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bad actors, the freeloader problem, and transmisogyny

I’m writing this post, in part, because I haven’t seen too many trans women talking about it and I think that trying really really really hard to pretend like the case of Christopher Hambrook doesn’t actually exist1 but, sadly, it does. We can’t ignore that this happened because it is a real world case that confirms for every conservative and radfem out there that their dire warnings about passing public accommodation laws for trans women will allow predators access to vulnerable people.

(tw: I’m going to talk about what happened in non-graphic language but this does deal with rape and sexual assault)

Basically. The facts are these: a previously convicted sexual predator name Christopher Hambrook assaulted two women at a women’s shelter. He was staying there because he lied about being a trans woman in order to gain access to the shelter. In the link in the footnote, it mentions that there was no law on record (at the time) saying that the shelter had to accommodate self-identification, rather the shelter had its own policy for this.

Now, I have actually read at least one radfem who referred to this event as a way to critique current legal movements towards enshrining the right to public accommodations for trans women. And, in the link, we can see that conservatives are also using this documented incident to directly impact policy and the law.

Up to and including now, a lot of trans women have taken the tactic of saying ‘there is no incident of trans women assaulting cis women in washrooms/shelters/etc’. And this claim is still true but ultimately meaningless. The thing is, is that radfems and conservatives do not see a difference between trans women and predators like Hambrook.

In a lot of the stories/articles I’ve read in relation to this people make a lot of the fact that being on HRT or doing GCS is a way to determine which trans women are ‘real’ and which aren’t. Except, given that we are talking about a homeless shelter in this particular example, are we really expecting a homeless trans women to have access to hormones and the money for surgeries? This is literally an impossible requirement. Even in a context like Ontario, where the crimes took place, it is impossible. Hormones for HRT are not covered by the state prescription insurance provided to poor ppl (I know bc I’m on this plan). Yeah, surgeries and the like are covered, however the only surgeon in Canada is in Montreal and homeless people just don’t have the money to travel AND the ability to spend weeks recovering from major surgery.

However this doesn’t actually address the real problem. Nor does trying to rely on stats and whatever to say “trans women don’t do this” when, to those who hate us, there is no qualitative difference between us and a man pretending to be us. As awful as this is to think about, this is the reality we are dealing with. And it we must grapple with this because it has real, material impacts on our rights (I mean, again, that link is about a senator who referred to the case as a way to amending a bill to prevent public accommodations for trans women).

The actual problem with all of this is a problem that is a constant thorn in social/ethical/political philosophy for a long fucking time (which is why I get that most people simply have been content to ignore it). This is the problem of ‘bad actors’ and/or ‘free loaders’ (the latter if we are talking about economic policy).

In general, the problem here is that if your policy/ethics is oriented towards the inclusive and humane, it becomes difficult (or impossible) to distinguish between genuine people and those pretending to be so.

The problem of free loading is pretty much exactly why most social services continue to be either cut or have increasingly greater barriers towards accessing them. In visceral racial terms, this is the spectre of the ‘Welfare Queen’ (who, in America, is always coded as Black). It doesn’t matter how many times actual facts and statistics are used to disprove this myth, it remains omnipresent and relevant because it hits on this problem of free loaders. The people who, yes, game the system (or try to). And the difficulty of systematically distinguishing between those who are in genuine need and those who aren’t.

And as we can see with how this plays out in welfare and other social assistance policy, the general ‘solution’ to this problem is to create more and more barriers to access it. To set up more gatekeepers and more stringent rules for access.

What you almost never see is anyone advancing the thesis that the free loader ‘problem’ isn’t actually a problem and that blaming the existence of bad actors/free loaders on the system rather than holding the individuals themselves accountable misses the point. Ultimately, there really isn’t a way to have a broad, inclusive policy or ethics without admitting the possibility of abuse.

Why? Because the choice to abuse a system can’t actually be influenced by the system itself. People who behave unethically will do so and there isn’t, ultimately, anything anyone can do about it. Which is why they and not the system are responsible2.

In trying to understand how this plays out in the real world, we can talk about this shelter and its policies. How could the shelter have prevented this from happening?

Well, they could’ve done a criminal record check… but that also takes weeks and he was homeless right now. But also, from what the stories say, Hambrook gave no identification other than a self-identification as a trans woman.

This means that, their other, best option of preventing this from happening is having a ‘womyn-born-womyn’ policy.

Ok. But what of the actual homeless trans women who need shelter? They can just safely go to men’s shelters, right?

You see what the problem is here? There isn’t any actual solution to this, but people pretend like there is and this is why we end up with Senator Plett saying that legally preventing public accommodations for trans women is the solution. This is also the favourite solution for radfems.

But. There is no solution. Or, at least, no good solution has been found. The problem of free loaders has been a major issue in philosophy for a really long fucking time.

So how do you deal with the conservatives and radfems who constantly worry about this problem? Well… you can’t. Why? Because the problem is real and, as the Hambrook case demonstrates, it can happen. Worse, it’ll probably happen again in the future. The real problem here is living in a world where rape culture exists and is generally supported. The real problem, here, is that men exist in the world who are predators and will find a way to target and victimize vulnerable people. The real problem is that Senator Plett and his ilk do not consider trans women to be vulnerable women (or even people at all).

All of which gets you into arguing over the humanity of trans women. And… this is not a debate any of us should be willing to entertain.

I’m struggling with how to conclude this essay because… well, I have no real recommendations for anyone. Other than… choose your battles and choose your battlegrounds carefully. Getting sucked into a debate over the freeloader problem (especially if you accept the conservative/radfem framing) is a no-win situation because no solution to the problem exists. So too (as always) getting sucked into a debate over whether or not trans women are human is a battleground designed for you to loose, since entering the field at all is a tacit acceptance that the premise might be true.

But also… as a community, we can’t sit around and pretend like Hambrook doesn’t exist, not when he is being used as a weapon against trans women. We can’t pretend like pushing for trans inclusive policy doesn’t actually create the free loader problem. Our energy is best spent not in denying that this exists, but in trying to figure out real strategies of mitigation and (hopefully) prevention that can actually work in practice. Our energy and efforts are best spent in directly engaging the issues of rape culture and on creating a victim-centric approach to organizing.