Often, when I have felt danger in women’s spaces, it is specifically because of cis women telling me I don’t belong there, telling me I am making them uncomfortable, telling me that I don’t deserve protection. Either they refuse to recognise me as a woman or they do not deem me enough of a woman to deserve safety.
Sometimes the reactions I've experienced have taken the form of a woman tightening her towel around herself when I enter a changing room. This is often accompanied by dirty looks insinuating that my presence makes her uncomfortable. Other times it might be direct confrontation: women (and men) informing me, sometimes quite aggressively, that I am in the 'ladies' toilets' and attempting to eject me.
Even when I possessed the so-called 'visible markers' of femaleness, the message was clear: whatever you are, you don’t belong here. Having recently undergone a type of non-flat top surgery (the removal of breast tissue to masculinise the chest), my trepidation upon entering women-only spaces and how I will be perceived in them has increased in correlation with the quizzical looks or comments I receive when I do enter these spaces. In particular, when I am read as a large, dark-skinned Black man or something near that.
This raises a whole host of questions. Who are 'we' protecting women from? How do 'we' protect them? Who is doing the protecting? And ultimately: who counts as a woman?
Transphobes and TERFs claim to be protecting women from men and male violence. According to their rhetoric, trans women are not only deemed unworthy of protection but are further villainised as The Enemy. As a butch cis woman, not only do I find this approach misguided and dangerous but often it doesn’t even make sense. In their narrow definitions of who can claim womanhood and therefore who can take up space in women-only environments, they often end up excluding not just trans women but all women who do not conform to their reductive and essentialist definitions of gender.
The policing of other people’s bodies has led to a validation of transphobia and the exclusion of any body not deemed 'right'. As a gender-nonconforming woman whose body exists outside of the 'norm', I claim room to unpack what gender means to me beyond the boundaries of societal expectation.
Often, when I have felt danger in women's spaces, it is specifically from cis women telling me I don't belong there, telling me I am making them uncomfortable, telling me that I don't deserve protection.
At its core, the TERF ideology seems to be that if trans people are allowed to access gendered spaces that align with their gender, then cis men will take advantage of this to gain access to those spaces. In reality, there has been no evidence to show this actually occurs in countries where there is already self-identification. It is little more than a harmful myth propagated by people who still see trans and queer people as inherently depraved in some way.
On the flip side, we do have evidence that trans people are still impacted by not being able to feel safe in single-gender facilities. In 2020, LGBT+ anti-abuse charity Galop commissioned the Transphobic Hate Crime Report by Dr Cerys Bradley. Sixty-one percent of trans respondents to the study said their movement was restricted, including an inability to use public toilets. Feeling unable to use or being actively prevented from using toilets in public places can have an enormous impact on an individual’s life as it severely restricts where they can go and how long they can be away from home. It can also put individuals at risk of developing a medical condition, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI), if there is nowhere safe to relieve themselves in a public setting.
There is an underlying, inherent refusal here to accept trans women as women. What is effectively being said is that trans bodies, particularly trans women’s bodies, are of less value and in less need of protection than cis women’s bodies. This is regardless of how much violence they may be exposed to: trans women experience violence as much as or at a disproportionately higher rate than cis women. This may happen physically at the hands of cis men primarily but it is also happening ideologically at the hands of cis women.
What makes a woman? I don’t know that I have a solid definition. What I do know is that in all the ways that make me a so-called 'wrong' woman, I am still a woman, defined by me and no one else. My sense of my own womanhood has never been challenged by another person’s womanhood, nor by their understanding of their own gender. We are not all the same, we do not all live the same lives, we will not all have the same experiences of womanhood. If we are creating safe spaces for women, then that must include all women, precisely because of the infinite variety of our experiences.
My message to transphobes is this: we do have a common enemy – the unjust systems that police all of our genders, known as the patriarchy. Rather than being a tool of this oppressive system and demonising women you do not deem valid, why not focus your energy on dismantling those structures of injustice?