nervous at the start of the Labour Party regional women’s conference. I am entitled to be there as my GRC says I am legally a woman, and some cis women object to me in women’s space. Just before getting up, I had read on facebook of anti-trans activists, campaigning to have trans women excluded from all women shortlists with a crowdfunder raising £20,000, being suspended from the Labour Party.

I drove there with D, whom I am getting to know reasonably well, and like, and M, who recently joined having left the Tory Party and was eager to tell of the work she had done for Marsby as a district councillor. She wanted to do good for the town, and the Labour party were far more in tune with that, but she might be nervous having been Tory until last year. D and I were friendly and accepting.

Then Beth, the recently appointed candidate, told me that she had heard from someone “on the other side of your issue”. She did not want to name it. We had been corresponding through facebook, with most of the words from me, explaining trans to her, and mostly positive comments from her, embarrassed about asking basic questions like what does the C in GRC stand for. I am in this hall filled with activist women, worried that some might be TERF.

Then I sat near a woman who had a shirt saying “A woman’s place is in the House of Commons“. I felt more nervous. It is a common phrase, and need not be related to the “A Woman’s Place” campaign against gender recognition, but that is what I thought of.

Yet the place we are in is a good place. The conference rooms are at the back of a building owned by a church, with a coffee shop and food bank. On the wall, there is this:

I love it, and others comment on it. I can’t find an exact source, but it is close to Isaiah 58.

At the back of the stage there is a beautiful quilt.

I go to have a closer look, then see what it is and recoil in shock: it has 598 panels, one for each woman murdered by a partner or former partner in the UK between 2009 and 2015. Oh! It is still very beautiful; and it brings to mind a horror. Later, the woman who conceived it, a Labour councillor, speaks of it. It is the Women’s Quilt. A man taught himself to sew so he could make panels for it, and called it “the most beautiful project that should not exist”. A woman said she had never felt sisterhood until she got involved. We need a memorial for these women. I am glad to see it.

I am happier speaking to Neelam from Unite the Union’s LGBT section. This is more than small talk. I remain nervous; however when the actual talks start I am reassured. Karen Lee, MP, a former nurse, talks of women’s representation. She is proud that she is building on the work done by Harriet Harman to make the House of Commons a more woman-friendly place. A bar has been converted into a crèche. She is proud that 46 target seats have all-women shortlists, and that includes trans women. Neelam, in the hustings for women’s representatives on the regional committee, one of whom must be from the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community, talked of women “including trans women who are facing an incredibly difficult time”. So I voted for her, obvs.

Lilian Greenwood MP gave the closing remarks. She was delighted by “Cheryl, Nadia and Heather”, three wonderful women for a local all-women shortlist. That is Dr Heather Peto, a trans woman. Lilian says “Trans women are women” and she is delighted that the NEC has just affirmed that is Labour policy. “Abuse does not belong in our party.” That brought forth cheers and applause, and I felt accepted in that moment; and also felt the weight of my nervousness and experiences of rejection. When I realise I am not only rejected I become aware how painful the rejection, and the fear of it, is.

Women need promoted within the Labour Party. There is still rampant sexism. Someone quotes “What you said is inappropriate and I will not tolerate it” because women are socialised to not make a fuss and take care of others’ feelings and you might need a set phrase prepared in order to mount a challenge. A black woman spoke of the abuse she had suffered when canvassing for support as a local council candidate: “Get that filthy N——- off my doorstep”. That is my problem. As a white person I must stand with those suffering pervasive racism. 86% of welfare cuts have fallen on women, and the charity Refuge has suffered 80% cuts. 155 women a day are turned away from refuges.

In a session on Increasing Women’s Representation a speaker, with The Times placed on the table in front of her, says that she had campaigned in the 1970s not for equality but women’s liberation, from patriarchy and capitalism. Rich white men made the world to suit themselves. A feminised politics would have a wider perspective and be more inclusive. She asked contributions from the floor on why increasing women’s representation is a good thing- mine was that there is talent not being used, but an older woman said we must be careful not to discriminate against the men, as if that was even close to becoming a problem. The chair of a local branch had resigned from the party, and joined the Tories, because they were required to nominate a man and a woman, rather than two men, for a shortlist for Parliamentary candidate selection. There is a working class narrative about men, with women as an afterthought.

Here are feminists, conscious of the oppression of women, and angry about it. In the heat of the battle they face, I am justified being nervous about what they may think of trans women. The fight can get nasty. And, I am accepted. At the end, I am part of a photo of smiling happy activists in front of that quilt. (Someone texted it to me, and I can’t download it from my phone.)

That crowdfunder, seeking to challenge trans women on Labour women only shortlists: they shot themselves in the foot. They are suspended from the party, and what did they expect? Their transphobia was tolerated, but not their action against the party. Perhaps as a result, there was this interview of the leader:

Andrew Marr: Is a trans woman a woman?
Jeremy Corbyn: Yes
Marr: So she can self-identify?
Corbyn: Yes.

Women might complain in private, but not in my hearing. I am welcome in Labour.

Why do people transition?

Why do people transition? Because we are human. No more precise answer is possible- because we are complex organisms in complex social structures. But transition continues to shock and distress trans folk and others. Because I wanted to is not a good enough answer for me, because I feel I have suffered because of transition and life might have been easier without that desire; and not for other people, because they want to debate what rights I get as a transitioned woman.

The answer “Autogynephilia” is given by people who want to treat trans women as men, limit transition, and exclude us. So it matters whether that is scientific or not. It isn’t. Haters insist on it, though.

The answer “because I have a woman’s brain/spirit, because I am really a woman” would give us full rights, but I don’t believe it myself. Women’s brains are not particularly different from men’s, trans women’s brains are not clearly closer to cis women’s than cis men’s, it is not clear what differences would be relevant to transition, and brains are plastic, changing throughout life. “Gender essentialism”, the idea that women are in some way innately feminine, is offensive to women who reject femininity but are clear they are women. I observe gender non-conforming people who do not transition, and conclude the idea that people with ovaries are fundamentally different from people with testicles, with the exception of trans people who are really in the other group, is ridiculous.

There is nothing which is a virtue in one sex which is not a virtue in the other; no characteristic which one has but the other has not, apart from those reproductive differences.

“Should a trans woman be allowed in women’s space?” should be addressed without a definitive answer to whether we are women or not. Socially and legally we are women. At worst, we should be pitied and tolerated, for we are mostly harmless. Some say we are men, so should not be there; but society is too complex for such a simple answer. Most people answer the question by imagined consequences: male abusers pretending to be trans to enter women’s space, or cis women seeing trans women, thinking they are men, and being retraumatised over past male violence; but most people either don’t care, or see that the gain in allowing us to lead productive lives as members of society outweighs such imagined problems.

A trans person just transitioning might need to justify that to themselves. I wanted to believe I was really a woman. I feared transitioning if I were simply an autogynephiliac pervert, consumed by my sexual fantasies. You doubt yourself, so other people’s opinion that you are a man hurts- it was as if I wanted the whole world to say I was a woman because I could not trust my own judgment and any doubt of it confused depressed and terrified me. But you doubt yourself, then you transition, or you don’t. It is hard to be a campaigner when you need affirmation, because you will meet the opposite.

Now my answer is It was the best I could do at the time. I look back on the difficulties, but with effort I also see blessings, and I may have been worse off if I had not transitioned. It is part of forgiving and acceptance.

A friend said Those who look for a cause are looking for a cure. That was in the nineties, when gay people questioned their own orientation. This is who I am, they should say. Gay Pride. I still looked for a cause. Transition is such an odd thing to do.

The Red Tent

The Greenbelt women’s space is for all who identify as women. I asked permission to enter, and was welcomed, at least officially. For the opening session, they ask us what we want from women’s space. I say I want to explore the tension between the femininity I choose to express, and the womanhood of most people here.

The name “Red Tent” is not particularly welcoming for trans women. Of course it refers to menstruation; a woman asked if it were linked to the Red Hat, but that is separate, named from Jenny Joseph’s poem. The Red Tent creates a space for us to honor our blood cycles and womanhood journeys. Yet there is no objection to me here. That could be a legal thing, I cannot think it would be a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” to exclude me. Others wanted to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale, and time is set aside. And given that reproductive physiology is such a huge part of most people’s experience, it is reasonable to make it a defining matter for women’s space.

We hear that some men object to there being a space solely for women. Ribald catcalling ensues. We can tell them there is a Men’s Journey group at 11am on Saturday, and 11pm on Sunday. Later, I saw notices up about this in the Red Tent: a feminine taking care of others’ feelings, while asserting their rights.

I went off to eat, and as I ate a woman sidled up to me. “It was brave of you to speak like that,” she said. I don’t think it brave, myself. I was participating. There is no point in being there otherwise. She said she knew someone who transitioned, and “he” said (I am fairly clear she means AMAB) “he had transitioned with a small T not a capital T”. I get what she means. There is no good way of asking that question, but this sidling round it is horrible. I don’t answer, but don’t ask if that should make a difference to the Red Tent. It’s not as if we were getting undressed. We ate together, then went for a drink, and talked more. I insisted on buying my own. I would not accept a drink from her.

After that, I had to go back to the Red Tent. I would not be chased away. We are in small groups discussing, and a younger woman talks of children learning of sex through porn, and sex education being solely biological, mechanical, rather than about relationships, or even about pleasure given and received. An older woman talks of being a minister, and having her leadership subtly disrespected. Where a male minister would be “charming” she is read as “flirtatious”. She wondered about mentoring younger women in similar roles. Two black women talked of more content here to attract black people. Then all my group but me left, and I was left sitting in the middle of the floor, with everyone else round the sides. I felt a bit exposed, but fed back to the larger group what they had talked about. A minister in another group gave her take on the matter, as clearly I had not understood.

-Oh, and we talked about sex. (laughter).
-Did any group not talk about sex?

It’s evening, and getting colder, so I put on my tights, then walk out.

Intimate spaces

Why not, when trans women are sent to prison, just put them together in a house somewhere with one guard and an ankle monitor? Yes, he said, and if they break any rule you send them back to the general population. His use of that term for the mass of prisoners marked him as one who knows something of prisons. I recognise it but would not use it.

The thought experiment shows that the punishment of prison is not just deprivation of liberty, but the threat of violence inside. It would not work because while trans women are intensely vulnerable they are not the only vulnerable prisoners. But segregating vulnerable people should not mean putting them with sex offenders.

At Britain Yearly Meeting, after the QLGF AGM, I wanted to talk to L, who spent time in prisons in her youth. She wants women safe in “intimate spaces”, another term revealing a group. A trans woman can go in women’s space, so they change the term. I enjoyed the conversation. We stayed in the basement after everyone else had left until the janitor had to lock up, then we went for tea. She feels that Quakers with our peacebuilding skills could work on this conflict, and I do too. She was taken aback when I asked, “What is your position?” She does not have one, absolutely; yet made her points strongly for exclusion.

Women in prison tend not to be violent, yet to come from violent backgrounds. Physically scared of people larger and stronger than they, they have learned to put the interests and desires of others before theirs. They would be particularly vulnerable to pre-op trans women.

In hostels and shelters, she is concerned for such women who might have to share a room with a trans woman. The woman might not go to the hostel, rather than do that. Particularly, she does not want the woman who objects to be the wrong one, who must be corrected. There should be more hostels and shelters, she says- well, yes, but will that happen?

In toilets, she posits the case of the male-presenting AMAB person who says “I identify as a woman” and therefore enters a woman’s toilet. I agree that is wrong: we should show concern for those about us. Then she pointed out that there is only one door in a woman’s loo, and a woman might be frightened with a trans woman between her and the door. I told her of the sign on the disabled loo in Friends House, asking able-bodied people to leave them for people who needed them (not in these words) and stating there were gender-neutral loos in the basement.

I don’t want a gender-neutral loo. I found women’s loos much pleasanter, when transitioning. L said that they smell nicer, so I told her that a trans man had said he felt men’s loos were preferable, and I could only understand that by inverting my own position.

Intimate spaces, with vulnerable women frightened of men, and frightened by us. We would just be locked out. The very thought makes me feel less safe, less willing to go out and engage.

I mentioned this to two women, who thought L’s position ridiculous. I am glad. Yet I still felt uncomfortable in the large, crowded women’s loo west of the Large Meeting House. I was staring fixedly at the wall above the hand-dryer, not looking about me, and someone waved her hand in my field of vision- just to say hi, and it perplexed and distressed me.

I met Caroline, who said I was looking very well. “This hair makes me feel beautiful for the first time” I said. She said something about “after all you have been through” which angered me, possibly unfairly: I don’t know that she meant otherwise, but I wanted to shout

There is nothing wrong with being Trans!!!

only with people’s attitudes to it.

Lucas Cranach the elder, The Last Judgment, detail