On the Subject of Trans Women, Refuges + Terf Dogwhistles

Featured image description: Rows of makeshift beds in a large, well-lit room. The duvets are in are various colours.

CN for transphobia, terf discussion – including direct quotes from a terf blogpost, domestic abuse, trauma, death mention, detransition rhetoric, ableism, gaslighting, toxic masculinity

Hi all, 

Today is going to be quite a long post for many reasons. Mainly that I’m going to address the elephant in the room in the eyes of terfs – about trans women accessing “single-sex spaces” – including women’s refuges. This is from the perspective of somebody who got barred from one when feeling domestic abuse. I am now only just able to start coming to terms with this as I finally escaped my abusers. Furthermore, with the recent news that the UK government plan to roll back trans rights this year (starting with trans kids), I feel now is the time to publish this.

This is a lengthy blogpost as I’m going to detail things extensively – not just my personal experiences. There are also screenshots and quotes from transphobes – because yes, despite what people want to claim transphobia is still an issue in women’s refuges. While there are women’s refuges that are inclusive of trans people, there are a lot who aren’t.  

My escape was a long time coming due to many systematic barriers I faced. Here is a link to that post, so I don’t have to go into detail again here.  

So why am I writing a blog post on this specifically? Well, it’s for two reasons – firstly, so myself and others can source this article where appropriate because the voices of trans women are being silenced (ironically from those complaining they are being silenced, which is nonsense).

Secondly, because I wish to elaborate on the above a bit more as it was only through time that I was able to accept that I was rejected on the grounds of transphobia. I had previously thought it was just because they didn’t feel they could support me for any other reasons. This post also clarifies a lot of the dog whistles transphobes use – whether they are terfs or just random people spreading rhetoric they don’t understand.  

That said, the refuge as well as the staff I engaged with there are kept anonymous in this piece.  

The critical thing to remember is the trans women’s needs are often similar to cis women’s  

There is much misunderstanding about the needs of trans women and what being trans is. Hence a lot of beliefs services users have are rooted in transphobia whether they realise it or not.  

Trans feminine people generally wish to be treated like cis women. This is because the way wider society perceives us means that we are victims of systematic sexism and misogyny from those around us. This often includes years of mistreatment from cis men – often for prolonged periods of time in very similar aspects that cis women face – especially when other marginalisations are involved ie. Disability and race.  

This is something that affects all feminine presenting people, especially those that “pass” as a cis woman. Here is what I mean: 

Image is of an email from a worker at the refuge sent on Thursday August 8th 2019 at 12:03pm. Parts of the email have been censored to protect privacy. The rest of the text says:

“Hi Milla,
 
Please can you email me the information we discussed yesterday. It may not be appropriate to see you at the centre but I am looking into further support for you.
Kind regards,
[redacted], Liason Worker”

“It may not be appropriate to see you at the centre” is vague and was probably said to try to hedge the bad news. This was the first red flag, hence I enquired.

Image is of an email from a worker at the refuge sent on Thursday August 8th 2019 at 20:06pm. Parts of the email have been censored to protect privacy. The rest of the text says:

Hi [Liason Worker],

I have attached two files – a copy of [redacted] as well as a log of all the recent things that have happened, updated to today.
 
Could you please explain to me what you mean by “it may not be appropriate to see you at the centre?”
 
Kind regards,
Milla [redacted]

Note that I am supplying sensitive information, including logs – one of the critical things domestic abuse survivors have to compile. How exactly is it “inappropriate” that a trans woman is trying to access support?  

This person then replied with the following:  

Image is of an email from a worker at the refuge sent on Friday August 9th 2019 at 2:05pm. Parts of the email have been censored to protect privacy. The rest of the text says:

“Hi Milla,
 
Thank you for the information I will look at it and discuss the best course of action in conjunction with our Advice Worker. Our transgender policy states that we can only engage face to face contact with a women who is past the surgical stage of her transition. This said I am very concerned about the information you have shared with me and feel you need more support. We will be able to offer phone support and possible sign posting to another agency. We have no intention in giving up on your case but your situation is unique to us and we need to offer you the most appropriate support possible.
 
I will be in touch soon
 
Kind regards
[redacted], Liason Worker”

I would like to draw particular attention to this quote – “Our transgender policy states we can only engage face-to-face contact with a women who is past the surgical stage of her transition.”  

This is why the refuge rejected me. It wasn’t a case of “may not” – it was “was not,” but I had to push for an answer. The problems with this policy – assuming it’s genuine – is that it’s completely unrealistic only to accept post-op trans people. Somebody’s genitals don’t come into this frankly unless people know about it – or suspect that somebody is trans even though said judgements are often very inaccurate. It is a de-facto benchmark for what many think qualifies someone as transgender – and frankly, this obsession with what genitals a trans person has by cis people is quite creepy.  

In reality, it is not a realistic benchmark to maintain even on a purely practical level. For example, in the UK, trans people have to wait years before they can even have an initial appointment, let alone a surgery consultation. This is because of the long waiting times, horrendous gatekeeping that leads to wasted appointments and the overall administrative nightmare that system is. The only real way to get medical treatment in the UK promptly and safely is to go private. In the case of surgery, this usually means going abroad. For many trans people – especially those from poorer backgrounds – going private isn’t an option. I did call this out (though not in much detail). 

Image is of an email from a worker at the refuge sent on Friday August 9th 2019 at 2:05pm. Parts of the email have been censored to protect privacy. The rest of the text says:

Hello [redacted],
 
Thank you for getting back to me.
 
I am really confused as to why this policy is in place. It’s not my fault I haven’t even had the opportunity to discuss surgery with a professional (and won’t for at least 4-5 years unless I go private) and would also discriminate against me if I decided against surgery. This policy also discriminates against intersex people who happen to present feminine/grow up feminine and have a penis.
 
I know this is legal under the Equality Act (so long as the purpose is to achieve a “legitimate aim” which I assume is the case here) so I am not surprised that this has come up. I would appreciate an explanation to calm my anxiety. I’m worried if I am kicked out of my home I may have to go somewhere where predatory cis men are such as mixed gender homeless shelters (and that would be genuinely dangerous for me because [redacted].
 
I would be and feel safest within a women’s refuge especially as I want and need to be treated like a cis woman as much as possible. Is this kind of policy typical for women’s refuges? If I was on hormones already, could fully pass as a cis woman and had breasts as a result of HRT I probably would never have disclosed I’m trans in light of this.
 
I also would find traveling to a refuge further away difficult especially if I’m in a meltdown which is what would most likely happen if I am kicked out of [redacted] before I have somewhere to go. [rest of this paragraph has been redacted].
 
Am I right in assuming the appointment I booked for [redacted] is cancelled as a result? I see no point keeping it if I would not be allowed into the refuge to talk face-to-face due to this policy.
 
Apologies for all of the questions and the bombardment of my anxiety-ridden thoughts. I also apologise if there are contractual obligations in place that mean you aren’t able to provide me with answers in depth or at all. Feel free to ignore certain questions if you can’t answer them.
 
Kind regards,
Milla [redacted]

I was a bit of a trauma mess with this response as I wasn’t fully processing what was going on. Primarily because – at the time – I was not used to travelling extensively across the UK, and I feared what would happen if I had to leave (see the fourth paragraph). But I was quite clear I was scared and reading this back it’s heartbreaking. Though for anybody trying to access services, oversharing fears, intimate details and triggers are essential to get taken seriously.  Here is their final reply to me:

Image is of an email from a worker at the refuge sent on Friday August 9th 2019 at 2:05pm. Parts of the email have been censored to protect privacy. The rest of the text says:

“Hi Milla,

My colleague is currently reading your information. We agree that we need to complete a DASH ( a risk assessment on your safety) which we will do over the phone. Once this is completed, we will know where to refer you to. We are thinking [redacted] who can offer outreach support.
 
Anyone going to refuge would need to move out of area which I know will not work for you. Sadly, refuges are biologically gender specific for safety reasons.
 
As a women’s centre we are only funded to work with biological women but we are more than willing to support you over the phone as we will not turn away an individual who needs help. We are approaching your case with sensitivity and are trying to offer you as much support as we are able.
 
Are you willing to complete a risk assessment over the phone? We offer this service to women so we are not discriminating against you or offering you a lesser service. My colleague [redacted] is able to offer you a phone appointment on [redacted]. This would be in place of the scheduled face to face appointment next Friday.
 
I have left a voice mail with [redacted] but have not heard anything back. I will chase them again next week. If you hear from them please let us know.
 
I hope this answers some of your questions.
 
Kind regards,
[redacted], Liaison Worker

They offered the risk assessment – but I never emailed them again after this because I was devastated. Hence, I didn’t have the assessment, and subsequently, my escape is now even further away. It was not long after this that I felt I needed to look for a job to escape of which I did get one. But I was ultimately let go from the job which was inevitable.  

There are also mentions in here about biology and safety, which are no doubt rooted in believing myths about trans people. For example:  

“Sadly, refuges are biologically gender specific for safety reasons.”  

“As a women’s centre we are only funded to work with biological women”  

Here are some articles that debunk the gender binary and the idea that they “biological men/women” myths, because they are not accurate. Many people who believe in the gender binary are uninformed due to what they are taught in school but don’t care. However, there are people that use the myth as an argument to roll back trans rights and enforce strict gender rules. This is ultimately the goal of transphobes – whom are mainly conservative people.  

Article 1: https://qz.com/1007198/the-myth-that-gender-is-binary-is-perpetuated-by-a-flawed-education-system/   

Article 2: https://medium.com/@QSE/the-xx-xy-lie-our-social-construction-of-a-sex-and-gender-binary-4eed1e60e615  

It’s examples like this that support the reality that the majority of cis women support trans women but lack the understanding to provide proper support. Perhaps if service staff had improved training, then they would feel more able to deal with trans women as many do not need as much specialist support as people think. This is what I initially thought – as it is not incorrect – and used to justify to myself why the refuge excluded me as there was no more evidence either way. 

I will further discuss this on page 2.

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