Sunday, 31 August 2014

Alliances and Oppositions. Trans activism and Stonewall

Still a bit woozy from general anaesthetic after an operation the previous afternoon, and largely keeping myself going through large quantities of coffee, I attended the historic first formal meeting between trans people and Stonewall with the objective of ending the exclusion of trans people from the work of Stonewall. This is why I have had to wait until now to blog my observations from the meeting

Political activism, especially when you are a small minority group must inevitably be about alliances and oppositions. Maximising alliances and minimising oppositions. The prize in this instance, is an alliance that gives us the ability to leverage far greater alliances.

Of necessity, one of the main targets of trans activism in recent years has been the media. huge efforts have been made to counter the negative media narratives and stereotypes presented regularly in the press and on TV. This has has some success; some sections of the media are listening. However there is still a level of misrepresentation of trans people in the media and, as Benefits Street has demonstrated, some sections of the media are not above deliberate misrepresentation, in order to maintain particular dishonest narratives.

People in general only ever know a fraction of what they believe to be true about the world through perusal experience. The rest is mediated. How many people will tell you Staines is a dump but have never actually been there? How many people will say they hate Heather Mills when they have not actually met her? We live in a world in which most of what we “know” does not come from direct experience. Trans people are a tiny minority, and only 13% of the UK population say they have ever knowingly met a trans person. This means that, for the majority, the only way they are going to learn about us is indirectly. This affects the way trans people have to construct our alliances.

The prize from joining with Stonewall is not merely another huge alliance, but the possibility of using that alliance to leverage further alliances. “Some people are trans, get over it” on the side of buses, at football matches and in magazines, trans people included in the work Stonewall does in schools, workplaces and higher education would represent, for the first time, trans people being able to make unmediated alliances with the population as a whole. So far we are restricted to mediated contact, through influencing directors, producers, journalists and editors. Being able to go over the heads of the media gatekeepers is not only powerful in itself in expanding the alliances with and minimising oppositions to trans people’s existences, but it also represents a powerful check on their influence. They will know that a population that has “got over it.” is not going to swallow pathologising, sexualising, transphobic media content. 

So this is one of the prizes. But I wanted to explain personally a little about why I was at that meeting.

I spent a great deal of my life being unable to be the woman I am. I knew I was a girl from a very young age but also understood, through the function of cultural cisgenderism, that I could not be honest about that. Being a primary school teacher also forced me into a closet during working hours in order to preserve my income and pay the mortgage. It has only been since leaving teaching that I have been able to come out and live authentically. 

However I also know a large number of trans women who are stuck in similar situations to the one I was. They are unable to come out because the stakes are too high, or because the stakes are not merely theirs alone but shared with others. Some work in manual jobs and are employed by the day or by the hour in the sort of hand-to-mouth existence that neoliberalism forces onto people. Others have dependents to support, including elderly or disabled relatives and children to feed, clothe and bring up. Some are, like I was, in a job where being trans is to invite the sack through deliberately negative “performance management” or simple non-renewal of contracts. Some live in areas where coming out as trans is to invite bricks through the window, shit or burning newspapers through the letterbox and violence after dark both upon themselves and their families. Some live in small communities where total social exclusion remains a real possibility. I know some trans women who actually wear binders to work in order to present as male for fear (usually justified) that they might lose their jobs.

These are the people I was there for, because I spent too many years of my own life as one of those people myself. Alleviating the suffering and psychological trauma faced by these people. Reducing the harm caused by having the constant Sword of Damocles of being outed hanging over them is something Stonewall has the possibility to achieve.

We now have openly gay and lesbian people in plenty of jobs. MPs, CEOs, in sport, the media, which we didn't have 30 years ago when Margaret Thatcher's Tory government brought in the last piece of homophobic legislation. There are plenty of openly gay and lesbian primary school teachers, including at the last school where I taught and where it was made obvious to me that being openly trans would not be an option. There are dozens of openly gay and lesbian MPs the world over. There is however only one elected trans MP in a national parliament anywhere in the world. The tipping point may have arrived, but the breakthrough has yet to be made in many areas. 

So when Ayla Holdom wrote, in the Guardian about how there has never been a better time to be trans she was not wrong. But we have to remember that progress is always going to be patchy, for different people in different jobs, communities, schools, geographical locations and classes the possibilities will be different. This is why we need Stonewall.

In terms of the actual discussion I would like to make these observations; firstly everyone was acutely aware that there were many trans people who were not at that meeting but who would have liked to have been. This is being addressed by Stonewall and many further meetings are planned with different groups, group sizes and formats. Secondly, I felt that the issue of sustainability probably needed more discussion. We need to know that Stonewall will still be able to fight effectively for trans people in 10 or 15 years time. Hopefully this will come out over the next few months.

However I am very optimistic that this is going to work. Stonewall wants it to work, many in the trans community want it to work, and many people need it to work.



It was also hugely symbolic that there was another meeting taking place in London at the same time. A group of mendacious, abusive and transphobic cis women were reinforcing their oppositions and misrepresenting their alliances. While trans people were making history, the TERFs may not have realised it, but they were in the process of becoming history.

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