The silencing of feminists silences survivors
I’m writing as a feminist who has devoted over two decades of my life to ending violence against women (VAW). I’ve worked in frontline services in both domestic abuse and sexual violence services across the country and now I head up a VAW sector charity.
I love my job, I am so lucky. It often surprises people when I say this, as they expect this type of work to be depressing, but that’s not how I look at services like ours at all.
The VAW sector supports women as they try to move away from abusive and violent perpetrators, working with survivors to break the silence that abusive perpetrators impose on them. There is nothing to compare to the moments when these women get their voices back and break free – and that’s why I love my job.
Unfortunately, in recent months the changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the incredibly toxic debate around the issue of ‘gender self ID’ has left many more women under a heavy veil of silence, particularly for those of us who work in the VAW sector. The dark, uncomfortable irony of this silence is not lost on me, nor is it lost on the many women in the sector I have recently spoken to about this issue.
As someone who has worked with many survivors of violence over the last two decades, I am terrified – both professionally and personally – about the impact of self ID on ensuring safe spaces are available to women who have experienced and are escaping male violence. Even without the legal changes to the GRA, gender inclusive policies are already happening in many areas, these changes are ahead of the law and already upon us. Moreover they do not appear to be slowing down.
Organisations in the VAW sector can use the Equality Act 2010 for the protection of female-only spaces and I absolutely think we should. I’ve worked with so many female survivors of violence who have been left terrified of men, and who relied on female-only support to heal from the trauma they experienced. The sex-based nature of the crimes they’ve experienced necessitates this being women who share their histories, experiences, vulnerabilities and, yes, biologies. So it is right that VAW-service providers have a strong case to make for protections that enable them to employ and provide access to women on the basis of their sex.
However, to say this right now and to explain why self-ID is feared to be problematic for VAW services opens us up to attack and our ability to continue delivering services that we know change – and even save – female lives.
Over the course of many years, I’ve watched the public realm become increasingly toxic with accusations of transphobia, ‘literal violence’ and ‘questioning the right of trans people to exist’ as females – some, but not all of them feminists – asked questions about the potential impact of self-ID on VAW services and, more broadly, on female-only spaces. I’ve watched as trans activists and their supporters target funders, employers, meeting venues, and political parties in response to people asking for a broader public dialogue on the issue.
It’s been heart wrenching to watch feminist activists who have spent their professional careers fighting male violence being silenced by a rhetoric that insists we are the abusive ones, labelling us as TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists).
Canada, where self-ID is already law, provides some interesting examples of this ‘debate’ (or lack of it), and shows that in some cases, trans activists and their supporters will stop at nothing to try to shut down female voices. The case of Nixon v Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR) was a legal action case involving a trans woman whose application to volunteer to work with rape victims was refused by a rape crisis service. The case was settled in favour of VRR’s legal right to use sex-based exemptions to exclude transwomen from working with their female clients in 2007.
However, VRR have been relentlessly targeted as transphobic for exercising both their legal right and professional judgement that female victims of sexual violence have the right to access female-only services. In 2013, a day of remembrance for the 14 women murdered in the 1989 L’Ecole Polytechnique Massacre was targeted by a trans activists protest. In 2018 and the trolling continues, a local sweet shop and its female owner were targeted and the owner doxed by trans activists after putting up a poster supporting a VRR fundraiser.
The threat to organisations who take on a stand on protecting female-only service provision is very real. Securing year on year funding for VAW services in the current climate is hard enough and I don’t want to risk our services. However, to say nothing is to be complicit in the silencing of debate and discussion on the implications of self-ID for VAW services.
This is why I recently attended a Woman’s Place UK meeting, where I made a plea to the women and men there to understand the growing fear in the VAW sector of speaking up on this issue. Even in a room sympathetic to my concerns, I felt a deep sense of fear as I shared my concerns, which I feel is a strong testament to the threatening environment facing women who dare to even ask questions about self-ID. I am delighted to say there was strong support in the room and a pledge that those who can do so without fear of consequence will speak up on the behalf of VAW services.
The fear I felt that night led me to reflect on the similarities between the silencing of feminists by trans activists and the lived reality of male violence.
|Perpetrator||Anti-Feminist Trans Lobby|
|If you leave me I will always find you, you will never get away from me||If you question self-ID we will find you, we will out you as TERFs and put everything online for the world to see|
|I will tell everyone you are the abusive one and they will believe me, I will ruin your life||This person is a TERF, they hate trans people and they are abusive. To fund their organisation is to fund transphobia. This organisation should be shut down|
|Don’t ask questions, just stay quiet and do as you are told||Asking questions about self-ID threatens the existence of trans people. Sit down, shut up, do as you are told|
|I’m not the problem here, you are||We aren’t the problem here you are|
|You make me violent, you are the problem here. I am the real victim.||Women who speak up are denying our existence, Trans women are the victims here, and it is acceptable for them to use violence|
There urgently needs to be a public debate on gender self-ID and its implication for the protections offered to women as a biological sex class. Of course, to say this is to out oneself to the trans lobby as a TERF.
I’m writing this anonymously and I feel like a coward. I often wonder at what point I will be prepared to risk public attack on this issue.
Will it be when our services can no longer provide the support women need?
When I see too many of my friends and colleagues being equally afraid to speak out?
When a rape survivor has to refer to her male rapist as ‘she’ in court?
Right now, I only feel able to write this blog.
Millicent Fawcett said in 1920, “Courage calls to courage everywhere”. For those women who can speak up and speak out on behalf of the many VAW services across the country who currently feel silenced, please share this message, please speak for us, and for survivors of male violence.
Yours in solidarity
An anonymous sister
The writer of this post has subsequently written an Open letter to Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis England calling for them to speak up.
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