Steph's Place

23rd May - Swimming Third Class.

By Sophie W (Precarious Woman)

“Trannies! Trannies! Trannies”! - the 3 young men shouted as they marched through every room of the swimming baths. From pool to the hall, to exit, they brushed past me so close they could have punched me if they wanted to.

This terrifying experience demonstrates what 3rd spaces for trans people mean in practice. Also, why the usual gender-critical hand waving that trans women should be accommodated in a 3rd space is, in reality, a demand that trans women submit to 3rd class citizenship and have services far less safe (and less equal) than the cisgender (non-trans) majority.

This hate crime occurred on a sunny winter day back in January 2016. I had socially transitioned six months before and was living ‘full time’. One thing I had missed since my transition was the simple pleasure of swimming in a body of water. Transitioning had raised several internal psychological barriers to swim.

Firstly there was the matter of changing rooms and my body. Not a single hormone tablet had yet passed my lips by that stage (The NHS insisted I complete a period of ‘real-life experience’ without hormones first), my hair was still growing out, and laser hair removal was far from complete. Facial Feminisation Surgery and Vaginaplasty (“Lower Surgery”) were years down the line. I did not feel that I embodied my gender, and whilst fully aware of my legal right to access a space, it did not mean I felt comfortable or safe in using that space. I had used female changing rooms in clothes stores many times before, but when I did that I wore feminine clothes, padded and tucked and used a lot of heavy make-up to express my gender.

A swimming pool, on the other hand, rules out wearing make-up and your swimsuit hugs so close to your body that padding and tucking are not really viable. Anxiety and discomfort follow you from the cubical (assuming one is available) to the time spent swimming in the pool in front of the gaze of cis strangers, most of whom you don’t know, and don’t know how they would react to you.

Would they stare?
Whisper comments to each other about you?
Would they harras?
And the lifeguards?
Could they be relied upon to be on your side in the event of any altercation?

I had heard stories that sometimes lifeguards were the ones doing the harassing. All these issues swimming around my mind made the prospect of a simple swim feel as desirable as drinking a bucket of puke. Unsurprisingly, like so many trans women before me - sacrificing swimming was something that I thought I had to accept to live as the 'authentically me'.

I still missed it, though, so when I learned that an enterprising woman had been organising exclusive swimming spaces for the trans community called TAGS (short for Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Swimming), I dived into it, as did many others. We wouldn’t have to worry about changing rooms, the cis gaze or transphobic swimmers and lifeguards.

The swimming space most local to me was Moseley Road Baths, in the Basal Heath area of Birmingham, about 50 minutes driving and walking. It was a grade 2 listed building built in 1907. Sadly by 2016 the building was crumbling, and only one of the two swimming pools was still operating. The planners originally envisaged that swimming was for men only. And so, rather than separate changing rooms they built dozens of individual cubicles hugging the walls of each side of the pool, which was incredibly convenient for our purposes as non-binary users were not forced to choose a male or female changing room.

I had a great time swimming, and as I chatted to other pool users I realised some had not been swimming in almost a decade. The event was well attended and was a social need 'being met'. We left buzzing and determined to go back.

I missed the next session because it fell on a Sunday and I worked weekends. So this 3rd space was not only 50 minutes travel time away but was scheduled on a date and time that I usually couldn’t attend. When I returned for the next session using my annual leave, there were noticeably fewer trans people making use of the pool for reasons I expect were similar to mine: clashing commitments and distance. After the swimming session finished, we changed out of our swimwear and my group of friends hung around chatting as the rest of the pool users left in their own small groups to head for home.

It was at that moment that the transphobic young men marched into the place and went from room to room shouting slurs at us before leaving and hanging at the bus stop in front of the only exit point. I was scared to leave. Nevertheless, the lady who had organised the event encouraged us to all leave together (safety in numbers), and we did.

The young men were waiting at the bus stop outside the entrance and again shouted “trannies!, trannies!, trannies!” at us as we had to walk the gauntlet between them and our cars. Fortunately, it had occurred to me to get my camera up on my phone so as I passed them I started photographing them. They fled into a parked double-decker bus and continued to shout abuse at us until the bus pulled off. The street was full of pedestrians, but nobody intervened. When it was over the lifeguard approached us, checked we was ok and said he had witnessed it all. He gave us his phone number to give to the police and mentioned that they would have been caught on the security cameras inside the baths.

So when I got home I phoned the police, and within a few days, a police officer visited my home to take a formal statement. Surely with my photo’s, the CCTV in the swimming baths and on the bus, they would quickly catch them. They didn’t, in fact they did next to nothing once they had established that these young men were not known to the police. They just posted some photos of the men on the police briefing boards just in case an officer accidentally ran across them in the course of their more important duties. They promised to send a police patrol to the area when the next TAGS was held, but I never saw them. The thugs got away with it, and my confidence in the police fell whilst my sense of vulnerability whenever I am in a group of trans women in public spaces rose.

I did go back to Mosely Road baths a couple of more times. The next time a decision had been made to lock the swimming pool doors during the trans swimming event for security. Regretably it had not been communicated widely, so when I got there, I was locked out and did not know who to contact to get those doors open, so I just left, having wasted a day’s holiday.

I went again one more time, this time being able to access the pool but as much as I liked swimming, I wasn’t prepared to spend the rest of my annual leave for a two hour round trip to dip in a pool for an hour. I didn’t return. After two years at Mosely Road, insufficient numbers to meet climbing pool hire costs forced TAGS elsewhere. By moving, they avoided more hate as several months later, the wave of protests against teaching about the existence of LGBT people in Birmingham’s schools spread to the local primary school that was within walking distance. A number of venues were tried until a small high school swimming pool in Shropshire was found, where TAGS for the Midlands continues today on a monthly basis.

The story of TAGS is an inspirational story of the trans community organising and resilience. Before TAGS most trans people never went swimming after they transitioned. Of the few that did, they typically waited till, after gender reassignment surgery, a process to get it on the NHS was usually 5 years when I started - but now expected to be far longer due rising demand, NHS cuts and covid backlogs.

However, whilst something is better than nothing, when you weigh this third space against the swimming facilities that cisgender (non trans) people use and expect as a norm it is clearly inferior provision.

Just think about it for a moment; a cisgender person can expect to go swimming in their own locality, and they can do so at a time and day of their choosing. For most trans people swimming only becomes accessible through the creation of an exclusive third space - but there are so few of us that any around the clock local provision on equal terms with the cisgender population is totally unviable.

If you had a car a two hour round trip to the 3rd space would be about average but considering that trans people are far more likely to be unemployed or in low paying jobs this is not a given. Using public transport would likely take longer, require more planning and courage as trans people are vulnerable to harassment when using public transport.

Assuming you could get there, there is no guarantee that you will be available at the set time and date. Having a swimming 3rd space operating a local service around the clock service would be unviable. Charities and Governments wouldn’t pay for lifeguards to stand watch over empty pools. In reality many trans people simply cannot access this 3rd space and the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community are most likely to have the least access.

GCs say that we should organise our own 3rd spaces. To force us to use these 3rd spaces exclusively would not only be discriminatory but the actually existing 3rd spaces of which swimming is an excellent example shows us that despite the best efforts of the organisers these spaces will be far inferior to that enjoyed by the cis majority.

This applies to every women's space where they object to our presence, be they toilets, changing rooms, hospital wards, refugees, prisons or sports. GCs may casually dismiss the harm caused by the inherent indignity of excluding trans women from womens spaces as a matter of subjective ‘hurt feelings’.

They cannot so readily dismiss the starkly inferior services inflicted upon a tiny minority forced to use 3rd spaces.

That can be measured far more easily and far more difficult to handwave away.

Words by Sophie W.

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