A Wellington sexual abuse support group invited a survivor and scientist, who is transgender, to speak at their AGM this week. Almost immediately came a barrage of attacks from all around the world.
Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP does exactly what our name suggests. We exist to support survivors of sexual abuse, their families and whānau, throughout Wellington, Porirua and Kāpiti. We have been doing this since 1985, and we support people of any age, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
Before I get any further, it is important to reiterate that sexual abuse and violence happens overwhelmingly to women. Sexual violence is a gendered issue. For centuries, women and women’s bodies have been treated like property – something to be owned and consumed, used and abused.
And the same patriarchal culture that enables this has allowed other vulnerable groups – boys, gender minorities, people with disabilities and others – to be targeted too.
- 1 in 3 girls will have some kind of unwanted sexual experience before they are 16
- Between 1 in 6 and 1 in 8 boys experience some form of sexual abuse
- 1 in 2 transgender people, and half of all people with disabilities, experience some form of sexual abuse.
This is a blight on us all.
But the tide is changing. A year ago #metoo exploded on to the scene. Women working in the film industry in the US raised their hands to say Me Too – exposing Harvey Weinstein and so many others like him and the decades of abuse they had gotten away with.
Of course the architect of #metoo was a woman called Tarana Burke, an African-American civil rights activist, who had spoken out years before. Reflecting a year on from #metoo going viral, she recently said:
“We are working diligently so that the popular narrative about #MeToo shifts from what it is. We have to shift the narrative that it’s a gender war … that it’s only for a certain type of person — that it’s for white, cisgender, heterosexual, famous women. That has to shift. And I think that it is shifting, I really do.”
Hold that thought.
As part of our work at HELP we are passionately committed to working with community – to engage in the issues as well as provide specialist support. We are here to change the culture that causes the problem in the first place.
Tomorrow we are holding our annual meeting and a panel. We want to talk about what has actually happened since the advent of #metoo on the popular stage, and what still needs to change.
We share Tarana Burke’s outlook. We know only too well that the more you stand out from the crowd – the further away you step out from the heterosexual norm – you more likely you are to be targeted. That to change the narrative we need the voices of survivors from across the spectrum speaking out.
So as part of our six-person panel, we have a transgender woman, Sally Dellow – a survivor and a scientist – providing her perspective. Sally has been campaigning for over 30 years to claim the space that is rightfully hers. She may have been assigned a male gender identity at birth but it is her human right to be recognised as female.
In the lead up to the event we have been profiling the speakers on social media – with a photo and a bio. We posted Sally’s on the afternoon of Wednesday the 17th.
What happened next was for us a huge eye opener into the struggle that trans women face.
In the two years I have been with HELP, I have been overwhelmed by the love and support we have received from our community. When we almost had to close earlier this year, it was the community that pulled us through.
Apart from the odd random person, we have always had supportive comments on our social media feed.
Last Wednesday’s post however changed that.
In New Zealand there exists a tiny splinter group of people who call themselves feminists, but who don’t believe that transgender women have the right to identify as female. When they see trans women they see men – and they are adamant that the genitals you are born with define you. For better or worse, these people have earnt themselves a label – Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. TERFs, for short.
I have never seen, until now, a level of malevolence like that directed by these people towards Sally.
Almost immediately after the post went public the abuse began. For five days, right across Labour Weekend, a team of four of us worked to moderate the post – hiding, and in some cases blocking and deleting – comment after comment after nasty comment. I’m not going to give them any more oxygen by describing them here.
Wonderfully, the Wellington community pushed back. Within a couple of hours of the nastiness beginning, our Facebook page was filled with loving, supportive comments for Sally. Never at any time did I see abuse sent the other way.
But it went on for five days! The anti-trans activists enlisted their allies from America (where Trump is busy seeking to erase trans people’s rights), Ireland and London.
Anti-trans activists claim they are concerned to keep women’s spaces safe. It’s true that for decades feminists have fought for women’s spaces to be kept safe, for women’s voices to break through. These gains have been hard won.
But they will not be lost by including trans women in women’s spaces, which in fact they have already been part of for many years. It’s distressing to see these attempts to obscure that history.
Trans women, who are already exposed to high levels of violence, have a lot to lose through being denied access to safe spaces for women. If these activists were truly concerned about women’s safety – survivors’ safety – they would not have spent five days harassing our organisation.
To exclude people who have also fought so hard to be visible – to survive – and to claim their true gender identity as female – is just very sad. The world is changing. Gender as well as sexuality are increasingly fluid and the overwhelming majority of feminists know that and support all people to claim what is rightfully theirs.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could have that debate: what does it mean to be a radical feminist now? Perhaps we’ll have that panel next year.
In the meantime we at HELP – along with our allies in the Wellington community – know that, as our prime minister said recently, #metoo must become #wetoo.
Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP Foundation is proud to support the transgender, non-binary, intersex, and genderqueer community.
We are proud to have a diverse panel speaking at our AGM – and we will continue to take a stand on sexual violence, how we end it, and who it affects the most, until such time as Wellington is truly sexual violence-free.
Conor Twyford is chief executive of Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP
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