This week, staff of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter (VRRWS) in British Columbia found messages such as “Kill TERFS,” “F*** TERFS,” and — what else? — “Trans women are women” scrawled across their windows and walls. (“TERF,” for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” is a generally derogatory term for feminists who do not believe certain things about transgenderism.) This is not the first time something like this has happened. Three weeks ago, a woman seeking the shelter’s services was alarmed to find a dead rat nailed to the front door.
“The women who come to our support groups are rape victims and battered women,” says Hilla Kerner, VRRWS’s spokeswoman, who has worked at the shelter for 14 years. “One of them said to me, ‘Haven’t we suffered enough?’”
Kerner spoke to me by phone, explaining that though the staff at the shelter called the non-emergency law-enforcement line to report the vandalism, they think it unlikely, or rather “mission impossible,” that they’ll find the culprit. In any case, they have bigger and more important things to worry about, such as operating their 24-hour crisis line and helping to shelter women escaping domestic violence and prostitution. Indeed, it is striking that — unlike many trans activists — Kerner draws a distinction between language and behavior:
We deal with real violence and physical violence, so I don’t want to blur the real threat on women’s lives and real dangers to women’s safety [with] abusive and intimidating language . . . This is not the same level of threatened violence.
Founded in 1973, VRRWS is the oldest rape-relief center in Canada. Their staff is a collective made up of 20 women who serve around 1,200 women every year. Some of the staff are paid, others are volunteers, but they all do a lot of voluntary work. “Because you cannot change the world Monday to Friday, 9 to 5,” Kerner explains. “It’s a full-time life.”
VRRWS’s mission is inspired by feminist philosophy. Specifically, by the belief that women — meaning the female sex — are born into an oppressed class. This is why their peer-support groups and housing programs are reserved for those who are “born female” and who therefore have “shared experience.” Beyond sex-based services, VRRWS’s staff are generally happy to assist people of both sexes and all gender identities insofar as they can. For instance, Kerner recalls an instance when “someone called and said they were a transgender woman — which means they were born male — and we made sure that they were safe.”
“We do not see our work in isolation,” Kerner says. They also consider themselves anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist. The organization has an unusual structure in that there is no hierarchy and, when decisions need to be made, everyone gets one vote. I ask Kerner if she considers the organization progressive. “Very, very progressive,” she says.
But not progressive enough for the city of Vancouver, it would seem. In March of this year, Vancouver city councilors withdrew funding from VRRWS, despite the fact that the grant in question — approximately $30,000 — went toward public education and outreach services that were open to both sexes, regardless of gender identity. Previously, following pressure from trans activists at the 2016 British Columbia Federation of Labour (BCFED) conference, the BCFED and its affiliated unions pulled all its funding from VRRWS — again, on the basis that it limited its services to biological females.
Kerner says that people who take such action often fail to see the contradiction between their claim to be progressive and their attack on women’s groups for the groups’ commitment to women.
In the past VRRWS has had legal trouble, too. In 1995, a post-operative transsexual called Kimberly Nixon filed a human-rights complaint against them after being refused a position as a voluntary peer counselor on the grounds of sex. Nixon, identifying as a woman, remains biologically male even after surgery, and VRRWS considered it unfair to the women in their care to overlook this fact. Nixon’s complaint was upheld by the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, though the B.C. Supreme Court later overturned this.
Fortunately, crowdfunding efforts more than made up for the state-sponsored boycotts. Indeed, at the grassroots, women across Canada and the world — learning of their struggles on social media — subsequently made donations. Support has also been forthcoming after the recent vandalism; Kerner has noticed “lots of messages and phone calls” and “a dozen baskets for the women that we work with, with things like underwear and socks.”
Kerner tells me that they even got “a few messages from Switzerland and the United States asking what women’s groups can do for us there.” Buoyed by such solidarity, she says: “We are not discouraged.” But Kerner and her colleagues are “appalled and highly critical” of boycotts and graffiti threats — not to mention dead rodents nailed to the door.