Fighting back better: abolitionist trans struggle and the GRA

As the British government prepares a sweeping new attack on trans rights, Charlotte Powell and Lisa Leak argue that the future of trans politics lies in radical anti-racist solidarity against state violence.

Alec Perkins / Flickr

The killing of Tony McDade, a Black trans man, by police in Florida on 27 May was neither a beginning nor an end to the violence faced by Black transgender people. Dominique ‘Rem’Mie’ Fells was found dead in Pennsylvania on 8 June, and Riah Milton was murdered in Ohio the following day. On Friday 12 June, the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that killed 49 people at a queer club, US president Donald Trump announced a rollback of protections for transgender access to healthcare. On 14 June, the Sunday Times leaked UK government plans to not only scrap reforms on the Gender Recognition Act planned under Theresa May, but to introduce ‘protections for same-sex spaces’, including public bathrooms. The infamous ‘bathroom bill’, a transphobic form of legislation made famous by the lobbying of the Christian right in the US, has come to the UK. 

To trans activists, the news that GRA reform will not be happening was already expected. What was surprising was the simultaneous leaking of plans that amount to the biggest rollback on civil rights in the UK for decades. There was no public mandate for this: the overwhelming majority (over 70%) of the results of the GRA public consultation were supportive of the proposed reform. So why has the government so sharply reversed its initial plans?

The story so far

The proposal to reform the 2004 Gender Recognition Act and make it easier to legally change one’s gender was adopted by Theresa May’s government in 2017, at a time when the Conservative Party was still tussling for direction following the unexpected Brexit vote of the previous year. A part of the ruling Tory formula of the David Cameron era had been to accompany vicious austerity drives with pieces of token ‘liberal’ legislation intended to neutralise the party’s reputation for right-wing bigotry – one clear example being the 2013 legalisation of gay marriage.

There is every reason to think that Theresa May’s promise of GRA reform – which would have made it easier to access a symbolic legal recognition, with relatively little practical impact – represented one of the last gasps of this tradition of cosmetic ‘socially liberal’ Toryism. But in the years since 2016 Cameron’s ‘socially liberal’ brand has given way to a resurgent hard-right Tory politics that channels some of the same ‘culture war’ energies unleashed by Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in the US. Theresa May tended to flail incoherently between these two impulses; Boris Johnson’s government has resolved the tension decisively in favour of the latter.

Currently, that government is on the retreat on several fronts, beset by huge public outcry over the behaviour of Dominic Cummings, mounting pressure over health secretary Matt Hancock’s censorship of a report into the high number of BAME Covid-related deaths, and the mass popularity of Black Lives Matter uprisings in the UK. This is despite the incredibly weak and complicit ‘opposition’ offered by the Labour Party under Keir Starmer, who backed home secretary Priti Patel’s plan to criminalise vandalism of monuments with prison sentences of up to ten years. The timing of the GRA leak may or may not be a conscious distraction on the government’s part, but in either case, it has the potential to become another ‘culture war’ topic with which to divide progressive movements and rally together the centre- and far-right.

The GRA leak also underscores the failure of a prominent strand in trans advocacy that looks to achieve change through professionalised lobbying and apolitical parliamentary advocacy. Organisations like Mermaids, a charity largely run by cisgender ‘allies’ which has recently doubled down on its praise of the police, have primarily responded to the leak by asking people to write to their MP, or to Boris Johnson himself. The top-down parliamentary focus of these organisations has created an image of trans people as a community unable to speak for ourselves; who require the mediation of ‘advocates’ in order to gain justice. This approach has not only failed to prepare adequate resistance to conservative transphobia, but has also obscured and discouraged the radical and militant activism of many trans people in the UK.

One week in June

Our task as socialists is to ensure that the new plans do not succeed, as law or as political manoeuvre: the government’s multiple attacks on oppressed and marginalised groups of people must trigger a united collective backlash, informed by a common enmity to the politics and the structures that threaten both Black people and trans people. Something comparable is already taking place in the US: while news of the GRA plans spread across the UK on Sunday, thousands were taking to the streets in New York and Los Angeles in protests for Black trans lives. The New York demonstration may be the largest in history dedicated to the Black trans struggle.

Black Lives Matter London Protest, 6 June 2020 Photo: James Eades / Unsplash

On Saturday night, when the Sunday Times front page broke online, trans people up and down the UK will have read the story and felt genuine fear for our safety. While potentially restricting access to life-saving spaces such as domestic abuse shelters, the government’s legislative plans would also give a green light to the violent social policing of gender presentation which already mars the lives of many trans people (and other gender non-conforming people, like cis butch lesbians), particularly when using public utilities like bathrooms. This sense of pervasive danger, emanating both from the forces of literal law and order and from the vigilante enforcers of an oppressive social ‘normality’, underscores the intimate connection between trans oppression and white supremacy.

The erasure of Black trans experiences in so many spheres helps hide the fact that it is Black trans people who will suffer the most from the proposed legislation. The overlapping oppressions of racism and transphobia are written in the list of names commemorated every year on Transgender Day of Remembrance, a list overwhelmingly populated by Black trans people and people of colour. Attentiveness to this tragic toll is the precondition for allowing Black trans people to enter into this moment of struggle with their full strength and voice.

Towards abolition and victory

Making visible the regular murders of Black trans people can also help us to raise consciousness of the full range of ways in which the institution of policing produces racist and transphobic violence. Police kill in many ways: not only through direct murder on the street, but also through the calculated negligence and indulgence that they show towards violence against certain ‘sorts’ of people; through their enforcement of violent border control against precarious migrants; through their enforcement of laws that harass and impoverish sex workers, exposing them to greater violence and exploitation. And the police officers who inflict racist repression while in uniform also often inflict gendered and domestic violence in their ‘personal’ lives (for which they tend to go unprosecuted by their loyal colleagues). 

But these fights are also linked by a shared solution. The struggles against white supremacy and against transphobia both point increasingly towards a horizon, not of piecemeal reform or integration, but of abolition: the abolition of the prisons and policing systems of the state; the abolition of the medicalising and pathologising structures of state gender regulation, and perhaps of gender itself. These horizons represent radical and hostile disruptions of racial capitalist and patriarchal social regulation. We struggle for incremental gains but fix our sights on nothing less than full freedom. As Angela Davis said on a livestream on 14 May: 

‘We support the trans community precisely because this community has taught us how to challenge that which is totally accepted as normal. And I don’t think we would be where we are today, encouraging ever-larger numbers of people to think within an abolitionist frame, had not the trans community taught us that it is possible to effectively challenge that which is considered the very foundation of our sense of normalcy. So: if it is possible to challenge the gender binary then we can certainly effectively resist prisons and jails and police.’ 

The experiences of Black and trans prison and police abolitionists who have long been fighting this struggle are now being heard by millions. While the government in Britain seeks to put trans activists on the back foot, we must resist with all our strength the illusion that trans justice and Black liberation are separable, either from each other or from a determined anti-capitalist struggle. We have to forge unity between all of those brutalised and exploited by racial capitalist patriarchy, rather than attempting to court alliances with power-brokers within that power structure.

Black Lives Matter protesters face police lines in Washington, DC. Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

The conditions of the pandemic make specific tactics hard to rule on in advance, and we are constantly being reminded of the folly of attempting to predict when and how broader layers of the population will enter into mass struggle. But it is clear that well-judged actions and demonstrations in the streets, and direct action, should take priority over lobbying MPs. Existing networks of Black and trans abolitionists in the UK already provide invaluable structures; these should be engaged with and supported energetically, and we must simultaneously build a durable grassroots infrastructure of solidarity and interlocking organisation.

Despite our fear, and the temptation to cling hard to any crumb of support we are offered, we must be able to consistently critique those NGOs, lobbying groups and political allies whose support for trans rights does not come accompanied by a critique of state power and policing (in the full set of institutional and social senses of this term). And we must also steadfastly push back the influence of those small but vocal layers of activists within organised left structures who have advanced arguments that give cover to the hard right’s transphobic agenda. The fruits of these interventions are now plain to see, and they amount to the enablement of a poisonous right-wing crackdown on trans lives.

We need to cohere together the energies of socialists, trade unionists, cisgender feminists, anti-racist campaigners and trans activists, and we need to forge unshakeable links across the workers’ movement with Black Lives Matter organisers and trans activists. We cannot and should not count on the support of a Parliamentary Labour Party led by former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer: this battle, like all the others to come this century, will not be settled by parliamentary wrangling but by mass struggle.  



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