Sarah Ratchford is a non-binary journalist based in New Brunswick.
This opinion piece was specifically commissioned as part of Broken, a Global News series reflecting on how we must provide better, more consistent and nuanced coverage of any woman, trans or non-binary person who has experienced violence, abuse or harassment.
I was a little nervous as I stood in the auditorium next to a life-sized wooden silhouette of Anne-Marie Edward. I was 18 and part of a memorial honouring the 14 women killed in the 1989 Montreal Massacre. Edward was one of them. I read a poem for her and listened as others did the same for her colleagues Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau and 10 others, all murdered at École Polytechnique.
Now, I report on gender-based violence as a journalist, and my heart still grows heavy every December as I think of the women who were murdered that day because of their gender. However, this needs to be a more robust national conversation.
Gender-based violence is committed constantly — and not only against women. A few years ago, when I began to identify as non-binary, this became even more clear. Trans and two-spirit people are seriously at risk of violence as well, and failing to explicitly include us in the growing public discussion about violence against women replicates exactly the same kind of harms against which so many feminists are trying to fight.
These days, I hear someone talk about violence against women at least every couple of days, whether it’s friends and family, government officials or advocates. The visibility is necessary, and it’s part of how change happens. But when they fail to acknowledge trans people, my heart sinks.
I feel they either don’t get it or they’re deliberately ignoring us because including us is inconvenient. When people who wield words for a living — such as government and health-care officials, teachers, professors and journalists — do this, I feel especially upset.
At this point, surely, we’ve all heard of trans people before. So why not include us?
Don’t get me wrong, I care deeply about violence against women. When women leave the house, there is that underlying thrum of fear that they will be objectified, harassed, assaulted, sexually assaulted, murdered or otherwise treated as though they are public property designed to serve men. These fears are not unfounded.
In November, the UN released a report finding that one in three women have been physically or sexually assaulted. Canada is finally discussing its role in the genocide of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ2 people. Every six or so days, a woman is murdered by her partner. As Elizabeth Renzetti wrote recently in the Globe and Mail, this constitutes a state of terrorism.
“Two of the worst mass killings in Canadian history sprang out of misogyny,” Renzetti wrote, referring to École Polytechnique and the rampaging “incel” accused of running over and killing 10 people in Toronto in 2018. Trans women, especially trans women of colour, face violent attacks and are murdered regularly.
I’ll always fight against violence against women.
In order to truly address gender-based violence, though, trans people need to be included.
Renzetti and so many others fail to do this, even though at least 331 of us were murdered this year alone. We need to actually talk about this, and not only when it’s convenient or during Pride season (which Black trans women started).
It’s time to rethink, together as a society, what we deem to be unacceptable. This involves thinking hard about what it means to fight violence against one group and yet say nothing when it rages unchecked against another.
Misogyny doesn’t just affect women. It affects a whole group of gender-diverse people. Toronto-based organizer and educator Faelix Kayn calls this group “women, femmes and coercively feminized people.”
This includes both cisgender and trans women, queer folks who identify as femme and people who are placed under a feminized umbrella without wishing to be there, such as many trans men and genderqueer folks. When femmes and feminized people are erased, the violence against us is also erased.
If people don’t incorporate us into their efforts to eradicate gender-based violence, those who commit these violent acts will be able to do so with impunity.
Instead of using the blanket term “violence against women,” I like to say gender-based violence to include everyone who faces violent acts because of their gender. When we talk about groups facing this violence, we can use Kayn’s “women, femmes and feminized people,” “women and trans people,” “non-men” or “womxn.”
There are issues with most of these terms, of course: “women and trans people” may signify, to some, that trans women aren’t inherently women when, of course, they are. Some women don’t want to be identified as a “non-man.” And some take issue with “womxn” because it looks too much like plain old “women.”
None of these alternatives are quite perfect, but as language evolves, these words do a decent job of encompassing the whole spectrum of people facing gender-based violence.
Some folks are hesitant to change the words they use. Some don’t like using gender-neutral pronouns because it seems grammatically incorrect, unwieldy or weird. Others feel the population of trans people is too small to be worthy of inclusion (right now, the number of trans people in Canada is unknown. Statistics Canada hasn’t yet collected its data in a way that lets us properly identify).
Others feel that changing the language will erase women, who have fought long and hard for their rights. Some believe non-binary and gender non-conforming people are just identifying this way to be political: sick of the abuse that came with being a woman, we simply decided to no longer have anything to do with it.
These are false narratives, and they come from not knowing. It’s natural to feel some discomfort with a change in language. It takes time, it can be awkward, and once people are told the words they’re using are offensive or erase others’ humanity, they often fear saying the wrong thing. These are not valid excuses.
Once you know about the existence of trans people, especially if you’re a feminist person writing about gender-based violence, you have a responsibility to take us into account. Suicide rates are high due to the violence against us and our erasure: when we are discriminated against and live in poverty or with various forms of abuse and lack of love, we end up in a dark place, as anyone would.
Not referring to us specifically when the chance is had is a missed opportunity to strengthen and support the idea of our humanity.
To me, analyses of gendered violence that include only violence against women are, by nature, problematic. Violence against women shouldn’t be treated as separate from violence against non-binary or gender non-conforming folks, two-spirit folks and trans men. Violence against trans women needs to be highlighted within these discussions as a matter of grave concern. These women, most often women of colour, are routinely stalked and murdered in the night by men who are misogynist, racist and homophobic bigots.
Further, instead of framing gender-based violence around those who experience it, we should talk about the urgent problem of cisgender men’s violence, which is a terror worldwide. Gender-based violence is not a women’s issue. It’s not a women’s and trans people’s issue either.
I hesitate to say this because there is violence within queer relationships comprised of people of all genders: women are sometimes violent, trans people of all identifiers are sometimes violent. But mostly, the issue is cisgender men and a wider patriarchal culture. Far and away, it is men who attack others in the streets, and these others are generally women or people seen to be like women.
Paris Lees wrote about the epidemic of violence against trans people in the United Kingdom and how, because she “blends in” as a woman now, she feels safer than she used to.
“But even this safety is conditional,” she writes.
“It shouldn’t be OK for me to walk down the street because people can’t, touch wood, tell that I am trans. It should be OK for the same reason it should be for anyone to walk down the street: because I’m human.”
Yes. Trans people are people, and our personhood still needs to be fought for. Otherwise, what is feminism for?
To read the full Broken series, go here.
For a list of resources if you need help, go here.