The Rise In Gender Policing Is Shaming Those It Claims To Protect

Martha, 29, is a butch cis lesbian living in London and working as an architect. For as long as she can remember, she has been made to feel that she is "failing at womanhood", with her gender presentation regularly called into question, commented on or mocked. This happened long before she was out and presenting in a way that felt truly comfortable. As a young girl dressed by her mum, she would be misgendered when her picture was put in the local paper; when walking to a party at 17, with long hair and a full face of makeup, she was shouted at in the street: "Are you a girl or a boy?" Once she cut her hair short in her 20s, the frequency of experiences like this escalated, especially in gendered public spaces.
"From the moment I started presenting in a more butch way, I’d have some kind of confrontation or experience in a public bathroom every few months," Martha tells R29. "Often it's someone coming in, looking at me, then going back out and looking at the door to work out if they're in the right place."
These experiences can range from relatively subtle to explicitly demeaning.
"The worst incidents have been in pubs," she recalls. "Once I was in a pub in Lambeth at after-work drinks and I was just walking to the toilet. Someone shouted at me as I was going in: 'There's a man going into the women's toilets!'" She was left with no choice but to respond because she needed to use the bathroom. "So I had to say in front of an entire pub of people who were all looking at me, including all my colleagues, 'No, I'm a woman.' It's extremely humiliating, really."
Martha is one of the many people who regularly experience some form of gender policing: the imposition or enforcement of normative gender expressions on someone who is perceived to not be 'correctly' performing the gender they were assigned at birth. This comes in many forms, from the gendering of certain styles of clothes and haircuts to monitoring the way someone moves through the world, and it affects everyone to varying degrees. It is a coercion that reinforces a binary view of gender with a strict divide between men and women, and specifically dictates the precise ways in which women and men are meant to look and behave.
The further you stray from the strict depictions of gender (aka the less normative you are in your gender presentation), the more belligerent, intrusive and harassing that gender policing can be. It is particularly present in gendered public spaces (such as toilets and changing rooms). To be gender nonconforming (GNC) in any public space is a fraught experience.
For many butch and GNC people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB), gender policing has in some form been a lifelong experience but has gotten worse and worse in recent years.
Many attribute the increase in gender policing to the recent rise in transphobia in the media and on social media. Galop, the UK’s LGBT+ anti-violence charity, recently published its 2020 online hate crime report which found that eight in 10 respondents had experienced anti-LGBT+ hate crime and hate speech online in the last five years. In particular, it found that trans people were more likely to receive online abuse than cis people, and that "anti-LGBT+ online abuse has a wider impact beyond the immediate victim to include those who witness such abuse." Elsewhere, there have been instances of public figures with enormous wealth and power adamantly sticking to their transphobic beliefs on social media platforms, encouraging others to double down on their hateful beliefs, too.
Much of the trans-exclusionary radical feminist-led rhetoric centres on the idea that rights for trans and non binary people (particularly trans women) will impinge on the safety of cis women in the real world, and that single-sex spaces should be protected – either by falsely claiming that the right to self-identification will lead to men barrelling into women’s changing rooms, or by pushing against trans people’s access to single-sex toilets. These arguments are founded on misplaced fear and hatred – not on any real evidence – but have been referred to constantly, especially around government consultations such as the Gender Recognition Act consultation or, more recently, the consultation about bathrooms in the UK.

If you are approaching me to tell me I don't belong somewhere, it's because you know you have the power and don't like that I am transgressing it by coming into a space that you have deemed your own.

As Jasmine Andersson reported for inews, a trans person’s right to use a toilet according to their gender is protected under the Equality Act. However, "a crop of businesses and gender-critical dissenters have attempted to ban transgender people from using women’s toilets." This has reinforced a culture already primed to surveil people for any apparent evidence of gender deviation, directly impacting anyone who is gender non normative. Consequently, cis and non binary butch or masc-of-centre people are made to feel unsafe using single-sex spaces even when they align with the gender they were assigned at birth. Despite what those advocating for single-sex spaces might claim, they are actually making life far worse and far more unsafe for the people they’d call women (cis women and AFAB people).
Yaz, 35, is a butch, queer, GNC woman whose pronouns are "she-ish/her-ish". She says that she regularly experiences gender policing in public toilets and changing rooms, as well as in spaces that aren’t single-sex, like shops or the gym.
Photo by Maëlle Kaboré.
"Sometimes I am defiant, almost proud that I am recognised as not being the kind of woman mainstream or hateful people find acceptable," Yaz tells R29. "I can’t lie and say that it doesn’t hurt though. I can’t imagine being so involved in what a stranger is doing or by their presence unless it actively impacts me. Like, if I’m washing my hands in the same bathroom as you, why should it bother you? I’m clearly not coming into your stall with you!"
From Yaz’s perspective, it has far less to do with fear and far more to do with people using shame as a form of power. "People are basically trying to shame you out of a space. If you are approaching me to tell me I don’t belong somewhere, it’s because you know you have the power and don’t like that I am transgressing it by coming into a space that you have deemed your own."
For Yaz as a Black woman, it’s an exertion of power that is intrinsically racialised, too. "I’m only ever approached by white women, usually older but not always. Aunties will maybe give me looks and scowl and scurry out in case whatever I am is catching, but usually there is no sense of ownership over a space in the same way. White women have no problem telling you that you don’t belong there because they feel entitled to you, the space you occupy and your body."
Mill, 34, is a cis butch lesbian from Birmingham who has received shocked or uncomfortable reactions from cis women who read her as male or are unsure about her in public toilets and other single-sex spaces.
Like Yaz, her reaction to it varies. "I've found it amusing at best, when it's clearly just a moment where someone is trying to figure out which gender box they can fit me into," she tells R29. At other times, however, confusion has turned into hostility. "It has left me feeling shamed, as if I'm deliberately invading a space which is not intended for me, or not 'passing' as a woman."
Being unsure of which way a reaction will go plays into how fraught these environments can feel for butch and gender nonconforming women and non binary people.
"Considering I’m meant to be the threat, it can also make me feel incredibly unsafe," adds Yaz. "The energy changes, things get quite tense and you don’t know what could happen. I have been engulfed by white women's tears enough to know it never ends well for me." 
As a result, butch and gender nonconforming women and non binary people are hypervigilant and work to ensure others feel safe around them in these spaces. "When I enter a public bathroom," says Martha, "I contort my body into a way that I would like not to have to, to try and signal to anyone who can have the most limited understanding of gender possible that I am ticking enough of the right boxes to not be a threat to them." Where possible, she will go into a space with her girlfriend, adjust her clothes and bag to show her chest and say something so that her voice reads as 'woman'.
Similarly, Mads, a 27-year-old non binary person in London had reached a point pre-lockdown where they actively avoided using women’s loos. As they’re non binary, they don’t feel like they 'belong' in men’s toilets either but their limited experience of those spaces has been far less confrontational.

While these people undoubtedly view me as female and profess to be protecting women, the irony isn't lost on me that I now feel safer in the men's loos than the women's, when by their logic sharing loos with men is unsafe for women.

"Experiencing the rise of transphobia (especially around things like single-sex spaces) has definitely had an impact on me," Mads tells R29. "Since I don't have a GRC [gender recognition certificate] and haven't had surgery, lots of anti-trans people would feel I should still be using facilities according to my sex. While these people undoubtedly view me as female and profess to be protecting women, the irony isn't lost on me that I now feel safer in the men's loos than the women's, when by their logic sharing loos with men is unsafe for women."
Public spaces might have been largely off limits for the past year thanks to lockdown and social distancing but this has not led to a decrease in gender policing or in the apprehension of that policing. In fact, as the steady increase of queerphobia and transphobia has received more airtime, many queer people, including butch and gender nonconforming people, have begun to worry about the end of lockdown.
"In many ways, being stuck inside the last year has been a blessing in not having to navigate these spaces," Yaz tells R29. "I’ve heard this said by many trans women and transfeminine people as well as other GNC folk. I think a lot of people are terrified of what will happen when the world opens up again and all this hatred that has been stewing and validated by the media and politicians is let loose."
"I worry that a lot of hatred across the board has been emboldened over this period," Yaz adds. "People seem increasingly unafraid to vocalise it disguised as opinions and they have no issue imposing or enacting those opinions on others.
"Post-lockdown, given the discourse that's been going on around gender on social media platforms, I expect that I am more likely than ever to be misgendered as male by people who see a masculine presenting person and assume this is indicative of how I identify," says Mill. "It feels as if binary notions of gender have become more, not less solidified, especially as many of us have been absorbed in the visuals and soundbites of gender identity-related social media posts, where categorisation is often based on how someone chooses to dress."
Mads started taking testosterone in lockdown and says: "Selfishly, I feel grateful that the way I present means I can use men's loos without having to deal with any sort of confrontation." They worry for others who do not have that kind of protection.
"Generally, I feel very nervous for gender nonconforming people leaving lockdown and being faced with a society that feels quite intent on policing gender. 
"I do worry about what will happen if anti-trans activity continues at this rate. I have genuinely started to think that if it continues to worsen (e.g. our rights are threatened, our healthcare becomes even more inaccessible, anti-trans media proliferates), I will look into relocating away from the UK. I have no doubt that lots of people will be held back from coming out and transitioning as a result of this kind of rhetoric, which has a horrendous impact on people's mental health."
While the problem is pervasive, there are things that can be done to counter the impulse of gender policing. In Mill’s view, a lot of that relies on easing the divide put up between cis and trans experiences. "It leaves less room for gender nonconforming women to embody something other than standard femininity without automatically being categorised as either male or a third category." In her view, as long as femininity is automatically read as a key facet of womanhood, anything outside of that is likely to be read as non binary or trans. "So it seems transgressively masculine women are less able to retain a place in what is being redefined as womanhood," she adds. "I toyed with defining myself as non binary or trans in the recent past but have since decided that my feelings of not being female enough can still be contained within female experience."
Martha agrees that the belief you can have a strict definition of what a 'woman' is will always produce these problems. 

Individuals need to challenge their assumptions that the person who doesn't 'look like a woman' is the threat in these situations because often it's the other way around.

"When you start to say that this person is not a woman for XYZ reasons, what you then play into is this wider logic that brings so many other women into the frame who do not meet your credentials. It creates a situation where everyone is scrutinised for how they present, and it's just another arm of misogyny attacking cis and trans women."
At a societal level, there needs to be greater understanding and pushback against those who call for strict policing of gender, especially to "protect women". Everyone Refinery29 spoke to for this piece said that on a day-to-day level, they wish people would step in more at the moment they’re being harassed, especially post-lockdown. Individuals need to challenge their assumptions that the person who doesn’t "look like a woman" is the threat in these situations because often it’s the other way around.
"I worry that there's a sense that women can't really be that dangerous/vicious simply because they're women," says Mads, "but I'd really implore people to defend any trans or GNC people they see being targeted, even if the person doing the targeting looks like a nice older lady."
Even though there are times when Yaz feels happy to charm and disarm the person harassing them, it takes a lot of bravado to counteract it every time, especially if you don’t know where the harassment could come from next.
"I wish it didn’t require bravery just to take a piss." 

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