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Wake up, sisterhood – the last thing battered women need is a trans in the refuge

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Here’s a question. What kind of trans woman do you have to be to decide that the only job you really want, the only job that is going to meet all your needs, is in a women-only refuge? Answer: not a very empathetic one. Here’s another question. What kind of organisation giving protection to women who’ve suffered domestic violence and rape thinks it could well be OK to have biological men employed in their shelters? Answer: one without any common sense. It was Voltaire who said ‘common sense is not so common’. It certainly isn’t amongst those running Women’s Aid.

The other day it was reported that the charity, which oversees more than 300 shelters run by women for women, is to review its ban on transgender staff. Mary Mason, the board’s interim co-chairwoman, described the move to discuss ‘our whole transgender policy, including the possibility of employment for self-declared transgender women without a gender recognition certificate’ as ‘extraordinarily difficult’. Well, that’s something, at least. It has not been reported, however, that there have been any resignations from the federation’s board at the prospect of something so dismally wrong. Just how many hours of navel-gazing did it take the board to come up with this one and think ‘way to go’? I like to think somebody with a very serious face said: ‘You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?’ But I don’t expect so. Board resignations then? Come on, time to step up. Because women’s refuges, like women’s bathrooms, are safe spaces that really do matter.

Unsurprisingly, there has been protest from some feminists who see the move as the most significant erosion to date of female-only spaces. Stephanie Davies-Arai, of the campaign group Transgender Trend, said: ‘This risks re-traumatising vulnerable and victimised women for the sake of ideology.’ That is sensibly and clearly put. But then ideology is punching well above its weight now on the gender agenda and there are those whose view is that we need to live with it, however much it might hurt. Ideology is all. Another dissenting voice came from Karen Ingala Smith, head of the women’s sexual and domestic violence charity, NIA. She said she was concerned and hoped ‘refuge providers protect the “for women by women” vision of the feminist survivors and activists who built the movement’.

When used as a noun, ‘discrimination’ is one of those words that is loaded with villainy. Not the same with the adjective ‘discriminating’, interestingly. Describing someone as a discriminating person is not to imply a person malevolently looking to flout employment legislation that protects against prejudice on the grounds of such matters as race, gender, sexual orientation and age. Rather it suggests judgement and a refusal to suffer fools. We might think, therefore, that discrimination is bad and that it is never allowed. Well, it sometimes is allowed. That is because it is just another term for applying a bit more common sense than usual in certain situations.

Those situations are where employment involves the operation of machinery, for instance, or where driving is part of the job description. This means that people with certain medical conditions, epilepsy for instance, will not be recruited if they have not been seizure-free for a certain length of time. The Armed Forces have an even more rigorous ruling. Some employers are allowed to discriminate on the grounds of an applicant not having visual clarity, which may be the case with conditions such as diabetes. The Equality Act 2010 also makes provisions in the film, television and fashion industries where one can advertise for an actor of a particular ethnic background. It also makes exceptions where national security could be jeopardised. Of course, if one has a criminal record, then it rules out a career in the police or the prison service. This is all eminently sensible and surely entirely uncontroversial.

The very idea that a trans woman would seek employment in a women’s shelter is problematic. What could possibly be that individual’s motive? At best, it looks like mischief-making for its own sake, the way adolescents push at boundaries. At worst, it feels manipulative, deliberately disruptive and possibly sinister (as when a transitioning man insists on using a female bathroom or changing room). Of all the gainful employment to be considered, it’s got to be a move (because this would hardly have been their job in the old life as a bloke) into a caring role in a women-only shelter, has it? Really? Couldn’t you just remain as a train driver, or an office worker, or a gardener or however else your living had been earned? All about making a point, isn’t it? Like the recent grotesque instance of a woman finding she’d got an NHS nurse with stubble lined up by the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust to perform a cervical smear test. The Trust has since apologised. But it does beggar belief.

Surely the focus in a women’s refuge is that group of women who’ve suffered traumatic abuse at the hands of men. The priority is that those women are helped to pick up the pieces of their lives and recover so that one day they might not need a refuge. What they do not need is further distress and distraction from that process. No sensitive or emotionally intelligent trans woman would dream of applying for a job in a women’s refuge. Those who did apply would need to have a level of self-centredness and arrogance that really did make them feel it was all about them. Sensible leaders of such a charity need to let them know that it is not. They need to be gently and calmly told that they have their own challenges in life to be dealing with, and a women’s refuge is no place for that. That is not a denial as such of their life as a trans woman, but simply a statement that some women’s needs are greater than others and need to be prioritised.

We may not want to hold our breath, though, as regards the sisterhood breaking cover to make a song and a dance about this. After all, these genuinely abused women are not the visually higher-profile easy targets such as the darts or Formula One girls. No straightforward virtue-signalling to be done here. Get rid of a fairly easy (and often not unappealing) job for women often of limited qualifications because they don’t realise what danger lurks beneath their complicit objectification of themselves in tawdry sporting events. But if vulnerable women, real victims, who’ve been raped or attacked find themselves nervous in erstwhile women-only refuges around trans women, then tough, they probably need to address their transphobia.

Let’s wait and see. There may in fact be dozens of well-heeled feminists living around Hampstead Heath about to protest to Women’s Aid on this one. There was uproar recently, after all, when their famous Ladies Only pond started to be enjoyed by transitioning men. The sisterhood is highly selective in its causes. It can be oddly drawn to dressing up, dressing down, getting its kit off, red carpets, television cameras and making speeches to star studded audiences or through a megaphone at a rally. None of this self-regarding frippery attaches to women in refuges, though – women who could really use the support.

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Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn, a former journalist, teacher and full time mother, currently tutors teenagers in English and French.

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