Liberating Trans Bodies

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Content note: discussion of violence, oppression, and abuse

“Follow the money” is always sage advice. In the UK, why is money being poured into legal cases to block trans rights?

Anti-trans ideology dresses itself as a feminism. It promotes the spurious belief that legal segregation protects women. But look for the power and money behind the cause: Keira Bell’s lawyer is known for anti-abortion work, there are campaign links to right wing Christian fundamentalists. We even saw lesbian feminist Linda Bellos backingDonald Trump’s anti-LGBT laws out of her anti-trans hate run amok.

It is not hard to understand why some feminists have been duped into helping the right-wing anti-trans agenda. The rallying cry is “we must protect the legal segregation of women because legal segregation is there to keep us safe”. If they hear trans women portrayed as “men trying to infiltrate their spaces” enough times, the lie, dismantled here, will start to sound true.

Violence from men is an ever-present fear – I worked for domestic and sexual violence services for many years, so I understand the fear. But are women safer because of legal segregation? Are the kinds of ways women are oppressed mitigated by legal segregation? Was legal segregation brought in by tirelessly campaigning women in the cause of women’s safety? Of course not. Men wrote the laws that segregate women, relying on women’s fear to perpetuate their own oppression.

Segregation incidentally harms trans and intersex people, who functioned better in some pre-colonial societieswhere it was understood that not everyone could be so easily classified. The Indian subcontinent and Turtle Island(now N. America) have examples of more enlightened attitudes to gender, sex, and sexuality prior to European oppression. Enforcement of a binary served colonizers who wanted to demonstrate their “superiority” to the cultures they were dominating.

Before industrialization and legal segregation, gender roles were less strictly divided in working-class families. It was no feminist ideal before, but the gender binary and toxic masculinity were strengthened to get men out of the home and into factories. The binary facilitated violence against the bodies of working-class men as well as women and people of colour.

Male violence is packaged to us as stranger danger, and the idea of a “biological drive” to prey on women. It is also in the interests of patriarchy to implicate marginalized groups as being the real threat. Reality looks somewhat different: violence is associated with power and inequality. My work taught me violence and abuse are overwhelmingly perpetrated by those with power over the victim – partners, family, people in authority, not the lurking “creep” that media teaches us to fear.

Structural inequality and the power to abuse, not biological factors, turn out to be at the root of abuse. I often see in my work the impact of cis women’s physical and sexual violence towards trans and disabled people of all genders, while the groups of children that are most abused by men and women are not girls but children in state care and disabled children of all genders.

That is in no way meant to diminish the problem of toxic masculinity and men’s violence, but it is not biologically driven or innate, and legal segregation does not diminish it at all. Maintaining an unequal legal structure is not helping women, and it is not designed to.

The UK Prime minister was educated in a sex-segregated school. We can only have sex-segregated schools, of course, because of the legal gender binary – men and women are different legal entities and therefore separable. Boys only schools like Eton and Harrow show enormous benefits to their alumni – 27 UK Prime ministers have been to those two schools alone.

Liberal feminism wants to see women treated equally within the structures of power that currently exist. Radical feminism wants to see those structures of power dismantled. Sadly, some transphobic radical feminists miss the fact that legal “sex” is in fact a socially constructed, pivotal structure of what they would call “gender”, the very thing they want to dismantle. The words sex and gender have many different meanings in different contexts, but the legal and social binary is, let’s be clear, an oppressive structure we need to dismantle. Whether we call it gender or sex.

But what would liberation look like for trans people? This is not about erasure or turning all humanity into some greyed-out version of non-binary – trans men are men, and trans women are women. Trans experiences are legitimate.

We can have differences without walls separating us – the problem is with borders and the violent elimination of overlap, common ground, and livable space between men and women. The construction of our differences as legal and social opposites are categories defined by exclusion. We could see difference as valued but also complex and not a simple either/or.

Intersex people are the most obvious victims of this violence – we’re performing surgery on infants for the sole purpose of preserving this legal and social fiction. The existence of intersex people does not erase the fact that most people are born with a penis or a vulva. But the violent surgical and social erasure of intersex people speaks to the problem of attaching such a pervasive legal and social framework to genital configuration.

Trans people can also fall victim to surgical violence. It is essential trans people have access to healthcare – many of us require it, and its value is well evidenced. But as long as trans civil rights are contingent on surgical interventions, then we will be pushed towards changing our bodies in ways that in a liberated society we might not need to. In other words, some trans people’s sense of incongruence is deeply physical, and in a perfectly liberated world we would still need to change our bodies. But for some of us, the embodied aspects of being trans are less pressing than the legal and social aspects – we change ourselves physically because society will not accept us for who we are if we do not, and that is a situation that is wholly oppressive.

But surely there are immutable biological facts related to bodies and sex? That is the push-back trans people often get from cis antagonists. A vulva is a “biological fact” yes, but it does not automatically follow that “because you have a vulva, you must always be referred to as she and legally designated female” or called by a name with an -a on the end, all of which happened to me when I was born. I have a vulva, and, it was later discovered, a womb. There are needs specific to this – legal abortion, for example. Had I been infertile, I would not have had that specific need.

But I do not agree that “person with a womb” is who I am more fundamentally than any other aspect of my identity – yet it was the only thing about me that was legally recorded at my birth and enshrined in my name. I was called “she” as if a pronoun is also a “biological fact”. It is not.

For me as a trans person both the legal and social frameworks constructed around gender and “legal sex” completely failed me. It is not that I am non-binary because I believe the gender binary needs to be dismantled and our options made broader, less segregated, and enforced. I do believe those things, but I was non-binary before I was politically aware. The structures failed me, and my body, because I am a trans person. This was not a choice for me.

To give a comparison, as an autistic person, probably a more significant aspect of my identity than any other, I can ask to be visible in society, accommodated, given civil rights, all without needing a special pronoun and legal status that designates me autistic and tells me which spaces I can enter or not. As an autistic person of any gender I am more likely to have experienced violence, sexual or otherwise, and I have from both men and women. I do not believe that becoming legally segregated as an autistic person will liberate me from that violence. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, taking my place in society as an equal with the social structures removed that give others power over me is what will ultimately protect me.

Do I need autism-specific services and spaces in order to feel safe? Perhaps, but “safe space” is contingent on people being aware of many intersecting needs rather than prioritizing one shared identity and ignoring others. Look, for example, at the racism of Pride in London for evidence of this. When we organize around similar identity, we often perpetuate violence associated with fear of difference. This is a particular issue with the way white cis feminists organize around violence and safety.

I certainly do not need autistic people to be legally differentiated in order to be able to set up services and spaces that cater to and look after autistic people’s needs. I do not mind the category “autistic”, and I recognize it has a use to describe my experience. I recognize it as both a fact of my experience and a socially constructed category that is imperfect in its formulation. I am not interested in policing the borders between autistic and neurotypical identities.

Liberation is not an erasure of differences or removal of words from language just because their meanings are complex and variable, which they inevitably will be. Liberation does not look like this: Everyone is non-binary now, and women and men are erased as categories! Liberation looks more like this: Gender and sex are no longer binary ideas or legal statuses. Trans men and women are accepted as who they say they are (and that will vary from person to person – “trans” is not a monolith). Intersex and non-binary people have space to exist and move in society and be recognized. Nobody has an M or an F on their birth certificates or documentation, any more than they have an A for autistic. We stop asking that question for anything other than monitoring and equality purposes, and when we do ask, trans, non-binary, and intersex people are skillfully included. Our language does not make binary (or any) assumptions about gender or sex. Our conversations about violence and inequality take into account pro-intersectional principles – all victims of oppressive violence matter, including cis women but not only cis women. Safe space is nuanced and reflective and centring of marginalized voices – not built around the idea that it is safe simply because of who it excludes, but rather for its ability to oppose and counterbalance existing oppressive structures.

Toilets and changing rooms, of course, just need better design to be safely unisex, sports will be more inclusive if we use better classification systems, and prisons just need to be abolished.

Alas, we will continue to see women’s fear weaponized against the marginalized, and that is not just a trans story. I have written about the way fear of trans women has been manufactured to maintain this status quo, but not so much about who benefits from the status quo – why did Hungarian dictator Victor Orban make legislating against trans and intersex rights his first act? Why did Andrzej Duda rise to power on an anti-LGBT+ platform, but immediately begin an attack on women’s rights when he came to power? Why did Trump focus so heavily on erasing trans rights, and why is the UK’s far-right government pushing things backwards for us at a relentless pace?

The patriarchy will make us more afraid of other marginalized humans than of older, cishet white men in a judge’s wig or suit. The patriarchy is lying to us. They will fight to turn us against each other because our liberations are interconnected – the binary is colonial, it is classist, it is violence in and of itself against the bodies of women, intersex people, and trans people. We need to resist it, and to do so together.


Queer, neurodivergent, trans, non-binary and disabled, Sam Hope (they/them) is a writer, accredited therapist, clinical supervisor and trainer, who lives in Nottingham, UK. They blog at A Feminist Challenging Transphobia, contributed a chapter to Non-Binary Lives and authored Person-centred counselling for trans and gender diverse people: A practical guide. More articles by Sam can be found on their website.

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