Yesterday, on International Women’s Day, JK Rowling tweeted that “under a Labour government, today will become we who must not be named day”. It was in response to Anneliese Dodds, the shadow equalities secretary, refusing to define what a woman was when appearing on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and followed days of conversations over the Gender Recognition Reform bill published last week in Scotland.
There was a time, a couple of years ago, where I might have had more sympathy with the sort of view espoused by JK Rowling and others. I had just been raped and attacked for the second time, I was scared of men and violence, and I couldn’t really think further than that. It hasn’t been until more recently, as the issue of trans rights has gained more attention and become a political battleground, that I have been forced to confront this issue.
Honestly, at the beginning of this mental journey I was fearful. I had been harmed so acutely and so terribly by men, and I was worried that allowing trans women into female-only spaces — such as Hampstead Ladies Pond — posed a threat. It is true that there are no meaningful statistics to suggest transgender women pose a threat to cis women like me. The argument is theoretical — hypothetical even. But I was scared and I knew very little. What I did know was that most of the politicians and commentators that I agreed with on every other issue were fighting hard for trans rights. So I understood that I must be missing some piece of the moral puzzle through ignorance and fear, and I plunged myself into trying to understand. I read around the issue. I followed trans people on Twitter and Instagram, and then I dived into longer-form reading on the issue, too.
The moment of revelation came a few months ago, in the heat of another JK Rowling Twitter war. The strange thing is that I think I changed my mind because I empathised with her. Rowling had described suffering domestic abuse, and I saw an abused woman holding on tight to the space that she knew to be hers because she was afraid. Then I saw how profoundly misdirected her fear was. Because trans women are not the perpetrators but the victims of violence: last year an estimated 375 trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming people were killed across the world. Furthermore, to direct energy away from tackling male violence, and instead towards fighting trans women, is to undermine the feminist movement.
When I see tweets from JK Rowling or the Labour MP Rosie Duffield, who was also a victim of domestic abuse, on the transgender issue, it is now clear to me now how ignorant their comments are because I was ignorant once, too. In different respects and areas we have all been guilty of ignorance and to progress the issue of trans rights we must recognise the fear from which such ignorance is born.
Of course, there are other arguments frequently made against the idea that trans women are women. Gender critical feminists argue from the standpoint of biology. They say that sex matters for gender and you cannot call yourself a woman if you haven’t had periods, for example. These arguments are compelling (though perhaps not as much as some gender critical feminists think). They feel logical and scientific. But I’m afraid they’re devoid of meaningful empathy: I can only imagine the kind of emotional pain and angst that comes with being trapped in a body you don’t feel is your own. In fact, the closest I can come to understanding is through my own desire to escape my body after what was done to it. That pain was and remains profound: it’s moving through the world in a body you feel has betrayed you. If there was a way out of that pain I would take it. And so of course people who feel they are not the sex they have been assigned to at birth want to transition. And of course they want their transition to be recognised and to be wholly accepted.
I am writing this because I want to tell other cis women in the same position that we may be scared, but now we — some of us — are making the trans community scared.