Trans in the UK: What the Hell Are We Going To Do?
In UK trans social spaces, the emotions I encounter most often are fear, uncertainty and exhaustion. I meet many trans folk stuck stewing over political defeats and obsessive media coverage. I see a physical response: a frantic hand-wave at “everything that’s going on” and a scream. That’s fucked up!
On the one hand, a lot of bad shit has happened and it is right and rational to feel miserable in the face of that, especially in times of pandemic social murder and rising fascism. On the other hand, this doesn’t have to be the only way to react. Trans social spaces and political movements can get trapped in negative reaction to all the bad stuff and then fail to campaign for and celebrate victories. The fixation with every bad thing that’s said about us and that’s done to us is a self-defeating cycle. We’re stuck always reacting, never acting, always miserable and never liberating ourselves. I saw a tweet from an American trans journalist recently that, quoting a news article about Keir Starmer on making Labour “the party of the family”, said only “Trans people in the UK are so fucked.” Believing only that, dwelling on only that, is what fucks us. We’re not fucked, we’re fucked over, and we can fucking fight back, and fight for fucking liberation.
So this essay is a rough assessment of where we’re at and an outline of some ideas I have about what trans political movements in the UK are doing. In Part One, I talk about some things we could fight for:
- For trans healthcare liberated from the GIC system.
- For resources for trans life and against trans poverty.
- For alternatives to an unjust justice system.
- For trans liberation.
In Part Two, I talk about:
- Who’s against us, and how they gained power
- What strengths our movement has, and what its limits are
- Ways of organising that could liberate us.
In general, my argument is:
- Trans people in the UK are being fucked over not just because of the strengths of organised transphobia, not just because organised transphobia has been used by the ruling class and by right wing political movements, but also by the relative weakness of grassroots trans organising.
- That many trans people have invested too much in charities and NGOs, and in campaigning for legal rights and symbolic recognition, and have not invested enough in movement-building and in winning resources for trans people.
- That the dominant tactics trans movements in the UK have used lately — political lobbying for rights on the one hand, and reactive campaigning against organised transphobia on the other — have failed to either win rights or stop transphobia, and so we need better tactics.
- But that there is already a movement for trans liberation, full of exciting ideas and great organising. So some tactics trans movements can use include: building mutual aid organisations, building institutions and structures to support trans life, leading our own research, directing campaigns at specific institutions, and scaling up protest and direct action tactics.
Ultimately what I’m saying is, build a local trans group wherever you are, fight directly and locally for resources for trans people, connect those groups in a national movement from the bottom up, and always centre trans liberation.
I’m writing this as a trans woman in Scotland in her thirties who is white, middle-class, precariously employed, and autistic. In my teens and early twenties I was involved in environmental direct action as part of broader anarchist movements: that’s my political training and heritage. I’ve also been involved to greater and lesser degrees in anti-borders and migrant solidarity campaigns, antifascism, building collective social centres, campaigns against nuclear weapons, mutual aid organisations and radical trade unionism — and also the Scottish independence movement and the Labour Party, both of which I left. I mention these identities and backgrounds so that you know where I’m speaking from and what my biases are.
I don’t and can’t have the answers. I use “we” a lot as a short-hand, but there is no one universal trans “we”, just a lot of trans people. And none of the ideas in this article are new, and all of them have come through my own conversations with campaigners who are already doing this work. There are many, many trans people already doing the kind of work I talk about. So this isn’t a manifesto or a complete guide to how to build a movement. It is a bunch of ideas I have about what trans people in the UK could be doing more of, shared to get more people talking about these ideas. Answers will only come if we talk together, argue with each other, and build a movement together, from all our different positions. Please disagree with me, point out my shortcomings and blindspots, write your own pieces, and most importantly get together with other trans people in your local area to figure out what the fuck you’re going to do. We’ve fucking got this.
This is a long article, so I’ve included a table of contents below, and also a short summary at the bottom of each section. I finish with an incomplete list of grassroots trans groups you can join, take inspiration from, and support. This article took me about a week’s work to write. I currently have good employment and a secure income for a while, but this is work. If you have a decent income and a reasonable level of comfort, and you find this article worthwhile, I’d really like you to make a financial contribution to one of those organisations.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you can reprint, adapt, share and translate it in any way you like as long as you don’t make money from it, and you don’t need to ask for permission. If you’d like to print it in a for-sale publication, get in touch.
Part One: What We Can Win
Trans healthcare in the UK is in crisis. The waiting list to be seen by an NHS Gender Identity Clinic, once you’ve been referred by a GP, ranges from two years to five years, and in some parts of the UK GICs are not currently seeing new patients at all. And the waiting lists are getting longer. Then, when you’re seen by the GIC, care is rigid and inconsistent, with little patient control over medical options, little therapeutic support, continuing prejudice against non-binary transness and any deviation from cis expectations, exclusionary practices towards disabled people, neurodiverse people and people of colour, hostility and ignorance from GPs, and a postcode lottery over what procedures are funded. Trans healthcare for under-16s has been brutally interrupted by a national moral panic. Prejudice against trans people in general practice is endemic, trans people are routinely excluded from essential services for their bodies, with a particular crisis here for transmasculine people, and all trans people face high barriers to reproductive freedom. Private options do exist, but they are expensive and are a way for gender clinicians to get more money from trans people, and so they exclude working class people as a matter of course. Private practices which attempt alternative models of trans healthcare, like telemedicine diagnosis or informed consent, are campaigned against by hostile medical institutions and the media.
A common response to this situation is to call for more funding to the Gender Identity Clinic system, temporarily plugging the gap by crowdfunding for individual trans people and giving money to funds run by private providers. None of this can solve the situation we’re in. More funding for the GIC makes the bottle bigger while keeping the bottleneck: there’s only so many people you can squeeze through. Crowdfunding is necessary right now, but it’s harder to successfully crowdfund if you’re Black, disabled, working class, or just refuse to give an easy trans narrative to a cis audience. And giving money to private practices takes control over healthcare away from trans people and gives it to private doctors.
The fundamental problem with the UK system is that most of the healthcare trans people need is kept behind the gate of the GIC. You have to be officially diagnosed as trans before you can get any of it. It’s not just surgery and hormones: things like gender-informed therapy, speech and language training and hair removal are all stuck behind that gate. As one really absurd example: I can’t currently get electrolysis on the NHS, because in order to get electrolysis you have to grow your hair out, go to an official place to have an official photograph taken, and have that photograph assessed by an official who decides whether you’re hairy enough, and none of this is possible in a pandemic. But all of that is expensive and unnecessary! If someone reports that their mental health is affected by having facial hair, that’s all the information that’s needed to decide that they need support with hair removal. A GP could and should be able to do that. Similarly, speech and language therapy can have huge mental health benefits for trans people, and it’s an inexpensive, non-controversial, reversible intervention that any GP can already prescribe. But some therapists require a GIC referral, and most GPs don’t know this is possible. In my postcode, gender-affirming speech and language therapy isn’t even funded: the speech and language team squeeze it in around their funded commitments because they believe in it.
Within the public healthcare system, we should be campaigning for as much healthcare as possible to be shifted from behind the gate of the GIC and into general practice. We also need to build better understanding of trans health issues into general practice and especially into gendered health services. That is going to take long, dedicated work with local health boards and GP bodies, and it’s going to need activist groups, friendly NGOs and friendly clinicians to help build it. It’s going to take funding, but less funding than it would within the GIC system. It’s going to be much harder for surgery and hormones, but there’s a whole host of other forms of support we can start with. It’s going to take training for GPs, and a lot of lobbying to get hostile GPs on board, but that’s needed anyway: too often a trans person doesn’t even get a referral because of hostile GPs, and too often a trans person can’t get GP treatment for any health issues because the GP thinks “it’s a gender thing” and sends them back to the GIC (we call this “trans broken arm”).
The good news is that all of this is possible and a lot is already happening. In England, three new pilot gender clinics have opened which employ trans people, have a patient-centred informed consent model for transition, and move as much support as possible out of psychiatry and into general practice. They have reduced waiting lists from years to weeks. They’re not perfect, and they’re limited in what they can do — for example, they won’t prescribe treatments that some trans women prefer, like estrogen injections or progesterone — but the early reports I’ve heard are a huge step forward. We need more of these, sooner, across the whole of the UK.
At the same time, we need to be building trans healthcare systems and resources outside of the state, run by and for trans people. We need collectively-owned hair removal machines, and trans electrolysis clinics where the people getting the therapy are also trained to administer it. (I already know people doing both of these things.) We need speech therapy co-ops. We need reliable information, created by trans people, on different hormone options, built on the principle of harm reduction. Many if not most trans people DIY their hormones to some extent already, and it’s becoming increasingly common for the GICs to see people who are already years into a hormonal transition, but the ways of doing this are small, hidden and local, with little public information.
Alongside this, we need trans-led research into our healthcare options, and demands for better research from doctors and academics. For example, there is, as far as I know, no academic study into the comparative effectiveness of different hormone regimes for trans women: we have a range of different means and dosages of administering estrogen, the question of progesterone, and a big variety of medications for reducing testosterone, but all the information is patchy and partial, based as much on hunch and preference as academic study. Projects like transfemscience.org show what’s possible in a collective trans-led approach. Better research gives us autonomy over our healthcare, gives trans people different options beyond the binary, and helps integrate trans healthcare into our long-term physical and mental health.
The situation for trans youth in the UK — huge interruption of service in England and Wales, threats to services from politicians and campaigners in Scotland, negligible provision in Northern Ireland — is going to require legal action, but it also needs a community response. While the outcome of Bell v Tavistock has had an appalling effect, the reaction to it masks the fact that the situation was already awful for trans youth: huge waiting lists, gruelling assessments and restrictive criteria for support, intense gatekeeping. Care within the GIC is generally accessible to youth only with plenty of parental support and social privilege, and the same is true of private practice. Campaigning for trans youth healthcare often centres the leadership, stories and desires of parents, which often oversimplify trans experience, and we rarely hear from trans youth. Organising for trans youth healthcare will also benefit from taking power away from the GIC and embedding healthcare within general practice and community organisations, but the organising needs to empower trans youth leadership.
This is just a beginning — I haven’t covered issues like healthcare for Intersex people who are also trans, wider abuse of Intersex people in the healthcare system, support for people whose trans identity changes over time, gamete storage, the discrimination facing trans people in sexual and reproductive health services, the anti-fat policies built into trans healthcare, the incarceration of trans people in psychiatric detention, and a lot more besides. Each of those articles needs writing too. To win healthcare in all these areas, we need to change how trans healthcare is provided, by dismantling GIC gatekeeping and building trans-led mutual aid.
- Trans healthcare is in crisis because so much of it is gatekept by the GIC, and because there’s a lot of ignorance in general practice.
- Trans people need to campaign to bring trans healthcare into general medicine, and to make more interventions more widely available.
- We need trans-led projects to give us better information and control over our healthcare.
- This is going to take working both in and against existing health institutions, and also building independent mutual aid projects.
Trans people experience poverty to an extreme degree. We are more likely to be working class, in poverty, and homeless. We are more likely to be forced into the most precarious, dangerous and exploitative work, and into illegal and grey market economies. We are more likely to struggle with an austerity-ravaged benefits system. All this is even more the case for disabled trans people and trans people of colour. All this is caused by family abuse and abandonment, discrimination in the workplace and public services, the costs of transition, and huge obstacles to accessing resources and justice. The situation is then made worse by discrimination in organisations which should work to alleviate poverty and build class power, including crisis services, shelters, foodbanks, benefits systems and trade unions.
I see three main ways of addressing trans poverty: fighting discrimination in existing services, embedding trans people and trans issues into class-based political work, and building new trans-specific services. All of these are happening already to some degree, but are rarely centred in public or media conversations about trans politics.
Working within existing services means trans participation within homelessness support, foodbanks, gender-based violence shelters, harm reduction provision and more. This is about strengthening work that supports all in poverty, and about building solidarity between trans and working class movements. But it’s also about building trans-specific understanding into these services. This has to go beyond basic awareness training, and train services in the specific issues that trans people face. For example, harm reduction services around recreational drug and steroid use need to understand trans people’s DIY health practices and how they can help (such as by providing clean needles and sharps disposal); crisis shelter support need to resist monitoring the identity documentation that restricts trans access to services; the gender-based violence sector needs to build expertise in a trans-informed approach to trauma. In doing this work, we will also need to identify where and why there’s discrimination against trans people in these services, understand how that is part of holding power over working class people, and support workers in resisting discriminatory leaders. Gal-dem’s recent expose of transphobia in the gender-based violence sector looked at the conflict between unions and leadership. Emi Koyama has been writing about the problems for the survivor movement for decades, and shows how anti-trans discrimination goes hand in hand with racism, opposition to sex worker organising, and prejudice against drug users.
So trans people also need to participate in working class social movements, such as renters unions, trade unions, benefits advocacy and anti-poverty campaigns, and Housing First movements. The same approaches apply here: working against poverty, building solidarity, and embedding understanding of trans issues. What I’m arguing is that not everything has to be a “trans rights” campaign first: when 1 in 4 trans people has experienced homelessness, Housing First is a trans liberation demand. And without trans people involved in such demands, the services that are created are more likely to keep discriminating against trans people.
But across social movements, there are going to be conflicts that trans people need to work through, as with the gender-based violence sector. There is, for example, extensive organised transphobia within the trade union movement, and trans people working for trans workers’ rights may face hostility and obstruction from trade union representatives. Overcoming problems like this ought not to be the work of trans people, but it is work that needs doing. Solidarity means both working through conflict when you can and drawing a line when you must. In all this, it’s worth remembering that the more movements become institutions and part of the state, the more they institutionalise discrimination against the oppressed groups they are supposed to support. For example, a homeless outreach project with state funding might report migrants to border control, which is more likely for racialised migrants; discrimination against trans people in the gender-based violence sector often comes from well-paid leaders, who may also oppose sex worker organising. One way of combating this is to ensure that projects are led by those affected, resisting a middle class “helper” model. For example, support for homeless trans people should be led by trans people with experience of homelessness; trans trade unionism is led by trans workers.
This means we also need a third approach: building trans-specific services and poverty-alleviating mutual aid projects. There are already initiatives like London’s Outside Project, running an LGBTIQ+ refuge; Glasgow’s Ubuntu, which built trans and sex worker participation into the creation of a shelter for women and non-binary people with no recourse to public funds; and fiveforfive, which organises income redistribution for transfem people and causes. But in the UK such projects are few and far between, and tend to gain much less attention and support from trans people and cis allies than, for example, media visibility photoshoots. We need a dramatic expansion of this kind of work. And as we build resources for trans people, we need to understand the trade-offs that happen in service provision and movement-building. Grassroots and self-funded projects are more likely to centre the needs of the most oppressed, and are more able to combine service provision with political activism, but are also more likely have lower resilience and longevity. On the other hand, charities and state-funded projects can often last longer and build bigger and more consistent services, but are required to be depoliticised, and at worst they enact oppression rather than fighting it.
A trans movement that is not directly addressing trans poverty is condemned to irrelevance. A trans movement which chooses to prioritise legal reforms that only benefit privileged trans people (who even has a pension?!) over addressing trans poverty is actually working against the interests of the majority of trans people.
- Fighting trans poverty should be a central demand for trans political movements.
- This will take both working within existing services, building solidarity with working class movements, and creating trans-specific projects.
- We also need to improve understanding and fight discrimination in anti-poverty institutions.
- Both grassroots self-funded projects and funded institutions have limitations and strengths.
Two big victories for UK trans campaigning in 2020 were legal cases: Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover, in which a non-binary person won a discrimination suit against the car manufacturer, and Mx M’s case at the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, in which a non-binary person won asylum in the UK. As well as winning justice for those individual trans people, both cases advanced the support for the breadth of trans identity in UK law. Without creating a separate legal category for non-binary people, both cases showed that in UK law the legal category of transness (which in equality law is the “protected characteristic” of “gender reassignment”) does not require a single, binary, medical model of transition, and that trans people deserve justice whatever form their transition takes.
There are big limits to the legal approach to trans politics, which has historically dominated UK trans movements. Because using the law requires a lot of financial and social resources, and because legal cases put a lot of strain on individual campaigners, and because the law is very slow, the legal approach to trans justice is often only possible for the most privileged trans people. One effect of this is that the court cases we take up and the laws we campaign for often primarily benefit wealthier trans people, as is the case for pension law, marriage law, and so on. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When we take up legal cases and legal campaigning, we need to choose cases and laws which meet the needs of poor, racialised and oppressed trans people first. We also need to build up trans-led organisations which can support those at the centre of these cases financially and emotionally. For example, in the US the Sylvia Rivera Law Project provides direct legal advice to trans people, and campaigns against prison, for shelter support and for healthcare. In the UK, projects like the Good Law Project and the Just Law Centre are a start, but have much narrower briefs, do not centre trans leadership, and aren’t accessible to most trans people. Every trans person I know has faced direct employment discrimination, but I don’t personally know anyone who has ever taken up a case. Trans workers are routinely discriminated against, especially if they are also poor, racialised or disabled, even though the law against employment discrimination is there. The same is true of trans people accessing public services. We have the law, but we don’t have the resources to use it. So we need law centres, unions and trans-led campaigns to support trans workers in these fights, with the support to make sure the fight actually benefits all of us.
Even then, the law has limits. The victory of a single asylum case is tremendous, but the UK’s asylum system is murderously violent, and gender minorities, horrifically, must prove their transness to cisheterosexist courts who are all too ready to see transness as fake. Legal cases get individuals through the system, but the system itself must be brought down. Justice for trans people means undoing the UK’s border regime, means trans participation in migrant solidarity and no borders campaigning. Just as campaigning for resources for trans people should be led by poor and working class trans people, support for trans migrants should centre the leadership of trans migrants. Often, middle-class trans people want to “help” and start a new political project, when actually those affected are already campaigning and need resources and support.
Similarly, policing and prison is a site of extreme violence against trans people, but the solutions to this aren’t running unconscious bias sessions for the police or opening a non-binary prison. No matter how many unconscious bias trainings the police go to, they will still criminalise trans people for, for example, working in sex work, as many of us do. In prison, trans people face violence, abuse, discrimination, isolation, lack of access to healthcare, and death. Little of this is solved by making sure we’re in the “right” prison, and some of it can be made worse. Worse, we have trans people campaigning for laws that increase criminalisation, such as hate crime laws, despite the ample evidence that hate crime laws are often used against oppressed groups and cannot fight oppression itself.
So instead we need trans participation in abolitionist and decarceration movements. Instead of calling for non-binary prisons, we need to join with the movement to support and decarcerate women in prison, working in solidarity to create community services for gender minorities and women, and to bring our knowledge of how gender minorities are affected by the prison system. Trans prisoners are already leading in this work and need resources and support. The media wants to talk about the supposed threat trans pose in prison; instead, we need to focus on the threats we face, and how that is part of the systemic abuse of the prison system against all people. Similarly, instead of campaigning for hate crime laws, we should be campaigning for the decriminalisation of sex work — actively, in our NGOs as well as our social movements. And instead of explaining transness to the police, we should be building a movement to replace policing with well-funded community services.
Alongside this, we must build transformative justice resources in trans political movements. Oppression and violence happen in our own social groups, campaigns and NGOs too, and that won’t change if the police is our only tool for addressing harm. In my experience, rhetoric around transformative justice in the UK is high, but actual resourcing for transformative justice is very low. When violence and abuse occurs within our movements, we talk about how we don’t want to involve the police, and have plenty of zines with ideas about what to do, but we don’t put the resources in to support structures which can actually transform harm. Building resources for transformative justice means creating and funding organisations which can support accountability processes, and growing expertise that can guide groups and individuals. But it also means ensuring that every social justice organisation is thinking about it from the start, and making space and time to do it. That is going to be long, slow, hard work, but should be central to the resilience of our movements. To create a world without police and prisons means transforming justice now.
- Trans legal campaigning can win important victories, but so far it tends to only win victories for privileged trans people.
- For trans justice to benefit all, we need trans-led law projects that provide legal advice and campaigning support to trans people who don’t have resources.
- Trans justice means campaigning against police, prison and borders, and for community resources.
- To campaign well for trans justice we need strong resources for transformative justice in our own movements.
Everything above is about moving away from “trans rights” and towards “trans liberation”. I feel grief when the dominant slogans on a trans protest are “trans rights are human rights” and “trans women are women”. I don’t want to “protect trans kids”, I want to arm trans kids (with the tools for their liberation). These slogans are stuck in the politics of recognition, of being seen and sorted and protected by the state. I’ve argued that this approach centres the rich and continues violence against the poor. I feel that many trans people in the UK are disconnected from the history of the liberation movements, such as women’s liberation and gay liberation, in which trans politics first emerged. One of the earliest trans political organisations in the UK was the “Transsexual, Transvestite and Drag Queen” group in the Gay Liberation Front, and its opening statement is still liberatory. Emi Koyama’s Transfeminist Manifesto was written 20 years ago, and there have been few such liberatory manifestos written since in the Anglosphere, particularly the UK. Projects like the Radical Transfeminism Zine, which includes Edinburgh ATH’s Trans Health Manifesto, are few and far between, and have much less circulation than, for example, petitions to reform the Gender Recognition Act. Where there is liberatory thinking, it’s often confined to academia, stuck behind paywalled journals and in exclusionary jargon. And often liberation thought is buried beneath the rubbish heap of “arguing with TERFs”, particularly within the marxist left (which has its own jargon problems). We need new, trans-centred liberation thought running through our movements. Please write it!
Instead of “trans rights”, I want to shout the demand “trans liberation now”. Trans liberation is when we understand the harm that policing the gender binary does to all people, win the resources needed by those most harmed by gender binary policing, and attack the social systems which uphold the gender binary. For example, when trans liberationists critically examine psychiatry we find a social system which makes money by pathologising and punishing people who transgress the gender binary in their desires and behaviours. Trans liberation fights for autonomous healthcare for trans people outside of the psychiatric system, to free and support trans people incarcerated by psychiatrists, and against further funding and social legitimacy for coercive gender psychiatry. This is the same argument I made in the first section, just in a different language. All my arguments above are trans liberation arguments.
But good liberatory thinking isn’t made by people working in isolation: it comes from participation in social movements, from groups of people talking together and working to help each other. Tactics that support this include consciousness-raising and mutual aid. Consciousness-raising is when people who share an oppression come together to talk about their problems and offer support to each other, building a political understanding of where the problems come from. For example, when a trans friends talk about dysphoria and emotionally supports each other, that’s a start, and when we add a discussion of how dysphoria is made worse by cissexist beauty standards, that’s consciousness-raising. When we include advice and material support to navigate the health system to ease dysphoria, that’s mutual aid.
Mutual aid is when people come together to solve their problems and meet each other’s needs. It’s trans people sending hormones to each other, doing each other’s laundry, cooking community meals. Grassroots mutual aid projects sprung up in huge numbers at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, including some trans-centred groups (see the bottom of this article for a partial list). I’m involved in MATE (Mutual Aid Trans Edinburgh), which began in March 2020 when we realised many trans and queer people weren’t using local community mutual aid groups because of transphobia, or because they had needs those groups couldn’t address. Mutual aid is always political, and should work to keep participants supported to take part in social movements. For example, MATE supported Edinburgh’s Black Lives Matter protests by attending in person, providing buddies, helping with mask distribution, and extending our support offer to anyone who was self-isolating after the protest. I know that taking part in this work has strengthened my own liberation thinking, and keeps me focussed less on asking the state for recognition, less on arguing with TERFs, and more on meeting trans people’s direct needs.
Trans people’s liberation is also cis people’s liberation, because policing the gender binary hurts as all. Trans people, particularly trans women, are at the sharp end of cissexism, but that doesn’t mean cis people can’t be involved in our liberation. I am a little tired of seeing cis people think they can’t be active in trans liberation, always deferring to trans people to do the work that they can only “support”. That looks like cis people retweeting petitions and donating to crowdfunders, but not being an active part of the kind of campaigns I’ve talked about in this article. So, to this cis people reading this: please get actively involved! Yes, trans people’s leadership is essential, but I want accomplices.
Ultimately, trans liberation isn’t possible without Black liberation, decolonisation, women’s liberation, disabled liberation, class struggle, and so on. That’s not just because trans people are also Black, colonised, women, disabled and working class, but because the systems that oppress trans people are also the systems of white supremacy, imperialism, cisheteropatriarchy, abled supremacy and capitalism. Everything is connected. For example, a trans person in poverty is more likely to be criminalised — maybe because they stole food to survive, maybe because they’re in sex work, maybe because they self-medicate with recreational drugs and poor people’s drug use is targeted. In contact with the police, they may then have a mental health crisis, which, because they are Black, the police may construct as dangerous, leading to their incarceration in the psychiatric system. They may get stuck there, because community support for mental health has been slashed by austerity. In the wards, they may be denied access to their hormone therapy and go into withdrawal, and then also be excluded from medical services appropriate to their body because their gender presentation isn’t cis. All of this has happened to friends of mine.
This is why in this article I’ve talked a lot about trans participation in broader social movements. A“trans rights” movement separates trans people from other struggles and works for small advances that only benefit a few trans people, but a trans liberation movement is connected to all other liberation struggles and works for the liberation of all of us together. This doesn’t mean there aren’t trans-specific demands that we must campaign for, or trans-specific mutual aid needs, but it does mean that many of our problems can only be solved by trans participation in broad liberation movements. When trans movements are isolated, we can sometimes end up working against the interests of liberation, as with hate crime laws as I discuss above, or as when gay rights movements separated from Mad liberation. But when trans people work for the liberation of all, that means that everyone else is there for our liberation too.
- “Trans rights” separates trans people from other struggles and wins victories only for the rich, but “trans liberation” challenges all the systems that oppress trans people and builds solidarity.
- Many trans political movements in the UK have tended to neglect trans liberation: we need more liberatory thinking and more liberatory work.
- Consciousness-raising and mutual aid are tools of trans liberation.
- Trans liberation is part of Black liberation, decolonisation, women’s liberation, disabled liberation and class struggle.
Part Two: How to Win It
a) Who Are the Opposition?
Organised transphobia has been successfully mainstreamed in UK politics. This a serious situation which makes it harder to win new victories, and also keeps bringing up new threats to trans life that we have to defend against. On the one hand, I think that much of trans politics in the UK has been far too fixated on “fighting transphobia” (and, even more reductively, on “fighting TERFs”). On the other hand, in order to win victories we do need to understand what forces are against us, what power they have, how they got it, and how we failed to stop them. So this and the following section is a brief analysis of who opposed trans liberation and how they won power.
In Government, the UK’s Minister for Equalities, Liz Truss, now regularly uses transphobic fearmongering in the same breath as racist fearmongering, and has led the decision to stop even the most minor reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. In Scotland, organised transphobia is now a major feature of a significant wing of the independence movement, a wing which successfully took over many of the positions in the National Executive Committee of the party of Government, the SNP; Scottish GRA reforms have also been indefinitely delayed. Transphobic dogwhistles are now being included in party manifestos, including the Labour Party’s. Although active discrimination against trans people is not a priority for any party or a stated policy of any leadership, it’s now very difficult for trans people to make any progress in the party political system, and we turn up mostly as a regular rhetorical scapegoat.
There is also an anti-trans social movement made up of a network of astroturfed groups. Each of these is mostly run by a small number of the same individuals, and some exist only or primarily as websites and Twitter accounts. However, such groups do successfully crowdfund hundreds of thousands of pounds to mount legal challenges against trans rights, including in health policy, employment law, discrimination law, hate crime legislation, equality statutes, and so on. Although their victories are few and defeats regular, they have intimidated local authorities into removing guidance for supporting trans students, and the Crown Prosecution Service into withdrawing guidance on hate crime legislation; they have delayed or stopped GRA reforms; and, most devastatingly, they have halted or hugely impeded healthcare for trans under-18s in England and Wales. Their long-term goals are clear to anyone who studies them: to drastically reduce all trans healthcare provision; to separate the legal status of trans people without a Gender Recognition Certificate from those with a GRC and thereby impede trans people’s access to services and roles in their lived sex; and eventually to reform or withdraw the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act to prevent all trans people from living safely as themselves. Whether or not any of this succeeds, their work is also an assault on the liveability of trans life through fearmongering and rabble-rousing, encouraging discrimination against trans people, impeding trans liberation, and putting trans people in a constant state of political stress.
Anti-trans action is supported by relentless transphobia in the media. This includes transphobic journalists such as the Andrew Gilligan at the Sunday Times (now employed as a transport adviser to Boris Johnson), who led a constant output of scaremongering stories, slanted coverage and personal attacks on trans women. It also includes editorial policies at outlets like the BBC, where in the interests of “balance” transphobic voices are regularly included in reporting on trans issues. Alongside this, an active stable of opinion columnists across all major outlets works to mainstream transphobic talking points from fringe groups. Meanwhile, there are very few trans journalists employed by any media outlet in the UK, fewer still covering trans issues, and as far as I know there is no trans columnist employed by any major newspaper.
It is, I think, a huge mistake to describe this array of political, movement and media forces as “TERFs”. Trans-exclusionary radical feminism is a specific minority branch of feminism, rooted in the 1970s minority opposition to trans women working in lesbian feminist movements. Very few of the politicians, columnists or social movement organisers have any connection to actual trans-exclusionary radical feminism: they’re not lesbian feminists, they don’t have a history in that movement, and they’re not even feminist organisers beyond opposition to trans rights. What has actually happened is that a motley collection of bog-standard social conservatives, reactionary nationalists and fence-sitting centrists has seized upon a handful of the talking points of TERFism and used them to justify their own politics. That’s why you now see the language created by managers to exclude trans women from a feminist music festival (against majority feminist opinion) now used to talk about toilets. So when we try to fight organised transphobia as feminists, as if this were a feminist conversation between sisters, we are striking at the wrong target. Arguing with TERFs is pointless for trans liberation because the TERFs aren’t in charge. The very few actual TERFs around in the anti-trans movement are useful pawns for the leadership, and for us they are a distraction. What we actually need to organise against is the different forms of political conservatism taking power and escalating into fascism. When I analyse where anti-trans power is and how it got there, it’s not so that you can go and debate the bit-players on Twitter: it’s so that we can work out where we need to build alternative power for trans liberation.
- Transphobia is mainstreamed in UK politics, and this is an obstacle to trans liberation.
- Anti-trans organising holds power through party politics, its own social movements, and the media.
- We should think about anti-trans politics as primarily conservative: it uses feminist rhetoric, but has only weak roots in feminism.
b) How Did We Get Here?
Working out what strategies to use for trans liberation means looking at the limits of strategies tried so far. If transphobia is mainstreamed, we have to understand how it got there. This is my brief analysis of the last five years. I’m not giving an exhaustive account: instead, I’m using this as a way to talk about how trans movements can better respond.
i) Anti-Trans Social Movements
Consultations to reform the Gender Recognition Act were announced by England and Wales in 2016 and by Scotland in 2017; both went ahead in 2018, with Scotland’s six months earlier. Groups such as Women’s Place UK were founded at the the same time specifically to oppose the reforms. These groups began running events around the UK to recruit further members and build a social movement. While these early meetings and groups had roots in the long-running TERF minority strand of lesbian feminism, this is the point in the UK when this fringe philosophy began to gain wider momentum and detached from those roots.
Public meetings by these groups from 2017 to 2019 were nearly always met by trans solidarity protests. These were often led by student groups and groups with roots in anti-fascist organising. The aims of such protests were to disrupt transphobic organising and show trans solidarity, With hindsight I think we need to admit that the tactic largely failed. Transphobic groups successfully recruited, expanded their interests, mainstreamed their talking points, and won significant political allies. At best, the main results of this wave of trans solidarity protests are that transphobic organising is ostracised from specific sections of society, that some individuals have become pariahs in related social groups, and that public bodies make regular statements of support for trans people. But transphobic organising has found plenty of other homes and other means of support, including wholly parallel social structures. Meanwhile, support for trans rights from workers in public institutions is rarely mirrored in the actual leadership or followed by action.
Why did trans solidarity protests fail to achieve their aims? First, we overestimated the support we would get from other social movements, and the strength of our roots in those movements, and so anti-transphobia protests were easily isolated. If trans people aren’t consistently found in wider social struggles, it’s harder to call on their solidarity. This is connected to a second reason: the wider left failed to show consistent and active solidarity at this early stage. Papers like the Morning Star, and some specific union and party figures, worked to undermine trans solidarity protests. Third, transphobic organisers were very successful in tapping into a growing culture war over free speech. They painted themselves as silenced victims, a tactic which amplified their campaigning. And fourth, the early transphobic organisations quickly found powerful allies in far right social movements, American evangelical funding, conservative commentators and party factions, gaining a pace of support which outstripped trans solidarity organising.
I’m not blaming the organisers of such protests, or trans people themselves. (To be clear about my own stakes in this, I supported several such protests as a legal observer.) It would be very wrong to say that minority groups should not protest against those organising against their liberation. But it is to attempt a sober assessment of what went wrong so that we can start doing better.
ii) Anti-Trans Media
Building on this early wave of transphobic organising, the anti-trans organisations built power through media coverage and political parties. Alongside meetings, this was co-ordinated through unmoderated or supportive public channels such as Mumsnet, r/GenderCritical and Twitter, as well as through private social groups and WhatsApp backchannels. From the launch of the GRA consultations on, a dramatic rise of media coverage and commentary has boosted transphobic arguments and attacked trans organisers. The tactics anti-trans journalists have used include isolating and shaming individual activists, profiling transphobic organisers, spreading disinformation about equality law and health policy, attacking healthcare providers, using crowdfunders and legal cases as hooks for stories, using para-academic blogging to gain coverage in both academic and media outlets, and using every act of opposition to transphobia to run an “I’m being silenced” column, winning celebrity supporters who themselves become media stories.
The main trans solidarity tactics in response to all this have been defensive: writing debunking articles and trying to get them placed in the same outlets, going on television to argue with transphobes, organising parallel social media networks to respond to transphobe talking points, soliciting mass open letters of support in response to any attack, and so on. Broadly speaking, we have engaged in precisely the public debate that transphobic organisers wanted, and their social power has increased far more rapidly than ours. (Again, I have also been an active part of all this, as you can see from my articles on Medium.) Always responding to transphobia means that we’re never talking positively about trans life, or improving understanding of the struggles we actually face. Every time you debunk a talking point, you’re not creating new knowledge about trans healthcare; every time you tweet at a transphobe, you’re not texting your friends. If the media is useful for anything, it should be for creating public understanding of what trans lives are actually like.
But the media is part of the oppressive social system that gets in the way of everyone’s liberation. That means we need independent trans media and culture, but we have built very little. Supportive coverage comes only in small enclaves built within the LGBT and left-wing press, such as PinkNews or the New Socialist, and relies on just a few journalists. In the UK, we even lack mainstream pop culture and inclusion outfits like them.us which can provide positive support to trans artists and campaigners. There are no UK trans-led print or online magazines with a wide circulation, let alone with a radical analysis. We have a smattering of Twitter accounts, websites and podcasts, the majority of which spend the majority of their time responding to transphobes instead of boosting trans life and culture. We have few resources, and if we’re always defending and never building, if we’re always going into the hostile territory of mainstream media and never creating our own spaces, we’ll never have more resources. We’ll also be a lot more miserable.
As with the protests, this is not to blame trans people for the rise of transphobia, or to say that we should never respond in any form, or that debunking is not necessary. It is to say that a near-exclusive focus on this work neglects trans life and cannot build trans power. If a strategy hasn’t worked so far, something else is surely worth trying.
iii) Anti-Trans Politicians
Finally, I want to look at the role of political parties in mainstreaming transphobia. This has been most successful in Scotland, where a significant wing of the SNP is now obsessively opposed to trans liberation and is taking positions of power within the party. Rather than looking at all UK party politics, this is an outline case study of what happened in Scotland.
Transphobia first emerged clearly in the Scottish independence movement through the autonomous blog Wings Over Scotland, which has had a years-long obsession with dismissing trans life and culture (alongside defending domestic abusers). At the same time as transphobic organising groups were founded in England, For Women Scotland began in Scotland. In 2018, this connection between transphobia and Scottish independence emerged into party politics, when the SNP MSP Joan McAlpine invited For Women Scotland to contribute evidence to the committee hearings on Scotland’s new census bill , which was to include better data collection on trans people. McAlpine slanted the evidence-givers against trans people and steered the committee towards trans-exclusionary conclusions, in an opening salvo which prefigured attacks on GRA reforms. This work gained increasing media coverage through sympathetic journalists in Scottish newspapers and magazines, alongside further allies in the SNP and in other parties. The support for misogynist campaigners like Wings from independence figures like Robin McAlpine (no relation) of Common Weal, and the relative silence on trans liberation from groups like the Radical Independence Campaign (now dissolved by indy’s internal tensions), allowed this mainstreaming of transphobia to gather pace.
As with protests against transphobic organising meetings, opposition to the transphobic tendency in the SNP was consistently cast as a threat to free speech, with the public discourse reaching a nadir when the SNP MP Joanna Cherry held up a meme print-out in the Westminster Parliament. From late-2019 onwards, particularly through Cherry and Wings, the anti-trans tendency also became clearly associated with the faction within the SNP and the independence movement which opposed the current leadership, demanded greater speed and militancy in agitating for independence, and supported the ex-leader Alex Salmond in his trial for sexual assault. The faction gained enough power that the SNP first watered down and then delayed GRA reforms, against both the majority of consultation respondents and its own manifesto. By late 2020, this situation had become open factional war, in which trans people — and thus “protecting women’s rights” — were just one political football in a much broader struggle.
In November 2020, a large number of candidates associated with this faction, many of whom actively and openly campaign against trans life, won a majority of positions on the National Executive Committee, though they failed to achieve as much in the earlier MSP selection. At around the same time, an amendment to a bill on forensic medical examiners, led by Labour MSP Johann Lamont, made a wholly cosmetic and legally irrelevant change from “gender” to “sex”. In the fallout around this, Rape Crisis Scotland were bullied off social media for criticising the public discussion around the bill, and MSP Andy Wightman quit the Green Party over its support for trans rights.
Openly anti-trans statements and motions are now a regular feature of the Scottish Parliament across parties. No measure to improve trans life goes forward without vocal opposition; any measure to improve women’s lives is an opportunity to attack trans people. As an illustration how absurd things have gotten, in January 2021, For Women Scotland went to court, with the support of many in the independence movement, to try and repeal a 2018 bill which mandated gender equality on public boards, which included trans women in its definition of women. Their key argument was that the Scottish Parliament didn’t have the power to legislate in this area. That is, a supposedly feminist group is campaigning against a gender equality measure, and is supported by many independence campaigners even though it seeks to limit the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
This case study suggests a pattern of how transphobia is mainstreamed in and through political parties. First, individual campaigners and fringe groups build arguments and their own culture, and then find dedicated champions within a party. Those champions use their power and resources to recruit more allies, and begin to engage in factional conflict. At this point, the faction is able to use trans people as an easily-attacked minority group. Trans people become an outsider threat against whom power can be built, and so the party faction and the transphobic campaigners build power through each other. Meanwhile, a failure of action on transphobia from party leadership enables the faction to grow, and trans campaigners do not recruit allies or build power to match or overcome the anti-trans faction. In Scotland, the situation was made worse by the failure of trans-supportive UK media to provide any meaningful coverage or for wider UK allies to provide understanding and support. Similar dynamics are now underway in the Labour Party, through figures like Rosie Duffield and the failure of Keir Starmer to sign the Trans Rights Pledge, and in the Conservative Party through figures like David TC Davies and Jacky Doyle-Price.
I am in two minds about how to meet this threat. I have been wholly disappointed by my own attempts to engage in party politics, and as a liberationist I’m much more interested in building independent social power. As with the media, I’m cautious about engaging transphobic politicians on their own terms, instead of setting our own political agenda. On the other hand, political parties are a huge vector of power and just ignoring them also feels risky. Working within parties to build power against anti-trans factions, as the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights and Out for Independence are doing, is probably necessary, and that’s going to take finding allies and champions. But if trans people do not have their own social power, and are not building strong roots in broader social movements, then they will not have the power to challenge political parties. Without trans power, it’s too easy for parties to ignore trans rights when there’s a hint of controversy. So with that in mind, with a grateful breath I’m going to leave the transphobes behind again, and turn to trans power.
- Anti-trans campaign groups successfully recruited for the last five years, and trans solidarity protests weren’t strong enough to prevent their expansion.
- So we need stronger roots in broad social movements, to build trans solidarity.
- Anti-trans journalists keep up an onslaught of negative media coverage, and trans people are often stuck in a cycle of defense and response.
- So we need to work for better coverage of trans life and the issues we actually face, and to build independent media.
- Anti-trans politicians build power through factional conflict, and media and movement alliances, and it takes trans solidarity work within parties to limit the damage.
- But politicians follow social power, so we have to build autonomous social power for trans liberation.
What Strengths Does Trans Liberation Have?
We have so many people. I have not spoken to a trans person who transitioned more than ten years ago who is not astonished, and often delighted, by the sheer numbers of people who are coming into themselves and making a joy out of gender. It is very difficult to imagine all of these people going back in the box, short of a total fascist takeover (which, to be clear, is possible). We have a new generation of out trans people in greater numbers than ever before, demanding more than trans people have been able to win before. That is an astonishing achievement built on decades of struggle. This achievement itself is one of the factors contributing to the health crisis and the social backlash, and it is too easy to let the achievement mask the inequalities and diversities within trans, but the achievement is there. Trans life in the UK is more open and more possible than it was a decade ago, and we need to make it more possible still.
We have a rich and diverse trans culture. We have novels, music, film, theatre and more, and we’re making culture for each other, publishing each other, lifting each other up. Trans people are speaking to, about and for each other. When I look at the opposition and their dearth of cultural production, I am reminded of how powerful we are and how irresistible that is. As someone who works in the cultural sector, I also think we have decent support for making that culture, especially from the base of the workforce. This is less the case in senior management, who are more likely to buddy up to their pals in the ruling class, and that creates problems for trans cultural workers. The public visibility of trans also gets in the way of work that moves trans culture forward: too often we’re only paid to tell stories for cis people, stories that explain the basics of our lives, rather than speaking in our trans richness. Often, the few of us with even a glimmer of security in cultural work, with just a fragment of presence in the institutions, are highly isolated and carry an unmanageable burden of representation. This is especially the case for trans women, trans people of colour, and disabled trans people. We do need our own systems of economic support to make our culture stronger and more vibrant yet.
We have decent antidiscrimination legislation. The Equality Act protects us from discrimination on the grounds of gender reassignment. The definition includes social factors alongside medical factors within “gender reassignment”, and applies at any stage of transition. People with a Gender Recognition Certificate are their acquired sex in law “for all purposes”. We win almost every time we bring a discrimination case: in toilets (Brook v Tasker), in employment (Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover), in changing rooms (not yet gone to court, companies give in every time). There are vulnerabilities which anti-trans campaigners seek to target: protection is less definitively clear for trans people without a GRC, for trans people in early transition, and for highly marginalised and early transition trans people (see R v Green for a combination of these factors). The even greater problem is that we lack the social, political and economic resources to make use of this law: every trans person I know has a story of clear and direct discrimination, but I know none personally who have brought a case. We need radical trans law centres, and movements who can support using and expanding the law.
We have power in the NGO sector, and decent support from within the feminist NGO sector, particularly from the base of its workforce and its unions. This includes funding for trans-specific NGOs, support from larger human rights NGOs like Amnesty, and decent life chances for trans people working within that sector. NGOs which take an openly trans-exclusionary stance, and which campaign for it, are very few and far between, with weaker funding sources. We need to build on the strength in this sector, and in particular build deeper and more meaningful alliances and services with the feminist sector.
We have power in some sections of academia, particularly (but not universally or securely) in cultural studies, sociology and health, areas where trans-centred and trans-led work is possible. Trans-exclusionary work is very much the minority in those fields, and harder to do; in other fields, such as philosophy and law, the situation is more precarious. This creates life chances for trans people and expands the knowledge about trans life. However, it’s important not to overstate the resources here: many trans people enter academia hopefully only to exit quickly under the pressure of both transphobia and the neoliberalisation of academia. We need to make trans knowledge broader, more diverse and more accessible.
We have dominance in the young left social movements. This is particularly the case outside of unions and the party political system, though there is some support there too. When doing political work, there is usually at least a surface level understanding of trans issues, a desire to support trans people, and a sense that trans liberation is connected to other liberation struggles. The left is quite weak in the UK at present, with the Corbyn defeat requiring a serious regrouping, but Black-led uprising and increasing union militancy during the coronavirus pandemic are promising signs, and trans people have been a regular part of these moments. We need to deepen our roots and build on our strengths.
We have an emerging mutual aid movement. The early months of the coronavirus pandemic saw a surge of mutual aid organising, and this includes trans mutual aid groups. Trans mutual aid provides trans-led community support, healthcare, advocacy and anti-poverty projects to trans people. Organisations at the moment are few, small and precarious, but they’re a welcome sign of an emerging movement, which we need to grow.
Having outlined some strengths, I do want to look at what I think UK trans liberation is lacking, what I want to build towards. We lack diverse, vocal and resilient trans liberation organisations that centre a liberatory politics over a politics of rights, representation and inclusion. We are at only the early stage of building active alliances in leftist parties and trade unions. We lack strong autonomous media, either liberal or radical. We lack trans and LGBT+ social centres, especially autonomously-run and independent of NGOs and businesses: London and Belfast are two examples. We lack trans-led independent health projects, beyond the pioneering work of QueerCare and the Black Trans Foundation: our options for care beyond the broken GIC system are exploitative private practices and tenuous DIY networks. We lack trans-led legal initiatives: the Good Law Project and the Just Law Centre are two of the few legal initiatives for trans rights and to my knowledge are not trans-led (after all, we have very few lawyers).
Beyond these resources, I think our work so far has also failed to grow some core areas of political knowledge and practice. We lack, I think, a widespread radical transfeminist culture that can grow and nurture the people and communities we’re going to need. We have strong seeds and great thinkers, but most trans people I talk to don’t know what radical transfeminism is, and that grieves me. The organisations that exist often lack strong international solidarity, which would mean cross-border collaboration between trans movements, particularly beyond the Anglosphere. At a time when British anti-trans campaigners are fomenting movements internationally, we need to be sharing knowledge and resources. This means active support for the many varied expressions of gender diversity internationally, beyond simply citing them as evidence of a universal trans identity. Living in an imperial centre, we need to contribute solidarity and resources to international movements, not co-opt struggles to strengthen our own. And finally, we need to address the dominance of whiteness within our political organisations, the marginalisation of trans women and transfeminine people from our NGOs, culture and academia, and the continuing exclusion of disabled and working class people from centres of trans life. Ultimately, trans liberation must recognise and address the inequalities and oppressions within “trans” itself.
- We have lots of empowered trans people, and we’re strong in culture, the young left, the NGO sector and some parts of academia.
- We have an emerging movement, but it’s fragile and lacks resources, and there’s weak wider understanding of what trans liberation means.
- Winning trans liberation means better international solidarity and addressing oppressing within trans movements.
What Strategies Should Our Movement Use?
I have argued all the way through this article that we have invested too much in NGOs and too little in autonomous organisations, too much in representation and too little in material victories. I have also argued that we’ve fought too often on the ground chosen by our enemies, and too often defensively, and that instead we need to be choosing our own terrain of struggle. I think we need to fight not against what we’re afraid of but for what we want. Here are some ideas about how to do that, built on my long-term experience in social movements.
First, start a local group. Instead of trying to build a national organisation and get it funded, find a way to meet with trans people and active accomplices in your local area. Instead of starting a new Twitter account with a good acronym, get to know who is around you and what their desires and struggles are. Together, find local projects that need work and causes that need fighting. Has your local authority withdrawn guidance for supporting trans students because of a transphobic attack? Find a way to emotionally and practically support trans youth in your area, and work together to apply pressure to the local authority to release new, better guidance. Has your region’s Gender Identity Clinic failed to treat any new patients in the last year? Find a way to build a local trans healthcare network that can help people to access support independently, and to pressure the GIC to either drastically reform or to release its resources to trans-led projects. Is there a migrant solidarity campaign in your area? Learn about how they’re building support for LGBT+ migrants into their work and how you can be part of it, and join direct action campaigns for the closure of the UK’s detention centres and prison camps. Is anyone in your town doing trans cultural promotion and educational work? Find a way to expand and support it, and build in radical political education as part of what’s happening. Get in touch with local prisoner support groups locally, and write to trans prisoners.
From this base, connect to other local campaigns and form a network of groups. Get to know what other people are working on, and where you can offer support and resources. Sometimes you’re going to have won a similar victory already and can show them how; sometimes they’re going to have already made the DIY healthcare zine you were thinking of writing. With a strong network, when there are worthwhile national campaigns — such as to release a trans person from incarceration, to fund a national trans sexual health service — there will be much stronger resources and bonds of trust to draw on. A movement organised from the top down tends to have weak connections, precarious resources, and only be able to win small reforms won through appointed representatives; a movement organised from the bottom up tends to be more powerful, more resilient, and to win more meaningful victories.
When planning tactics for these struggles, we need to do so much better than the petition and the polite static protest as our default campaign tools. We need rambunctious, militant protests and small, trained direct action groups. We need to interrupt health board meetings and demand immediate resources for trans healthcare in general practice. We need to physically stop deportation flights sending LGBT+ people to be killed. We need to occupy the ground on which non-binary prisons might otherwise be built. We need to not be afraid of militancy, while also understanding its costs and providing emotional, social and financial support to those targeted for state reprisals. This also means understanding that protest militancy is also the sister of deep care work in our communities, is not “the real stuff” but is one wing of the work that needs doing, along with education, care and mutual aid.
Winning victories is going to mean building alliances with local political movements that are not specifically trans-centred, as I’ve talked about throughout this article. Not every politically engaged trans person needs to work exclusively on trans issues, and there’s huge value in instead, for example, building a radical trade union and ensuring that comrades there have a basic understanding of trans issues. When a strike can call on the support of a vibrant, noisy and creative trans movement, then that movement can also call on the support of strikers. All social movements will also have a direct trans intersection, such as how campaigns to decarcerate women need to understand the criminalisation of gender diversity, or how harm reduction provision for drug users needs to work out how its resources can also benefit trans self-medders.
Similarly, there is a role in all this for NGOs and liberal campaign groups. The right kind of national legal reform can benefit trans life; NGOs can get in the door of, for example, health service provision planning when pressure groups cannot; and NGOs are able to access far greater resources that can be put into material support work. The problems are that NGOs tend to drift politically towards the centre because of their closeness to government and because of the requirements of funding; tend to be overly engaged in putting movement representatives into media conflicts because of the demands of lobbying campaigns; and tend to become detached from the economic needs of the majority of trans people because of the class position of their leaders. So a liberation movement needs to stay in conversation with paid liberal organisations, not attacking them out of moral superiority. That way, we can pull and pressure NGOs into more radical aims and keep them connected to our urgent needs.
Finally, in all this, we need to look after ourselves and each other. Liberatory political work should be nourishing and joyful, but it is also hard, painful and tiring. It is very easy to overwork and burn out. It is all too common for groups to implode because they cannot handle internal conflict or have not addressed internal power dynamics and oppression. Individual organisers are often at risk of attack from state and anti-trans forces.
For individuals, I recommend practising care and attention to your own needs and capacity alongside your movement work. I have written about a wide range of potential causes, strategies and desires in this article, and anyone who immediately tries to act on all of them will collapse in exhaustion in about a month, as I have done myself before. You cannot do everything that I’ve talked about here. I often find these questions from Mariame Kaba very helpful:
Questions I regularly ask myself when I’m outraged about injustice:
1. What resources exist so I can better educate myself?
2. Who’s already doing work around this injustice?
3. Do I have the capacity to offer concrete support & help to them?
4. How can I be constructive?
As an example, for myself I have made the decision to work on one specific local project, which is a trans and queer mutual aid group. That is where I put the majority of my organising time, a few hours a week (or sometimes only one hour, when I am ill or fatigued). I am also a paying member of a radical trade union and promote and share its campaigns, but I decided I couldn’t take on regular organising. I write to trans prisoners, and I stay in touch with other movements that I care about, contributing financially when I can, sharing resources, and doing minimal work like signing petitions and writing letters. Every so often a comrade in a social movement I care about asks me to help in an area of my expertise, such as performing at a fundraiser, or facilitating a safer spaces discussion. I look forward to when I can go to protests again. Writing this article has been very painful in one way, because what I’ve just described is my full capacity, and there’s so much more that needs doing. At least once a week I encounter an area of political work where there’s an urgent need, an exciting meeting I’d like to go to, a new organisation forming, and I start plotting how I might get actively involved — and then I get back in touch with myself and remember that I just don’t have the capacity, and the work I’m already doing is enough. If you work in just one of the areas discussed in this article, and learn how to do that well, that’s more than enough. You are enough.
For groups, I can’t speak strongly or passionately enough about how vital it is to build mutual care and responsibility into your work from the start. This means being alive to the needs and struggles of everyone involved and working to support them, it means being willing to engage heartfully in conflict and work towards just resolutions, and it means being always willing to reflect and learn. Often it means just sending the people you organise with a message saying “How are you?” Resources like Dean Spade’s book Mutual Aid, or the trainings offered by Resist + Renew, are important sources of ideas and support. Something I have learned over the years, often the hard way, is that a group that moves slowly, grows carefully and centres collective care is much more effective in the long run than a group that acts hard and fast, does something spectacular, and then falls apart, taking out a few organisers in the process. The more we look after each other, the stronger our movements are.
I’ve written this piece because I am burning with anger and hope. I am fearful for trans people in this country, and internationally, but I can also see how full of energy and possibility we are. I can see a lot of shortcomings in the work that we’ve done so far, and especially in my own work. So I wanted to set down some of what I see, from my perspective, and some of what I think about what comes next. Again, this isn’t a manifesto or a menu of answers, however forcefully I’ve written, but a collection of thoughts from one trans person with one specific perspective. The best I hope for is for my own ideas and work to be in conversation and community with a thousand other people’s ideas and work, and for us to look after each other in intense and beautiful ways, and for this to build into the liberation of all.
- Start local, by building a small group that can win specific victories, before building into a national network.
- Don’t be afraid of militant action.
- Alliances with other political movements, and critical work with NGOs, are also important.
- You can’t do everything. Pick one area you want to work on and learn to do it well.
- If we look after ourselves and each other, we will win liberation for everyone.
Thanks and Further Reading
Thank you to Maz, Phoebe and Taylor, who offered comments on the draft of this piece. Thank you to all my siblings in trans liberation struggle, who this could never be written without.
Some of the texts which have most influenced my thinking on trans liberation are:
- Leslie Feinberg, Trans Liberation
- Emi Koyama, The Transfeminist Manifesto
- Nat Raha, The Limits of Trans Liberalism
- Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton (eds), Trap Door
- Invert Journal
- Gendertrash (especially Issue 4)
- The Radical Transfeminism Zine
UK Trans Political and Mutual Aid Groups
This is an incomplete list of groups that I know about, focussing on grassroots projects, organisations providing direct aid and resources, and political groups with a trans liberation perspective. If you know of groups which should be listed, please do get in touch.
Thanks for reading to the bottom. This is your reminder that if you found this article useful and have a comfortable income, I’d be grateful if you acknowledged my work by making a donation to one of these organisations.
I won’t change the substance of this article, but I may make minor edits for typing/spelling errors or clarity. Changes will be logged here:
- Added Jay Arthur Simpson’s cover artwork
- Added to the opening summary. “But that there is already a movement for trans liberation, full of exciting ideas and great organising”
- Added to the opening section: “And none of the ideas in this article are new, and all of them have come through my own conversations with campaigners who are already doing this work. There are many, many trans people already doing the kind of work I talk about.”
- Added Creative Commons license. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you can reprint, adapt, share and translate it in any way you like as long as you don’t make money from it, and you don’t need to ask for permission. If you’d like to print it in a for-sale publication, get in touch.