I’ve met a fair few transgender people I absolutely can’t stand. That should be obvious – trans people are just people like anyone else and, being a trans woman myself, I don’t naturally assume I’ll like all other trans women because we share the same political identity. Some will be rude, some will be spiteful and – yes – some will be genuinely harmful people.
Last week, The Sun reported a story about Jessica Winfield, a trans prisoner convicted of raping two women while living as a man. Winfield, who transitioned and underwent sex reassignment surgery, had been transferred to a female prison – it was alleged she had to be segregated after sexually harassing female inmates. In fact, it’s unclear if the reported story is even true – she may have been moved for another reason entirely.
However, the story soon ignited a discussion among anti-trans parts of the media. The idea of a “male” rapist being let loose on vulnerable women is powerfully emotive. It poisons discussions of my community in every sphere from Ku Klux Klan leaflets, to the US Christian Right, to the school prefect feminism that endures in sections of the British media.
Being a trans woman, a feminist and – like all too many trans women – a survivor of sexual assaults, I share the same horror at Winfield’s crimes. What I don’t believe, however, is that her crimes should be used to draw conclusions affecting trans people as a whole.
Proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 intend to make it easier for trans people to legally declare their own gender, in comparison to the current system, where a small panel you never actually meet pores over your medical records, can ask invasive questions and takes a decision on whether you deserve it. All for a substantial fee. The simplification of this legislation intends, simply, to make our lives easier.
However, the example of Winfield has been a boon for those parts of the media antagonistic to trans liberation to call for a block to trans rights. Janice Turner, of The Times, was quick to argue: “This is why gender self-ID must be blocked. Every male prisoner who *feels* female will be allowed in women's prison.” Turner’s rush to call for a block to legislation intended to make trans lives easier is as reactionary as it is misrepresentative: there has been no announcement on what the policy for prisoners would be.
In the Republic of Ireland, where the self-recognition system has been in place for two years, prisons still consider natal sex and trans people can end up in the wrong prison. As it is, we simply have no indication of what will happen here. At present, the British prison system uses a case by case approach – results vary, but a trans woman’s history of living as female prior to her imprisonment or her satisfaction of gender clinicians if she transitions while she is locked up do have a role to play.
I suspect, on the whole, most people would assume that if I were sent to prison I ought to be placed in a female prison – I have medically transitioned and lived as female for two years. What is more problematic, say commentators who purport to be acting out of feminist concern, is that abusive men could simply identify as women to access female prisoners – who are usually survivors of abuse and vulnerable.
Like many trans women, I also happen to be a feminist and a prison reformist. As a result, I find arguments about trans rights putting female prisoners at a unique risk of male violence to be suspiciously selective in focus. There are already men in women’s prisons abusing them. A 2014 report by the Howard League for Penal Reform found that coercive sex occurs between female prisoners and staff occurs across British prisons. Richie Hoy, an officer at HMP Warren Hill, was recently convicted of assaulting four women in prison. Sexual abuse claims at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre have also been reported. It appears that whenever you lock women up they become vulnerable to violence by men in power over them. Where are the calls to stop men becoming prison guards? Why the focus on the imaginary trans predator instead of the actual male ones? The answer, is of course, transphobic bias in which trans women are held to be even more suspect than men.
A feminism that claims to act against trans people for the protection of vulnerable cisgender women, but does not concern itself with the wider topic of prison violence against all women (trans and non-trans alike) or with the fact that 48% of female prisoners have committed nonviolent offences and don’t belong in a prison at all – is an impoverished form of feminism. One which uses cisgender women’s trauma as a rhetorical device to whip up anti-trans sentiment while ignoring the violence trans women face in prison and being utterly silent on the very real and pressing issue of abuse of all women in prisons.
The priorities of commentators like Turner are skewed, divorced from the reality of prisons and of a feminism which looks past the sole case of Jessica Winfield and recognises trans women are a societal class of people in need of much of the same protections as any woman.
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