Content note: this piece contains descriptions of transmisogyny, homophobic bullying and sexual assault.
Recently I read an article in the New Statesman in which the writer recounted her experience of rape, and the subsequent lack of empathy and care she experienced from the men around her. My heart sank as I read this all too familiar story. I felt a surge of empathy with the woman, as well as anger on her behalf.
And then my heart sank even further, and the anger I had felt in solidarity with this woman turned towards her, as she made the argument that, having felt safer and more able to recover from her ordeal in “female only” spaces (implication: spaces that do not admit transgender women on the basis of their gender assigned at birth), there was a reasonable debate to be had about the exclusion of transgender women from such spaces. While I respect the right of anyone who has been assaulted to a space in which they feel secure, I find myself once again faced with this implication that the exclusion of transgender women from a space somehow makes it safer for cisgender women.
Let me be clear: the majority of sexual assaults are carried out by cisgender men, but there are sexually abusive people of all genders. That includes cisgender women.
I’d like to tell you a story from my past. It is not a story of rape; it wasn’t even something I always thought of as sexual assault. I believed, you see, that only men could be sexually abusive. I also believed it could only be sexual assault if the assaulter was attracted to the victim.
At 14, I was an awkward misfit who was bullied constantly. My tormentors were almost always female. I didn’t know, then, that words used to humiliate me (“Lezzer!” “Queer!” “Dyke!”) would one day be labels I’d wear proudly. I just knew that I didn’t fit in, that I was reviled by most of my classmates. The most dangerous time for kids like me was P.E. The changing rooms were always unsupervised: (Why not? We were all girls together: there could be no danger of hassle from boys.) As such, it was common knowledge that one of us unpopular girls would be kicked, punched and mocked by the bullies while trying to change into her gym kit. We never knew who was next. On this occasion, it was me. I got into the gym already bruised, aching and with the knowledge that worse was to come. The changing room torture was always the warm-up act.
As our teacher had us warm up, several girls leaned over to kick or slap me as I stretched, letting me know I was no safer here than in the changing room. I don’t know what that teacher saw, whether she assumed it was nothing more than a mild tiff, just something minor between girls. I don’t know if she heard the stage whispers (“Lezzer!” “Dyke!” “Queer!”) as they echoed around the hall. Perhaps fear of reprisals under Section 28 stopped her. Perhaps her own sexual orientation was on her mind and she feared that taking a stand might lead to trouble. I do know that she watched as a group of five girls dragged me onto the mats in the corner and began simulating sex with me. I was straddled and groped, my face was licked. The ringleader groaned in mock pleasure to whoops and laughter from her gang. I do know it was loud.
I don’t know how I managed to push her off me. I think panic mixed with incredulity and fury that no help was coming gave me an adrenaline boost. I don’t remember what happened next but I am informed I scaled the climbing bars with a speed nobody had ever seen from my timid, uncoordinated self. I remember becoming aware that I was now around 15 feet off the ground and that the whole class was staring at me. And that I was screaming.
Later, in her office, the head of year told me she was really sorry the “teasing” had been allowed to go too far, but these “spats” between girls really had to stop. I remember the phrase “It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other” being used. I didn’t know how to say I had been assaulted, and the assault was of a homophobic and sexual nature. I didn’t know. The girls in question never faced any reprisals for what they did to me, but they left me alone after that.
I’ve told this story before, as a funny anecdote. The day I defeated the bullies by acting “crazy” so they never bothered me again. The day I scared my poor teacher to death because what she thought was a suicide threat was me, the adrenaline rush gone, trying to work out how the hell I was supposed to get down. I minimised and repressed the reason I got up there in the first place for years.
Because “cisgender women don’t sexually assault other women.”
Because “cisgender women don’t stand by and watch another woman be assaulted”
What happened to me could not really have happened because it happened in a space everyone in authority presumed to be safe.
Had I been given the opportunity to recover in a “safe space”, who should have been excluded to preserve that safety? Cisgender men? They hadn’t done anything to me. Cisgender women? That would have kept me out. Should my attackers and their enablers been allowed access to me on the grounds that their sex organs were like my sex organs? Should transgensder men (and non-binary gender people assigned female at birth) have been excluded on the grounds that their sex organs were like those of my attackers? If I had consciously known any transgender people then, I suspect we’d have had plenty in common. They’d certainly have been more likely to empathise with the constant threat of abuse I lived under than anyone around me at the time: transgender people, especially trans women, live with constant risk of assault. Perhaps we would have been able to support each other by finding our common ground.
It’s not the presence of people assigned male at birth that makes a space unsafe, it’s imbalance and abuse of power, and tolerance, or lack of recognition, of that abuse. Transgender people do not wield that kind of power over cisgender people. In fact, the reverse is true. This is not a “six of one, half a dozen of the other” argument. The power imbalance here is immense, and it’s weighted in favour of the group doing the excluding. The exclusion of transgender people by cisgender people from refuges, hostels and other “safe spaces”, from our communities, our support networks and our families is an abuse of our privilege and power. It perpetuates the abuse those places should help protect us all from.
Sarah Thomasin is a poet and sex educator from Sheffield.