Guest Post by Felix Gilliland
In my early 20s, I volunteered at WAVAW on their crisis line. I loved the work – the intensive training shaped my budding feminism and the phone line offered visceral impact, the kind of stuff that is lost in academia. But I had a secret. The feeling that I needed to transition was growing every day and taking over my body and my life. I began to feel like an intruder, lying to the women around me in a vulnerable space.
I made all kinds of compromises with myself to hide my changing gender and hang onto my feminist community. Then I was sexually assaulted. WAVAW offered support and counselling when I told them, but I wondered if that offer would stand if I was honest about my gender, or if I could manage to talk around it in counselling. In the brutal aftermath I couldn’t juggle identity and healing, so I quit.
I was asking myself what counts as being a woman: lived experience, identity, how we are read by others, or some combination of the three. No single answer rests easy, and no line drawn in the sand feels quite right.
Regardless of whether or not I’m passing, I feel the trauma of sexual assault. When I was assaulted, it was by a man who thought I was a woman, and it carries all the same baggage as if I were. I carry with me the complex trauma of being socialized as a woman: the predatory eyes on me when I was too young, the constant messaging to be smaller and quieter, to see myself only as men do. All the stuff that rape crisis centers are tackling along with the acute trauma of sexual assault.
That’s the thing about trauma — it makes it so we can’t tell the difference between past and present. The brain asks itself if that same trauma could be happening again. And it doesn’t care about your pronouns.
Years later, WAVAW is undertaking the hard work of change and beginning to expand its gendered borders. The change is reflective of a larger conversation within the women’s movement as more and more people access hormones and at a younger age.
I call myself transmasculine and nonbinary, but I often wonder what I would have called myself if I’d been born a generation before. We ambiguously gendered creatures have always existed, and we’ve always come up with new names for ourselves – maybe I would have been a bull dyke, or called myself a man for simplicity’s sake, but I doubt the core of my gender would have been any different.
Likewise, my generation’s children will roll their eyes at our words and come up with something else. Through history, people don’t tend to change much, but their words do, and in the case of trans people, the world around us shifts its definitions like clockwork and tries to tell us where we belong. Meanwhile, trans people of all stripes are systemically made victims of rape, another fact that doesn’t change.
People like me have always been in women’s spaces. We didn’t always grow facial hair and get top surgery. And, as impossible as it is to look back and assign new words to old people, I’m willing to bet that people like me had a lot to do with inventing rape crisis centers in the first place.
The process of inviting people of more genders is not going to be easy, because establishing women’s spaces was not easy. We are doing this work because many brave feminists carved out a space for survivors, and it’s a lot to ask to revisit something so hard won. As our concepts of gender expand, the old stubborn binary insists on capitalist patriarchy, on rape culture, and on misogyny. These are not abstract things, they are real forces that culminate in real rape, which is almost exclusively done by men. It’s clear that a post-gender rape crisis centre is an oxymoron, because as long as that binary exists, so will rape.
So doing this work will be messy and imperfect, as all brave things are. The best we can hope for is enough community dialogue to come up with something that works and speaks to complexity. It’s interesting for this trans masc creature to think that, right now, going forward and going back are the same thing: back home to women’s spaces, and forward to nuance and truth.