This is how a transgender author’s nine-month stay in a women’s refuge quite literally saved her life
The radical and largely forgotten history of the women’s refuge begins in the 1970s, when women started squats to create safe spaces away from male violence, and then sought funding to keep them open.
In 1971, the UK’s first refuge for women and children fleeing domestic violence opened in Chiswick, London. Women’s Aid, which created the first national network of refuges, was founded in 1974.
And specialised refuges – for Black, LGBT+ or migrant women – followed. Black feminist group Southall Black Sisters opened a refuge in 1979. Refugee women fleeing the Chilean dictatorship and the war in Colombia founded Latin American Women’s Aid in the 1980s.
Four decades of campaigning against domestic abuse later, two women are still killed every week by a partner or ex-partner. More than one million women and children experience domestic abuse every year in the UK. And every day, hundreds of them seek safety in a women’s refuge and are turned away because there aren’t enough spaces.
The Conservative’s austerity regime forced many women’s refuges to close entirely, as local authorities in England cut their spending on domestic-violence refuges by a quarter between 2010 and 2017.
Women’s refuges save lives. They offer an alternative to those for whom leaving an abusive partner would otherwise mean becoming homeless.
They have also become a focal point in the hostile discourse about transgender people. Some in the women’s sector argue that trans women should not be allowed to seek safety in women’s refuges, just as a small but vocal group of transphobic campaigners contend that trans women should be excluded from women’s bathrooms, changing rooms, sports teams and prisons.
Yet despite their insistence that allowing trans women into these spaces would be dangerous, anti-trans campaigners fail to see the obvious: trans women have always been in these spaces.
And this includes trans women fleeing domestic abuse and seeking safety in women’s refuges.
Sarah Savage: ‘Nine months in a women’s refuge saved my life.’
Ten years ago, Sarah Savage was in a dangerous situation. She was in a coercive relationship with someone she called her boyfriend.
In the middle of the day, when her ex was out, she fled. Sarah packed her belongings into the boot of her car and drove away, not sure where she was going, but knowing she could sleep in her car if she had to.
Ending up in Brighton, Sarah was sofa-surfing with friends when someone suggested she contact Rise, a domestic-abuse charity that had an LGBT+ caseworker. Sarah had not medically transitioned; her doctor had referred her to a gender-identity clinic (GIC), but she’d not started hormone therapy or had gender-confirmation surgery.
“I was really nervous about getting in contact with Rise,” Sarah tells PinkNews. “Because there’s this stigma – and especially 10 years ago – of women’s services not always being accepting of trans women.”
Sarah Savage had a meeting with the LGBT+ caseworker at the charity’s office. The caseworker wanted to know that Sarah was “serious” about her transition, and that she’d been referred to the GIC, but didn’t ask any other, more intrusive, questions about her gender identity.
A few days later, after the charity had done a comprehensive assessment of the danger she was in, Sarah was offered a place in a women’s refuge.
“If it wasn’t for this person taking me seriously, my life would be completely different now,” Sarah says, her voice cracking as she remembers. “[Going into the refuge] was the culmination of about five years of homelessness and insecure living that I’d had.”
For the first few weeks in the refuge, hugely aware of her transness, Sarah kept to herself and stayed in her room. “I didn’t want to encroach on anyone’s space,” she says. “I didn’t want to freak anyone out.”
And then, on Christmas Day, there was a knock on her door.
“It was one of the women in the rooms next to mine. She’d cooked this massive Christmas dinner, and out of the blue she just gave me this Christmas dinner,” Sarah remembers.
“It completely sent me sideways. I was eating it in tears. I was blown away by the friendliness and generosity of those who were in the same situation as me.”
After that, Sarah started making friends with the other women in the refuge. They had house meetings once a week, supported each other and, as the weather got warmer, ate lunch together in the sunny garden, which was hemmed in by a tall fence.
She made a best friend, who asked “the same curious questions that any cis person asks” about Sarah’s transition. But apart from that, none of the other women in the refuge ever questioned her gender identity. “They just accepted me straight away,” she says.
Life after the refuge.
After nine months, Sarah Savage had “had time to heal” and was ready to leave the women’s refuge.
Soon after leaving, she met a trans man who worked for LGBT+ helpline Switchboard, and she realised that she needed to do something that gave her a purpose. So Sarah got involved with Brighton council, which was doing a trans needs assessment and needed “community representatives” to help guide the process.
A few months later, Sarah had her first appointment at the GIC and began her medical transition. The next summer, Sarah and a few friends started Brighton Trans Pride – the first, and still the biggest, Trans Pride event in Europe.
Sarah is now a published children’s author, with her second book, She’s My Dad!, out now. She wanted to write something for the kids whose parents are transgender – a perspective that’s not very common yet, within the burgeoning field of trans literature.
The title reminds me of when I went to see artist and performance maker Emma Frankland’s show We Dig last year, at London’s Ovalhouse. On the way into the theatre, as my girlfriend and I talked about Emma, a small child in front of us turned round excitedly and said, “She’s my dad, you know!”
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I tell Sarah this, and about how we both melted at this kid being so nonchalant about having a trans parent, and she laughs and then becomes serious. “Over the years, I’ve met so many trans parents. And the trope they’ve been told, over and over, is that their children will never accept them,” she says. “But what happens in reality is that the relationship stays the same as it was before. Sometimes it even brings them closer.”
I note that this is why it’s so important for trans people to write about trans issues. Looking back, Sarah says she was inspired to write “because there was just nothing at the time, for children, that was written by a trans person”.
Staying in the women’s refuge “really changed the entire course of my life,” she adds, reflecting. She’s still friends with some of the women she met there.
The highly relatable title of her first book, Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl, is something that one of the younger children in the women’s refuge once asked her.
“At the time I said, ‘Well, I’m a bit of both, but I’m mostly a girl,'” Sarah Savage says. “And then I said, ‘What are you?’ And the kid was like, ‘Oh, I’m a boy.’ And then we just carried on with the day.”
Galop runs the National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline. You can reach it on 0800 999 5428