In a democratic society that respects individual rights, conflict is inevitable when rights collide. One such conflict takes place in a homeless shelter in Maine, where women are expected to endure abusive behavior in the name of inclusivity. Women assert their right to seek protection from male violence. The transgender movement elevates everyone’s right to identify with any gender. We are on the side of women.
One of us (Aurora) works at a women’s shelter where women have reported sexual harassment by trans women (men who identify as transgender) in the room. Women have described being suggested for sex by these people. Women shared their experiences of being followed, stared at, or otherwise intimidated in the shelter. They said they don’t feel safe that the harassment is making their post-traumatic stress worse. These women report that they cannot sleep at night for fear of being assaulted.
Same-sex sanctuaries exist because women need refuge from men in a male-dominated society where male violence against women is endemic. Women are raped, beaten, sexually molested, bought and sold in prostitution, tortured and all too often murdered by men. Because of the violence that is so common in so many women’s lives, women have a legitimate reason to fear all men, every man.
Male violence against women is a leading cause of female homelessness. A high percentage of homeless women were sexually abused as girls; a similar number were raped at least once, often several times. Women everywhere fear violence from men. In women who are homeless, this fear is likely to be even more intense.
Compassion for people with gender dysphoria – suffering or discomfort about the sex of one’s own body – is possible without sacrificing women’s safety. But it does require clarity on definitions.
It is important that you stop using “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. “Sex” refers to the biological differences between men and women – physiological realities based on different roles in reproduction. “Gender” refers to the social meanings associated with gender differences – what society refers to as “masculine” and “feminine” traits. Gender categories do not change, while gender norms vary between societies and, over time, within societies.
Some people perceive a large discrepancy between the physiological gender of their body and their psychological feeling for gender roles. Men feel more comfortable in female gender roles and vice versa.
Many feminists, including us, understand gender as a hierarchy created in patriarchy and believe that the rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms that result from it support male dominance. We work for a society in which men and women can live free from the painful restrictions of the patriarchal gender system.
In the meantime, society should recognize the plight of those suffering from gender dysphoria. However, such recognition does not turn a man into a woman, nor does it mean that women’s legitimate fears of male violence magically disappear.
Many people who agree with us tell us that they fear being branded bigoted or “transphobic” for asking these legitimate questions. Most people want to be kind, express solidarity with those who are suffering. We also. But the uncritical acceptance of the transgender ideology, which eliminates same-sex spaces, increases the risks for women and girls – and that’s their own rudeness.
Every person affected by homelessness deserves shelter and trauma-sensitive support. This goes without saying. However, in order to balance the different needs of different groups, the task is to develop more and better options to best serve all. When there is a conflict between the needs of women and those of others, including people who identify as transgender, the solution cannot be to simply ignore the concerns of women and girls. This is an oversight, not a path to justice.
Robert Jensen is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and Media and author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. Aurora Cobb is a lesbian feminist writer based in Harpswell.
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