The lesbians who feel pressured to have sex and relationships with trans women
Is a lesbian transphobic if she does not want to have sex with trans women? Some lesbians say they are increasingly being pressured and coerced into accepting trans women as partners - then shunned and even threatened for speaking out. Several have spoken to the BBC, along with trans women who are concerned about the issue too.
Warning: Story contains strong language
"I've had someone saying they would rather kill me than Hitler," says 24-year-old Jennie*.
"They said they would strangle me with a belt if they were in a room with me and Hitler. That was so bizarrely violent, just because I won't have sex with trans women."
Jennie is a lesbian woman. She says she is only sexually attracted to women who are biologically female and have vaginas. She therefore only has sex and relationships with women who are biologically female.
Jennie doesn't think this should be controversial, but not everyone agrees. She has been described as transphobic, a genital fetishist, a pervert and a "terf" - a trans exclusionary radical feminist.
"There's a common argument that they try and use that goes 'What if you met a woman in a bar and she's really beautiful and you got on really well and you went home and you discovered that she has a penis? Would you just not be interested?'" says Jennie, who lives in London and works in fashion.
"Yes, because even if someone seems attractive at first you can go off them. I just don't possess the capacity to be sexually attracted to people who are biologically male, regardless of how they identify."
I became aware of this particular issue after I wrote an article about sex, lies and legal consent.
Several people got in touch with me to say there was a "huge problem" for lesbians, who were being pressured to "accept the idea that a penis can be a female sex organ".
I knew this would be a hugely divisive subject, but I wanted to find out how widespread the issue was.
Ultimately, it has been difficult to determine the true scale of the problem because there has been little research on this topic - only one survey to my knowledge. However, those affected have told me the pressure comes from a minority of trans women, as well as activists who are not necessarily trans themselves.
They described being harassed and silenced if they tried to discuss the issue openly. I received online abuse myself when I tried to find interviewees using social media.
One of the lesbian women I spoke to, 24-year-old Amy*, told me she experienced verbal abuse from her own girlfriend, a bisexual woman who wanted them to have a threesome with a trans woman.
When Amy explained her reasons for not wanting to, her girlfriend became angry.
"The first thing she called me was transphobic," Amy said. "She immediately jumped to make me feel guilty about not wanting to sleep with someone."
She said the trans woman in question had not undergone genital surgery, so still had a penis.
"I know there is zero possibility for me to be attracted to this person," said Amy, who lives in the south west of England and works in a small print and design studio.
"I can hear their male vocal cords. I can see their male jawline. I know, under their clothes, there is male genitalia. These are physical realities, that, as a woman who likes women, you can't just ignore."
Amy said she would feel this way even if a trans woman had undergone genital surgery - which some opt for, while many don't.
Soon afterwards Amy and her girlfriend split up.
"I remember she was extremely shocked and angry, and claimed my views were extremist propaganda and inciting violence towards the trans community, as well as comparing me to far-right groups," she said.
'I felt very bad for hating every moment'
Another lesbian woman, 26-year-old Chloe*, said she felt so pressured she ended up having penetrative sex with a trans woman at university after repeatedly explaining she was not interested.
They lived near each other in halls of residence. Chloe had been drinking alcohol and does not think she could have given proper consent.
"I felt very bad for hating every moment, because the idea is we are attracted to gender rather than sex, and I did not feel that, and I felt bad for feeling like that," she said.
Ashamed and embarrassed, she decided not to tell anyone.
"The language at the time was very much 'trans women are women, they are always women, lesbians should date them'. And I was like, that's the reason I rejected this person. Does that make me bad? Am I not going to be allowed to be in the LGBT community anymore? Am I going to face repercussions for that instead?' So I didn't actually tell anyone."
Hearing about experiences like these led one lesbian activist to begin researching the topic. Angela C. Wild is co-founder of Get The L Out, whose members believe the rights of lesbians are being ignored by much of the current LGBT movement.
She and her fellow activists have demonstrated at Pride marches in the UK, where they have faced opposition. Pride in London accused the group of "bigotry, ignorance and hate".
"Lesbians are still extremely scared to speak because they think they won't be believed, because the trans ideology is so silencing everywhere," she said.
Angela created a questionnaire for lesbians and distributed it via social media, then published the results.
She said that of the 80 women who did respond, the majority reported being pressured or coerced to accept a trans woman as a sexual partner.
The survey was not statistically valid since the respondents were self-selecting and Get The L Out is an active campaigning group on lesbian issues. But while Angela acknowledges the sample may not be representative of the wider lesbian community, she believes it was important to capture their "points of view and stories".
As well as experiencing pressure to go on dates or engage in sexual activity with trans women, some of the respondents reported being successfully persuaded to do so.
"I thought I would be called a transphobe or that it would be wrong of me to turn down a trans woman who wanted to exchange nude pictures," one wrote. "Young women feel pressured to sleep with trans women 'to prove I am not a terf'."
One woman reported being targeted in an online group. "I was told that homosexuality doesn't exist and I owed it to my trans sisters to unlearn my 'genital confusion' so I can enjoy letting them penetrate me," she wrote.
One compared going on dates with trans women to so-called conversion therapy - the controversial practice of trying to change someone's sexual orientation.
"I knew I wasn't attracted to them but internalised the idea that it was because of my 'transmisogyny' and that if I dated them for long enough I could start to be attracted to them. It was DIY conversion therapy," she wrote.
Another reported a trans woman physically forcing her to have sex after they went on a date.
"[They] threatened to out me as a terf and risk my job if I refused to sleep with [them]," she wrote. "I was too young to argue and had been brainwashed by queer theory so [they were] a 'woman' even if every fibre of my being was screaming throughout so I agreed to go home with [them]. [They] used physical force when I changed my mind upon seeing [their] penis and raped me."
While welcomed by some in the LGBT community, Angela's report was described as transphobic by others.
"[People said] we are worse than rapists because we [supposedly] try to frame every trans woman as a rapist," said Angela.
"This is not the point. The point is that if it happens we need to speak about it. If it happens to one woman it's wrong. As it turns out it happens to more than one woman."
Trans YouTuber Rose of Dawn has discussed the issue on her channel in a video called "Is Not Dating Trans People 'Transphobic'?"
"This is something I've seen happen in real life to friends of mine. This was happening before I actually started my channel and it was one of the things that spurred it on," said Rose.
"What's happening is women who are attracted to biological females and female genitalia are finding themselves put in very awkward positions, where if for example on a dating website a trans woman approaches them and they say 'sorry I'm not into trans women', then they are labelled as transphobic."
Rose made the video in response to a series of tweets by trans athlete Veronica Ivy, then known as Rachel McKinnon, who wrote about hypothetical scenarios where trans people are rejected, and argued that "genital preferences" are transphobic.
I asked Veronica Ivy if she would speak to me but she did not want to.
Rose believes views like this are "incredibly toxic". She believes the idea that dating preferences are transphobic is being pushed by radical trans activists and their "self-proclaimed allies", who have extreme views which don't reflect the views of trans women she knows in real life.
"Certainly from my own friends group, the trans women I'm friends with, almost all of them agree lesbians are free to exclude trans women from their dating pool," she said.
However, she believes even trans people are afraid to talk openly about this for fear of abuse.
"People like me receive quite a lot of abuse from trans activists and their allies," she said.
"The trans activist side is incredibly rabid against people who they see as stepping out of line."
Debbie Hayton, a science teacher who transitioned in 2012 and writes about trans issues, worries some people transition without realising how hard it will be to form relationships.
Although there is currently little data on the sexual orientation of trans women, she believes most are female-attracted because they are biologically male and most males are attracted to women.
"So when they [trans women] are trying to find partners, when lesbian women say 'we want women', and heterosexual women say they want a heterosexual man, that leaves trans women isolated from relationships, and possibly feeling very let down by society, angry, upset and feeling that the world is out to get them," she said.
Debbie thinks it's fine if a lesbian woman does not want to date a trans woman, but is concerned some are being pressured to do so.
"The way that shaming is used is just horrific; it's emotional manipulation and warfare going on," she said.
"These women who want to form relationships with other biological women are feeling bad about that. How did we get here?"
Stonewall is the largest LGBT organisation in the UK and Europe. I asked the charity about these issues but it was unable to provide anyone for interview. However, in a statement, chief executive Nancy Kelley likened not wanting to date trans people to not wanting to date people of colour, fat people, or disabled people.
She said: "Sexuality is personal and something which is unique to each of us. There is no 'right' way to be a lesbian, and only we can know who we're attracted to.
"Nobody should ever be pressured into dating, or pressured into dating people they aren't attracted to. But if you find that when dating, you are writing off entire groups of people, like people of colour, fat people, disabled people or trans people, then it's worth considering how societal prejudices may have shaped your attractions.
"We know that prejudice is still common in the LGBT+ community, and it's important that we can talk about that openly and honestly."
Stonewall was founded in 1989 by people opposed to what was known as Section 28 - legislation which stopped councils and schools from "promoting" homosexuality. The organisation originally focused on issues affecting lesbian, gay and bisexual people, then in 2015 announced it would campaign for "trans equality".
A new group - LGB Alliance - has been formed partly in response to Stonewall's change of focus, by people who believe the interests of LGB people are being left behind.
"It's fair to say that I didn't expect to have to fight for these rights again, the rights of people whose sexual orientation is towards people of the same sex," said co-founder Bev Jackson, who also co-founded the UK Gay Liberation Front in 1970.
"We sort of thought that battle had been won and it's quite frightening and quite horrifying that we have to fight that battle again."
LGB Alliance says it is particularly concerned about younger and therefore more vulnerable lesbians being pressured into relationships with trans women.
"It's very disturbing that you find people saying 'It doesn't happen, nobody pressures anybody to go to bed with anybody else', but we know this is not the case," said Ms Jackson.
"We know a minority, but still a sizeable minority of trans women, do pressure lesbians to go out with them and have sex with them and it's a very disturbing phenomenon."
I asked Ms Jackson how she knew a "sizeable minority" of trans women were doing this.
She said: "We don't have figures but we are frequently contacted by lesbians who relate their experience in LGBT groups and on dating sites."
'Shyest young women'
Why does she think there has been so little research?
"I certainly think research on this topic would be discouraged, presumably because it would be characterised as a deliberately discriminatory project," she said.
"But also, the girls and young women themselves, since it's likely the shyest and least experienced young women who are the victims of such encounters, would be loath to discuss them."
LGB Alliance has been described as a hate group, anti-trans and transphobic. However, Ms Jackson insists the group is none of these things, and includes trans people among its supporters.
"This word transphobia has been placed like a dragon in the path to stop discussion about really important issues," she said.
"It's hurtful to our trans supporters, it's hurtful to all our supporters, to be called a hate group when we're the least hateful people you can find."
The term "cotton ceiling" is sometimes used when discussing these issues, but it is controversial.
It stems from "glass ceiling", which refers to an invisible barrier preventing women from climbing to the top of the career ladder. Cotton is a reference to women's underwear, with the phrase intended to represent the difficulty some trans women feel they face when seeking relationships or sex. "Breaking the cotton ceiling" means being able to have sex with a woman.
The term is first thought to have been used in 2012 by a trans porn actress going by the name of Drew DeVeaux. She no longer works in the industry and I have not been able to contact her.
However, the concept of the cotton ceiling came to wider attention when it was used in the title of a workshop by Planned Parenthood Toronto.
The title of the workshop was: "Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling: Breaking Down Sexual Barriers for Queer Trans Women", and the description explained how participants would "work together to identify barriers, strategize ways to overcome them, and build community".
It was led by a trans writer and artist who later went to work for Stonewall (the organisation has asked the BBC not to name her because of safeguarding concerns).
The trans woman who led the workshop declined to speak to the BBC, but Planned Parenthood Toronto stood by its decision to hold the workshop.
In a statement sent to the BBC, executive director Sarah Hobbs said the workshop "was never intended to advocate or promote overcoming any individual woman's objections to sexual activity". Instead, she said the workshop explored "the ways in which ideologies of transphobia and transmisogyny impact sexual desire".
Who else was approached?
In addition to Veronica Ivy, I contacted several other high profile trans women who have either written or spoken about sex and relationships. None of them wanted to speak to me but my editors and I felt it was important to reflect some of their views in this piece.
In a video which has now been deleted, YouTuber Riley J Dennis argued that dating "preferences" are discriminatory.
She asked: "Would you date a trans person, honestly? Think about it for a second. OK, got your answer? Well if you said no, I'm sorry but that's pretty discriminatory."
She explained: "I think the main concern that people have in regards to dating a trans person is that they won't have the genitals that they expect. Because we associate penises with men and vaginas with women, some people think they could never date a trans man with a vagina or a trans woman with a penis.
"But I think that people are more than their genitals. I think you can feel attraction to someone without knowing what's between their legs. And if you were to say that you're only attracted to people with vaginas or people with penises it really feels like you are reducing people just to their genitals."
Another YouTuber, Danielle Piergallini, made a video titled "The Cotton Ceiling: Transphobia, Sex, and Dating (but not transsexuals)".
She said: "I want to talk about the idea that there are a number of people out there who say they're not attracted to trans people, and I think that that is transphobic because any time you're making a broad generalised statement about a group of people that's typically not coming from a good place."
However, she added: "If there is a trans woman who is pre-op and somebody doesn't want to date them because they don't have the genitals that match their preference, that's obviously understandable."
Novelist and poet Roz Kaveney wrote an article called "Some Thoughts on the Cotton Ceiling" and another called "More Cotton Ceiling".
"What is always going on is an assumption that the person is the current status of their bits, and the history of their bits," she wrote in the first article.
"Which is about as reductive a model of sexual attraction as I can imagine."
While this debate was once seen as a fringe issue, most of the interviewees who spoke to me said it has become prominent in recent years because of social media.
Ani O'Brien, spokeswoman for a New Zealand group called Speak Up For Women, created a TikTok video aimed at younger lesbians.
Ani, who is 30, told the BBC she is concerned for the generation of lesbians who are now in their teens.
"What we are seeing is a regression where once again young lesbians are being told 'How do you know you don't like dick if you haven't tried it?'" she said.
"We get told we should be looking beyond genitals and should accept that someone says they are a woman, and that's not what homosexuality is.
"You don't see as many trans men interested in gay men so they don't get it [the pressure] as much, but you do see a lot of trans women who are interested in women, so we are disproportionately affected by it."
Ani believes these kind of messages are confusing for young lesbians.
"I remember being a teenager in the closet and trying desperately to be straight, and that was hard enough," she said.
"I can't imagine what it would have been like, if I'd finally come to terms with the fact I was gay, to then be faced with the idea that some male bodies are not male so they must be lesbian, and having to contend with that as well."
Ani says she gets contacted on Twitter by young lesbians who do not know how to exit a relationship with a trans woman.
"They tried to do the right thing and they gave them a chance, and realised that they are a lesbian and they didn't want to be with someone with a male body, and the concept of transphobia and bigotry is used as an emotional weapon, that you can't leave because otherwise you're a transphobe," she said.
Like others who have voiced their concerns, Ani has received abuse online.
"I've been incited to kill myself, I've had rape threats," she said. However, she says she is determined to keep speaking out.
"A really important thing for us to do is to be able to talk these things through. Shutting down these conversations and calling them bigotry is really unhelpful, and it shouldn't be beyond our ability to have hard conversations about some of these things."
*The BBC has changed the names of some of those featured in this article to protect their identities.
Update 4 November 2021: We have updated this article, published last week, to remove a contribution from one individual in light of comments she has published on blog posts in recent days, which we have been able to verify.
We acknowledge that an admission of inappropriate behaviour by the same contributor should have been included in the original article.
Update 31 May 2022:
- The article's headline has been changed from 'We're being pressured into sex by some trans women' in light of a ruling from the BBC's Executive Complaints unit. You can see the ruling here.
- Since publication of this article the BBC's Executive Complaints Unit has also ruled that the original article did not go far enough to make clear to readers the survey's "lack of statistical validity." The article has been amended to reflect this finding.
Get in touch
Would you like to share your views or experiences in relation to the issues raised in this article?
In some cases, your comments will be published, displaying your name, age and location as you provide it, unless you state otherwise. Your contact details will never be published.
Use this form to submit your comments:
If you are reading this page and can't see the form you will need to visit the mobile version of the BBC website to submit your question or send them via email to YourQuestions@bbc.co.uk. Please include your name, age and location with any question you send in.
If you are affected by issues raised in this article help and support is available via the BBC Action Line.