I am one of the women who protested against SB 132 at the Golden Gate Bridge in early February.
My time got monopolized by two idiotic and antagonistic men.
I’m not going to make a list of every non-sequitur, strawman and ignorant take, but I’ll note a few things:
– These guys wanted to talk AT us. They had no interest in listening to our responses, even when they asked us questions.
– One of them has a TIF (trans-identified female, or “transman”) daughter, yet he thinks that there is no problem with men in women’s spaces, and that TIFs should be in men’s spaces. It is scary how little men acknowledge male violence against women. (Of course, if the notion of male violence is ridiculous pearl-clutching, why are they clutching their pearls about violence against TIMs, or transwomen? From what are TIMs escaping by using female prisons, bathrooms and other spaces?)
– To that point, the other dude said that he owns a homeless shelter in SF(!!!). And yet he compared us – women defending what tiny amount of protection and dignity female inmates have – to people 50 years ago “fighting against people dancing” and said that the world “would advance regardless”. I feel terrible for the homeless women who end up in his shelter. Homeless women are horribly vulnerable and have a dire need for their own spaces.
Of course, the world doesn’t just “advance”, all linear and effortless. I wish it did. The reason that women stood out in the cold that day, some of them risking their incomes, to re-demand the sex-based rights and protections that were fought for by feminists before us, is because progress and liberation, especially women’s, are usually met with a conservative backlash. Scott Wiener, California senator and author of SB 132, is that backlash.
These men at Golden Gate Bridge, ranting and sneering at women speaking up for the women being assaulted and raped in prison, shouting at an elderly woman that she has no compassion, telling me that I am the reason trans youth are killing themselves…. are no different than the men who intimidated, mocked and called manhaters the previous generations of protesting feminists. Because while those women made incredible strides, not enough awareness was raised and maintained in broader society about the extent of the sexism we face every day. Likewise, little has changed in the attitudes of men towards women. And so, as I’ve said before, we are back at square 1, having to argue for our rights all over again. It’s sad, it’s scary, it’s depressing.
– In discussing the hypothetical situation of a transwoman being housed in a female prison, the father of the TIF twice used the pronoun “he”. I had to remind him that he should be using the pronoun “she” if he believes that this person is a woman. One of them also commented that it “wasn’t fair” to punish all transwomen for the doings of a few, in the sense that if a few of them raped female inmates after being transferred, the others should not be “punished” by being excluded from female prisons. The assumption is that, by default, men have a right to women’s spaces. That only the proven rapist can, perhaps, justifiably be excluded. In other words, the assumption is that women do not have an inherent right to our own spaces. A space in which we don’t have to shower, sleep, or use the toilet in front of any man. If I am forced to shower in front of a man, nothing more needs to happen for it to be a violation.
My exchanges with these white knights highlighted what has been made obvious these past years: This was always about men’s rights–or rather, men’s privileges. They can say “transwomen are women” until they’re blue, but there is not a single category of woman for whom they agitate this much and in this way.
In the past three years, every time that I have read about a woman in prison being raped, assaulted or harassed by a male inmate, and every time that I have read about a convicted rapist or other violent male being housed in a woman’s prison, I have thought about Hope, the editor who dropped me from her book at the request of her publisher because of my gender critical writing. Hope didn’t care about female inmates and others harmed by gender ideology; she only cared about doing what was convenient for her.
When Hope questioned me about my views, she scoffed and laughed, acted incredulous and as though I were ridiculously uninformed. This was in 2020. I had been following the “gender wars” for about 4 years, but Hope was convinced that she knew more than I did, and she would not give me even the benefit of doubt. Hope is a California resident who did not believe that Self ID (which is the basis of SB 132, introduced a year earlier, and a number of local policies) is real. She was “sure” that there were “protocols” to determine who is trans. Feminists have spent years writing and talking about Self ID, yet most people still believe that “transwomen” are all men who have had surgery and take hormones. Our claims can be verified with minimal research, but instead we get dismissed as crackpots.
Hope and I were both active in the animal rights movement, and long before our conversation on gender identity, I had mused that she had the sort of overconfidence and entitlement that, in the US, is associated with white men. And now, attending my very first feminist protest, I ended up the captive audience of two such men.
To be a woman in the world is to suffer fools, to be a female activist is to suffer them doubly.
White guy #1, father of the TIF, kept snickering, walking away, and coming back when he thought he had a good “gotcha”. He said he was an “expert” in “sexual orientation”. I asked him what sexual orientation had to do with it, since trans identity is about gender identity, and trans people can be of any orientation. He didn’t answer. He asked us with a smirk ‘so you think that a transman in a men’s prison would be in “mortal danger?”’ Silly women, thinking men are dangerous! But somehow it’s not silly to pass a bill based on that very premise (Scott Wiener has repeatedly framed it as protecting transwomen from rape) if the bill is about protecting males from male violence. (Of course, the same hypothetical male inmate who would rape transwomen can now also identify his way into a female prison…)
The vast majority of the public does not want this. If women were not systematically ignored, silenced and dismissed, we would not be where we are today.
Women’s concerns about male violence have long been dismissed as hysteria, bigotry, or prudishness, and proponents of Self ID laws and policies followed the playbook from day 1. SB 132 grants inmates the right to be recognized as the “gender” that they identify as at that point in time (indeed, they can identify differently later), which entails being referred to with the pronouns of their choice and being searched by a prison guard of their “same gender” (the rights of female prison guards are of course completely overlooked, and they can now be forced to perform these procedures on male inmates). In regards to where they are to be housed, trans-identified inmates can choose men’s or women’s facilities based on where they feel “safest”.
After SB 132 was passed in the California Senate in May 2019, the co-sponsors “converted it to a two-year bill so that the co-sponsors and Senator Wiener could meaningfully integrate feedback collected from a survey of the ~1,200 trans, gender-nonconforming and intersex people currently in CDCR custody.”
Not only did Wiener not consult with incarcerated women, WOLF reported that during a virtual town hall, “in his four-and-half minute response on SB 132, Wiener did not once address the concerns of these women. Instead, the state senator resorted to smearing the women bravely speaking up on this issue.” He handwaved women’s concerns with vague and lazy misrepresentations: “Unfortunately there’s been a right-wing backlash against this law and we have right-wing publications that are publishing a lot of just inaccurate information, frankly fake news, about this law and trying to demonize and scapegoat trans people including, unfortunately, there’s a term called ‘TERF,’ trans-exclusive radical feminist people who believe that trans women are not actually women and advocate in that way.” “These are the same arguments we heard in North Carolina restroom law, that trans women are just trying to scam their way into a women’s restroom to victimize cisgender women.”
In other words, and I am going to use words to which we can all agree, when a person who was born with a penis says that they are in danger, they are to be believed, no questions asked, and they are to decide which facilities they will live in, no questions asked. But when a person who was born with a vagina says that they are in danger, they are to be dismissed as bigots, liars and connivers.
Amie Ichikawa, ED of Woman II Woman, said “The terror, abuse, and cruelty incarcerated women are experiencing because of Scott Wiener’s bill is not ‘fake news.’ I speak to these women every single day. They are devastated. They don’t understand how their elected officials, especially those who claim to care about justice reform and protecting women of color, could turn a blind eye to what is happening here.” Amie and others also point out, in this discussion about a trans-identified female inmate who was retaliated against for speaking out against sexual harrassment committed by a male inmate, that those behind SB 132 have zero concern for trans-identified females; their efforts are solely for the benefit of trans-identified males.
This is basic, age-old sexism. And it’s infuriating.
But– Amie sent photos of our protest to incarcerated women who were “shocked” and “very moved that anyone would do this for them”. They asked, “Who are these women? Why would they stand up for us?” And Amie replied, “They are women who give a shit and are doing something about it.”
So, the action was very much worth it, but we need to find ways to reach larger audiences with more effective messaging. We should try to ask questions of those who think they are on the other side: Let the Socratic method reveal to them how little they know and how illogical and sexist their thought process is. In our communications overall, it’s important to undo the notion that removing women’s spaces is in any way a progressive development. Women’s human rights are being violated. It is not more complicated than that. We, as women and as advocates, have been harmed by the narrative pushed by both transactivists and the traditional conservatives (I explained here how these are simply two flavors of conservative) that the only people opposing this are conservatives. They both benefit from this framing and from distorting or making invisible the work and arguments of feminists.
It is noteworthy that most of the people who expressed support for us that day were women, but they didn’t engage much, and the very first people to approach us were an enthusiastic family visiting from the UK – or “Terf Island” as they said. These actions build community and give people comfort and strength in knowing they are not alone. There need to be more.
It’s ironic that white guy #2 compared us to the stuffy adults in Footloose, because I am partly from a country that imprisons people for dancing–now, in 2023. It is precisely this fact, and the killing of women who refuse to cover their hair, and the killing of youth who protest the tyranny, that strengthens my resolve to face my minor discomforts and put myself out there. Defending the human rights of female prisoners in California is part of the struggle for women everywhere. Here like in Iran, women are oppressed on the basis of being born in a female body. The woke love to masquerade as allies to “women of color”, but by denying the reality of sex-based oppression, and by systematically opposing women’s efforts to have a social movement focused on the dismantlement of that oppression, they support societal and institutional sexism everywhere.
For women who aren’t incarcerated, who aren’t homeless, who aren’t lesbian, who aren’t hedging our careers on a female-only scholarship, it’s easy to ignore the whole thing (while secretly trusting that other women will – as always – do the thankless work of defending the rights you enjoy) so that you can keep your good standing. If solidarity is too much to ask for, at least know that at some point, it will cost you too.
It’s time for more courage, and a lot more protests.
Learn more about the impacts of SB 132 on women: