If you wear jeans, you’re not a woman: Transphobia at women’s shelters

The case of a women’s shelter in Maine handily demonstrates the true inanity of policing gender via its expression:

But the women who complained said they believe that in at least one case, it was a ruse. They believe one of the people in question is a man who occasionally dresses as a woman to get into the shelter, perhaps for voyeuristic reasons. That person did not have any feminine mannerisms and often dresses in a T-shirt and jeans, sporting a 5 o’clock shadow of male facial hair, they said.

“If they’re really living as a woman, I think they have every right to be there,” said one of the women who complained. “But he wasn’t wearing makeup or wearing eyeliner or anything. Just a man wearing a skirt. It was just odd.”

Let’s take a moment to consider the following advertisement.

levis-womens-jeans“Women’s jeans”? This is clearly a contradiction – anyone wearing jeans, logically, cannot be a woman. Note also this recent photo of Lady Gaga without makeup.

rs_634x851-130724115515-634.LadyGaga.mh.072413In the absence of any eyeliner, how can we possibly accept that Lady Gaga is a woman?

Oh, that’s right – nobody questions or doubts the very genders of cis women who wear shirts and jeans, or don’t put on makeup. That unique treatment is reserved for trans women. Cis women can dress as they choose, and while they too are scrutinized no matter how they present themselves, none of this is seen as invalidating the fact of their womanhood. When cis women wear jeans, nobody claims they’re actually men. Yet trans women are held to a higher standard: the jeans and shirts that would be acceptable for cis women now only erode our own legitimacy as women.

Cis genders are solid and stable enough to withstand any change of dress, but trans genders are seen as so flimsy that the mere absence of makeup can upend them. We thus face the dichotomy that we must be either far more exaggeratedly, stereotypically feminine than is expected of other women, or risk being treated as “men”. What sense does this make? It is an instance of cissexism: the attitude that cis people’s genders are more real, more important, and generally superior to those of trans people.

Shelters are a crucial and necessary resource for homeless, abused, and vulnerable women, and it’s very important that these shelters remain safe for their residents. These concerns are also not exclusive to cis women. Trans women need these shelters just as badly – and they need them to be a truly safe place to stay.

In a 2011 survey of 6,450 transgender Americans, 22% of trans women reported experiencing domestic violence due to being transgender. 19% of respondents had been homeless at some point in their lives, a number which rose to 48% among those who had suffered domestic violence.

A significant portion of trans women will require the services of shelters at some point in their lives. However, 34% of trans women who had attempted to access shelters were denied entry outright. Of the respondents who did manage to access a shelter, 25% were evicted after it became known that they were trans. 55% were harassed by shelter staff or residents, and 29% of trans women were physically assaulted. 26% were sexually assaulted at shelters. Overall, 47% were treated so poorly that they chose to leave the shelter.

Again, this took place in shelters that are intended to serve as a safe, supportive environment for abused and vulnerable women. Think about what that means: At least one in four trans women in shelters have been physically or sexually assaulted while residing at the shelter.

Many trans women are clearly in need of these shelters, and they urgently need these shelters to be a safe place to stay. But in pursuing the wholly valid and important goal of ensuring the safety of shelter residents, too many people have mistakenly viewed trans women as a problem, a danger, a threat. In rightfully seeking to keep women safe, they’ve wrongfully treated trans women as inherently suspicious un-women, refusing to see them as women who are just as much in need of support as everyone else there.

Fortunately, the shelter in Maine has refrained from casting doubt on trans women’s genders, and treats them as equally legitimate and worthy of respect. Yet the exclusion and mistreatment of trans women at shelters remains a widespread problem. The concerns that lead to this mistreatment neglect the reality of the situation: trans women are not the threatening ones at women’s shelters. They are the threatened ones.

And the more that people engage in this hostile, insipid questioning of trans women’s pants or makeup choices, the fewer trans women will be able to access these much-needed services during some of the most difficult times in their lives. This isn’t protecting women – it’s failing them.

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