Trans day of visibility 2022: What do we mean by visibility?

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

On the day you are likely reading this (trans day of visibility), you will see a celebration from a variety of people and groups about the importance of visibility, using the pictures of famous or notable trans public figures. With that, the affirmation of how you, the trans individual, are enough. There are comments about how visibility is important, how we are all valid, with such comments often being adorned with blue and pink flags. This is all fine, but…

What do we mean by visibility?

As a question, it seems simple: to highlight and endorse the presence of trans people in society, and to advocate for the end of othering. These are aims all of us can respect and admire. Yet, those reading this perhaps understand this already: can this be achieved under capitalism? I would argue that it can't be.

And from that, calls for visibility must also be made while acknowledging how being trans and/or non-binary intersects with class. For to be trans and non-binary, is a unique revelation of what being working class is.

Transgender Day of Visibility was created in 2009 by trans activists. The aim was to raise awareness of trans people and of the issues we face in society, aside from those murdered or lost each year because they were trans.

The piece that follows is a critique of capitalist visibility, which is exploitation and a warning against the reducing of this day into something equivalent to modern Pride: just a celebration. Trans culture must be celebrated and promoted, and it must never become a cultural reinforcement of the society we live in.

Trans visibility under capitalism doesn't reflect the experiences of most trans people.

As a trans person living (in the closet) in the countryside, the only visibility I have experienced is ridicule and the implication of threat. When the only trans people cis people know about are the caricatures presented in the Daily Mail and BBC articles on their Facebook feed, and the last non-binary person in town is a teenager bullied out of their home, the importance of positive visibility is clear. The issue is visibility co-opted by capitalism is at best defanged, at worse objectified.

A lot is made of the transgender 'tipping point' of around 2014-5. This was what seemed to be the point of mainstream acceptance with positive trans role models in the media, like Caitlyn Jenner, Kellie Maloney and Laverne Cox. For what it's worth, Laverne Cox (who made her name on the prison drama-comedy Orange Is the New Black) was the first trans person I saw on TV, aged 14. To an extent, as it felt fleeting, I did see a bit of myself in the character she played in OistNB. I mention this because I do want to make it clear that visibility is important and crucial before critiquing it. As Cox is the exception that proves the rule somewhat: a lot of this visibility was of white, rather rich people who don't really reflect the trans experience.

The best summary of that point would be Caitlyn Jenner, who, when asked what the hardest struggle of being a trans woman, said it was picking dresses. While her experience may have been easier and not hindered by lack of access to healthcare, that is quite the point. The visibility of being transgender was decoupled from the lived experience of the vast majority of trans people. Socio-economic status and identity were reduced to an 'identity'. Most tellingly of all, Jenner has endorsed transphobic narratives around sports in her courting of the fundamentalist and capitalist Republican Party. In this sense, we can see what visibility has faulted on: literal and metaphorical flag-waving without anything more radical than 'we exist'.

Another area of visibility of dubious assistance to liberation has been pornography, or more widely the fetishisation of trans (usually femme) bodies. This is not a denouement of sex work, which is work and needs to be decriminalised to remove exploitation, and making money from the oppressor is laudable. This is rather a criticism of the male gaze; of how our bodies are reduced to genre categories (usually with a slur) on cis male-centred porn websites. Nor is this an exclusive experience for trans women or trans people as a whole: cis women, queer people (especially lesbian and bisexual cis women) and People of Colour (and those who are all of the above) have experienced this.

Related experiences for communities marginalised while objectified can be seen in the 1990s, with 'Lesbian Chic', or even with the wider reception of Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. While cultural milestones can be achieved, and absolutely must be celebrated, we must never stop there.

The visibility of individuals is simply not enough.

Visibility must be about the promotion and recognition of trans/non-binary people and bringing to the fore the material and political issues we face as a class. With that too comes the sharing of resources, understanding and care. With this, we can not just survive under capitalism, but also start and continue the building of a trans liberated world where socialism is achieved. By seeing where we can improve it, we can make visibility once more a queer act of defiance. While existing is political, that is not by our choice: our communities have been policed and brutalised in the modern era for well over 100 years. We are the working class, as are the intersecting communities in need of liberation. Visibility Day must go back to its roots: a day to recognise both activists and historical figures and the issues we face.

Trans Liberation requires visibility, and equally, visibility requires liberation from capitalism. Only then will we achieve the 'enough' we aim for. Only then will be liberated from systemic and non-systemic transphobia and class.