‘Trans Visibility Day 2023 -
as hard as patriarchy tries to suppress it, we’ve always been visible’
By Seb Cousins
“My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one.”
- Natalie Clifford Barney
Trans visibility. If you listen to the kind of person who parrots the Daily Telegraph verbatim, or enjoy mass-circulated Facebook ‘gotchas’ about non-binary people, you will probably hear from them that trans people are new, a result of a queer agenda in schools, and a trend that got a boost from bored, middle class people in the covid lockdowns.
For them, trans visibility is a joke, a jokey fashion that is simultaneously weak and dangerous, and goes against the never ever challenged and definitely universal belief that there are just two genders/sex: man and woman, which never change.
You’ll also hear from some of them that Trans visibility means the erasure of, say, Gay and Lesbian visibility and being (the fact they often forget to mention bisexual people here is amusing if telling of what they think of the latter). The idea they push here is that transness is new and separate politically from lesbianism, gayness and bisexuality, and is a threat to them. Yet this view, which its intent of weakening the queer community to role back all our rights and prevent liberation, is incredibly wrong. Just, incredibly. The incredible truth is that the visibility of trans people, from the working classes to the more well documented, upper class and bohemian cultural circles, has been around since the beginning, spanning the world and time. As well, the interplay between what we call transness and what we call queernss in sexuality has always existed, even before the modern popular terms we used came into existence. I apologise for a lack of a coherent, defined history, but that’s queerness: never with borders; and always in fluctuation.
Working class visible transness, and indeed working class visible queerness, historically is hard to gauge. While I could find thousands of quotes from people like Natalie Clifford Barney, who’s famous for her lesbianism while also describing herself as neither male or female but a ‘third way’, and explore the nuances, which are beautiful, of how they identified and how we can interpret it, its harder for working class transness. Often, it’s only through criminal records and superlative newspapers that we find people we would call trans ( I use that phrasing because, while they certainly express transness, the language we use today may not be the language they’d describe themselves as if they were around today). We can go back as far as the medieval era, with Eleanor Rykener, who was arrested, on paper, for 1) sodomy and 2) prostitution (neither of which were actually crimes back then). Here we can see queerness: someone who existed outside the confines of what the law could imagine- before enlightenment theories and institutionalisation of fixed genders and sex, where aberrations of cisness could be criminalised. This would be seen with the treatment of ‘female husbands’ (effectively masculine queer women and trans men) and ‘mollys’ (effeminate queer men and trans women), who would be prosecuted from the 1700s onwards with charges of fraud and sodomy respectively. From cases like this, we can see on one level how transness and being working class is visible, it exists throughout history. Yet, due to the lack of surviving sources and document and class-based oppression, the voices of working class trans people throughout history, and with that their visibility, are limited and often lost, relegated to dusty archives and their histories downplayed by a society that doesn’t want them visible or heard; listened to by communities that have much in common with them.
In many ways, we still see that today: often the voices in the ‘trans debate’ are often cis and middle class, and while social media has helped make trans people visible, often the voices (especially in the UK) most heard are middle class and white. The fact the author writing here is white, non-binary and working class is not a brilliant improvement on that dynamic, to be honest. Often too, the visibility of trans working class people is only used by a misogynistic and hateful media to say how ‘ugly’ working class trans people who are (in effect) denied healthcare by the NHS or are late transitioners because the language to describe themselves wasn’t available to them at a younger age, and thus the language to access help. These portraits and caricatures, to say how ‘manly’ trans women look like among other things, are class warfare designed to silence trans people via fear and to give justification to remove their rights, because people get dehumanised. In that background of dehumaisation, there is a legitimisation of violence, which in the end is trans working class people who are most likely to experience this.
On the flipslide historically, is the creative impact of transness. For instance, the portrait above is of Lili Elbe, painted by her wife Gerda Wegener (who also specialied in Lesbian erotic art, of which Lili was a model for). Lili Elbe is also famously the first trans woman in Europe to medically transition. It’s quite clear that there is a cultural imprint that shows trans visibility, even if it is obscured by some or downright ignored. As well, we see, especially now, the impact of trans literature from Nevada to Detranstition, Baby, and how these works are either becoming or, on their first publication, were engaged with by a mass, mixed audience. An important part of these stories, while they show trans issues, are that they are not defined by tragedy. Tragedy is incredibly common: increasingly so when the news around all of us details how trans people are losing their rights to even really exist in in some parts of the US, and how increasingly in the UK we are seeing a government that edges closer to a Section 28 style ban on letting children know transness exists. But none of that is the be all and end all of trans culture.
Knowing all this, and knowing how trans people struggled against the Nazis during the 1930s and the War (one of the forst book burnings were of the raided offices of the Institute for Sexual Reform, which had pioneered Trans healthcare), despite the horrific attempts at suppressing trans visibility throughout history and today, trans people are visible still. And that visibility, with all the determination for justice and liberation, is utterly radical and incredible.