Why Trans Liberation Is Critical For All Liberation

Article written by: Seb Cousins, Trans Liberation Officer, Young Greens

One of the many issues with the ‘trans debate’ has been its obsession with the existentialism of trans people’s bodies. For a debate that exists in a culture which has fetishised trans bodies, it seems odd that the debate is about if trans and non-binary people exist, and if so, if they’re a threat to cis (read: ‘not trans’) women.

These questions are often posed with an anti-trans bias. They are circular: the debate never ends or develops. The same slogans repeated, the same scaremongering articles (re)published, the same denouncements reiterated. All the while violence against trans people rises, and continuing crises in healthcare and employment continue. That’s the point of it: to obsess over a manufactured debate, obsessed with what ‘rights’ people have, rather than what’s happening to ordinary trans people. These debates in the mainstream media, which at best present trans people as engaging childishly in an equal debate with people who disagree with their existence and at worse as part of an agenda to prey on children and cis women, are ultimately detached from reality. They are debates for people for whom politics is simply a game to play, rather than something which is life or death. 

This article seeks to move beyond that. To talk not just about ‘trans rights being human rights’, sometimes said in mere validation, but to talk about liberation: political and economic progress for all who need it. Fighting the same struggles of precarious employment and healthcare as many people in this country are. Why trans liberation, rather than just trans rights, is critical for liberation of all.

Lilla is 23 years old and works in tech support. She has been out as trans for 8 years, starting her public transition 4 years ago. For her, the transphobia she encounters the most is less the ‘overt’- though that has happened- and more what she calls the ‘subtle’ kind. The kind which manifests itself as the disgusted looks from a stranger, the inappropriate comments colleagues say to you; the failed job interviews that you know you’re overqualified for. The latter, Lilla says, raises the question of if the interviewer had a small bias that is hard to prove for sure but, I’m sure for those from any marginalized group will get, you kind of know is the case. That’s the kicker: the reliance on having an interviewer who’s at the very least neutral makes the difference between being employed and living in a very precarious situation. The face of transphobia is not just elaborate, academic and obscene mean words, it’s banal: the interviewer with a prejudice deciding if you have a job or not. Her colleagues, aside from the occasional comment, are nice people and her experience in the workplace is fine, something that she worried about when leaving university. 

‘Healthcare is an absolute nightmare’. The summary Lilla gives is telling. The waiting lists are long, and that’s before the threat of being removed without warning after a year of waiting, because a clinician decides that it’s ‘not appropriate’. The waiting times in England between the 8 Gender Identity Clinics is horrendous: Sheffield is ‘booking appointments’ for those who applied in March 2018, meaning they had to wait for over 44 months. Tavistock in London is offering first appointments to those referred in November 2017. It’s not just the waiting list length. It’s the effects it has on other parts of healthcare, like accessing Hormone Replacement Therapy. Lilla mentions the blatant ‘textbook discrimination’ of her GP not prescribing her HRT, while a non-trans person can have it prescribed for other health issues. Clearly, it’s an inequality. While Scotland announced crisis funding for trans healthcare, England and Wales are still in this crisis, created by long term structural issues and the impact of austerity on real term NHS funding. While Lilla didn’t go private, these issues in the NHS have forced many trans people to do that. Not because it's easy (private is expensive): something you can see a lot of among trans people in their 20s and 30s on social media is the sharing of fundraising links like ko-fi and JustGiving to raise the funds for transition. As well, medical transition, particularly for those who are transfeminine, is dependent on hormones and surgery, both of which can cost significantly and consistently. Quite, if you want to see what privatised healthcare in Britain would look like, ask a trans person. This is not sustainable, and reform and greater access must be achieved.

Because of the failures and disdain for trans people in public healthcare, the private sector and its high costs are even more apparent. So we can see from both the realities of employment and healthcare how trans people are wanting the same things as the working-class: a fairer system where you have job security, decent pay and to be able to, without caveats, be yourself. If any word could describe this, it's… normal.  

The objections to the ‘trans lobby’ in certain left-wing spaces, deriding ‘identity politics' and a belief in the ‘normal voter’ who lives in a ‘former red wall’, are devoid of reality. While Lilla would not describe the Left as transphobic, it certainly has a lot of cis people who don’t see it as a deal-breaker. Trans people are in the working-class, and any other category you can think of. They all, like the issues facing the working-class, the disabled, people of colour, women, queer people, intersect on an individual level and in the challenges we’re all facing. By recognising that, we can fight for change. Recognising that these identities are normal is critical: that trans people are regular, working-class people who want access that are more than deserved is something the Left must strive for. Recognising the need for trans liberation means that class liberation will not just recreate the products of imperialism and capitalism. And with that, trans liberation must be led by working-class trans people, so that fundamental material issues are addressed.

Why are we in this situation of oppression to start with? And is capitalism related to this? Both the legacies of Victorian and imperial obsession of categorising and labelling human bodies in order to establish or reinforce legal-based control over those powerless. For instance, the first laws in this country against homosexuality came in the 1880s (if not counting Henry VIII's Buggery Laws of course). Similar attempts to do the same to lesbianism occurred in 1921 (failing because the government thought it may encourage it), on the back of women's advancement and a media hysteria based, literally, on lesbians apparently invading middle-class women's spaces like boarding schools. The constant development of an economic system based on profits rather than valuing humans, are still with us. The enforcement of a conflated gender-sex binary (which modern science does not support) had come about earlier in the 1700s, and used to enforce Western European norms on indigenous populations in the Americas and Africa, and at home in the UK. 

Categories do divide us, but not because what they refer to makes us weaker by acknowledgement, but because they're used by the powerful to make us conflict with each other. By reclaiming these categories, we can unite and work together to resolve our shared struggle. 

Nor can we, via capitalism, reverse this. During the 90s for instance, a positive yet fetishised acceptance of gay and lesbian culture emerged, such as ‘Lesbian Chic’. Yet this didn’t help materially. What it did was make existence into a fashion, while murder and violence continued. Similarly today, in contrast to the transphobia and enforcing of gender conformity in the ‘trans debate’, there is culturally a certain popularity for shows like ‘Drag Race’ and gender nonconformity. Yet the hate-crime rate rises, and hearing about friends of friends ending their lives after being harassed by transphobes continues. A right to be commercialised is not liberation. 

Nor is it, going back to healthcare, liberation to be free to access gender reassignment treatment but not to be free from the financial and geographic hurdles that deny healthcare. A lot of women (and people who get pregnant) reading this will know of how access to abortion, especially in places like Eire historically and the US today, depended/depends on being able to afford to travel to a clinic. As well, post-2010 austerity, which hurt all working-class people, coincided with an extension of rights like for gay people to marry. Extending rights then does not mean 'liberation' if it's within capitalism. We know that from experiences which are related that there’s an intersection here, like a crossroad. And at this crossroad, we have the choices to be divided by those who are responsible for the world we live in, a rights-obsessed culture where little material benefit is achieved, or a liberated world where we have social and economic justice.

For liberation for all, trans and cis alike and for everyone who needs liberation, we need the political change needed for an environmentally sustainable and economically transforming society, where the many are the winner and no one is thrown under a bus. We need to go beyond rights and representation, and go for liberation. 

Deeds, not words. Liberation, not just rights.