On the question of whether trans-women should be seen as women, and able to access female public toilets and changing rooms: YES.
It seems that a lot of the debate about this issue on the interweb takes the form of:
Tweeter A: ‘I believe THIS!’
Tweeter B: ‘Why, how COULD you sink so LOW? When I believe THAT!’
We are getting the adversarial jousting of a law court rather than an attempt to understand people with gender dysphoria.
Although I am a cis-woman I speak with experience of meeting and talking to transgender people, as I supported my spouse through transition and have accompanied her to many social events run by the transgender community. ‘Outskirts’ in Birmingham, the English city where we used to live, was a huge source of support.
Stop for a moment, and inhabit your own body, like on those mindfulness courses. Now imagine that, like Gregor Samsa changing into an insect in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you have changed in the blink of an eye and been given a new body: that of the opposite sex. A whole new set of societal expectations rise up in front of you like a wall. People – maybe even people close to you, like your family and friends – reject you for not being what you said you were, what you were supposed to be.
People with gender dysphoria express a sense that they have been born into the wrong body. They desperately try to conform to the gender norms set by society while feeling that these are the wrong ones. Eventually they affirm their innate sense of gender and in doing so are able to be content in their own skin. Transition does not happen overnight, nor is it an all-or-nothing process; it is achieved haltingly, fearfully, perhaps incompletely, and with much soul searching along the way. Some don’t make it through transition because it’s just too difficult. Tragically, some choose to end their own lives.
Gender dysphoria is unconnected with sexual orientation and trans people are no more likely to be sexual predators than anyone else. Probably less likely, in fact. Personally, I have always felt very safe around trans people and the LGBT+ community as a whole. In fact in Birmingham it was common to see groups of cis-women on Hurst Street in the gay quarter. Some were lesbians and others were straight women looking for a night out somewhere they felt safe.
The whole scenario that JK Rowling envisages, whereby a man dresses up as a woman in order to access women’s toilets or changing facilities and carry out sexual assault, probably belongs in one of her novels. In reality, it is an incredibly drastic step for a man to dress as a woman and go out in public. Running the gauntlet of the neighbours’ spying eyes as they go out means that they often make-up at home but take their outfits with them and get changed in a safe place. Most trans-women, especially on their first outings, are absolutely terrified that a member of the public will notice that they are of male birth gender, or even worse, that they will comment on it. Can you imagine how that would feel – and then how awful, how humiliating it would be, if forced to use the male toilets? Fortunately more and more public facilities are designed to be non-gendered.
So, dear Reader, give trans-women a break. Be grateful if it isn’t happening to you. And if you encounter a trans-woman, please remember to speak of ‘her’ and ‘she’, and be kind.
Having ‘e-discussed’ this blog post with friends I just wanted to add that, yes, people can be unsympathetic, but my spouse and I have also experienced warmth and support from many sources: her workplace before we left the UK; her mom; our friends; a sympathetic article in the Irish Times and the supportive reaction from my colleagues here in Ireland after it was published; our neighbours here in Ireland; even the recruitment firm I dealt with when job hunting in Ireland. And when out and about in Ireland, the general public don’t make discourteous comments. If we’re in a bar or a cafe the staff will usually address us as ‘Ladies’ or even ‘Love’. That might be more to do with the high level of good manners here than with any strongly held progressive views!