On the Subject of Trans Women, Refuges + Terf Dogwhistles

Transphobes are friendly on the surface but dig down, and bigotry becomes clear  

I don’t have enough information from my experiences to conclude the refuge I went to has terfs in them. However, I do have enough evidence to feel comfortable concluding the following. 

Namely that the people at the refuge I went to may have unknowingly internalised terf rhetoric. This surely factored into their decision as it is unconscious bias. One thing people learn quite quickly when they’re marginalised is that although people are friendly to them when regarding their needs, their views don’t reflect that when they are not around them or in online communities. However, due to the prominence of terfs in UK media and politics, it’s not surprising to see that there are these issues in women’s spaces.  

To support this argument, I am now going to source quotes from a speech given to the Scottish Parliament by an actual te*f called Karen who is the CEO of a women’s domestic violence service called Nia based in northeast London. I won’t fully identify her directly in this piece, but I will link to an archived version of the post that you can view here.

This is the post I had read when I found another blogpost by her linked by anti-terf account upon Jess Phillip’s recent promotion into the Shadow Cabinet. This blogpost was her justification for excluding trans women from her “Counting Dead Women” list of women that are killed by cis men. This list is what Jess Phillips reads every year at Parliament. 

Anyway, time to pick some essential things in her speech apart that not only spoke to me about understanding what happened to me was transphobia but also so others can understand a bit how these people think:  

Peddling transphobic myths:

Here is the first quote:

Last year, across nia’s various projects, we provided one-to-one face-to-face support to just over 1,500 women and girls, 8 men – and 5 people who identified as transgender, all male. We haven’t yet been approached by a trans-identified female, but given the changing profile of the trans population, we know this is just a matter of time. Then again, because they don’t consider themselves to be women and we are a women’s charity, perhaps they’ll choose not to access us; perhaps, we can expect to be contacted by them if they need us if they join the growing number of de-transitioners.

Firstly, I dislike how Karen is talking about what their service does on a personal blog in this manner because it harms the credibility of the org. However, on a related note, later in the post she states many of the trustees agree with her because they voted for Nia to focus on “preserving women’s spaces”). Secondly, the terms “trans-identified” then followed by their assigned gender is transphobia. So saying “trans identified female” is their way of saying “trans men” but without validating their true gender. It’s basically “we accept you are trans, but not really”

Additionally, mentioning detransitioners here in the context of trans men not approaching their service is also very disingenuous. Additionally, saying there is a “growing number” is also disingenuous considering how the UK press has a track record of focusing on covering the minuscule number of detransition cases and ignoring the overwhelming majority of those that transition successfully nor why many people detransition.  

There is an NHS GIC study in the UK about detransitioners stating that the rate of detransitioners is 0.33%. In other words, one person from the study of 303 trans people in the NHS GIC system. This person went on to transition again later.   Here is a link to the paper.

Major trigger warning for terf rhetoric here (yes this is when it becomes very blatant):

“If you expect refuges to accommodate males who identify as trans, you’re asking staff in already under-resourced women’s refuges (Scottish Women’s Aid report that cuts to Scottish refuges have increased from 14% to 41% between 2009 and 2016. Their annual survey reported that 30% of survivors who sought refuge in Scotland had to be turned away), you’re asking staff in already under-resourced women’s refuges, to differentiate between: 

  • Transgender people born male who have genuinely experienced men’s violence and have managed to unpick their male socialisation and who will not use their sense of male entitlement or sexism or misogyny to harm, reduce and control women in the refuge and
  • those transgender people born male who have genuinely experienced violence but are still dripping in male privilege and advantage and who hate or resent women; and
  • those transgender people born male who are narcissistic perpetrators who have managed to convince themselves (and others) that they are victims
  • and those transgender people born male who are seeking validation, which some, if they were self-aware and able to be honest, would recognise as a need that can never be satisfied, and who might prioritise their validation above the needs of women and
  • those transgender people born male who are autogynophiles (that’s a male who is sexually aroused by the thought of himself as a female) or other fetishists, and,
  • finally other men who are pretending to be trans in order to track down a particular woman or predatory men trying to access women in general. And we do know that violent and abusive men lie and manipulate. Violent and abusive men stand up in court, swear to tell the truth and lie and manipulate.  

No one’s yet explained to me how risk assessment is supposed to screen out most of those men – let alone convinced me of the wisdom of trying to make a bedroom for a fox in a henhouse. Risk assessment is about identifying risks posed by violent men and mitigating against them, not chucking in a few extra because you can.”

This is the part of the blogpost that sticks out towards what this person’s true agenda is. The answer is that it is not possible to differentiate between this list because many of these forms of criteria are transphobic and completely unrealistic. The last three bullet points are just peddling transphobic myths – with the last point, in particular, being used to attack the GRA reforms in the UK with no credible evidence to back it up.  

There’s no way to split this apart in that amount of time, so Karen suggests rejection is the best option – when it isn’t. I explain a bit more further down.  

Trauma responses, intersectionality and internalised transphobia  

Here is another quote:

It’s not unusual for women who’ve been subjected to men’s violence to develop a trauma response. These sometimes develop after a single incident of violence, especially with sexual violence, but also sometimes after years or months of living in fear, walking on egg-shells, recognising that tone of voice, that look in the eyes, that sigh, that pause, that silence, that change in his breathing. Some women have lived this, with a succession of perpetrators starting from their dad, all their lives.  

A trauma informed approach is based on understanding the physical, social, and emotional impact of trauma caused by experiencing sexual and domestic violence and abuse. A trauma-informed service understands the importance of creating an environment – physical and relational – that feels safe to victims-survivors in all the ways I’ve just mentioned. A trauma-informed safe space creates space for action and recovery from violence and abuse and places the woman victim-survivor in control and in the centre. For many women this absolutely means excluding men from that space, including those who don’t identify as men.

Here’s a thing… as a trans woman I am dealing with a lot of trauma responses too in this way because I have had a lifetime of issues with men, so I understand the logic here. This is despite living as a boy for most of my life. I bring this up because boys can also face additional barriers to girls growing up despite benefiting from male privilege (which while it does lead to some differences in treatment and reasoning, the underlying discrimination is the same). Namely:  

  • if they are disabled, they will have to deal with various forms of ableism – often from their own family as well as peers at school.  
  • If they in an abusive household they will face the consequences of the abuse even if they aren’t the primary target  
  • If they’re trans and either not out yet or don’t realise it, they will struggle with not knowing who they are and struggling to fulfil their assigned gender role if they try, as well as dysphoria in most cases.
  • If they are part of an ethnic, cultural or religious minority, they will face discrimination regarding that from others (mostly white people).  
  • They may also deal with frequently being failed by services due to being a minority  

Women’s refuge services help children too (including boys) who have been negatively mistreated by their mum’s cis man partners. Hence, they understand first-hand the consequences of abuse even if they don’t make the connection this is because of misogyny). Yet many of those boys grow up to become trans women, yet suddenly the support stops in many people’s eyes, which is wrong. This is despite them presenting as femme, which means transmisogyny joins the list of discrimination they face from people who think they are trans (I use this framing because cis women get this as well).

Here is another quote, major TW for gaslighting:

“Women are gas-lighted (manipulated to question their own judgement or even sanity) by their abusive male partners all the time. It is a cornerstone of coercive control. As a service provider you are in a position of power, no matter how you try to balance this out, and of course we do as much as possible to balance this out, but ultimately it is inescapable. You are not offering a trauma informed environment if you, in your position of power, gaslight traumatised women and pretend that someone that you both really know is a man, is actually a woman.

It is furthering the abuse to then expect women to share what you say is women-only space with males who say that they are women, because you and they know are not. Part of your role is to help women to learn to trust themselves again, not replace the batshit that their abuser has filled their head with, with a new version. All this is on top of what I looked at earlier, that statistically women are safer in women only environments – because men commit violence at significantly higher rates.”

It’s frankly insulting here that the writer uses gaslighting to justify transphobic views – and also trying to appeal to the internalised transphobia many people have that aren’t their fault. From somebody who has actually been gaslighted, yes, trauma is tricky. But people that still treat trans women as men even after this is clarified and then refuse to work on their bigotry is transphobia.  Nobody gets a pass for that and this quote is itself gaslighting.

I can understand why this is challenging for well-meaning people due to trauma because I struggle with this myself. A good example I can think of from personal experience is the time I was in the women’s toilets at my university after I came out. I heard a masculine voice coming into the bathroom. My first instinctive thought was “Why is there a man in the bathroom?”  

I was ready to go out from the cubicle wondering what was going on – because just because there is a deep voice from elsewhere in the bathroom doesn’t mean that is a cis man creeping on women. Far from it. Usually, it’s from a cis woman with a deep voice, a cis man coming in to clean as part of their job (who will always announce their presence, leave the bathroom if people object then come back in once anyone who objects has left) or in this case – a transgender woman who hadn’t feminised her voice yet.  

I understand the feeling of fear hearing deep voices in a women’s space and being on edge due to trauma – but trans people are not the enemy. It’s not gaslighting to validate people’s gender and clarify to somebody that somebody is trans. It’s not the fault of the trans person; it’s the fault of the cis male abusers who harm us all. That is where people develop trauma triggers associated with masculinity. Even cis men who have been abused by other men deal with this. 

So, in other words – the underlying trauma trigger is toxic masculinity from cis men – not just men. Society’s transphobic messaging alongside cisheteronormative attitudes means many people conflate this regardless of intent. This is the root of why many people struggle with masculinity-related trauma triggers and what te*fs capitalise on to spread their hate speech. Hence people who do believe the trigger is men can’t be blamed for this connection – it’s the simplest way of phrasing it that people will understand while they’re in a traumatic state. They do need gentle support and understanding to wrap their head around the complexity of these issues in time and at their own pace. Only when people actively choose not to – even after reading views from trans people all of genders and presentations – then that is being transphobic.

It’s OK to acknowledge that the development of trauma responses complicates this. In the disability community, we refer to this as conflicting access needs. But with compassion and sympathy, this can be mitigated on both ends. If there is no way to proceed without somebody moving out, many people on either side of the scenario would be OK relocating if it meant nobody has to leave until another placement is found for them. While at the same time, nobody is an asshole about this. In short, communicate as much as possible.  

If anything, punishing trans people through discrimination for physical features they can’t change yet if at all is transphobia. Intersectionality is key to understanding the issues those from different backgrounds face and gender is only one part of that – which is what feminism is. 

The Equality Act needs updating to make it harder for transphobes in services to justify discrimination  

This is the most obvious thing to note because it goes to show how the “legitimate aim” exception is too vague and is open to abuse. While I’m glad to read cases of women’s organisations genuinely including trans people in their services, this is not consistent enough and people like me being rejected are the norm in many places.  

To reference the Te*f blogpost once again, this is what the trustees for Nia did (note the lack of detail and ambiguity over what their policy actually says):  

We have developed a ‘Prioritising Women Policy’ which meets our obligations under the Equality Act and uses the single sex exemptions permitted therein.  

While I’m on the topic of the Equality Act and addressing misconceptions – many people think the Gender Recognition Act 2004 is what controls single gender spaces when it doesn’t. The GRA 2004 only applies to birth certificates which is a document that is hardly ever needed and is not valid ID in daily life – hence most trans people never get one due to them being prohibitively difficult to access.

It is this confusion that terfs purposely created that led to the Gender Recognition Act reforms being derailed and other issues like service access and trans healthcare get sidelined. Which frankly at this point is where trans people should adjust their focus towards reforming first because if trans people can’t medically transition they don’t stand a chance of getting a GRC in this system.  

“We know that at least 80% of males who hold a gender recognition certificate retain their penis, but anyway, we don’t need to know what’s in their pants to know they are a man. Women experiencing trauma after violence and abuse will, like most of us – almost always instantly read someone who might be the most kind and gentle trans identified male in the world – as male” 

Regardless of whether the statistic is true – this sums out a lot of the views of transphobes. Hence why capitulating to their demands on anything is bad. And also a lot of trans women pass so and are indistinguishable from cis women (to the point where they don’t have to disclose) so this assertion does not hold up.  

The following quote in particular is similar to what the refuge I went to did with me – even though they didn’t misgender me in any way.

Where contracts require us to support men and some do, we do so; and male victims are treated with the same levels of skill, respect and dignity as women and girls. We do not support men in venues that we use to support women and we do not support men at all in our refuges or our therapeutic groups. We do not employ males.

This particular part is what stuck out to me and brought the realisation to me that the refuge I engaged in were transphobic. The person I spoke to in the emails above said similar things about respect as well as not allowing men at all in the refuges. This makes sense in the wider context because I only went there once to fill in signup documents and then was not allowed back in for face-to-face context – as per the emails. And additionally, once I mentioned my anxiety about relocating far due to autism-related anxiety, I suspect that was used as a justification for them to refer me elsewhere.  

As I mentioned before, I won’t know for sure this point – and that’s OK. I feel I know enough to move on especially after reading this blogpost – because I understand the thinking of the people I dealt first hand even if the refuge staff aren’t terfs themselves.  

Personal consequences  

For me, being AMAB and raised accordingly did not stop my abuse from happening. That happened – at its core – because of the toxic family dynamics I was surrounded by and myself and others weren’t supported to get out of. In a way this shows how domestic abuse services don’t reach all those they need to.

Being AMAB did not stop me from being abandoned by my family once I came out, despite having support needs that means I need help with independent living. These support needs would have been the case regardless of whether I was cis or trans. As a result, I had to face horrific transmisogyny in various forms on top of systematic ableism – meaning I ran out of time eventually had to just leave for my safety.  

Being AMAB certainly made me oblivious on gender for sure in a lot of ways – but lived experience helped me unlearn a lot of that. I pass as cis a lot now which helps me keep my mental health as stable as possible because I haven’t been able to access any healthcare. Improving lived experience with other actual trans people is imperative for others to truly learn and understand trans people and trans issues. Transphobes do not take those steps.  

For me, my limited experience with women’s refuges has shattered my confidence in them to help me rebuild my life. I have managed to make progress since then, but a lot of my help largely came as a result of other trans people helping me – otherwise I would be dead. I also ended up moving to another part of the country where there is more help for me and I’m only now finally getting closer to getting what I need. This was over nine months since I first tried to leave.  

This is why reading “debates” on whether trans women should be allowed to access refuges are deeply hurtful. Not just because of the politics behind it but also because it affects real people who are deliberately ignored by those that prefer to speak about us. This is despite believing many many myths about us, despite our experiences and sense of humanity being almost identical.  

Perhaps if I hadn’t been rejected face-to-face contact on that day, maybe I’d be housed by now. There’s no point wondering over the past now I’ve come to terms with it and got it written down. Because despite this being better late than never – because I am finally living as myself and away from my abusers for good, I wouldn’t change this for the world.  

Thank you,  

Milla xx  

Please note comments are closed on this piece for obvious reasons.