My Experience Shows Why Trans People Need Safe Spaces

illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
It’s difficult to judge if someone says they define themselves as a trans woman but for all intents and purposes they look and sound like a man.
– Caroline Flint, Labour MP
Twenty-five years ago I was engaged in a ragged portfolio of sex work. Throughout the night I would work on the (then-unregulated) porn phone lines, keeping punters on for as long as possible, keeping them on the edge until you racked up the necessary minutes to turn some small profit. After leaving the 'office', I would make my way home to the East End via different punters, booked and encountered. My life was sex and, unfortunately, drugs. I had a 10-year addiction to heroin and crack cocaine. I was engaged in sex work to manage my unmanageable drug addiction.
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Before anyone piles in with a mountain of whore-phobia; don't. I accept that my selling sex was directly linked to an economic drug need. But I was not representative of every sex worker; many are empowered and empowering, many weave sex work careers in and around other jobs, education and family. I was an addict first who needed to pay for £20 wraps throughout her day. Sex work was my option.
In my case, sex work was a means to an end – a dark, dank end, in which I spent every minute of every day trying as hard as I could to not withdraw from drugs because the highs had long since evaporated. I took drugs to stay well; I sucked men off to not get ill. Ironically.
My intersection of 'femme', 'drugs' and 'sex work' often led me to seek safety in the oddest of places: doorways of posh shops (Selfridges felt enveloping); quiet deserted parks in north London squares (I imagined I was a match girl); and women's toilets, where I felt safe and protected from the harshness of my life. Being an addict in a city makes drug sense – it's easy to score – but it's an incredibly tough life. Now, my heart bleeds when I walk past addicts homeless on the street. I want to tell them it can get better but I don't, because I'm not sure they have the space to hear that. I didn't, I didn't have any space.
I would often use a toilet which used to exist somewhere in Victoria. It was brightly lit and seemed warm, the tiles were the type used in early 19th-century public loos – rounded, pearlescent cream and for me, comforting. Often I'd sit on the toilet, do my drugs and then lean my head against the tiles. I'd close my eyes and dream of walking by a river on a sunny day, hearing the sound of birds and the soft hush of the summer breeze through the willow trees above. Often I'd stay there for hours, until it was light, or until I was thrown out. Once, the woman who cleaned the toilets pushed open the door held partially closed by my foot and found me, beaten and robbed. My drugs gone and my bottom half near-naked, splattered with cum. She cleaned me up and hugged me as I sobbed. I never knew her, or her name, but she was a goddess of kindness to me. She allowed me to walk out of there and get on with my life.
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I had been followed into the toilets. I could sense someone behind me as I was walking; I thought if I got inside, it would give me some protection. I imagined that I would be able to get in, close and lock the door and settle down to dream. I imagined I'd be safe.
I won't go into details here. I remember what happened, I remember his face, his smell, his strength; I remember being so addicted to drugs that I begged him to let me still use them and he said, "If it will keep you silent do whatever you fucking need."
I closed my eyes and tried desperately to get to the river, under the willow and feel the summer breeze. I couldn't.
Even in my heroin-numbed state I felt pain and I felt fear. I thought he would kill me. He didn't; he just punched me, right after he came. He ended his 'lovemaking' – I'm sure that's how he saw it because he kept saying, "You're enjoying this, aren't you" – with a punch.
I thought I'd be safe in my safe space but after that I realised that nowhere can be safe as long as men feel they have the power to use and abuse who, when and where they like.
I realised then and there that my being perceived as femme would always mean risk, that as a trans woman I would now feel that fear every time I walked home from the station at night alone, or sat on the Tube on my own in an empty carriage. That experience indelibly imprinted on me the simple fact that women will always be at risk in this world until we tackle the embedded toxic masculinity that permeates so much of society, from Weinstein to the man who followed me in – who, by the way, wasn't wearing a wig, or pretending to be a woman, or carrying a GRC (gender recognition certificate) or a statement of self-identification. He was a man in the early morning light in the very centre of London, brazen in his right to follow me and take what he wanted.
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He wasn't a trans woman, nor a man pretending to be a trans woman; he was a man. Let me state that again. HE WAS A MAN.
Last month, in an interview with the Evening Standard, the Labour MP Caroline Flint said the following about women-only spaces:
“With the best will in the world, in a changing room there are young girls wandering around in bras because it’s seen as safe. Having men there would change that. I don’t know why debate around this has become adversarial. We need to think through how to support those from the trans community but not in such a way that compromises women’s and girls’ rights."
She went on to talk about domestic violence centres: "It’s important that women feel safe there. It’s difficult to judge if someone says they define themselves as a trans woman but for all intents and purposes they look and sound like a man."
I have the voice I have always had – I've never sought to change it to fit a notion of femininity, and that alone felt like a feminist decision. I don't know if my voice blends in or stands out but I do know that like many trans folk I dread using the phone, as I'm sometimes denied entry to my online banking, for example. Once I was told point-blank that I was a man and therefore the call was being terminated. Needless to say, after many emails back and forth about voice modulation and security questions, the bank apologised and agreed that they couldn't define a woman's voice and the way it should sound.
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But what I really object to here (and it's not just Caroline, I hear this on almost a daily basis) is not the spiteful notion that trans women cannot be victims of male violence or intimidation (the global data shames you in this regard); what I object to most is you pretending to be, if not my friend, then at least an ally.
Screw that. Your words shame, blame and name us as perpetrators of violence and abuse. You link safe space + women + trans aggression and then walk away, claiming to understand us and care about us.
Enough is enough. My feminism calls you out. Your brand of feminism has blinded you to your transphobia. Privilege, not feminism, makes you coercively spread spiteful myths and lies which you know are gaining traction in society and making an already marginalised community even more fearful.
When I was raped in our 'safe space' I had a penis. I was still pre-surgery, for a huge number of reasons, but I sought safety in our spaces – never to cause harm, only safety. When that man raped me, he didn't care about what I had in my knickers, penis or pussy, he only wanted to have power over another body, and that body was mine, a pre-operative trans woman whose voice may or may not have given her away. Who knows, are our silent screams gendered?
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