Please be aware that the essays for Writing Gender #2 contain discussions and personal experiences that some readers and trauma survivors may find distressing.
Writing Gender #2 seeks to explore how writing plays a significant role in making visible acts of cultural, physical and gendered violence against women and trans and gender diverse people.
Our broader aim is to explore such writing within contexts of cultural safety and healing, and the vital necessity of articulation, including the power of trauma-informed narratives to engender greater public awareness and instigate social action. Many of our writers also reflect on, and explicitly narrativise, the potential toll of this repeated re-visiting of traumatic experiences through writing, especially in public and private spaces. We repeatedly ask: What happens when trauma is the conduit to writing in the public sphere? What new kinds of violence can occur when trauma is mobilised through writing for public consumption?
Donna Abela will lead a conversation on these themes between Mykaela Saunders, Eloise Brook, Eda Gunaydin and Amani Haydar on Friday 9 September. Please join us for this free online event at 11am. Register here.
At the end of November 2020, I was asked to contribute to a Facebook event called 16 Days of Activism. It was run by Greens senator Larissa Waters and it was part of a campaign to end violence against women. I was the twelfth woman on the list; each of us had shared and would share stories about ourselves in a short Facebook interview. The response from readers had been positive and supportive. Larissa was bringing into view a broad range of exemplary women doing what they could to end violence against women. I felt honoured to be asked, because though my work falls into the area of women’s anti-violence, it is a bit more niche. I’m part of the trans community and my role is to improve the lives of trans and gender diverse people. That means I tend to focus extensively on trans women and families with trans children.
There were three questions. Each when it boils down to it was asking about what I do to identify and reduce violence against women in Australia – and how others might go about it. I knew that I had to be careful about how I framed my responses, because while violence against transwomen (and transmen, gender diverse and non-binary people) is a small but important one for the Australian community, there is a six-decade-long history of anti-trans exclusion by many feminist advocates. So I talked about storytelling and the power of stories to change lives. I talked about the importance of working from the middle ground. I pointed out, as I like to do, that we get a lot of news from the US and the UK but that in Australia we have to be careful of mapping American awfulness and British banality on to our own political and media environment. I especially avoided making sweeping, unifying statements about transwomen and ciswomen (something I often do). Not wanting to cause a stir, I tried to stay in my lane. But it didn’t matter.
They came quickly. One or two women initially. It was a Sunday evening so there were no after-hours moderators. It started with a perfunctory comment. Marking the ground. Then a rapid flurry of shares. But not casual shares. Coordinated. A watch-cry to other similar groups with similar names. Up the eastern seaboard of Australia and down it. Even across to Canada. Within a few short, very surreal hours things had gotten international. There were a few casual comments of appreciation but they were quickly swept aside, replaced by a slowly rolling wash of barely suppressed fury. It was a menacing spectacle for onlookers – and it was a frightening thing to be the target of the fury of strangers.
They worked fast to unfasten my story and my legitimacy. They traced the lines of information about me back into the past. They followed them to find old intelligence on me. What they particularly wanted was a dead name. A shackle they were eager to re-shackle. A dead name after all, once found, opens up an important counter-narrative. They worked fast to recast a forum on violence against women into a forum about how transwomen are men and men are the perpetrators of violence. They worked to make it clear that including a transwomen in a forum on violence against women was an unacceptable violence. They were trying to step in, below the skin. Into the blood. Towards the bone. Because that is where their fight is. In boiling blood and viscera.
I was very, very thankful they didn’t find what they were searching for. But it didn’t matter. There were other things to uncover. There was my work on Transgender Day of Remembrance. A podcast about the trans missing dead. A partisan warrior stumped up a field report on the murder of transwomen. They listed the reason my work was wrong and deceitful. It is about men being violent to men, they argued. Where, after all, are the actual women in this? This was their principal line of attack.
Next friends came to the barricades. Ex-students appeared. My people – I suddenly had people – and some spectators were dismayed and overwhelmed by the single-minded intensity of the attacks. Some looked for the source of the offence. Some tried diplomacy – as if it could all have been sorted out by someone vouching for me. Vouching for my goodness. As if, ‘let’s discuss this’ works. As if, ‘if we see each other’s points we will find some common ground’ works. It doesn’t work. It never works.
They continued to arrive. The work is to reduce this conversation to a steaming bomb crater. To do this they use the architecture of Facebook to hem out resistance. They are posting and reposting their central thread. They are flooding the lines. Where is the top of the thread now? What is the most recent comment? Which way is the frontline? I can’t see it. All I can see is one central anti-me comment shared and reshared skilfully. It is multiplied over and over so that a reader searching for a beginning or a cause quickly becomes lost, slides back into the deep, churned up mud of the thread. Like a deadfall. Like a trap.
They flanked us, even before we realised that there was anything to flank. Twenty-eight hours after it began Larissa posted a condemnation of anti-trans bullying and a zero tolerance approach. But it’s already over.
The bros turned up too. They turned up to inspect the battlefield and to add their own lazy cruelty before growing bored and slinking off to pick over other corpses. I slunk away too, feeling both that I had ruined the event and also made it untenable to include transwomen in any future event focusing on violence against women.
And yet violence against transwomen and girls is of paramount importance to all women. Transwomen and girls remain the canaries in the coalmine in an international culture war that is attempting to divide women. If we tolerate violence against a section of women because they are different or fall out of what is considered acceptable, we make it easier to tolerate violence against any kind of woman that becomes unacceptable for whatever reason. If we allow our opponents to narrow, legislate and define ‘what is a woman,’ some transwomen will be excluded. What we have seen from bathroom laws across the world, though, is that it is ciswomen who don’t pass, don’t want to pass or dress outside of conventional gender norms, who become the main victims of violence and discrimination.
It’s not just in Australia either. We are in the midst of an international campaign to test out whether positioning transwomen as an existential threat might be useful to distract female voter rage. It sounds absurd when you say it out aloud.
It is true that in Australia, anti-trans campaigning didn’t work out so well for the former government. Three of the six weeks of the federal campaign were dedicated almost entirely to the existential threat trans sportswomen and girls were apparently having on cis-women and girls.
It didn’t matter that for the last five years sports clubs and sports in Australia have welcomed a renaissance in new numbers and popularity due to changes towards more inclusive codes for women, families and the LGBTQI+ community. Old unreflected assumptions about the paramount importance of level playing fields and elite competition seemed to take hold. What after all could possibly be more outrageous to the Australian way of life than unfairness in our hallowed swimming pools or on our netball fields?
But it didn’t work.
One of the reasons perhaps was that the sheer apallingness of unfolding events in the US didn’t leave much of a taste in the Australian electorate for campaigns so overtly discriminatory or clearly traumatising. We could see what was happening in the US and it was ugly. America after all is one place where framing transwomen and girls as an existential threat seems to have found traction. Indeed transwomen have so enraged conservatives as to given them the strength to dare the striking down of Roe vs Wade.
And in the UK there are Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, who after first using the threat of transwomen and girls in sport to winnow out competition in the conservative field, continue to circle closer to Downing St. Whether or not their anti-trans positions will be successful outside of the Tory bubble remains to be seen, but it is not looking good. While in America it is conservatives and the Christian right who use transwomen and girls to divide women, in the UK it is anti-trans women’s rights activists who enable and are enabled by a conservative government.
In Australian politics there are usually two types of anti-trans voices who frame their work around the rights of women. The first and the most politically enfranchised claim is that cis women and girls are discriminated against when transwomen and girls are included in women’s sport or bathrooms. Uncertainty about transwomen and girls in the Australian electorate has created an opportunity for some anti-trans voices to gather support while drawing attention away from their own more marginal religious or conservative positions on women. Catherine Deves in the recent federal election is an example of this. Ex-senator and ex-assistant minister for women Amanda Stoker is another. Tasmanian senator Claire Chandler continues to built a successful brand on this.
But it is the second group that we are talking about when we ask the question, ‘Why Do Women Troll?’
The second group, often described under the umbrella term of TERFs (Trans exclusionary radical feminists), are far less about ideology and far more about trauma.
They are disenfranchised nativists in the same way that movements like One Nation or America’s MAGA movement are disenfranchised nativists. But the important distinction here is that whereas MAGA or One Nation simplify, conflate and fabricate their historical grievances, or might wish to return to a simpler, less complicated age, TERF activists hold to an entirely different position.
Once, a few years ago, I found myself in hospital. There I was cared for by a fantastic team, including one nurse in her mid-20s who also happened to be a cyclist. Not just any cyclist it turned out, but one in the top fifty best in the world. This was confusing and I asked her why she was working as a nurse. She told me that even though she was at the top of her field she could not afford to train and compete full time. Instead, she worked half the year and rode half the year.
But there was more. She had a boyfriend. Her boyfriend was positioned in the top hundred best cyclists in the world. He however could afford to ride and train full time. It was, she told me, just the way things worked.
Whether it is sport, employment, healthcare, retirement or any area of women’s lives you care to mention; women remain second class citizens. Governments do not adequately fund vital services for women. Violence against women, systemic and interpersonal, remains at epidemic levels. Women continue to lose.
When anti-trans voices in the political space bemoan the unfairness and unreasonableness of including transwomen the irony is rarely commented on. A sudden interest in protecting women’s sport from transwomen does not translate into interest in negotiating better conditions or improving funding towards the benefit of sport for all women and girls.
On the other hand, the incandescent rage of anti-trans women’s activists and the trolling I experienced are similar kinds of kneejerk reactions seeking to defend what is seen as the dwindling resources and recognition that ciswomen deserve and need.
If you were to ask me as a woman whether a top fifty international female cyclist should have to work six months of the year while her partner, a top hundred male competitor, has the resources to train and compete all year around I would express anger at such an appalling injustice.
But if you were then to ask me as a woman whether it was fair that trans cyclist Leia Genis, a participant in this year’s Cycling USA competition, should have had her silver medal revoked and her right to compete summarily removed as she waited trackside, I would also express anger and also tell you it was an appalling injustice.
We have been sold the lie that we must choose which of these stories to be appalled by. Therein lies the challenge for women going forward. One of many challenges. Why should we accept that there isn’t enough space, there isn’t enough resourcing? Why should we accept that we have to work six months to compete for six months, or that transwomen can have their hard-won silver medals taken away and our right to compete removed?
Doing everything you can to expunge trans women from women’s sport or from being included in talking about anti-violence against women will never make women’s sport fairer, or decrease violence, or give cis-women one ounce of what they need. Divided we ensure that the real problem, the systemic underfunding and relegation of women’s health, culture and sport remains a secondary concern.
The campaign to distract female voter rage by positioning transwomen and girls as an existential threat is far from decided. We can give them the spectacle they want: a mad scramble of rage and vicious, partisan in-fighting over scraps. Or maybe we can choose something better.