Can Trans Masculine People Get Help At Women’s Crisis Shelters?

By Felix Gilliland

Delving into the topic of trans masculine people in women’s sexual assault crisis centers is uncomfortable; nearly everyone I’ve talked to about it has squirmed a bit awkwardly. That squirming coupled with the shame I feel bringing it up as a trans masculine person who used to spend a lot of time in women’s spaces is how I know I’ve stumbled on a taboo.

I’ve come to see the matter with two different lenses. The first view is zoomed way out, examining big-picture stuff like identity politics and feminist theory, which make it easier to draw a line as to when my presence in women’s spaces would push boundaries. After all, to many people, I look like a man, and women in the immediate wake of an assault aren’t pausing to consider identity politics when they bump into a man at the rape crisis center. But when I zoom back in and looked at my own life, the image gets blurrier, and I can’t tell anymore when exactly I had become too trans to be there. As with many issues, theory can’t capture the whole truth.

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A few years ago, I volunteered at a sexual assault center in Vancouver on their crisis line. It was fulfilling work and I dove headfirst into the feminist theory that guided our practice there. But I had a secret — around the same time, I started thinking about transitioning. I confided in my then-partner, but nobody else, because I didn’t know how to face the impending loss of my feminist community. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to want to stay in women’s spaces, I was supposed to want to pass completely and fit in with men. Eventually I came to identify as non-binary, because every time I tried to draw the line between being a dyke and an FTM, I found it ran straight through my body, splitting me into two halves that could never function on their own. I couldn’t separate my past — 24 years of womanhood — from my future as a man, and I only found peace when I learned to hold them both.

I kept my gender troubles secret as long as I could. Then I was sexually assaulted. I quit the crisis line, telling my volunteer coordinator that it was too much in the wake of what had happened, which was a partial truth. The whole truth, of course, was that I wasn’t sure the offer of counseling and support would stand if I was honest about my gender.

This question stuck with me for the next three years. Recently, a friend told me that the nearby Victoria Sexual Assault Center (VSAC) had introduced a policy of inclusion for all trans people. This reignited my thinking about the issue of trans masculine people in women’s spaces. Since my time volunteering, I’ve come out, taken hormones for a few years, had some surgery, and landed on an identity of “queer transmasculine.” As my gender these days is far from a secret, I decided to ask around different centers to find out what their policies are.

The first person I got in touch with was Alexa Robin, the trans inclusion coordinator from VSAC, who told me in an email that, “any attempts to challenge sexualized and gender-based violence needs to be inclusive of all those impacted by it, which includes trans, two-spirit, and gender nonconforming folks.” Since the change, all of their services have been available to all trans people, along with cis women, without the need to self identify any more than that.

However, not all centers align with VSAC’s policy.

I can also empathize with these views. As we as a feminist community confront this question of whether or not to expand our borders, or whether or not trans masculine people already fall within those borders, we’re asking ourselves what matters more in terms of experiences: then, or now.

It’s true that I don’t experience male gaze like I used to, and, even though I often forget, it’s true that I have much less to worry about, say, walking alone at night, than my femme friends do. When I’m read as a cis man, I don’t experience rape culture nearly the same as women do.

When I zoom out like that, I see how centers would not want me there. But when I zoom back in, and look at my own life, I see that my male privilege comes and goes with passing, which can depend on what shirt I put on in the morning.

Regardless of whether or not I’m passing, I feel the trauma of sexual assault. When I was assaulted, it was by a man who thought I was a woman, and it carries all the same baggage as if I were. I carry with me the complex trauma of being socialized as a woman: the predatory eyes and fingers on me when I was too young, the constant messaging to be smaller and quieter, to see myself only as men do. All the stuff that rape crisis centers are tackling along with the acute trauma of sexual assault.

That’s the thing about trauma — it makes it so we can’t tell the difference between past and present. The brain asks itself if that same trauma could be happening again. And it doesn’t care about your pronouns.

***

The central question revolves around what the access point is for women’s spaces: Is it identity, experience, or how we are read by others? I see this play out most often as a complex mix of the three, with no single criteria as a benchmark determiner of access.

Asking people to self-identify into gendered spaces is a double-edged sword: It allows people to opt in, but it is also a convenient way to avoid confronting the trickier conversations that might make room in women’s spaces for people like me, who can identify as a woman, sort of, sometimes.

I worry about drawing a line around lived experience, as that’s a line often trotted out with the purpose of excluding trans women, and it doesn’t take into account the broad range of women’s experiences around other factors, like race, ability, and class.

As for how we are read, it seems dangerous to place our access point in the hands of those who would harm us, and I hate the idea of stranger’s reactions to me dictating where I can be, especially when that reaction has been known to change from one day to the next. Still, some days I get cat-called, and other days I don’t, and it makes a difference. There are no easy answers here.

***

After VSAC, I spoke with Women Against Violence Against Women, a rape crisis center here in Vancouver. Their policy is pretty straightforward: they serve self-identified women, and they don’t police that identity. If you’re OK to be called a woman, you’re OK to be there. The mandate for their hospital accompaniment — where they will take you to the hospital for a rape kit, along with a feminist advocate — is broader. As they put it in an email to me:

“We understand that — in a patriarchal, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic society — femininity in any body, in any expression is targeted, controlled, and regulated through violence. Therefore, we can accompany non-binary transmasculine survivors to the Sexual Assault Service at Vancouver General Hospital if they feel that the violence they experienced was motivated by violence against women.”

It was a relief to me to know that others were thinking about this enough to generate conversations within centers. There have been times when I thought I was the only trans masculine person who cared about women’s spaces, or the only feminist who thought about opening up our borders.

I called Vancouver Rape Relief, another organization in Vancouver, about this issue and discovered that they didn’t have a policy because the issue had just never come up. Now, it would be an understatement to say that VRR has a poor relationship with the trans community; they have very publicly excluded trans women in what culminated in a legal battle in the ’90s when they fired a volunteer after finding out she was trans.

When I spoke to them on the phone, they said that they would be willing to open their doors to trans masculine people because, “anybody who was born a female has quite a lot in common with women, at least until the point of transition . . . they know what it is to be born in the body of a female, and all the violence or risk of violence that comes with it.” But they also said they didn’t have a firm policy, because it just hadn’t come up — a factor that I’m willing to chalk up to trans people across the spectrum acting in solidarity with trans women more than any lack of need for services.

VSAC, for its part, says that trans masculine people do use their services. Again in their words, they’ve “had trans folks (including transmasc folks) both employed and accessing services here since then, and although there was some fear about ‘losing our identity’ at the start of the project I feel opening our services to more folks has actually served to strengthen it.”

What sexual assault centers responded with consistently was to suggest that there are simply more appropriate services available. Why would I want to be in a woman’s space, when there are queer-focused spaces, or sexual assault services for men? Why try to convince everyone that I am a sheep in wolf’s clothing when I could save myself the hassle, and them the discomfort?

It’s a good point. Here in Vancouver it seems that there is something for everyone and I could easily go somewhere more tailored to my non-binary identity. But I worry that those services aren’t available in smaller towns, so I keep challenging the narrative that women’s spaces are for binary women only. I also challenge the idea that non-binary people are new to these spaces, when medical transition only makes us more visible: our bodies and our words to describe ourselves have (sometimes) changed, but we have been in women’s spaces, from the closet to Stonewall and right through the second wave, to now.

The truth is, my reasons for wanting to be in women’s spaces haven’t changed from the time I was a woman. My friend Andi, an activist and writer who is working to expand access to the women’s center in their community, the Kootenays in BC, speaks about the sacredness of women’s spaces — that we have a long history of rallying around each other, and that being oppressed by our gender has meant that we come together in resilience. I get tired of leaving communities every time I come out of another closet, and I don’t want feminism to be another hometown that I never visit.

In my perfect world, my complex gender experience is visible when I want it to be and invisible when I don’t. Of course it doesn’t work that way. As my gender develops, it expands, encompassing new identities without necessarily losing the old, which makes sense on paper but doesn’t translate well to real life.

We, the feminist community, have been constantly challenged to grow as we explore our complex identities, and I hope that progress won’t stop at my weekly hormone injection. As Jean Bobby Noble says in Sons of the Movement, “I am not here as a trans-sexual man knocking at the door of the feminist movement asking to be let it. I have been in, of, and indeed, have been the feminist movement.”

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Lead image: Pixabay

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