In a democratic society that respects individual rights, conflict is inevitable when rights collide. Such conflict is playing out in a Maine homeless shelter, where women are expected to endure abusive behavior in the name of inclusivity. Women assert their right to seek safety from men’s violence. The transgender movement asserts the right of anyone to self-identify with any gender. We side with women.

One of us (Aurora) works at a women’s shelter where women have reported sexual harassment by transwomen (males who identify as transgender) in the space. Women have described being propositioned for sex by these individuals. Women have shared their experiences of being followed, stared at, or otherwise intimidated in the shelter. They have said they do not feel safe, that the harassment aggravates their post-traumatic stress. These women report that they cannot sleep for fear of being assaulted during the night.

Single-sex shelters exist because of women’s need for refuge from men in a male-dominated society in which male violence against women is endemic. Women are raped, beaten, sexually harassed, bought and sold in prostitution, tortured, and all too often murdered by males. Because of the violence that is so routine in so many women’s lives, women have legitimate cause to fear all males, any males.

Male violence against women is a primary cause of women’s homelessness. A high percentage of women who become homeless were sexually abused in girlhood; a similarly high number have been raped at least once, often many times over. Women everywhere fear men’s violence. For women experiencing homelessness, this fear is likely to be even more intense.

Compassion for people with gender dysphoria — distress or discomfort with the sex of one’s body — is possible without sacrificing women’s safety. But it requires clarity about definitions.

It’s crucial to stop using “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. “Sex” refers to the biological differences between male and female — physiological realities based on different roles in reproduction. “Gender” refers to the social meanings attached to sex differences — what society labels as “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics. Sex categories don’t change, while gender norms vary among societies and over time within societies.

Some people feel a severe disjuncture between the physiological sex of their bodies and their psychological sense of gender roles. Males may feel more at home in feminine gender roles, and vice versa.

Many feminists, ourselves included, understand gender as a hierarchy created in patriarchy, and believe the resulting rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms support male dominance. We work toward a society where men and women can live free of the painful limitations imposed by the patriarchal system of gender.

In the meantime, society should recognize the distress of those who experience gender dysphoria. Yet such recognition doesn’t transform a man into a woman, nor does it mean that women’s legitimate fears of men’s violence magically disappear.

Many people who agree with us tell us they fear being labeled as bigoted or a “transphobe” if they raise these legitimate questions. Most people want to be kind, to express solidarity with those who are suffering. We do, too. But uncritical acceptance of transgender ideology that eliminates single-sex spaces increases the risks for women and girls — and that is its own unkindness.

Every individual experiencing homelessness is absolutely owed shelter and trauma-sensitive support. This is self-evident. But in balancing the different needs of different groups, the charge is to develop more and better options, in order to best serve everyone. Where conflict arises between women’s needs and those of others, including people who identify as transgender, the solution cannot be simply to ignore the concerns of women and girls. Such is an oversight, not a route to justice.

Robert Jensen is emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.” Aurora Cobb is a lesbian feminist writer residing in Harpswell.


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