Equality for all, or equality for none

Feminism is a belief in equality. It is the belief that women should not be treated as inferior to men, or excluded, silenced, or held back – that women should be given equity of treatment, opportunity and respect.

Here’s the thing, though. You can’t demand equity for one group of people while denying it to another group. That’s hypocrisy of the worst order, and undermines your entire argument. How can you say that women deserve equal treatment but others don’t? Who makes the distinction? Why are they qualified to distinguish between those groups when others aren’t qualified to distinguish between men and women?

We stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow humans fighting any kind of discrimination. We fully support the Black Lives Matter movement and will continue to challenge racism wherever we see it. We challenge hatred directed towards anyone because of their sexuality. We will not tolerate exclusion of anyone based on disability, neurodiversity, class, parenthood, economic status, immigration status, or any other characteristic. And we will not see transgender people excluded or treated unfairly.

On why I should spend less time on Twitter

Yesterday was a horrible day. I responded to a tweet from the wonderful author Joanne Harris who expressed disappointment that some women of her generation, who had fought hard for the right to choose their lives and identities, now felt the need “to impose their view of what makes a ‘real’ woman.” I agreed with Joanne, saying that I believe the point of feminism is that we shouldn’t be defined by our genitals. And then the replies came…

I had to mute the thread in the end, after blocking all the people who called me an idiot, a supporter of FGM, a racist (I’ll explain as best I can, I’m still confused about that one) and told me that I deserved to have my daughter taken away from me. It was really upsetting to feel the full force of all the people who so viscerally believe that we should be defined by our genitals, and I ended the day incredibly depressed, exhausted and anxious. So I can only begin to imagine how painful it is to not be able to escape that kind of hate – to live every day facing that disgust at who you are as a person and that desire to erase your existence. Which only makes me more determined to fight for the trans women, and men, who are being subjected to a fundamental denial of their right to be.

Since it’s clear from all the responses I got that there are a lot of misunderstandings and fears behind a lot of transphobia, I wanted to attempt to respond to some of them in the hopes that I might be able to help some people understand a bit more – I fully believe that a lot of hatred comes from a lack of understanding, and that education and human connection is the answer. So here we go.

The denial of sex-based rights

Possibly the biggest argument about giving rights to trans people, or allowing trans women to identify as women, is that it will mean an end to protections for women based on their sex. The media love to trot that one out to make it look as though they’re simply defending women, when a glance through any of the right-wing publications attacking trans people will demonstrate that they have very little respect for women whatsoever. But it is a fear for many women who, rightly, see their protections as pretty precarious already. The fact is, though, it’s not trans women’s fault that your rights are fragile – it’s the patriarchal system that we live in that doesn’t value your rights and is only paying lip-service to them most of the time. The people in power are the ones who benefit from you not feeling secure, not people with less power than you.

There are plenty of rights to go around. There’s not a finite number, we don’t have to choose who gets them. Giving equity of treatment to black people doesn’t take it away from white people, and we don’t have to choose whether we support gay men or lesbians or disabled people. As a society we can, and must, look after everyone.

Saying that no one can refuse a job to someone on the basis that they have a vagina, and that no one has the right to mutilate a person’s vagina, doesn’t invalidate the rights of women without vaginas. And vice versa. Allowing a trans woman to be protected by law and to be treated with respect will not reduce the rights that already exist. We don’t have to split the world into men and women, and be fixed in those definitions, to protect people’s bodies.

FGM is barbaric and must be stopped – nobody’s body should be mutilated full stop, and no one should have their body cut or altered without their express, enthusiastic, adult consent. Abortion must be accessible to anyone who wants it. Domestic violence is unacceptable. Rape and sexual assault must be dealt with more effectively, more sensitively and with more understanding, and we must put an end to rape culture. No one should be denied a job or forced out of a job because of who they are. I could go on. But all of these rights protect cis gendered women whilst also being extended to a wider group of people. It is not a first-come, first-served system.

The need for female-only spaces

Another big argument is whether trans women should be allowed to access women-only spaces. This could be something very sensitive, like a rape support group, or something more informal like a changing room. Toilets have been a huge debate. Living in Brighton where gender neutral toilets are the norm, it’s sometimes hard to see how anyone could be threatened by them, but I appreciate that if you’ve not experienced gender neutral toilets, and the public services that you visit aren’t adequately set up to be gender neutral and provide appropriate privacy, I can see why you might be unsure about how different gender identities could co-exist in these spaces. So a few points on this.

Transgender people make up about 0.6% of the population. There are approximately 200,000 – 500,000 transgender people in the UK, although reporting figures are inaccurate. Data has found that transgender women outnumber transgender men by about 2:1, but these reports caution against taking that as an accurate population figure due to considerable issues with reporting and recording. But taking these figures, there’s likely to be a maximum of 330,000 transgender women in this country. In a population of 64 million, women-only services are not about to be overrun with transgender women – there is space for all of us.

I’ve been told that the presence of transgender women in a rape support group, for example, would be threatening. “Women who’ve experienced sexual violence don’t want to discuss it in the same room as someone with a penis.” What if the rapist decided to “self-identify” as a man to attend the same support group as his victim in order to further intimidate her? What about women in prison who are raped by transgender women with penises? Firstly, if these things happen, they are a failure of the system to adequately protect either group, not a sign that transgender women should be stricken from the face of the Earth. We’re back to how the patriarchy doesn’t really care about protecting anyone but themselves.

Discussing sexual violence, or any kind of abuse (physical or psychological), is an incredibly difficult thing anyway. Believe me, I know. JK Rowling has defended her comments by speaking about her own experience of domestic violence and the crux of her argument is that she is defending women-only spaces because of this kind of abuse. I don’t want to talk about my own personal experiences because I don’t want to put it all out there and that’s my personal choice, but I understand the pain she has been through and how this has made her afraid. As someone who experienced sexual violence as a child and psychological abuse from a former partner, I’m deeply aware of how much more needs to be done to support and protect survivors. The system is broken, and I don’t believe that preventing other women from accessing it will help. The transgender community faces far higher rates of rape and sexual assault – 47% of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point during their lifetime. Locking them out of what support mechanisms we do have is beyond inhuman.

I was subjected to violent sexual threats and stalking from a cis gendered woman for a period of several months when I was in my early 20s. What if she turned up in a women-only space to intimidate me? There’s no law that could stop her – the important thing is not to create blanket exclusion, but to give staff better training and understanding to be able to manage these spaces sensitively and safely. All systems are open to abuse if they’re not managed properly. Anyone who poses a threat to anyone else can, and should, be removed. Mechanisms must be put in place to protect everyone from violence from anyone. Women are capable of raping and assaulting other women in prison, too. It’s rare, but, as we’ve just established, the very existence of transgender women is rare. We don’t need to block people from the system, we need a better system.

Biology is fixed

The argument that, however you define your gender, you can’t escape the fact that, biologically speaking, there are only two sexes seems irrefutable. But when you look into it, that’s a very white, western approach. We think that because we’ve been raised within a western patriarchal system and that idea has been ingrained into us. (This is where I got called a racist, by two separate people, for stating that fact. I’m still confused about how acknowledging and respecting the views of other cultures makes me a racist, but that was the allegation.) Weirdly enough, I was introduced to this concept watching an interview with rugby-playing brothers Manu and Alesana Tuilagi. I’m a big rugby fan, and these guys are incredibly talented players. Born in Samoa, Manu moved to the UK at the age of 13 and has opted (luckily for us) to play for England, whereas Alesana and the other four Tuilagi brothers have all represented Samoa. During the interview they were asked about their fifth “brother”, and the conversation that ensued was a little awkward. Manu and Alesana were grappling for English words to describe their sibling but struggled because there just isn’t the language in English to describe fa’afafine. Their sibling goes by the name Julie, and they call her their sister in English, but in Polynesia the concept of a third gender is entirely different to anything we have words for. There is no sense that their biology is wrong, and no expectations of whether they will express traditionally “masculine” or “feminine” characteristics, although fa’afafine people were assigned male at birth and live a more traditionally female role. Those who were assigned female at birth but live more traditionally male roles are known as fa’atane. It would be wrong to suggest there is no prejudice towards these people – hatred exists everywhere – but it seems that fa’afafine and fa’atane people are much more respected in Polynesian culture than they are here and their existence is not disputed, dismissed or denied in the way we deny that of transgender people.

A quick Google search will turn up a huge number of examples of cultures that, currently or in the past, have respected and embraced “transgender”, third gender, gender neutral or fluid gender identities. Here’s just a few quick examples:

  • Sumerian and Akkadian texts from 4500 years ago document transgender or transvestite priests known as gala
  • North American indigenous cultures recognised third gender or multi-gender roles until the colonial forces tried to put a stop to that
  • Graves from Europe and the Americas have been uncovered that appear to be of transgender or third gender people from around 4,500 years ago – it’s not new
  • Trans-feminine social and spiritual communities called hijras in India and kathoeys in Thailand have existed for thousands of years – there are still at least half a million hijras in India, and another half a million in Bangladesh, legally recognised as third gender, and Thailand widely accepts transgender people
  • In Arabia, mukhannathun have fulfilled a third gender role since the 600s, now continuing with modern-day khanith
  • In Africa, many societies have traditional roles for trans women and trans men, some of which survive in the modern era – hostility towards these people is a new phenomenon in recent years

There are many more examples. The fact is that we don’t have the language or the concepts to understand different approaches to sex and gender because we have not been given them. But since the dawn of humanity, people around the world have acknowledged that dividing people into two distinct groups based on their genitals is inaccurate and too limited.

Definitions of biology

I was told several times yesterday that women are “people who have the potential to be pregnant”. This is such a dangerous narrative. Our “potential to be pregnant” is something we won’t know until we try to have babies. Believe me, I know. That can be a painful journey to go on. Not all women menstruate, not all women have a uterus, I once knew a woman who had two vaginas… Biology is complex. If you’ve never experienced fertility issues or menstrual problems, had to have a hysterectomy, had any of the cancers that affect that area, PCOS, endometriosis or any of the other myriad things that can change your biology, you could easily believe that it’s as simple as “women menstruate”, “women have uteruses”, “women give birth”, but many of us are painfully aware that that is not the case. JK Rowling took offence to an article that talked about building a safer world post-Covid 19 for “people who menstruate” – she felt it should be “for women”, but not all women menstruate, and the article specifically dealt with menstruation, so “people who menstruate” is accurate. We should not be excluding women who don’t menstruate, who can’t or don’t want to have children, who don’t have a uterus or any other issue that impacts this so-called “biological potential” from the definition of “woman” any more than we should be excluding transgender women.

Unless I missed something, a big part of the feminist campaign of the last hundred years or so has been to stop insisting that women have children. When we start defining women by their potential to have children, we head off down a very slippery slope. How do you measure that potential? Do you start giving women fertility tests when they enter puberty? What if they fail? What if they choose not to exercise their potential? The Handmaid’s Tale is possibly my favourite novel of all time, and if you’ve not read it I highly recommend it. The totalitarian regime that has taken over value women only by whether they can procreate – women who can have babies are made to do so, those who cannot are classified as “unwomen” and sent to pick up toxic waste or work as state-controlled prostitutes. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy that.

Divide and conquer

The final point I want to leave you with is that the line you’re being fed by the media – that transgender people are on a mission to rape women, abuse children and bring down society – is an old, old story. Transgender people are just the latest target. The same has been said about immigrants, gay people, people of colour, Muslims (by Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, most recently) and, indeed, feminists over centuries. Why? Because all of these people are inherently evil? Seems unlikely.

The reason is that a patriarchal system can only survive by keeping other groups down. The best way to do that is to keep them all fighting amongst each other. Divide and conquer is a time-honoured practice, because it works. While the white men at the top make you scared of black people, gay people, trans people, you’re wasting all your energy trying to push those people out and the white dudes are kicking back with all the power and money to themselves. They’re playing you, don’t fall for it.

Are some transgender people arseholes? Probably. They’re human, and a good percentage of humans are pretty horrible, so it seems fair to assume there’s probably a few not very nice trans people. I’ve met a few unpleasant cis women in my time too, I’m not about to suggest we throw out rights for all women just because of them. The media will focus in on any instances of trans people behaving less than perfectly, as they will with black people, Muslims, gay people, women, because that fits their narrative. Don’t accept their narrative. The best thing you can do is meet a few trans people and get to know the real humans yourself, not the media headlines. We’re all just trying to live our lives in safety and security – when we reach out and connect with each other, we can see we’re not so different.

We all want, and deserve, rights. The only people withholding them from us and hurting us, are the patriarchal people (of all genders and races) at the top who want to maintain the status quo by excluding the rest of us. They’re the ones we need to focus our energy on. Don’t kick people who are lower down the privilege ladder than you – kick down the whole damn ladder.

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3 thoughts on “Equality for all, or equality for none

  1. You’re my hero! One of the best articles you’ve written and so powerful. Thank you for writing this!

  2. Just read this slowly and carefully. I agree with Rachel, I think this is your best piece. So well researched, explained and articulated.

    You’re a superstar xxx

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