Cis Supremacy, Feminism and Women’s Shelters

I’m a few weeks behind on this, but I really just couldn’t let it pass without comment. It deserves comment, and it needs comment.

Recently, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, a group that provides rape crisis relief, counseling and shelter to battered women and their children, won a court case declaring the right for them to not hire a counselor because she is a trans woman (ads on page may be NSFW).  Not only did they gloat the decision, they also decided to traipse onto Jessica Cooper’s article about trans rights which cited the case, defending their bigotry by using more bigoted excuses.  Excerpts from the two comments, left by two different representatives of the organization, are below (full comments here).

…Ms Cooper’s assertion that because of the decision made by the Canadian courts in favor of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter that “, my brothers, sisters and I can be kicked out of any public space, we can be fired simply for the crime of being ourselves, we can be evicted without recourse and we can be reviled, harassed and physically attacked merely for daring to use a public washroom” is untrue and inaccurate in terms of existing human rights law. While I can empathize with her frustration about society’s prejudices they are not the result of the case brought against us or our actions. The decision that came down meant that women’s groups such as Vancouver Rape Relief and indeed groups of transsexual and transgendered persons have the legal right to determine their own membership. In addition we believe it is important for raped and battered women to have the choice of a women-only peer group for support. Here is a more accurate description of the decision made in this case:

“The Human Rights Tribunal had previously ruled that Rape Relief’s decision to allow into the training program only women who had been born and raised as girls and women was rationally connected to Rape Relief’s work of counseling women victims of sexual assault and fighting male violence and women’s inequality. The Tribunal also held that that Rape Relief’s decision was made in good faith.”

I was very sorry to read of the prejudices and lack of rights Ms. Cooper and all transsexuals must endure. It was a brave and candid article. I greatly appreciate Ms. Cooper sharing her experiences in this way. I am concerned, however, that Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter was referred to out of context and I would like to offer readers another point of view.

Vancouver Rape Relief is an all-female space for women who have experienced male violence. This does not mean the organization is anti-men or anti-transsexual, it just fills a need for women seeking relief who feel they would heal best and are most comfortable in a women-only environment. Vancouver Rape Relief works with many other organizations and supports the objectives of shelters and crisis centres that do not have an all-female policy.

(All emphasis mine.)

I am so fucking sick and tired of “feminist” rhetoric being used to oppress certain women. I am sick of women actively oppressing women.

I am sick of white women oppressing women of color, straight women oppressing lesbian and bisexual women, rich women oppressing poor women, able-bodied women oppressing women with disabilities, young women oppressing older women or older women oppressing young women (as the case may be in particular circumstances), non-immigrant women oppressing immigrant women — and yes, as is most relevant in this context, cis women oppressing trans women.

And then doing it under the name of feminism.

Both writers above engage in the extremely unsubtle erasure of trans women’s gender.  They are treated like a “third gender.”  Not women — but not men either, look how enlightened they are! — just transsexual.  By saying that excluding trans women is for the purpose of creating an all woman environment (and then using the “woman born” bullshit to do it), they are of course saying that trans women are not women.  They don’t count.

I personally do support the right to maintain a woman-only space within the context of a rape crisis support group or domestic violence shelter — particularly with regards to the counselors.  (I don’t, however, support a space where only male violence against women can be discussed — women who have been abused by women also need support and services.)  Not all services are woman-only, I know, and that’s fine, but the fact remains that I would never want to receive post-rape counseling from a man.

The difference between my position though, and the position of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter? That I believe all women are women regardless of trans history or lack there of. Because, you know, they are.

And while the case above was specifically about a woman seeking to become a counselor at VRR, I’m a lot more interested in those women who are going to seek services there and also be denied.  Because VRR does not provide those services to trans women.  And quite clearly, their excuse is right above — they’ve said that “female” does not include trans women under their world view, and that their space is “all-female.”

Do you understand? When women do not receive the crisis counseling they need, when survivors do not get the treatment they often need following rape or other violence, when those who have been abused by partners do not have access to shelters, women die.

They die. We know this. We all know this. It’s why we work so hard to keep shelters open and to keep rape crisis services funded. Because we know that when these services are not available, abuse continues, suffering is extended, and women die.

But it seems like too often, we only give a shit if it’s the right women dying — if it’s cisgender (white and straight with a middle-class upbringing) women like me. If it’s our transgender sisters, significantly fewer people seem to care.

Isn’t the point of feminism supposed to be that women’s lives matter? I mean, when you get down to it? We can say things like feminism is about combating male oppression, or ensuring the social equality of women, but why do we support these things? Because we believe that women and their lives mean something and deserve to be protected.

Indeed, that’s the argument abused used here.  The bullshit excuse is that they want women to feel safe.  Because apparently the emotional safety of prejudiced women who have been abused deserves more credence than the actual physical safety of other women who have been abused.

Why don’t we care as much about protecting the lives of some of the most vulnerable women?  Why don’t we feel responsible when our “feminist” choices are costing the lives of women?  Why?

I know the answer, of course.  It’s transphobia, it’s trans misogyny, it’s cis supremacy.

It’s not hard to figure out, but it’s not any less fucked.  A whole big chunk of the feminist movement is still prioritizing some women over others, and those getting prioritized are still not the most vulnerable.  Privilege is still being abused and oppression still being enacted.  And it’s still killing women.  Killing women.

And those cis women/feminists/womanists among us who don’t want any part of it, who believe that the lives of all women matter equally, need to stand up and fucking say so.

via Questioning Transphobia

0 thoughts on “Cis Supremacy, Feminism and Women’s Shelters

  1. Brandy

    thanks for posting this Cara. The comments left by the two reps for the VRR are so very disturbing.

    I don’t know what to say… I wish I did, but it is so depressing that all I can do is feel like shit that so many women are being treated horribly because other women’s prejudices.

  2. Allison

    If “feminists” can practice this shameless kind of oppression against other women, what does feminism even mean?

    But really, there’s no way to defend feminism when it’s used in the service of bullshit like this.

  3. Renee

    I had not realized that a decision had been made by the supreme court on this issue. The justification of womyn born womyn is just code for we want the right to discriminate. This is completely unacceptable. Thanks for posting this. Coming right on the heels of delisting SRS in Alberta, Canada is become more and more hostile to our transgender citizens.

  4. Jha

    That’s horrible. Especially when one considers that women born women can also be rapists and women born women can also be most active in hurting other women.

    It makes even less sense when one considers the fact that these transwomen have given up male privilege, and are facing intense discrimination as a result. Somehow this doesn’t seem to clue in these ciswomen as to how transwomen would definitely be able to understand the need for safe spaces from victimization. -_-

  5. eruvande

    Please understand that I ask the following out of ignorance, and fully understand that it is not your job to enlighten me…

    I completely support the right of transsexual, transgender, and intersex people to receive help for rape or any other assault, of course.

    My question is this. Other cultures have “third genders,” sometimes consisting entirely of transgendered or intersex people, and some have even managed to treat them like human beings. What exactly is the problem with having a third gender in our own culture? (Again, I don’t ask to be an asshole, I am genuinely wondering.) What would be the implications of treating trans people as a third category, if we were to provide them with all necessary services and counselors that truly understand what they’re going through? Is there already a post out there that addresses these questions that I can read through and educate myself?

    Again, I don’t support the discrimination of this rape crisis center. I fully understand that you cannot (or rather, shouldn’t be able to) refuse someone employment based on what shape their genitalia’s in. And I certainly am not advocating the cordoning off of trans people–just wondering, I guess, why what works for other cultures can’t work for ours.

    1. Cara Post author

      Because in our culture, I’ve never met a trans person who wants to be considered a third gender and do consider themselves a third gender. A vast majority of trans women consider themselves women, period. Trans men consider themselves men. And so they are.

      If trans people are okay with being considered a third gender in other cultures, that is up to them. In Western cultures, it’s just not the case. And to deny them self-identification is wrong. It really is that simple.

      (ETA: genderqueer people often consider themselves to be neither man nor woman, and are often placed under the broad umbrella of “trans,” but even in their case they do not consider themselves a third gender, as is my understanding, but part of a wide array of genders that goes far beyond three.)

      1. Cara Post author

        Oh, and Jha — not to be an asshole, but just so you’re aware. “Women born women” is transphobic code, so it’s best to not use it in any context that doesn’t involve scare quotes or supreme sarcasm. And it can also be offensive as many trans women consider themselves to have been women all of their lives, including pre-transition. Cis women/cisgender women/cissexual women would be the correct term.

      2. Cara Post author

        And to conclude my serial commenting on my own blog, I get that I didn’t put it up there explicitly in the post, and guess I should have, but if we could not have any more 101-esque derails, that’d be great. I would just like to keep this thread off of cis concerns/questions and on trans concerns/issues. Thanks.

  6. sarah

    eruvande: the problem with treating trans men and women as “third genders” when they do not identify themselves as such is that it privileges cis identities over trans identities (saying cis women and men are more “woman” and “man” than trans women and men). It also continues the trend of cis people treating trans identities as malleable to their interests and preferences.

    That said, I do think expanding tolerance for people who identify outside a gender binary is great too.

  7. abby jean

    eruvunde, you could also have found a lot of relevant information here: “”, which i found by googling “trans 101 third gender.” for someone who understands it’s not cara’s job to educate you, you did surprisingly little research before asking a question.

    cara, thanks for posting this. it’s really important to think about how extensive and harmful the repercussions of refusing to accept trans women as trans women (or trans men as trans men) can be. this isn’t just a matter of semantics, this can influence someone’s access to rape crisis services. thinking of a woman being denied rape counseling in the name of feminism is beyond sickening.

  8. L. E. Hairstylist

    It’s awfully convenient how they laud themselves for having a mystical “women born women” only policy as making a magically safe space for said women (as if women with two X chromosomes can’t possibly hurt other women), but seemingly “overlook” the fact that they are outright hurting transwomen–because how many “transwomen only” rape crisis centers are there? I’m willing to guess that the number’s low.

  9. abby jean

    contrast to this statement from a piece by the director of Survivor Project, dedicated to addressing the needs of trans men and women who have experienced domestic or sexual violence:

    “Several years ago, Bradley-Angle House also began to consider serving trans women because they had begun to receive calls from trans-identified survivors. After consideration, BAH made the decision to open its services to anyone identifying as a woman. Erika Silver, BAH’s executive director, identified one of the key reasons for this decision as the organization’s mission statement itself. Silver saw the mission to serve women as inclusive of all women, as defined by the program participants themselves. The wisdom here is recognizing that being defined by others is a common experience of survivors. Giving survivors self-sufficiency skills not only in work or acquiring food or housing, but also in defining personal experiences and identities is a vital part of giving survivors the tools to recognize and set personal boundaries in future relationships.

  10. Kristen

    they are of course saying that trans women are not women.

    That’s what it comes down to. At the heart of most of the transphobic arguments I’ve heard from feminists is this idea that trans women aren’t really women.

    It’s gender policing from feminists…which is just mindbogglingly.

    We can talk around this issue about bathrooms and rape crisis centers…but if we want progress, if we want to be allies as cis women, we have to help change the minds of other feminists about this core issue. I’m just not sure how to go about it. Other than using lots of CAPS and being very snarky and frustrated (which clearly hasn’t helped).

  11. mzbitca

    I worked at a domestic violence shelter for a year and I still have contact with them due to my current job (the rehab for women I run is in the same building).

    As I started to become aware of trans issues I asked them what they would do if a transgender woman needed shelter. The shelter director answered immediately: she would be allowed to enter. It was awesome to hear that.

    They also have male volunteers and workers and there has never been a problem. I do feel that a woman’s desire to be in a safe space is important but not to the detriment of other women. There are some domestic violence shelters that do not allow male children over a certain age which i believe is horrible as it makes a mother decide between safety and her child.

  12. Lyndsay

    Wow, that’s so ridiculous. I went through volunteer training at a shelter in Ontario and being welcoming to all women including trans women and being aware of the different oppressions different women experience was really emphasized. It’s sad to hear it’s not the same everywhere.

  13. queen emily

    I think the thing about this one (and others with a similar rationale, eg the Hanover case in Australia which was later settled) is that what is being asserted is this.

    * cis women have a commonality of womanly experiences that trans women don’t have.

    * cos trans women aren’t women. we’s men and that.

    * cos we’re men, only a trans gender history is properly triggering. So other forms of triggering or threat (eg how “safe” are indigenous women around white women, especially those in positions of power? what about lesbian abusers following survivors into the shelter?) are elided.

    * and of course, trans women are threats, but never threatened. Or if they are, their needs as survivors are less important than “real” women.

    The thing is, this is pretty close to the default setting in many shelters – I did an informal ring around numerous shelters across Australia and found that most had no policies for trans women and that most thought they’d treat trans women as men.

    See in my opinion, cis feminists are directly culpable for contributing (note the word contributing.. there’s way more in play too) to a situation in which trans women fall through the cracks of homeless and DV shelters and end up protected by no-one. Which given our astronomical rates of homelessness and/or abuse is appalling.

  14. Jemima

    Wow, that is an awful situation. One thing is not getting a job (and the basis for her not getting it is so bigoted) but another is that with the same excuse they can exclude trans women from receiving aid at that shelter – and how many more shelters?

    I don’t actually know what the policy is at the shelter I work at. I’ll look into it. How obvious it is that I have the privilege to not know about it, and to not be affected by that lack of knowledge.

    Thanks for bringing this to attention. I have some questions to ask at my shelter now, and depending on the answers some advocacy to engage in.

  15. queen emily

    Jemima, if the answer’s not good, please please please advocate for trans women regardless of surgical status or ability to pass-as-cissexual.

    Many shelters operate on a pre-op man/post-op woman binary, which leaves the poorest and often the most vulnerable trans women (who can’t afford expensive surgery) out in the cold. Some have also been known to accept trans women who look cis (often dependent on access to hormones) but not those who don’t appear cis.

    Both of those make trans women’s access to shelters limited to those with the economic access to extremely expensive healthcare.

  16. Jha

    Cara: Sorry about that – I did mean that phrase sarcastically. =/ I guess I was a bit too reactionary this time. I’ve never actually used that phrase before, only seen it used ironically (especially in reference to MichFest).

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  19. Jemima

    queen emily: Rest assured that is exactly what I’ll advocate for. There’s a meeting tonight and I expect I can get a few answers then, I’ll probably blog about it when I get an answer – no matter which one it is. We should definitely have room for all women, no matter the shape of their genitals.

    Considering that male visitors are allowed eg. fathers, brothers, sons, friends, everyone except the violent partner I don’t see how they could reasonably exclude a pre-op trans woman. It’s not like a trans woman would go around presenting all manly-like anyway, since that’d be kinda opposite to her nature. The only other thing not allowed is having a boyfriend in your personal room there.

    Our shelter functions as a collective and is fairly small, we only have room for 5 at any given time, and these days only 4 because we’re understaffed. We’re running on only about 60% of what we ought to, so were rather busy.

    But anyway, I’ll let you know how it pans out.

  20. Thealogian

    I think that the issue of the “third” gender is interesting, and yet flawed. It is true that in some cultures (in India, in part of Mexico, in part of is it Hungary or Romania–a couple examples that spring to mind where their is a 3rd gender) some human rights are conferred upon those individuals (I emphasize some, like in the Eastern European model, women become the third gender in order to inherit land their son-less fathers wish to bestow upon them without the incumberances that heterosexual-female identity (aka Husband makes the decisions regarding that land) comes with. In that case, this third gender serves as a way to bypass some aspects of the patriarchy (denying women land-rights) by re-enforcing them at the same time (women still can’t have land rights, but this third gender can).

    A third gender has the possibility of simply re-enforcing the boundaries of a “fixed” male/female binary by lumping all “otherness” into that third.

    Many people are starting to think of sexuality as existing along a continuum. I think that we need to work toward getting all of gender toward that same model–a continuum where we all fall under the grand umbrella of “human.” I think that the continuum model is better than fixed catagories, even if there are more than the binary model of two genders, working in opposition to one another.


  21. Kristen

    Because in our culture, I’ve never met a trans person who wants to be considered a third gender and do consider themselves a third gender.

    Not to continue the derail…but I felt like I had to point out that in Hawaii (which I admit is culturally distinct, but still part of “our culture”) the third gender is an important part of the Polynesian threads of local culture. I went to high school with a mahu and ze didn’t like being referred to as male or female. Which isn’t to say that trans women are a third gender (clearly not)…just to point out that the third gender as an identity is sometimes self-descriptive even in the US.

  22. Cara Post author

    Fair enough Kristen, I could have been more careful with the wording.

    Now seriously, further comments engaging with the derail are just going to be deleted. Period.

  23. karak

    I started thinking about how I would feel if I was in a shelter with a no-op, pre-op, or post-op transsexual woman, and then realized I was doing so much navel gazing.

    Did anyone bother to ask the “women born women” in these shelters about this? Did anyone show them a transsexual woman with bruises and tears and ask them, “can she stay here? Are you afraid of her? Or do you, too, feel she’s been victimized?” Or was it merely an abstract question asked without context, if asked at all?

    It’s easier to talk to the grown-ups in charge than to the people we’re trying to help.

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  26. Kristen

    how I would feel if I was in a shelter with a no-op, pre-op, or post-op transsexual woman

    The thing is…how would anyone know? Unless a trans woman discloses her status, how would you know? Some trans women may not “pass” but then some cis women don’t “pass”. I have a cis cousin who is often mistaken for man, particularly when she wears certain outfits to the point where people have stopped her from entering the ladies restroom at a sports bar we used to go to. Should she be denied access to these shelters if she is wearing a green bay jersey and jeans?

    What is it that supposedly makes victims “uncomfortable”? Is it the cissexist (and laughable) view that trans women are perpetrators of violence?

    Is it the cissexist view that all trans women look like men? Is it the “masculine” appearance of some trans women? In which case what about my cousin who also has a “masculine” appearance? What about women who cut their hair short? What about women who don’t have breasts? If it’s an appearance based test of comfort then we’re policing gender in the exact same way that misogynists have since the dawn of time…we’re setting standards of what a woman “should” be rather than accepting women as they are.

    So…misogyny + transphobia = feminism?

  27. SunlessNick

    I don’t really have anything to contribute other than to echo the position that transgender people deserve better than this. But like Cara said, it needs comment, so an echo it is.

  28. karak


    The argument, both for and against transwomen in shelters, is mostly built out of straw men.r

    I believe that when real people are introduced in the equation, and are allowed to see each other and speak to each other, the realization will dawn that ciswomen and transwomen both live at various points on the gender presentation continuum, and that transwomen are not, in fact, men in dresses.

    And, frankly, what makes most women in shelters uncomfortable is the knowledge that someone in that shelter has or had a penis. Because many of them have literally had a penis used as a weapon against them. The *idea* is more intimidating than the reality, I believe.

    And lastly, how would the other women know? It would most likely eventually come out in group therapy or while people were sharing experiences, especially if your partner used your transsexuality as a weapon against you in the abuse.

    1. Cara Post author

      And, frankly, what makes most women in shelters uncomfortable is the knowledge that someone in that shelter has or had a penis. Because many of them have literally had a penis used as a weapon against them. The *idea* is more intimidating than the reality, I believe.

      Which is the same thing as what Kristen said, essentially — the intimidated women see trans women as perpetrators of violence. I mean, I can only conclude, at least in a vast majority of cases, that the fear is not of the penis itself, it’s of the perceived threat that it will be used to enact violence. Because frankly, a lot of women have also been attacked with various object, like belts, or with fists or fingers, kicked with feet, and so on. To the best of my knowledge, those are both objects and body parts that are in fact allowed in such shelters that ban trans women.

      And unless the women in question were assaulted by trans women, I don’t see how such a fear is logical or anything other than seeing trans women as “really men.” And if the woman in question was attacked by a trans woman? Well, other women have been attacked by cis women. But cis women are still allowed such shelters.

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  30. Kristen


    You’re more optimistic about the kindness and understanding of people than I am.

    Re: discomfort. I think there are lots of things that may remind a victim, particularly one suffering from RTS of their experience, many of which may be discriminatory. Will it make some victims uncomfortable? Maybe. Is there discomfort rooted in the trauma of being victimized? For some I’m sure it is, for others the discomfort is transphobia.

    Your experience with shelters and mine must have been different. I’ve rarely worked at shelters that have access to a therapist let alone mandatory group or where all victims talk about what happen to them…too much guilt, shame, and isolation.

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  32. Jemima

    Went to the planning meeting mentioned in my comment above. Turns out only two out of 7 in our group has been there for more than 2 years. And no one knew. There’d never been the need to know. So nobody had a clue about policy on this. I’ll inquire further to make sure that trans women have a safe space at our shelter, too.

    Generally about our shelter: it works as a sort of collective. The women cook together, but that’s about it. If they want to spend their time in their room, that’s perfectly fine, or if they want to go out for the day – fine, too. And it’s not a long way from the rooms to the meeting room, where they might have meetings with social workers, psychologists or child carers.

    It’s also a fairly big and slightly confusing house, you can actually get lost there. It’s an old town house built around the corner of a street, so there are some funny angles and such. I quite like it. But anyway, the point is, you can actually keep to yourself a lot during your stay. Some women are sociable, some are not, some have children, some don’t, some are over 50, some are below 25. There is such a variety of women coming through. And from what I’ve observed, several of the women who’ve been there in the short period of time I have, could have been trans, and we’re none-the-wiser. Some of them talk about themselves and their lives, others are very, very quiet and don’t divulge much – and that’s perfectly okay and no one finds that strange.

    I see no reason whatsoever to bar trans women from entering this shelter. Especially as there are no restrictions regarding male authority persons, male social workers, police officers, fire fighters, relatives are allowed access, so to use the excuse ‘fear of men’ to bar trans women from entering would make life harder for all the women as they’d suddenly be barred from seeing their social workers, and we’d be fucked when the house needs a new roof, ’cause I doubt you can find a company with only female masons…

    Regardless – I’ll keep working on this one.

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