Transition Reactions p7: Feeling unsafe vs. Being unsafe

Content Notice: Abuse and violence of all stripes.


I haven’t had a great year, so far. I left an abusive relationship in which I was sexually assaulted, and my vindication (snark) was to lose my chosen family because I spoke out about it. I had all the sting of family rejection–plus a generous helping of self blame. After all, I chose them. I don’t even have the excuse that they were thrust upon me by circumstance. I trusted them, and was rewarded with cold shoulders, victim-blaming, “taking no side”ism, etc. I had trusted friends tell me they believed my story and then… nothing. My abuser was still welcome at every venue we shared. “No drama” became the watchword. Shouting me down was the response any time murmurs of coming forward surfaced. That’s what my reputation became: dramatic, a ticking time bomb. Unreliable. Untrustworthy. Don’t play with her, she’ll malign you over a silly mistake (a “silly mistake” that has landed me in trauma counselling). Soon the rumours make a round trip through all the lovely cogs of rape culture and I get the freeze for “spreading rumours.”

Trying to grapple with that and the fallout of leaving an abusive relationship, including the PTSD?

Yeah. 2016–worst year of my life. And it’s not even over.

During all that I lost gainful employment, just as the economy started to really tank. What was painful about that was that it was a work place where I could be openly trans. I swore off the private sector after routinely being told to endure abuses from my coworkers. My boss basically said it was on me to go back in the closet if I wanted the workplace harassment to stop. Government employers actually did something about it, when it happened. And non-profit? I’ve never had a problem with a bigoted coworker. After all you don’t get far working for crisis resources by being an insensitive asshole. Emotional intelligence is a prerequisite.

I flirted with the idea of sex work, even dipped my toe in. Ultimately the main deterrent was not that I didn’t enjoy it (being a Dominatrix is very entertaining, actually) but rather that the sex work community is small. Very, very small. Small enough that my abusive ex, herself a Dominatrix, likely reached every BDSM escort in the city with news of my “instability” and “treachery.” It would be difficult for me to make friends while my ex was gleefully assassinating my character. In sex work, making friends is literally a survival technique. Clients are less likely to try any funny business when you operate in a cooperative, knowing that their credit card info and address are all on the records of a “legit” business, or if they know there’s another sex worker nearby operating as a safe call. As if the risk of being both trans and a sex worker wasn’t enough, I wouldn’t even be able to mitigate those risks with all the usual methods voluntary sex workers use to keep themselves safer because my ex was an established Dominatrix and had the city’s whisper network wrapped around her little finger.

No job, no money, no food, no family, no support. Freshly traumatized, acutely depressed, dwindling options. The only thread between me and homelessness was a generous landlord who allowed me to postpone rent for a while.

“For a while.” Doesn’t make you sleep easy, knowing the wafer thin barrier between you and homelessness is the finite generosity of another person.

(I’m okay now, btw. Caught up on rent and bills and gainfully employed once again).

I say all this because I want to give you some context for this next Transition Reactions. The entire point of the TR series is to remind you the stats aren’t just stats to me. I live those numbers about rape and homelessness and relationship violence and employment discrimination and on and on. I know the numbers because when calls for evidence are genuine, I understand. I still think it’s callous to need the numbers to trust minorities, but whatever–I put my money where my mouth is. I am an empiricist, after all. But it’s not just numbers or graphs on a page to me. Those stats are the acquaintance who has committed suicide, the beloved community member murdered by a suitor, the support group participants who curl up into a ball and cry because they are shit on, everywhere they go. You’ll need this context when we explore the issue of being unsafe vs feeling unsafe.


Bill 7 and The Facebook Post

Bill 7 was proposed by the Alberta NDP to amend the Alberta Human Rights Act to include “gender identity and expression” among the protected entities in Alberta law. This would’ve been shortly after the election in winter 2015. A Facebook post makes the rounds, a terrible story about a woman who had been sexually abused by her father and again later on in life by her ex husband. The story was specifically written and shared in response to Bill 7. The woman argued that allowing trans women access to women’s spaces would retraumatize her, because–in her narrative construct–it was “male bodies” that inflicted the violence. Trans women, she went on to argue, would make her spaces unsafe and unfit for healing.

The comments were nothing but kiddie gloves. She was praised for having the strength to share her story (which is an important part of healing). It was difficult to dissent openly. She had framed the debate as one of her pain, meaning to disagree with her was to imply her pain didn’t matter. I was dismayed to see the post, understanding that the conversation was a sprint across No Man’s Land, and a lot of people had their machine gun nests ready.

I’m sure if the soldiers in WW1 had a choice, they wouldn’t follow that order either.



I knew I needed help when I was headed home on the bus one day after picking up a basket from the food bank. A teen sat behind me, chewing bubblegum. She popped a bubble–loudly. The last time I heard a pop that loud, it was from a hunting rifle. The sudden and abrupt noise loosened my tenuous grip on my emotions and memories of a similar smacking sound from being slapped in the face rushed to the foreground of my mind. I nearly burst into tears.

From bubblegum.

Don’t get me wrong–pre-abuse me would be annoyed as fuck at this teen. Not only was the noise generally annoying to me, but this inconsiderate asshole was exercising her talent of bubble-popping-like-thunder-strike in a closed space. Her actions were rude. But a proportionate response is annoyance, not sheer fucking panic. I sure as shit wasn’t “annoyed” that day. I cried in the shower for an hour.

Imagine, then, if I called for the universal banning of bubblegum from buses. Plenty of people chew gum without popping bubbles, or they pop bubbles without sounding like god damn buck shot, or they dispose of their gum responsibly instead of sticking it under the seat. They would be perturbed if my call to ban bubblegum worked.

I understood that in this case a healthy sense of boundaries might mean asking her to tone it down, but that my panic that I was about to die was not reasonable or rational. I was in no more danger than usual. I felt unsafe, but I recognise that feeling was not reasonably informed based on my current circumstances. In this case, there is an obvious gap between feeling unsafe and being unsafe. Whatever my ideal healing narrative would require, I figured a phobia for bubblegum popping was not a concession I was willing to make.

Of course, bubblegum can’t complain, nor is it an intrinsic quality to a bubblegum chewer’s humanity.


The Transphobic Rallying Cry

The entire construct of biosex being understood as “an” incontrovertible fact is a bludgeon which is used repeatedly to deny trans folk their identities and agency. Most people think you’re lying when you say binary sex is a social construct. There’s a few myths embedded in this response: the first is that a social construct has no consequences (they do); the second is that sex is binary (it’s not). Actual human sex determination is governed by thousands of moving parts–many different genes and signalling molecules communicate to one another during fetal development as well as afterwards. The notion of men = penis and woman = vagina was a concept that was conceived before we knew about these moving parts, when penises and vaginas were all that we could observe. We know better now. It’s more complex than that, which means the way most people understand biosex is actually a social construct projected over reality for the sake of simplicity. Trans people, by virtue of being the exceptions to the rule, are not served by this simplicity.

This comes into play during the Facebook woman’s healing narrative. She was hurt by “male bodies.” The concept itself is very nebulous. The actual genetic qualities–the immutable property unfairly projected onto trans women–were never measured, and seldom are. When she says “male bodies,” she is not referring to biological reality where the genes and chromosomes and developmental milestones of her father and ex-husband were screened and measured and were incontrovertibly found in 100% conformity with what we call maleness. She is instead referring to the inference of those properties condensed in the social construct of assuming bodies & minds exist uniformly when they house a penis. Penis = man, man = dangerous.

Without this construct, she would still be perfectly justified in feeling unsafe around her abusers. After all, she has ample evidence that she will be unsafe if she were to return to their lives. They’ve hurt her. Repeatedly. In that case, the feeling of being unsafe can be safely linked to actually being unsafe.

However, she was not abused by disembodied penises, testosterone, or the Y chromosome. She was abused by two men, the responsibility of which is on her perpetrators and their enablers specifically. 

The first person to rape me was a man who subscribed to toxic masculinity, and he felt he earned access to my body, so he took it despite by protestations. The second person to rape me was a woman who interprets all boundary-setting as a personal attack that warrants retribution. In other words, the core property of either abuser was not a loose approximation of their sex determination, but severe entitlement attitudes. That is certainly more common of men in general, but it is not a property inextricably tied to so-called male bodies or the various attributes inferred when one is clocked as “male.” There is no rapist gene, nor does it sit on the Y chromosome.

And so we fall into the gap between being unsafe and feeling unsafe. By Facebook Woman’s construct, I am a “male”–yet the crime statistics around trans women suggest I am 5-6 times more likely to be a victim of sexualised violence and even less likely to be a perpetrator of it than her, a cisgender woman. The trend is even more exaggerated if you compare me to cis men. There is absolutely no data to suggest that trans women are as likely or more likely than cis men to be sexually violent. On the contrary, the trans community experiences staggeringly disproportionate rates of victimization and nearly all criminal convictions for trans women are either related to sex work or nonviolent petty crime. All the evidence seems to suggest that Facebook Woman’s demographic is more dangerous than mine, yet I am the one painted as unsafe through a process of violent misgendering. It’s not abnormal to be wary of cis men–they account for an overwhelming number of serial abusers and rapists, which also account for an overwhelming amount of sexualised violence–BUT TRANS WOMEN ARE NOT CIS MEN, and this is reflected in crime statistics.

If anyone here should possess a rational fear, it’s me. Yet I am perfectly amenable to share my healing spaces with Facebook Woman–on the condition she stop calling me male and invoking the rallying cry of people who wish to do me harm. Contrast Facebook Woman, who has reduced my existence to an existential threat, a male body guilty by association because penis (which she isn’t even sure I have–I’m not exactly wandering around naked), that cannot peacefully coexist in her healing spaces. I’m her bubblegum on the bus: A fictional danger triggered by real trauma.

Unlike bubblegum, I have needs too, especially as a survivor.


Transgender Reality as a Victim

Don’t get me wrong, people are still routinely assholes to victims nowadays. But one of the products of feminism over the past century has been a response to the numerous traps laid for women. We have women’s only shelters, support groups, colleges, counselling. Our clinical understanding of trauma has made recovery more successful than ever (if still arduous and flawed). Yet even these limited advances, which often still fail cis women, are even less accessible to trans women because of victims like Facebook Woman.

Remember the only boundary I set for sharing a space with Facebook Woman was that she not call me male. She has responded by saying she will not share at all. In essence, respecting her boundary means throwing me to the wolves; respecting mine, means gently correcting her while she’s upset. The injustice would be immediately recognized if Facebook Woman asked for her support group to exclude a black woman because black people scare her. 

Neither of us is more or less deserving of support, but only one of us is employing a rationalization that causes harm for others. I pose merely a fictional, imagined threat to her, while denying me access to these support services exacerbates my risk for suicide or continuous abusive relationships.

The entire rational case for No Men spaces is that there is an observable elevated risk they will be abusive; this data is not corroborated when you narrow your focus to trans women. Fearing us as an elevated abuse risk is irrational as long as that fear isn’t coupled with the unsettling revelation that abusers come in all shapes and sizes–including women’s support group participants. But if that’s truly the fear preventing you from access support groups, you wouldn’t single out trans women specifically.

The truth is, I have to learn with living with loud and sudden noises. Nobody’s going to ask me politely before setting off fireworks, cranking up their bass, screaming, ripping out the mufflers in their overcompensating trucks or doing whatever other obnoxious noisy shit people do, up to and including popping bubblegum. It doesn’t invalidate my trauma, it merely suggests that I have no reason to be pants-shittingly afraid of loud, sudden noises per se. It means when I encounter them, I can be mindful of my surroundings and observe that I am (relatively) safe because most loud sudden noises are innocuous. People popping bubblegum are not my ex girlfriend winding up to smack me across the mouth; nor are trans women secretly plotting to rape you. We need these spaces because we are hurt, too. And unfortunately, transness isn’t something that can be removed as easily as a piece of gum. I want to draw a specific boundary referring to specific words in reference to me. I don’t feel it is fair to expect me or my needs to vanish in a puff of smoke because another victim is–literally–transphobic.