As a trans person I suppose I ought to be thankful for the fact that, broadly, it is considered good and right for those up and coming within the Labour party (or those, at least, adjacent to its Twittery or youthful wings) to vocally proclaim support for “trans rights”. There is a certain kind of Online Leftist who seems to wield their support for trans people as an ablative shield, a reason they are Good instead of Bad, as if support for trans rights was a plenary indulgence that would buy you a thousand other splendid sins. Well – I do not have any intent of granting such souls absolution – especially when they’re often so bad at it. I often do not feel thankful. I want to explain why.
I’ve written before (and writers like Shon Faye have written better) about the way that the “trans debate” (what a cursed phrased) seems to often get bogged down in discussions about the minutiae of the nature of identity. This seems to often manifest by including “trans self-ID” on the list of things that someone must support in order to be accepted as sufficiently righteous. Well, I mean, yes, I agree, they ought to support it, if by “self-ID” you mean “Gender Recognition Act reform”, but one thing I resent from this is that self-ID is to be quite frank a term most often used on the side of the debate opposing these reforms. The Labour Campaign for Trans Rights, whose work I very much support, is correct to avoid the use of the term – but it is also notable how low down their list of pledges GRA reform is. When you talk to those who only have a vague idea about trans people, or those against us in various forms, you would think that “self-ID” was the primary obsession and political desire that trans people hold. This doesn’t reflect most trans people I know, who want, frankly, a variety of contradictory things as well as the stuff we do agree on: but whether or not we have the right paperwork is a necessary but ultimately secondary concern to many.
I would personally love it to be easier to get a GRC. De-linking the need to seek intensive forms of medical intervention from simple legal recognition for administrative purposes seems pretty sensible. But my reality and my life is not defined by my relationship to the administrative state; few lives are. Frankly, I don’t want the state to have an opinion about my gender for bureaucratic purposes at all. If I had to choose, in line with Principle 31 of the Yogyakarta Principles, I would eliminate any requirement to list gender or sex or sexual characteristics on identity documents.
“Self-ID” is treated as if it is a radical demand, instead of a reform originally championed by Theresa May’s government, a milquetoast compromise with a state that seeks to define people still by gender. And, of course, none of this has anything to do with the Equality Act and the provision of services to trans people.The wilful conflation of the two has been the tactic of opponents to reform for some time now.
One thing I love about the LCTR pledges is their centering of the concept of trans liberation. Goodness! What a radical idea. Not “rights” but “liberation”. What’s the difference between the two? Standing for “trans rights” implies to me that trans people are sort of a special interest group, as one might stand up for “homeowner rights” or “fisherman’s rights”: a constituency to be carefully managed by a Labour party that seeks to placate different groups in order to hold a motley electoral coalition together. There aren’t that many trans people, though, and so viewed through this framework why should Labour care about us at all?
The Labour party as a whole understands very little of liberation – there is no understanding of why it is right to stand up for trans people, only a vague sense that one sort of ought to because standing up for people is what Labour people do- we achieve more by common endeavour and all that. This gets laundered and smoothed out into the ridiculous affair where someone can say they are standing on a platform which includes fighting for trans rights while not having a good account of what that means. As my friend and comrade Morgan put it recently, there is a frequent failure to understand that you do have to think about why you have the politics you have, and understand them in context, and know a bit about the thought and history behind them, and the tendency use shortcut statements and tweetable lines means that liberation becomes almost staggeringly shallow. It doesn’t mean everyone needs to come to agreement on what liberation means, but you have to do the thinking.
For me, trans liberation is tied up directly to queer liberation, to feminist liberation, to anti-racism, with an end to disablism. I don’t say these things just to list them – I’m saying because each of these struggles are interconnected and interwoven. When Ellen Murray writes and speaks on trans rights and disability, she’s not doing it because she happens to fall into both those groups, but because there are common conversations about bodily autonomy which both groups have. It is ridiculous to me that those opposed to the preservation or expansion of current rights for trans people have labeled themselves “gender critical”, when in my experience it is the trans people in my life who are most aware that “gender is a fuck”, a weird power structure or set of structures that we are all caught in through no fault of our own. When friends of mine tell me that their gender identity and their blackness are tied together inseparably, it feels ridiculous that too often we treat them as separate and unrelated things.
I want to emphasize here that what I am saying here is little baby stuff, nothing new. I’m fairly sure what I’ve given above is a basic and garbled version of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, which we often see fit to invoke as a shibboleth in left circles, although I think often without much understanding of what it truly means. It is not like these conversations are not being had, are had, both within the Labour party and by those who are not bound to it and roam the wide red yonder of the extra-parliamentary left. But they don’t seem to filter through to people who sort of pick up the concept of things like “trans rights” and will shout for it, clap out “trans women are women”, without really ever picking up a book of transfeminist theory and wondering what it is trans thinkers think a woman is anyway (as if there was ever a solid opinion).
I suppose what I am banging on about here, ultimately, is the way that the Labour Party tends to tokenize minorities of all kinds – something I’ve heard friends complain about in other ways, and here I ought to mention the exciting work of the new group Socialists of Colour as an example. I don’t particularly think – as I have had patronisingly said to me – that trans people are the “most marginalised group in Britain”. To me this shows the failure to grasp the meaning of “intersectionality” despite its use as shibboleth. We are quite marginalized, but, for instance, I personally do OK because of my luck and privileges in other areas – it feels notable to me that it is mostly not trans people who say this, and with respect to my trans comrades, those of them who do say it are often those most clueless about other liberation struggles. But it just winds me up no end when people say they support us without doing the minimum of work first. I appreciate the Labour Party is never going to be the radical queer liberationist rolling force of my dreams – but I’d like one crumb, one morsellous, measeliest crumb of it, just for a second. Rainbow flags once a year and hashtags every now and then are all very well, but it is not wrong to demand more, better, from those who would seek to be classed as comrades.
As a post-script: if you want to support an organisation doing excellent material work in community care for those who experience transmisogyny, transphobia, and homophobia, I recommend volunteering some aid to QueerCare.