I started to realise that I was ‘not like other girls’ about the time I hit puberty. From that point on I underwent an extensive and daunting process to emerge from my closeted cocoon into the beautiful lesbian butterfly I am today. An important part of that development was realising – mostly via the Internet (or very occasionally through people I met in real life) – that there were people like me all over the world. And when I say ‘like me’, I don’t just mean other lesbians. I found much more satisfaction in knowing that heterosexuality wasn’t the only thing out there and that heteronormativity wasn’t always worshipped, that the gender and sex constructs I was surrounded by weren’t conformed to everywhere. Anything or anyone that contributed to that feeling was like another patch added onto the comforting quilt that I would wrap around myself to feel okay. I think this understanding also made me more open and more empathetic; I felt a sense of belonging and community with other people who existed outside of what was typical.
Subsequently, it came as a shock to me when I realised that we weren’t just one big happy queer family. It wasn’t that I saw the heterosexual or cisgender (when your sex assigned at birth matches your gender identity) community as our common enemy, but rather just that it seemed as though we were all being harassed and oppressed by the same kinds of people from within that community. Surely that meant we could all identify a collective struggle between us, and that we could therefore help to defend each other. But sadly, I discovered, this was not the case. Conflicts and divisions are rife even between different groups within the LGBTQI community. Bisexual people, for example, are often ostracised from the gay and lesbian community. And the treatment of transgender people, and trans women in particular, is on a completely different level, both inside and outside of the community.
This is because they are affected not just by transphobia (which is awful enough), but also transmisogyny. This is a unique confluence of prejudice, where trans women are targeted not only by those who hate transgender people, but also those who hate women. When looking at cases of anti-LGBTQI harassment and violence, and when looking at the number of LGBTQI people murdered, trans women (and especially trans women of colour) are shockingly and disproportionally represented.
But transphobia and transmisogyny do not just occur outside of the queer community. This kind of intolerance also comes from within, and there seems to be a particular tension between the L and the T part of the LGBTQI alphabet. A lot of this strain stems from a small but very vocal sect of cis (so-called) feminists, often lesbians, labelled by others as Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminists. TERFs focus especially on trans women, refusing to accept that they are women and therefore (wrongly) believing that men are impinging upon women’s safe spaces. Unfortunately, TERFs don’t just stop at being exclusionary, instead going out of their way to harass trans people, to out them, to reveal their personal information, to mock them, and to generally offer some of the worst examples of transphobia you can find online.
Some TERFs have recently begun spreading ludicrous rumours that queer trans women are trying to force cis lesbians to sleep with them. This nonsense originated from a very small Planned Parenthood workshop for trans women, where the attendees discussed shame and body image in relation to overcoming the barriers that many queer trans women face when trying to join the wider lesbian population. The existence of this kind of workshop is evidence that, even within groups of non-TERF lesbians, stereotypes and tension still exist, and that it can be difficult for trans women to feel accepted. But TERFs took off with the word ‘overcome’, claiming that it meant that trans women were trying to manipulate and ‘overcome’ cis lesbians into sleeping with them, by doing things like calling them transphobic if they refused – a claim completely unsupported by evidence. As far as I can tell, queer trans women and activists have not forgotten the idea of consent, and are simply not interested in manipulating transphobic lesbians into sleeping with them. What they are interested in is spending time fighting against the very real daily threats and discrimination that they face. The TERFs took a line from a workshop description out of context and manipulated it to say what they wanted it to say.
What I find most frustrating and difficult to understand, as a cis lesbian, is how closely the fear-mongering, lies and harassment mirror how heterosexual people once (and sometimes still) treated gay and lesbian people. Heterosexual people used to claim that gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to use the same bathrooms and change rooms as them, for fear of being attacked. This is the same thing TERFs claim about trans women, when in fact it is far more likely to happen in the reverse. TERFs are usually the ones whose arguments are fixated on genitalia and gender, in the same way that homophobes become fixated on the sex lives of queer people. In fact, the more I read about TERFs – their tweets, their articles, their blog posts – the more I saw similarities between their behaviour and methods and the activism of the small but vocal anti-gay groups or men’s rights activists (MRAs). TERFs are dangerous in a different way, though, because they pretend that their bigotry is somehow feminist – that it’s valid, and that it’s somehow protecting women, or cis lesbians. As a cis lesbian, I want to make it clear to TERFs that I don’t want or need this so-called ‘protection’. What I do want is for trans women to be shielded… from you.
As it stands, engaging with people from these groups on social media seems to be the same kind of exercise in futility as engaging with a homophobic person, or a MRA. Even worse, the angry run-off from these clashes often flows most towards the trans women at the centre of the discussion. For you or I, it might be an annoying but harmless debate with someone on Twitter. For trans women, the rhetoric has dangerous real-world effects. For us, it might involve laughing off the transphobic comments of someone like Germaine Greer. For trans women, these things can’t be laughed off. This shouldn’t be framed as a debate between lesbians and trans women. In fact, it shouldn’t be framed as a debate at all. It should be framed as exactly what it is: transphobic bigots attacking trans women. For too long, trans people have been marginalised and their issues ignored, as their legitimacy and humanity is debated. It’s time for that to stop. And as a community – no matter if you are queer, cis, gender fluid, heterosexual, or a beautiful lesbian butterfly – we need to do more to support these women.