Sunday, March 03, 2024

Collective Punishment

Ever since Pierre Poilievre opened his mouth and declared that Trans Women need to be banned from washrooms and locker rooms, there's been a steady increase in the amount of violent rhetoric aimed at the transgender community.  

In the midst of the above article, Senator Marilyn Gladu is quoted as follows: 

Gladu said trans women should not be allowed in women’s bathrooms or change rooms because “there have been incidents that have harmed women and young girls. And so we need to make sure that, you know, that’s not going to happen.”

To me, this reads like a variation on the "what about women who have been traumatized by violence from men?" argument.  It's largely a bad faith argument, because on so many different levels it misrepresents transgender women in particular and it ultimately infantilizes women by implying that they can't possibly be in the presence of a former male in such situations.

I frequently see unfounded claims that “transgender women exhibit male violence patterns” as part of the justification for this, and that is then used to argue that the entire class of transgender women should therefore be excluded.  This is deeply problematic reasoning.  

The second line of reasoning I see levelled at transgender women is the idea that allowing transgender women into designated female spaces will enable predators to come in and attack.  There is scant evidence that this is a thing, and considering that transgender women have been accessing female spaces for decades, it’s a bit hard to see how this is going to change now.  Besides, actual sexual predators aren’t exactly likely to masquerade as their prey - that would be a symbolic emasculation of themselves. 

A third line of reasoning is the idea that there are plenty of women who have been traumatized by abuse perpetrated at the hands of men.  Again, this comes around to a framing issue, and one that needs to be addressed relative to a population analysis. 

All of these are problematic from a number of perspectives, primarily in that they generally start from a perspective that because a transgender woman was designated male at birth, they are intrinsically a threat.

 Anecdote Versus Population Evidence

Often proponents of the argument that transgender women exhibit “male violence” (a vague term, I’ll come back to it in a bit) will back up their claims that transgender women are violent to other women by pointing to some collection of news headlines that they have managed to put together as evidence.  Most of these articles talk about a person being arrested or charged, but do not follow through with actual outcomes of any trial that might have happened. 

However, more significantly, these are all anecdotes - singular cases, and trying to use a singular case to describe an entire population simply doesn’t make sense.  It’s basically a logical fallacy where one, or even several, individual example is used to claim the entire population is somehow tainted with whatever that individual had done.

One of the major points here is that we have relatively little population level data about transgender people at all.  Very little exists.  The 2021 Canadian census was the first to include gender identity.  Thus it is also, the first to give a glimpse into the extent of the transgender population.  Overall, the 2021 census shows a rousing total of 100,815 (0.33% of the population) transgender people.  Sit with that for a moment - 0.33%.  That’s the total of the transgender population.  There is a generational observation that is interesting, because among “Generation Z”, the transgender population is 0.79%, which I think gives us some idea where the overall “natural” range is once you correct for inhibiting factors like a lack of knowledge that would have prevented people in earlier generations from accessing help. 

A 2022 report on transgender inmates in Canadian prisons looked at transgender inmates from 2017 through 2020, and found a total of 99 offenders in Canadian prisons.  99 - total, and that is 0.4% of the inmate population (a number which suggests that transgender people are over-represented in our prisons, when the incarceration rate in the general population is 39.96 / 100,000.  The transgender inmate rate works out to approximately 92 per 100,000.  You might look at that and say "Aha!  Transgender women ARE more dangerous!".

There are many problems with that line of reasoning.  First, prison populations are by definition unique.  They are not representative of the broader population outside the walls of the prison system.  Prisons are distinct social microcosms that have unique dynamics that you simply don't see outside of that environment.  The other problem is that we have to recognize that transgender people - and transgender women in particular - are often subjected to much greater levels of scrutiny than the general public.  

That makes it far more likely that they are going to be accused of crimes. This raises a significant number of issues around bias in the justice system, starting with police and moving through the entirety of the court systems.  Are transgender offenders more likely to be convicted, or to have their side of the story discounted because of biases?  These are complex questions and further call into question the validity of using data like that in the Corrections Canada study without considerable amounts of additional context. 

Until there are actual studies performed that examine the actual rates of transgender women committing these offences, I will argue that supposing a hazard is contradicted by decades of transgender women accessing female spaces with minimal problems occurring.  

Male Violence

What is “male violence”?  This is a term I see TERFs use with considerable abandon and very little precision.  I think the general idea is that "men are more likely to be physically violent", and thus are more often the perpetrators of assaults.  Beyond the sociological phenomenon, and some feminist writing on the subject (which mostly dates back into the 90s), there is a relatively scant amount of actual research literature on the subject.  A quick glance using Google Scholar and a couple of other academic search engines  

Now, let's take it at face value for a moment that adult males are generally more prone to violent behaviour than women.  Even to the extent that is true, we have to recognize that such attributions are nowhere near universal truths.  The reality is that some are violent, but hardly all.  Plenty of men go through life without ever being violent.  

As a trait, we don't really have any idea what the contributing factors are.  To what extent is it driven by biological factors (chromosomes, hormones, etc) beyond the individual's control, and to what extent is it driven by social and developmental factors?  There are a handful of papers which explore various dimensions of this, but all of them are largely theoretical analyses which might in some future result in further studies.  

Which comes around to discussions about how this attribute applies to transgender women (in particular).  Are transgender women significantly more prone to violence than other women?  To what extent does medical gender transition mitigate the "offending behaviours"?  I'm not at all certain that we have clear evidence here.  What we do know is that gender transition generally reduces internal stress as the person moves towards congruence between their body, social, and inner worlds.  

Given that we have a growing body of evidence that suggests strongly that transgender people have brain structures that lean towards those of their desired sex (see work by DF Swaab and colleagues, beginning in the 1990s, and continuing today - e.g.  White Matter Microstructure in Transsexuals and Controls Investigated by Diffusion Tensor Imaging), one has to question the suppositional starting point that being born "male" necessarily indicates that the person is prone to this construct of male violence.  

Trauma From Prior Abuse

There is a semi-common secondary argument that some women have been so traumatized by men that even being in the same room as someone assumed to possess a penis is traumatizing, and therefore transgender women should be excluded from women's spaces.  

My first comment here is that it is fundamentally unreasonable to demand that other people not exist because of your trauma.  As an example of a counterpoint, interpersonal violence among lesbians is much more common than is expected.  Does a woman who has been abused in a lesbian relationship now have a right to demand that lesbians be excluded from changing rooms because of the trauma they experienced? 

The second aspect of this is the recognition that in general transgender women are very likely to be victimized by violence in a wide range of community settings.  Do they not also experience violence and trauma at the hands of men? The answer is, of course, "yes, they do".  If we treat them as "the other", and exclude them entirely from gendered spaces, where is their safety?

Thirdly, trauma is unique for each person.  There is no singular experience of trauma.  The reality here is that while we can act in a manner that is respectful of another person's trauma and their triggers, it is unreasonable to expect people to exclude themselves from daily life simply because of someone else's traumas.  If you have been traumatized, it is ultimately incumbent on you to work through how that trauma has affected you.  The transgender person in the locker room with you likely had nothing to do with those events.  Why are you demanding that the transgender person absent themselves?   

Wrapping Things Up

Nobody is arguing that "all transgender women are perfect angels" here.  Demanding that of a group of people all act perfectly all the time is simply setting an unrealistic bar that can never be met.  

In the absence of substantive evidence that supports the arguments for exclusion,  we do have time-based evidence that in general transgender people do not cause the problems that they are often accused of.  While there are a handful of cases where transgender people have violated boundaries, rules, etc, those cases do not appear to occur at a rate that would justify exclusion.  

If we are to use a handful of cases to justify "blanket bans", consider how that can explode, creating arbitrary legal walls excluding people from being in the presence of others.  For example, in the last few years, it has become a near daily experience to find headlines of church leadership figures being arrested for alleged child molestation.  Do we now create a law, or set of laws, which demand that church leaders be excluded from being around children?  I don't think such approaches are going to produce the desired results.  

The United States went through a long period after the abolition of slavery where black people were kept separate from their white peers.  Harsh legal penalties were imposed, on the basis that somehow or another the black person represented to the white people.  I won't bore you with the problems that structural racism ultimately has created in the United States - it's pretty obvious.  This was a form of collective punishment imposed on one group of society based not on evidence, but irrational fears held by those who saw their social power changing. 

The fact is that in Canada, and other similar countries we use a model of individual responsibility.  Individuals are held responsible for their actions, and the laws are written around that principle.  Collective punishment isn't a thing for a good reason - it is fundamentally unjust.  

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