In some ways, the struggle for trans liberation is finally beginning to get the respect and recognition it deserves. Yet, as Kae Smith argues, none of this has been achieved without a fight, and a transphobic kickback. Writing in a personal capacity as a trans activist, sie lays out hir vision for what kind of movement trans people need, and what the organised left needs to do to support that.
How Have We Come to This?
On a cold London November night in 2014, a group of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), the degenerated product of second-wave feminism, began leafleting against “male transgender violence against women”. It exemplified what Trans people as a community have to face, even from those one would assume would be our comrades. Though they were challenged by Trans allies, the damage was done: we knew then that sections of the feminist movement didn’t think Trans-misogynist violence was worth feminist attention. The TERFs’ all-too-common and toxic ideology sees Trans women not as real women, but as men motivated by fetish who wish to appropriate ‘real’ women’s experience.
Forward to December 28th 2014: 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn walks in front of a truck near Union Township in Ohio. Her suicide note, asking us to “fix society”, was posted to her Tumblr account shortly afterwards and lit a fuse of anger and resentment in the Trans activist community. Her parents’ reaction demonstrated that Transphobia is woven into the fabric of popular consciousness: “My sweet 16-year-old son…went home to Heaven this morning. He was out for an early morning walk and was hit by a truck.” They failed to see the blood on their hands, even after Leelah’s death.
It’s exhausting. For every Brendan O’Neill article or Germaine Greer sneer, there is news of another Trans woman of colour being murdered, including recently Zoraida Reyes and Yaz’min Shancez. As the right to enter the correct toilets faces legal challenges by forthcoming bills in Florida, non-binary Trans people in Britain remain systematically excluded from access to proper NHS healthcare, others waiting years for healthcare before encountering stringently biologically-essentialist ideas from panels of cis-gendered practitioners, whose executive decisions are affected by their out-of-date ideas about gender.
Beneath the radar of most British anarchists and Marxists, Trans activists have spent years arguing with (what black feminists would aptly describe as the ‘basic’) remnants of the TERF phenomenon, and pretty successfully. Sandy Stone’s seminal 1993 piece ‘The Empire Strikes Back: A Post Transsexual Manifesto’ destroyed much of the poisonous legacy of Janice Raymond’s 1979 The Transsexual Empire. Stone’s riposte to Raymond, in addition to being a heroic personal response to an organised attempt to frame her and other Trans women as either moonlighting rapists or psychotically deluded, showed the public the extent to which Raymond and others directly emboldened the American Right’s attempts to deny Trans women access to healthcare when they needed to transition. To many of us, considering the resulting spikes in suicide rates and stigma in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, TERFs quite literally have blood on their hands.
It’s a “debate” that has existed since Sylvia Rivera famously shouted down the bigots at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day (see the video here); a “debate” which has included death threats to Trans activists who try to assert their right to self-determination. Trans-inclusive radical feminists created the word TERF to differentiate themselves from their trans-exclusive peers, but there still exists a generational mistrust, where the term “radical feminism” will, even today, be greeted with a flinch of nervousness by any Trans person.
It’s important to understand what Trans-exclusionary radical feminism is. It pivots around the idea of sex (‘male’ and ‘female’) as an immutable binary, but suggests that the entirety of human liberation depends on the destruction of gender (‘men’ and ‘women’). Not an ideology versed in nuance, it fails to understand gender in the context of other oppressions and the capitalist system which upholds it. To an average TERF, gender is not a combination of expression, identity and gender roles, as most intersectional feminists would understand it, but a homogenous “caste” system defined by anatomy. Trans women’s very existence threatens TERFs’ worldview, since it does not fit into their theories about gender, and therefore, Trans experiences are seen in their conspiracy-theory-laden universe as a tool of the patriarchy. Therein lies Trans-exclusionary radical feminism’s true home – amongst the 9/11 troofers and chemtrail advocates as an utterly paranoid, conservative ideology, crushed by its internal contradictions, political isolation from the rest of the feminist movement and hostility to understanding the role of lived experience within contemporary liberation activism. It gains support by being an uncompromising alternative to pervasive liberal feminism, with its focus on getting women’s faces onto banknotes and into boardrooms. However, it does not offer the alternative we need.
During this debate, the radical Left have generally ignored Trans people’s struggles. The radical Left’s silence on Trans issues shows a failure to relate to Trans liberation in the way it does to political economy or rhetorical Lenin quotes, and it is time for the silence to end.
The Left and Trans Liberation
Recently, Socialist Resistance, the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, published a transphobic article in what it hoped to be the beginning of a “debate” between TERFs and Trans activists. It was received by Trans people as a disguised attempt to debate our right to exist. Socialist Resistance eventually published an apology, but it did not attempt to find and take the side of the oppressed, presenting resistance to TERF bigotry as merely part of a debate:
There are some serious differences about inclusion of transwomen in the movement itself [British feminism] as there are groups of radical feminists that strongly advocate that only women that are ‘born’ women should be included in certain parts of the movement.
These “differences” are not those of two equally-weighted sides of a debate. TERF ideology is based on hatred and bigotry, and directly contributes to the violence, oppression and marginalisation suffered by Trans people – as well as the suicidal thoughts which plague Trans people’s minds. The suicide attempt rate for young Trans people in the UK is at almost 50%. Whilst Socialist Resistance is right to claim that Trans people are “among those at the sharp end of the neoliberal offensive”, it underplays how embedded Transphobic hatred is in society, and adds to Trans people’s sense that their suffering is generally ignored by the Left.
The radical Left were not present in any serious capacity at any recent Trans Days of Remembrances, the London vigil for Leelah Alcorn’s suicide, nor last year’s Trans Pride in Brighton. Why does the radical Left show up for the corporate fests that are annual Prides yet not for protests by one of the most oppressed groups in society? Is it contempt towards “identity politics” lingering from the New Left era? Radical Left groups debate queer politics in various publications, yet fail to consider why so many young Trans People of Colour here and around the world feel more affinity to Laverne Cox and Julia Serano than to Marx or Engels, except to imply that it cannot possibly be a positive phenomenon. To change this seeming lack of interest, the radical Left has to change, but so must Trans activists. Nearly 50 years since the Compton Cafeteria Riots, we need to come together like never before along expressly political lines to support Trans people and a Trans liberation movement.
The State of Trans Politics Today
Little exists in the way of a nationally-effective Trans politics. That which does exist is small and isolated, without the funding or organisational support to build the necessary momentum. As Stonewall finally opens up, including Trans in their remit, it would be easy to fall back on them with their comparatively large funding and resources. However, I believe we need to reject their undemocratic, assimilationist politics as any sort of means to an end, since it is a reflection of everything that’s wrong with dominant forms of LGBT activism in modern Britain.
In the last week, the General Election Trans Manifesto has appeared, featuring leading UK Trans figures such as Helen Belcher listing three key demands to hold politicians to account for Trans people. It asks them to “respect Trans people as equal citizens with equal rights, empower Trans individuals to be authorities on all aspects of their own lives, and develop diverse, representative, realistic and positive portrayals of Trans individuals”. These are admirable aims, yet, like the majority of current Trans activism (as we can see in a piece by veteran Trans activist Autumn Sandeen from two years ago), the manifesto centres around the politics of respectability, aspiring only for equality where radical change is needed. We shouldn’t place too much currency on what parliamentarians can deliver for us, and we should recognise that our oppression will not be overcome if we can reach only the same oppressed and exploited level as our cis-gender peers. We need a broader analysis of our intersecting oppressions and their relationship to the material conditions Trans people face within capitalism after the global economic crisis.
To their credit, Stonewall’s consultation at the end of last year with Trans people across the UK was significantly more promising than the General Election Manifesto. However, rather than relying on Stonewall as a vehicle for Trans liberation, we must lead the way in asking for something more than just equality for Trans people. We need to rediscover our rich collective history of fighting back, especially in the context of the marginalisation we have faced historically from other liberation campaigns and the radical Left.
What Trans Politics Needs to Become
A thousand more role models like Laverne Cox cannot substitute for a politically coordinated activism which changes the terms of the debate, moving our focus from questions about gender-neutral toilets to democratising healthcare, ending homelessness and reducing incarceration rates for Trans people. Why isn’t there free and immediate healthcare for anyone seeking hormones, epilation or reassignment surgery? Or a fully funded system of grants and bursaries for Trans students, who have to commit so much time and money to their healthcare and safety? Where is the campaigning to ensure Trans migrants are provided with guaranteed housing and living costs? Ring-fenced funding for social housing so that no Trans person is made homeless as a direct or indirect result of their gender identity? A Trans-inclusive national curriculum which ensures that our histories, experiences and achievements are finally recognised? The potential for change is enormous. The question is: how do we get there?
Perhaps an organisation which tackles issues this large cannot be assembled overnight. We can, however, begin collectively intervening in the labour and student movement, Left political parties, feminist and LGBTQ groups and single issue campaigns against austerity, war and racism in a much more effective fashion. Where Prides take place, we can get involved, not just at the events but in the hard graft, organising committees to force Trans issues to the top of the agenda. Pride is a protest and our liberation will be delivered not by McDonalds sponsorship or cis gay men on floats, but by grassroots struggle in localities. We need intersectional Trans Prides in every major city, a national Trans Liberation Conference with militant intersectional demands. We must imagine a Trans Liberation Front which serves as a tribute to the memory of those resisting state oppression, like at the Compton Cafeteria Riots, in the memory of figures such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rae Rivera. More Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries; fewer Labour Party-style reformists.
Now is the time to get our shit together and begin the Trans liberation movement we so desperately need. If we seek to be equal, then we lack ambition. We must be the hammer that breaks the spine of the capitalist cis-tem that oppresses us. The recently departed Trans revolutionary Leslie Feinberg, active in backdrop of the ‘Pink Pound’ and the emerging, commercialised Pride celebrations dominating the beginning of this century. Feinberg’s notion of a revolutionary Trans vanguard, whilst questionable, nevertheless stands as a timeless and beautiful rallying cry that, whilst long-since forgotten by mainstream LGB activism, is so badly needed today:
Like racism and all forms of prejudice, bigotry against transgender people is a deadly carcinogen. We are pitted against each other in order to keep us from seeing each other as allies. Genuine bonds of solidarity can be forged between people who respect each other’s differences and are willing to fight their enemy together. We are the class that does the work of the world, and can revolutionize it. We can win true liberation.
And that’s damn right.