Dear cisgender feminists, trans women are not your enemy

Guest writer Chay Brown, an activist from the National Union of Teachers, responds to the assertions that the reforms to the gender recognition act are in contradiction to the rights of others.


There’s a worrying trend developing in the press and in certain parts of the trade union movement. It’s a threat to people’s rights and it’s a threat to people’s well-being. The trend that I’m referring to is not a “trend” of being transgender – trans people and trans identities have been documented throughout history and across cultures. Being transgender is not a trend. The trend to which I am referring is the trend towards promoting attitudes and publishing articles that claim to be promoting women’s rights, but are actually vehicles for thinly-veiled transphobia. I had originally sent this piece to the Morning Star, but they said that they would be unable to print it. They suggested that it was pejorative to other authors and expressed concern that the “accusations of transphobia” would leave the Morning Star open to legal proceedings. I wonder if I would have had the same response if I was calling out an article for its inherent racism?

The Morning Star article that I was responding to was one that claimed that reforms to the law to allow transgender people to self-identify were a threat to women’s rights. Anyone wanting to protect women’s rights would surely want to protect the rights of all women. If you are discounting the rights of transgender women, then it follows that you don’t think transgender women are real women. To say that a transgender woman is not a real woman is transphobia. I defend freedom of speech, but I also defend my right to condemn transphobia when I see it.

The government’s announcement about the long-awaited changes to the Gender Recognition Act has sparked much debate. As a transgender person, much of this debate can be painful to read. Sometimes it is said outright, sometimes it’s just there between the lines, but running through this “debate” is a question of whether transgender people know their own gender or not, whether I, as a transgender man, am truly a man or whether I am just deluding myself, of whether a transgender woman is a real woman.
Imagine if the mainstream media were running articles with an undercurrent questioning whether lesbian and gay people knew their own sexuality or not, or if they were called to provide evidence of their homosexuality in order to gain equal rights. Apart from in the case of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, this is something that just does not happen. Nor should it. What right do people have to call into question whether somebody is lesbian, gay or bisexual? The same ought to apply for transgender people’s identities, but sadly this seems not to be the case.

I defend freedom of speech, but I also defend my right to condemn transphobia when I see it.

Transgender people and people with disabilities are the only groups in society asked to spend so much time and effort proving themselves to others. Proving that they’re male or female “enough” or proving that they’re disabled “enough” in order to access rights, recognition and services. Under current arrangements, transgender people wishing to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate are required to provide 2 years of evidence relating to their transition, including letters from medical practitioners. I am currently ineligible to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate, but when I am, I will also have to pay £140 to have my identity and my “evidence” scrutinised by a panel of strangers. A reform of the Gender Recognition Act would lift some of this bureaucracy by enabling transgender people to self-identify. This would be similar to Gender Recognition arrangements introduced 2 years ago in Ireland. I don’t think it’s much to ask.

Some critics of reforms to the Gender Recognition Act cite concerns that it would render sex discrimination law meaningless and that it would undermine the ability of women to fight sexism and oppression. I don’t understand how this would be the case. Transgender women are women. Transgender men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary people. Under a reformed Gender Recognition Act, we would still have the categories of men and women (with a possible addition of non-binary), so I really fail to see how we would be unable to challenge sexism, accommodate the needs of the population or even out inequality. We would still be able to collect data on inequalities around education, pay and pensions and any suggestion to the contrary is bizarre. Unless, of course, you are saying that transgender women are not real women and that transgender men are not real men, because in that case your suggestion would be transphobic.

Transgender people and people with disabilities are the only groups in society asked to spend so much time and effort proving themselves to others.

There has been a suggestion that allowing transgender women to access facilities specifically designed for women will somehow hamper the delivery of those services. I don’t see how this could possibly be. All women (cisgender and transgender) experience oppression at the hands of the patriarchy. Services for women should be for all women.

It is often argued that transgender women are socialised as boys and men, so do not experience the same oppression as cisgender women. The oppression is different, but transgender women are just as much victims of the patriarchy as any other woman. Transgender women, before identifying as such, often grow up being treated as boys who aren’t masculine enough, or feeling like they have to change their appearance or behaviour to conform to some standard of masculinity. Upon transition, transgender women find themselves subject to the same sexism that cisgender women experience whilst also being subjected to transphobia. This is damaging. It damages people’s mental health and economic well-being, as well as often threatening their physical safety.
There is an astonishing amount of fear surrounding the issue of where transgender people go to the toilet. Some people argue that transgender women should stay out of women’s toilets and that transgender men should stay out of men’s toilets. In that case, is the suggestion that transgender men should be going in the women’s toilets? I’m not sure that would protect women’s rights to a women-only space, given that transgender men are men.

At the risk of repeating myself, to say that transgender men are not men is an act of transphobia. No wonder there’s so much fear about where transgender people go to the toilet. As a transgender person, it can be terrifying to walk into some toilets or changing rooms, wondering if this will be the time you will be told you’re in the wrong place or placed in physical danger. This fear is why so many transgender people put their physical health in jeopardy by never using public toilets, even at work.

Critics of reforms to the Gender Recognition Act have implied that changes to the act will affect who is able to go into men’s or women’s toilets. This is nonsense. There is no law to regulate who goes into men’s or women’s toilets. People are already able to self-identify and choose the toilet most appropriate for them. There is a lot written about people’s worries that cisgender men will pretend to be transgender women in order to assault women and girls in women-only spaces. In Ireland, transgender people have been able to self-identify for around 2 years now. No issues of this sort have arisen. In fact, it would be perjury to lie when completing the documentation relating to self-identification and therefore punishable under the law. Besides, people (because women and non-binary people can also be sex offenders) that want to commit a sexual offence will try and commit it anyway. It’s against the law to sexually assault people, so why would a sexual offender be concerned about the legalities of entering women’s toilets in order to do so?

Upon transition, transgender women find themselves subject to the same sexism that cisgender women experience whilst also being subjected to transphobia.

There has been a lot of criticism of an article in Teen Vogue on anal sex, aimed at teenage girls and young women. Concerns were raised because it had two different anatomical diagrams – one of a person with a vagina, one of a person with a prostate. It is a fact that cisgender women have vaginas, nobody is disputing that. It is recognised that transgender women have prostates – it is a fact. By including the two different diagrams, Teen Vogue took a brave, inclusive step. They made sure that all young women were included and I’m not sure why that is a bad thing. No transgender activists are telling women and girls that they can’t call themselves women or girls. Nobody is saying that they can’t refer to their body parts as female. However, what is happening is that people who write articles under the guise of “protecting women’s rights” are often found saying that transgender women can’t call themselves women because of their body parts. People who do such things are rightfully called out on their transphobia. Transgender people want respect and inclusion and I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

If a feminist writer’s argument consistently returns to the idea that somebody is not a real woman because they are transgender, this is when the transphobia underlying their argument surfaces. Women’s rights have not yet been won. There are some issues that affect only cisgender women (for example abortion rights), there are some issues that affect only transgender women (transphobic discrimination and hate crime) but that does not mean that women cannot stand together and fight for these rights in solidarity with one another.

As a male ally of the feminist movement, I absolutely agree that women should be leading campaigns for women’s rights and the challenge to patriarchal society. All women should be included – cisgender and transgender. To reiterate a point made time and time again in this article, transgender women are women. To say otherwise is transphobia and I am unapologetic in pointing that out. The trend towards accepting this type of transphobia horrifies me and it needs to stop.

You can follow Chay on Twitter (@CB1984CB)

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