Imagine the scene. You’ve escaped your home, bloodied and traumatised after yet another attack from your violent partner. You have nothing but a small bag with your keys, phone and purse and the clothes you stand up in. Shakily scrolling down your phone screen, you locate a women’s refuge near you. Just a few streets away. A wave of relief envelops you and you hurriedly rush towards it. You’re welcomed in, and asked to provide a few personal details. You think nothing of disclosing the fact that you’re trans. Unfortunately, your would-be protectors have other ideas. Once again, you find yourself on the streets, vulnerable and cold and with yet another emotional scar to bear from your ordeal.
Or perhaps you’re already in a refuge. You are a natal female, so nobody has questioned you regarding that side of things, but you’re aware that there are trans women in the refuge with you. You have your young daughter with you. As she’s playing quietly with some dolls in a corner on her own, you notice one of those trans women (who is open about her status) approaching your daughter. She hasn’t had “the op” yet. You feel a conflict of emotion. Should you really let a stranger with male genitalia sit with your child?
Domestic abuse prevention federation Women’s Aid yesterday released a statement declaring that: “The provision of single-sex domestic abuse services is a founding principle of Women’s Aid, and we will defend it.” The statement goes on to explain that this means: “We therefore support the principle of providing single sex domestic abuse services which is lawful under the Equality Act. Some members conclude that it is not appropriate to include trans women (including those with a Gender Recognition Certificate) in women-only shared spaces. We support their right to make this assessment, as long as they do so lawfully.”
Unsurprisingly, this garnered a lot of attention both pro and anti, with organisations such as LGBT+ “anti-abuse” charity Galop expressing concern at how this statement might encourage a form of legitimised hate crime against trans individuals. “Domestic abuse services exist in order to support and protect victims of abuse,” a Galop statement insists. “Women’s Aid represents the vast majority of these services across England and Wales, many of which we know are already not open to trans women and non-binary people who are victims of abuse and violence. If these services remain closed to these victims, and no other services are provided as an alternative, then this approach condones and is complicit in leaving trans people without a way to reach safety.”
As ever, Twitter was – and continues to be – a lively source of debate. “How is a trans women in an abusive situation going to know if they are welcome?” asks user @BlueMouseEek. “What about situations where it’s woman on woman abuse like my niece, how can she know she is safe? You apply risk assessments I presume to all abuse victims, so why this tone?” @AnjelicaDivine writes in the same thread: “I hope I never need Women’s Aid services. At the lowest point, to feel they ‘might’ have somewhere to put me where I won’t be a threat, does not feel welcoming. While I understand the reasoning, this feels like a gently worded step backward toward segregation for trans women.” The idea that trans women might now have an even mightier task ahead of them when it comes to finding an inclusive shelter is a widespread concern.
Users such as @JennyGlover40, however, believe that the Women’s Aid statement didn’t go far enough in preventing transwomen from accessing women’s spaces with its provision allowing shelters to decide on their own policies autonomously. “Feels like you are trying to keep everyone happy,” she laments. “Personally I will NEVER be ok with men being allowed in spaces where women are healing from the pain of male violence.” @NellHarwood is concerned that cisgendered women – rather than trans women – might not be able to find the “single-sex services” they need. “Congratulations on supporting single sex services. I know how important it is to have male-free spaces. Can you make it clear which services are single sex? Perhaps this could be reflected in the refuge’s name? It’s important that women know before they arrive.”
The issue of who should have access to “women’s spaces” has raged long and hard. Trans women and their allies claim, for the most part, that “trans women are women” and so-called “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (often labelled “TERFs” by their detractors) often insist that “trans women are men”. Interestingly, in 2017, Women’s Aid released a statement (which pointed out that “a shocking 73% of transgender domestic abuse survivors revealed that they had suffered at least one form of transphobic emotional abuse from a partner or ex-partner, most commonly being made to feel ashamed, guilty or wrong about their trans identity or their past”.
Perhaps yesterday’s statement should have contained just a smidgen more of sympathy for those women.