Claire Harris is an aid worker, writer and translator.
A letter to…the woman who tried to silence me.
When you gave me that look from the next table, I knew what was coming.
I was in a café in North London with a friend. I was telling her about proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act, which would simplify the process of changing gender. About how some women were concerned that this would affect female only spaces, such as toilets, changing rooms, domestic violence refuges and rape shelters. About how these women had formed a group to lobby for women’s voices to be heard in the debate. I told her how academics were being bullied and no-platformed for questioning the ideology that it’s possible to change sex. This was all new to her.
As you got up to leave, you came over to us. You couldn’t help overhearing our conversation, you said. The debate had become very toxic, and I should realise that what I had said could upset some people. You had friends who would feel uncomfortable if they heard our conversation, you told me.
You were calm and measured.
I listened and let you finish before I spoke. I agreed it was toxic, but said that women’s voices needed to be heard. I tried to sound as calm as you, but my voice shook as I said I’d been sexually abused as a child, and that being in a changing room with boys would have been horrific for me – even if those boys were as vulnerable as I was.
That’s when you started speaking over me. In that same calm voice, you stated that transwomen are not predators, over and over, like a teacher admonishing a naughty child.
(You were a good ten years younger than me, at least.)
I wanted to explain that I hadn’t been safe in the bathroom in my own home. That I was spied on when I went to the toilet or took a shower. That undressing in front of male eyes would have been another violation. But you wouldn’t listen. You showed no empathy.
You asked what I meant by a male body. I’m tall, you said. Is that what you mean? Am I threatening? I didn’t say the obvious. I felt I’d said enough, but you knew what I meant. You left, shaking your head with disapproval.
It took 34 years for me to speak out about what had happened to me. Because I didn’t want to upset anyone. But my abuser didn’t stop with me, and the second time the police tracked me down, I knew I had to do it. In 2015, I sent a member of my immediate family to prison.
I was failed by my school and I was failed by social services. Safeguarding barely existed in the 1980s. I told a teacher who did nothing, then had a counsellor who didn’t alert child protection. Things have changed now, but I’m concerned that girls like me are going to be failed again.
By well-meaning people who don’t want to upset anyone.
Claire Harris, March 2020