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Why Trans Women Belong In Women’s Spaces

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell.
Don’t Use Me is a series of articles and social media posts which has a simple message: there is no excuse for transphobia
I love women’s spaces. I’ve spent a lot of time in them through my work supporting survivors of domestic abuse and campaigning to end violence against women. When I ran peer support groups for women who had survived domestic abuse, I saw how spaces for our support and recovery from abuse were a precious source of friendship, encouragement and joy. In one group, six weeks into hearing about each other’s horrifying, humiliating experiences with abusive partners, the women all showed each other photos of their exes and were roaring with laughter. ("Wait, that’s him? But he looks pathetic!") 
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Yet women’s spaces are currently at the centre of a frenzied moral panic targeting trans people. It's known as the TERF wars (coined by Juno Dawson) and it’s ugly. TERF is shorthand for feminists who want to exclude trans people from the feminist movement. As someone who has spent over a decade working to end violence against women, I’m devastated to see domestic abuse professionals use domestic abuse and rape survivors’ experiences to invoke a hatred of trans people, who themselves experience high rates of gender-based violence.

Trans people make up less than 1% of the population and disproportionately experience gender-based violence in both public and private spaces.

I would describe what’s going on here as an unjustified moral panic. A moral panic is when a widespread feeling of irrational fear becomes targeted at a group or individual because they are perceived as a threat to societal values and interests. 'Perceived' is the key word here. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall has written of how, despite crime statistics, a media-driven, anti-Black moral panic around mugging in the 1970s in the UK drove the criminalisation of Black men. The press planted racist tropes in the white public imagination. Perceived threats to white people’s safety legitimised very real institutional racism and increased policing of Black people, all the while distracting the public from the wider economic crisis. 
It’s uncanny that this moral panic around women’s spaces is happening at the height of our own economic crisis. Women’s spaces are spaces where women’s privacy and safety is vital: toilets, changing rooms and domestic abuse refuges, for example. 'Gender critical' feminists have homed in on such spaces as a physical and metaphysical representation of women’s safety in society and they’ve become conflated with trans rights, to devastating effect.
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In 2018 an organised group of influential people — who I’ll refer to as the transphobic lobby — aggressively railed against the right of trans people to self-define their gender in the Gender Recognition Act consultation. Things have only escalated since then. The transphobic lobby is an elite group with access to media columns and broad networks to fund litigation costs. They are besieging a tiny minority (trans people make up less than 1% of the population) for trying to exist and they’re doing it through a discourse on women’s spaces.
The argument around women’s spaces goes as follows: if trans people have the right to legally self-define their gender, then women’s spaces and the women within them (read: cisgender women) will be vulnerable to violation by sexual predators. This claim simply doesn’t stand up, legally or logically. 
Legally, it’s redundant because trans women, by virtue of being women, already have a right to access women-only spaces. Logically, it makes no sense: the perceived predation is based solely on the potential presence of someone who may or may not have a penis. It’s a dehumanising and paranoid claim rooted in a fear of the unfamiliar: trans bodies. It’s fantastical, given that cisgender men have been raping women in our own homes, with impunity, for centuries.
In the 1970s it was the trope of the Black mugger who was perceived to be a threat to the order of society. Today it’s the trope of the trans sexual predator that threatens this order ('order' has become symbolised by a fixed gender binary). This trope is built through the construction of emotionally charged, hypothetical scenarios that follow the same template: imagine a cis woman or girl alone in a confined space where she’s likely to be partially naked (toilet, changing room or prison cell), then introduce a transgender sexual predator who is going to rape her. This wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing scene is distressing for anyone to consider, especially those of us who are survivors of sexual violence. Any person would want to do all they can to stop that happening, especially those of us who dedicate our lives to ending violence. 
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Feminists should know better than anyone that these type of stranger-danger scenarios are not grounded in reality. Over 90% of women who are raped know their attacker. We’ve spent years campaigning to raise awareness of the truth about the violence women face: that it’s your partner and family who are most likely to hurt you. Furthermore, a study into the impact of gender identity nondiscrimination laws on safety and privacy in toilets and changing rooms found that "fears of increased safety and privacy violations as a result of non-discrimination laws are not empirically grounded". As Carys Afoko, cofounder of Level Up, has pointed out: "Ireland introduced a gender recognition law in 2015 to allow people to choose their own legal gender without surgery, and the sky didn’t fall in." 
Trans people make up less than 1% of the population and disproportionately experience gender-based violence in both public and private spaces. Stuart Hall identified a moral panic as "when the official reaction to a person, groups of persons or series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered". The discourse on women’s spaces and trans people passes the test. 
If not based in reality, where is all of this coming from? I believe this fearfulness is a trauma exposure response, which is defined by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, founder and director of The Trauma Stewardship Institute, as "the ways in which the world looks and feels like a different place to you as a result of your doing your work". It’s no coincidence that the VAWG (violence against women and girls) sector is the epicentre of the UK’s gender critical transphobia. Many of us are drawn to this work through our own experiences of trauma and violence and are trained in scanning for threats, safety planning and how to keep victims away from perpetrators in order to keep them alive. As professional victims turned rescuers, our survival – and our jobs – rely on our capacity to do this effectively, so we stay hypervigilant to any threat. 
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I’ve struggled with my own trauma exposure responses and burnout when doing this work. When I was writing the press guidelines on how to report fatal domestic abuse, reading countless newspaper reports of violent murders, I felt haunted by dead women. I had vivid nightmares, my friends were exhausted by me talking about homicide cases and I became impatient and angry that nobody else seemed to care about the fact that a woman is killed by her partner every three days. I started scanning my friends’ relationships for any signs of coercion or control and I felt a resentful gulf growing between myself and my male friends. Had any of them ever raped a woman? Who could I trust? How could they ever understand the threats that women are constantly navigating? Prolonged exposure to violence and trauma affects the way you navigate the world. If you’ve experienced enough abusive men coercing, hurting and killing women, your brain’s survival response is to shortcut into categorising people as 'safe' or 'unsafe'. Very quickly, the unfamiliar or uncomfortable becomes 'unsafe'. 
Women’s spaces are assumed to be safe because, supposedly, all the victims are neatly inside and perpetrators are kept out. Professional rescuers in the VAWG sector maintain this 'safety' by guarding who gets in and out. This framework reinforces a psychological dynamic known as Karpman’s drama triangle. In the drama triangle, there are three fixed positions – victim, perpetrator and rescuer – which get locked into a toxic way of relating to one another. When doing frontline work, I held deep empathy for the women I worked with and often wanted to rescue them from their suffering. Karpman’s work helped me identify that this didn’t actually guarantee their safety; it just gave me a sense of power and purpose. The drama triangle maintains that victims and rescuers cannot cause harm. VAWG workers who have experienced bullying and abuses of power and control within their organisations may hold a different perspective.
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As Leah Cowan, who also worked in the VAWG sector for years, and I have said before, being a victim of violence does not mean you are incapable of causing harm. Without this recognition we’re actually more likely to cause harm. So many of us hold so much anger as a result of the abuse we’ve experienced and we seek out power and control in order not to be victimised again. But being victims in the past doesn’t mean we’re perpetually innocent and we all need to be mindful of the painful truth that we can be hurt in the past and go on to hurt others. An example of this came to me two weeks ago when a woman prefaced an aggressively transphobic email to me with the words: "As a rape survivor, I..." This woman assumed that I would not be a survivor myself and certainly did not countenance the reality that many trans people are survivors of abuse, too.
I understand the desire to say "as a rape survivor" to contextualise your anger and emotion but holding that identity in this way stops us from seeing each other’s survivorhood with empathy, and how we can cause harm to others.

I've worked in domestic violence for over a decade now and I know that fighting for justice for trans people is tightly bound up in our shared feminist struggle.

The fact that resources for those fleeing domestic abuse have become increasingly scarce throughout the 2010s plays a part. One in six refuges have closed since 2010. Of those left standing, one in five are not funded by councils, instead relying on emergency funding pots and charitable grants. These scarcity politics, driven by austerity, have established the false idea that cis women and trans women are in competition with one another when we are not. 
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Yet while resources are scarce and the VAWG sector is under strain, the transphobic lobby is currently attempting to sue a rape crisis centre in Sussex (a provider of women-only spaces) for including a trans woman in their women’s support group. £61,000 has been raised towards the centre's legal fees for this case, which is only a fraction of the £551,262 raised to sue LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall in a separate case. In a cost-of-living crisis whereby mothers are going hungry to make sure they can feed their children, and following the removal of the £20 weekly Universal Credit uplift, which will push a million families into poverty, I struggle to see how attacking a rape crisis centre or LGBTQ+ charity can be a priority for any feminist in the UK. 
I understand how important women’s spaces are, I understand how our survival is based on our capacity to detect danger in order to keep each other safe, and how the unfamiliar can feel unsafe. I also understand the pull to take up a rescuer position and how my own trauma can get in the way of being able to see other people’s suffering. But claiming that transphobia 'protects women' is a wilful manipulation of our survivorhood. The deployment of emotive stranger-danger myths (which feminists have spent decades trying to debunk) and the weaponisation of a 'believe survivors' ethos is horrifying to witness. It serves the double function of inciting a moral panic against trans people while drawing traumatised women who are seeking belonging and safety into a political home of anti-trans activism, euphemistically known as 'gender critical feminism'. It needs to stop.
As someone who has invested my heart, mind, time and energy in the movement to end gender-based violence, I know that fighting for justice for trans people is tightly bound up in feminist struggle. From abortion to transition, the bodies of women and trans people are subjected to similar ideological patrols from the patriarchal state: the people seeking to attack abortion healthcare are the same people who want to refuse trans people’s access to gender-affirming healthcare. As we fight among ourselves, the patriarchal structures that hurt us all stay firmly in place. We must dream bigger and struggle together for more space for all of us. As the relentlessness of male violence rages away, working together in solidarity is the only way to create a safer, more loving and liberated world for us all.

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