Kai Cheng Thom is a writer and sex educator in Toronto.
Something relatively unknown about transgender people is that we have a subcultural fascination with monsters of legend. From the Echidna (a half-woman, half-serpent figure found in Greek mythology) to the Cthulhu (a mythical sea creature featured in the works of H.P. Lovecraft), all manner of monsters have prominent roles in our writing and art. Having been stereotyped throughout history as perverted, unnatural and dangerous, trans people – and trans women, in particular – have reclaimed the image of the monster, identifying with its power as a cultural disruptor and harbinger of change, capable of toppling whole kingdoms into the sea.
Still, I find myself surprised that trans people have become, in the popular imagination, so terrifying and so monstrous that Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister for the past eight years, was forced to announce her resignation last month in part for daring to propose legislative changes that would have allowed trans people to change their gender designations on official documents with greater ease. Ms. Sturgeon’s stand provoked an enormous backlash in Britain, particularly since it coincided with the transfer of Isla Bryson, a trans woman and convicted rapist, to a Scottish women’s prison (she has since been reassigned to a male prison).
The backlash is rooted in the ferocious cultural debate about whether trans women pose a danger to cisgender women and children in the public sphere, particularly in spaces such as washrooms, shelters and prisons.
In the case of Ms. Bryson, I absolutely have strong concerns that she might have caused harm in a women’s penitentiary. Yet I must also note that women’s prisons, far from being safe havens for inmates, have long been rife with sexual violence. Imprisoned women in the United States, for example, account for 33 per cent of reported incidents of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization, while only accounting for 7 per cent of the overall prison population. The vast majority of this harm is caused not by the extremely small number of trans women in U.S. women’s prisons, but rather by cisgender staff and inmates, both male and female. If all the people protesting the presence of trans women in women’s prisons really cared that much about prisoner safety, they’d be focusing on the real perpetrators.
Alongside the enormous backlash to queer and trans rights currently playing out in mainstream media coverage and legislative bodies around the world, there is an additional persistent, toxic problem that has been festering: It is, in large part, a moral panic over the apparently terrifying spectre of “men in dresses,” whether trans women or drag queens, who are supposedly lurking like wolves among innocent sheep, waiting to pounce on women and children. Yet for all the drama over women like me, the truth is that sexual violence, misogyny and child abuse are genuine social problems whose origins are far more mundane – and horrific – than any nefarious transsexual conspiracy.
Fifty per cent of child sexual-abuse cases in which the victim is under six years of age take place within the child’s family of origin, and about 93 per cent of child sexual-abuse overall is committed by an adult known to the child or their family. In 80 per cent of all sexual-assault cases in Canada, the accused is known to the victim, with more than half of sexual assaults against adults and nearly 60 per cent of sexual assaults against children between the ages of 12 and 17 committed by friends and acquaintances.
What does this tell us? It tells us that sexual harm is an epidemic problem that is embedded in our culture. It tells us that sexual violence is, for the most part, committed not by strangers in alleyways, nor by trans women in bathrooms, but rather by people we know, love and trust – the majority of cases committed by cisgender men, but a significant number by cisgender women as well. Poverty, severely underfunded health and social services, gutted public education systems, and continuing workplace discrimination against women and gender-diverse people present a maze of systemic barriers to survivors of abuse trying to leave exploitative situations.
Often forgotten in the media discourse around trans inclusion is that trans people, too, are vulnerable human beings with a right to safety and dignity. “Women’s safety” and “trans inclusion” are often framed as being some sort of dichotomy, but trans people across the gender spectrum all experience serious personal security risks in public and in private. Both trans women and trans men are four times more likely to experience violent crime than cisgender people. Trans women in men’s prisons are vastly more likely to experience sexual assault than cisgender male prisoners. Where is the public outrage about that?
The problem here is not that trans women are using public toilets, but rather that the public welfare system is so meagre that many people living through abuse cannot afford, or find, help to leave. The problem is not that trans people are being sent to women’s prisons, but rather that prisons have never been safe for women, or for anyone at all.
How do we solve these problems, and how can we end abuse? By investing heavily in the public sector, by carefully fostering healthy communities and by completely reimagining our justice systems.
The politicians and lobbyists driving the trans-rights backlash don’t seem all that interested in addressing what ails our communities at the root, and the explanation for their actions is simple: It’s much easier to rail against a villainous monster figure and pass discriminatory but “protective” legislation than it is to spend large amounts of money contending with a highly complex culture of abuse woven deeply into our social fabric. And if that villainous monster also happens to be the perfect wedge with which to unseat political opponents and whip one’s voter base into a frenzy – well, that’s certainly an added perk.
The anti-trans hysteria we are currently witnessing is not unique. In times of social and economic instability (for example, the continuing decline of the American empire coinciding with a global pandemic, climate crisis and the brink of a global recession), it’s always been a popular move to turn the blame toward small and highly visible minorities. Associating stigmatized minorities with sexual depravity and predatory behaviour toward women and children is also a historical trend: Black men in the American South, early Chinese migrants to North America, and gays and lesbians worldwide have all been at the centre of sexualized moral panics at various points, and the stereotypes underpinning these panics still persist in myriad ways.
Demonizing a minority has never really protected anyone’s safety, though it has often helped boost the power of political opportunists. True progress in the fight toward dignity and safety for all women, trans people and young people relies upon the clarity and solidarity of those of us on the ground. Instead of fighting one another for scraps, we need to acknowledge that the real monster isn’t trans people – it’s our inability to address the root causes of our societal ills.