Expanding the Phrase “Violence Against Women”

By Lauren Chow (MNCASA Prevention Intern)

About a month ago, at the NYC Dyke March, a controversial incident took place that sparked a lot of debate on the internet. What exactly happened? Cathy Brennan, a radical feminist known for her anti-trans* rights stance, was approached by – and consequently engaged in a shouting match with – a group of trans women and allies. Brennan later claimed that the women assaulted and sexually harassed her, demanding that the Dyke March be for only “women born women”. Her logic behind this is that trans women are ‘really’ men trying to gain access to women-only spaces to sexually assault them.

Clearly, there is some faulty logic going on when a woman refuses to recognize another woman’s gender identity.

This occurrence is sadly only one of a whole host of transphobic incidents that have taken place within the feminist movement. Trans women have historically been excluded from many “women’s” spaces and/or “lesbian” gatherings on the basis of their gender. That is misogyny. (Trans-misogyny to be specific, but misogyny regardless.)

Let’s look back to another time in history for a moment. In 1920, feminists celebrated the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment which gave women the right to vote. What many people overlooked, though, was that Black women did not gain the right to vote until the 1960s; “women” in the Amendment really meant “white women.” This huge injustice shows us that at that time, the feminist movement was not truly for all women, only some (the ones with more privilege in American society).

Now, we are facing the same struggle with merely a different mask: “women” apparently means “cisgender women,” as well as often white upper-middle class women. What is a movement that invalidates the very people it is supposed to be fighting for? “Women” are not a homogenous entity, and we must respect all the diversity that lies in that one word.

Much rather than being the ones to sexually assault other women as Cathy Brennan thinks, trans women are in reality the ones being sexually assaulted at an extremely high rate – and trans women of color even higher within that. We don’t even have comprehensive statistics on general violence against trans women thanks to significant barriers to reporting, like 28% of trans* people being harassed in doctors’ offices or 6% being treated unequally in rape crisis centers. If the very places where trans women would seek to get help for sexual assault are not safe, then what place is?

This is not to mention the violence against trans women in places that are not built to be safe spaces. Trans* people are more likely to have contact with police because of their higher risk for being homeless, sexually exploited, or victims of violent crime; if they are arrested, they are often put into the wrong side of gender-segregated prisons, where they are more likely to be sexually harassed because of their gender non-conformity, and/or denied their prescribed hormones. All of these injustices have happened to CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman who has been unfairly treated by the criminal justice system for over a year now after being accused of murder despite numerous activist campaigns around the country on her behalf. How many other CeCes are out there that don’t have people advocating for them who are suffering just because of their gender?

Violence against trans women arises from the same root causes we talk about in sexual violence prevention all the time: normative ideas about gender and how people are supposed to fit into those. When trans women don’t conform to the gender roles society has assigned to them, they do not have the same power and privilege as cis people. This power differential manifests itself in depressing rates of sexual violence. Violence against trans women is violence against women.

So next time you hear or say the phrase “violence against women,” keep our trans sisters in mind as well. Let’s fight for gender equality together – all of us.


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