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30 November 2016

What’s missing from the transgender debate? Any discussion of male violence

If we treat gender purely as a matter of self-declaration, the system is open to abuse. 

By Sarah Ditum

One of those things that supposedly never happens, happened. Luke Mallaband was convicted of six voyeurism offences after a female student at the University of East Anglia found his phone hidden in the university library’s gender-neutral toilets. The probation report described him as “high risk of posing serious harm to females”.

That creepy men would abuse mixed-sex intimate spaces in order to breach women’s privacy seems, perhaps, a predictable outcome; but it’s not something that the UEA students’ union took into account when it recommended installing more gender-neutral toilets.

“It’s about extending safe spaces to everyone regardless of gender. Once you’re in a cubicle, what does it matter who’s in the cubicle next door?” said LGBT+ officer Richard Laverick at the time. “All issues surrounding toilets and safety would occur regardless of the existence of gender neutral toilets,” said a blithe 2015 report into facilities on the UEA campus. But who you share a space with makes a considerable difference to how safe it is – especially for groups of people liable to become victims of male violence, which means women and transwomen in particular.

The advantage of gender-neutral toilets is that they’re accessible to all. The disadvantage is that, by being accessible to all, they can become unsafe to some – which means they’re not really accessible to all in practice. Mallaband could, it’s true, have committed his crimes by sneaking into a women-only bathroom. But being obviously in the wrong place would have put him at risk of being challenged or caught. Gender-neutral facilities removed that barrier, and something done with all good intentions in the name of trans inclusion ended up putting women in danger.

In case you’re tempted to write Mallaband off as a rogue male, the University of Toronto last year rolled back some of its gender-neutral bathrooms in halls of residence after two female students reported being filmed in the showers; in Toronto in 2014, serial rapist Christopher Hambrook was convicted of entering women’s refuges under the name Jessica and filmed” in=”” showers=”” the=””>assaulting two vulnerable women; and in 2013, transwoman prisoner Paris Green was moved out of Cornton Vale women’s prison near Stirling after having sexual relationships with female inmates. (Green still had full male genitalia.)

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“Inclusion” and “equality” are words with strong positive connotations, and those positive connotations can sometimes smother the problem of competing rights in a warm feel-good fuzz. On 1 December, Parliament debates the report of the Women and Equalities Committee into transgender equality: from reading it, you would have very little idea that the rights of women and the rights claimed by trans people have any points of conflict. But there are conflicts, and they can only be resolved if the House of Commons takes them absolutely seriously.

That’s particularly true when it comes to three of the report’s key recommendations: firstly that the Gender Recognition Act be updated in line with the principles of gender self-declaration, secondly that the protected characteristic of “gender reassignment” in the Equality Act should be changed to “gender identity”; and thirdly that the Equality Act be amended so that single-sex services no longer have a right to discriminate against a person whose acquired gender has been recognised under the Gender Recognition Act.

For trans people, moving to a system of self-declaration and privileging identity over reassignment means moving away from a system that makes doctors and lawyers the arbiters of their identity. The process of acquiring formal recognition for one’s gender should be as unintrusive and simple as possible, but making legal sex contingent only on the individual’s account of themselves means there’s no way to tell the difference between a good-faith claim that reflects a genuine subjective experience, and the kind of claim made by Hambrook, who said he was a woman so he could rape women.

Not all claims to be a woman deserve the same respect. The inquiry report frequently mentions the deaths by suicide of two transwomen prisoners held in the male estate, and implies that housing them in a women’s prison could have been lifesaving. Perhaps it could (although it is worth noting that self-harm and suicide are terrifyingly common among both male and female prisoners), but what’s most remarkable here is that the report never acknowledges how vastly unlike the two were.

The first, Vicky Thompson, was held in a category B prison for robbing a teenage girl of a mobile phone and stealing cosmetics. Thompson, who was only 21, had identified as a woman since her teens. The second, Joanne Latham, was being held in a close security centre (CSC, reserved for the most violent and dangerous offenders) for the attempted murder of a female flatmate and two fellow inmates, aged 38, and had only changed name a few months earlier. These are very different cases, with very different needs: Latham had not even made an application to be rehoused, and in any case, CSCs don’t exist in women’s prisons because women don’t commit the same extremes of violence as men.

The inquiry’s report offers a simple definition of gender at its start. Everyone has a gender identity, it explains, and most people’s matches their sex; trans people, however, have a gender identity that differs from their sex. This is clear, intuitive – and totally unsupported by science. There is no evidence that gender identity is a universal property, and no proof at all of any single mechanism that leads to people being trans. Instead, there are a whole collection of experiences that are now bundled under the label “trans”.

And yet the inquiry proposes that this hazy concept should supercede the physical fact of sex. If those running single-sex services lose their right to exercise discretion when it comes to employing or accommodating trans people whose gender is legally recognised (as the report recommends), then it becomes impossible for women to organise on the basis of being female. Women will continue to be oppressed as women, and subject to male violence on account of our female bodies; but our tools of resistance are sorely diminished if refuges or rape crisis centres can no longer meaningfully define themselves as female-only spaces.

In a way, it’s regrettable that gender is not “something in our heads”, as the report suggests it is. If it were, then fixing all the social problems around it would be as easy as identifying everyone for the gender they really are and treating them accordingly. But then, look at some of the examples in this piece of how women are treated: spied on, raped, and then told that any space apart from the class of people who do the spying and raping is illegitimate. That is how gender works, and any legal framework of trans rights needs to recognise that male violence is real, endemic – and the true threat to women and trans people.

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