‘Real Women’ by Elaine Gallagher

Female solidarity; what does that mean to me? I’m transgender, openly so, and I lived as a man for over forty years before transitioning to live as a woman. Specifically a woman, because the gender spectrum and the possibility of being non-binary, somewhere neither man nor woman, or possibly both, was unknown outside LGBT spaces and deliberately discouraged by doctors. You’re a woman or a man and if you don’t pick one they’ll withhold treatment, in my experience.

So. I came out as ‘changing sex’ and discovered just how gender-segregated my friend group was — I found myself sitting with the girls rather than standing with the boys, talking about knitting instead of Doctor Who. Hold on, what? We’re all still beer fans, so there’s that, but for all that they’re SF geeks, social conventions run surprisingly deep among them. This is such a fundamental part of society that I had not even noticed till it hit me.

The pressure to fit in is powerful. Social roles, appearance standards: I know women who are constantly harassed for looking ‘too male’, and my body is unmistakably masculine. I am very lucky in that immediately after I made my announcement, two of my friends, Helena and Aoife, said, ‘We’re going shopping.’ Over a day I was introduced to body shapes and accessorising and how to choose flattering clothes. At other times, friends have pointed out makeup and shoes and bags and those other things that to the rest of the world tag me as ‘woman’ and mean that I don’t get jeered at in the street.

I heard of someone who was not so lucky. My boss at the time I started my transition told me a story from when she’d been a social worker: she was called to the police station on a Monday morning where they had arrested a man in Kelvinbridge wearing a party dress and heels. This was in the ‘90s; they’d taken him in for breach of the peace. He had been on his way to the gender clinic where they had insisted that if he was to have treatment he would show up as a ‘woman’, i.e. wearing a dress, and he didn’t have friends like mine to show him the way of it. Literally, survival skills for a world that would be hostile if it noticed me.

There are spaces that are not safe for me. The most fraught experience of my transition was the first time I went into a women’s toilet. This was in Glasgow airport after I had travelled by train and plane from London without incident or anxiety. It was an utterly different world from the ones I had been used to; companionable and warm, chatter between mother and daughter, friends travelling together; conversations did not go on hold at the door to be continued outside again.

But that companionship is not for me. One of the gender cues that cause people to see me as male is my baritone voice, and the one time I thought I could be unafraid in a women’s toilet, I was sharply corrected. My friend Lou and I were out drinking and we went to the toilet together, chattering away between the cubicle walls as friends are supposed to be able to. Next thing we knew, someone was battering on the doors and shouting ‘There’s a man in the toilets!’ When I poked my head out the cubicle door the manager saw how wrong he was, but the damage had been done.

Men in female spaces is an emotive issue, rightly so. There is a history of harassment by men of women in toilets, from off-colour ‘jokes’ through installing one-way glass in the mirrors, to invasion and sexual assault. This has happened to more than one friend of mine. That history is one of the bases of radical feminists’ and conservative Christians’ alliance to exclude trans people from toilets. Or at least, it’s the excuse given. The truth is, no trans person has ever been recorded as assaulting anyone in a toilet. If you consider the entitled mindset of a man who would do something like that, would they ever give up their masculinity — permanently — just for the sake of getting a peek into the ladies’?

No. Radical feminists and conservatives come to their conclusion, that trans people’s identities are not real, from a fear that our identities challenge their own, that exclusive definition they have of ‘male’ and ‘female’. This results in public bullying like the recent Sunday Times article asserting that trans women are not ‘real’ women. What is a ‘real’ woman? Most women I know would struggle to define it. Every argument put forward against trans people has holes in it. But this bullying has consequences; enabling abuses such as the US toilet laws; direct physical assault of trans people. It is a short step from ‘not a real woman’ to ‘not a real person’. As I write this, a viral video is going around the Internet of a trans woman being dragged from her house and beaten to death.

It is easy to focus on abuse and harassment; I was rejected by my family for claiming my identity as trans and the most vehement of the people who would deny me that identity are women. But so are the people who support me most. My friends who took me shopping and showed me how to navigate female spaces. Lou, who was all set to go to war beside me against the pub management who harassed me, and who made a safe space for me in her cafe. The intersectional feminists who reject that outdated assertion of what is a ‘real’ woman and recognise that we are all together in the struggle for equality. All the women I work beside and who welcome me to their company with smiles and hugs and small confidences. This, to me, is solidarity among women.


Elaine is a writer, screenwriter and performance poet. She is studying Creative Writing at Glasgow University and her short film, High Heels Aren’t Compulsory, won Best Scottish Short at SQIFF 2015 and was shortlisted for the Iris Prize 2016. She will be launching her first poetry collection, Transient Light, in April this year.


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