The Future of Trans Politics
I. Towards A Life Worth Mentioning
In the face of gender as coercive mechanism, let us fall idle!
While for the Christians, it can be tempting to view transitions as being 'born again’, in truth this is only half the picture. Like all conversions, to attempt a transition is to prepare for death.
At least in the eyes of many onlookers, transition opens an upsetting rupture. While our path is our own, the process reveals a certain mutability in the ways anyone can interact with the world. Our survival proves that while we have mostly been birthed and raised to remain in one gender position, another can be wilfully adopted. Many would rather deny this flexibility and what it signifies. And so we are to be refused, left unrecognised, or destroyed.
To us transition comes as a relief from torment, spares us from self-inflicted disfiguration, keeps us among the living. To those who hate us, the same process strips the vestments from the sacred, undoes the whole, wilfully punctures the innermost sanctum of identity with the muck of the profane, clouds the natural and debases the obvious with artifice and contrivance.
At every turn we find ourselves discouraged and pushed to desist: by lengthy waiting lists, aloof professionals, vocal bigots, honeyed half-truths, self-loathing and ingrained dysmorphia, and sheer bureaucratic inconvenience.
We who cannot abandon our transitions are tasked with building a new, unexpected life. We fill the rest of our span in the world with a continual defiance that may remain striking to those we meet, but to us becomes everyday routine. This creative burden can only ever be as political as it is ethical. We cannot expect mercy from our oppressors, and so we must respond by growing by turns imaginative and rugged.
II. Laying Yourself To Rest
For childhood transitioners, an adult life spent failing to embody a misaligned gender is avoided altogether. It's for this reason the thriving popularity of childhood transition is treated with such horror by reactionaries, and so much hope by many trans people.
For adult transitioners, the struggle to abandon one's former self plays out with predictable points of conflict. Workplaces, partners and families most often inhibit trans people from living true to ourselves. (Churches most often have to be abandoned altogether.) Wherever we have lived out a false life, rejection or efforts to drag us back from our path are commonplace.
Let's consider families: between the two poles of point blank rejection by parents, and genuine extension of an unflinching love, uneasily resides what we might call the 'semi-accepting’ parent. Adult transitioners often report that upon them outing themselves, these relatives declare that they are due a period of 'mourning.’ Having had a son or daughter, they experience their child's coming out as their loss.
As reactionary as this funereal response may look, it has an underlying truth: an adult transition punctures the defunct persona, and brings a life to a close (even as it releases another anew.)
Attitudes between parents and their grown children undergoing transition are often in painful conflict. While the parent greets the news as a devastating announcement and cause for grief, for the announcer it heralds living (truly living) for the first time, the setting aside of mere survival, of a makeshift facade often layered precariously over the tectonic ache of dysphoria and the sickly glue of repression.
We sketch out this point of clashing perspectives to make our own position clear: we side with trans life, with the often fraught, ever-tentative work of survival that is demanded of each of us.
A revolutionary trans politics is one that sees our struggles not as a disjointed and aimless set of battles, but a working through of an unfolding consciousness. A new form-of-life that points its way towards the abolition of heterosexuality, cisgenderism, and the private household. An identification which is worth the storm it has conjured for each of us who’ve made it.
III. How To Survive Through The 21st Century
Recent years have offered many challenges for those embarking on transition even as our communities have grown, and horizons expanded. Each step towards the ‘normalisation’ of trans identities has been met with furious disputation: from rhetorical denials of our right to exist as we please, to measures by the state to formally refuse us recognition by bureaucracies, strain our bladders, and otherwise drive us from public life. While innumerable contexts permitted us to flourish as an underground, public attention has now become an intensifying glare, forcing us to account for ourselves openly, and explicitly.
Analysis of trans people today must be the twin of action to resist these efforts to force us back to the margins. Accounting for ourselves will always be a matter of struggle, ever contested and requiring relentless repetition.
At its best, scholarly and theoretical research into transition has always followed in the wake of trans politics. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to imagine a vital study of anything that does not emerge from the conditions that produce its necessity. The Young Karl Marx begins with a nightmare vision of the closure of the commons, the moment where peasants are murdered as they try to collect dead wood for their fires. It is not an arbitrary artistic decision; the necessary precondition to Marx’s analysis of capitalism is the actually existing conditions of the people most affected by the violence of capitalism. So too should our new trans politics begin with the analysis of our contemporary position, and confronting the forces that today threaten our destruction.
Trans studies without trans politics often amounts to taxonomizing and measuring the degree to which specific trans identities may be understood as adequately ‘radical.’ We need to do better than settle for analysis of degrees of difference between various encampments within trans life. Today we are all under attack.
We write this knowing that murderous violence is distributed along mostly predictable lines: one of us writes from the United States, where a wave of killings has targeted mostly black women living in working class neighbourhoods. The other from Vienna, Austria where the most horrific murder in recent memory was of Hande Öncü, a Turkish refugee and sex worker. We take it as read that successful moves towards trans liberation will inter-weave with political anti-racism, and migrant solidarity movements.
Our attention and efforts as trans thinkers are best focused on the particular social conditions we face as we strategize, organize, and build power. Such an effort calls for close attention to those who most reliably express hate for us, the particular causes and qualities of that hatred, and how we can (together) outlast their onslaught.
IV. Transition As A Point of Fixation for Contemporary Fascists
Today's transsexual has graduated from an almost unimaginably exotic being to a fully-fledged folk devil.
In recent years, the far-right has come to be preoccupied by a clamour of voices asserting that opposing the normalisation of transition is one of, if not the, primary motivation which inspires them. We can picture these men waking up in the morning and gritting their teeth at the thought of they/them pronouns.
Some transphobes are conspiracy minded, making dark references to progressives plotting to chemically castrate their sons. They gesture wildly to Soros, postmodernists, and other sinister forces pushing 'transgender ideology.’ Trans politics is declared cultic, those we convince are declared brainwashed. Others bemoan the rise of trans inclusion by biologists as a great dilution of the rigour and integrity of the scientific method. All are quick to equate the wish to transition with mental illness.
We cannot afford to treat these figures as the fringe or anti-establishment maniacs that they are usually keen to style themselves as. In truth the ‘Alt-Right’ and its associated movements proved an invigorating and determined force agitating for the election of Donald Trump. Transphobia is not a force of the fringe, but has pushed its way to the centre of political life. Hatred of us fuelled the right's capture of the democratic state.
In Brazil too, the ascent of the political right has been accompanied with agitation against ‘gender ideology’, a flexible intellectual slur used by the right wing wherever the Catholic Church has a hold. Campaigns against this in Brazil included Judith Butler being burnt in effigy by right wing protesters during her brief visit to attend an unrelated conference. Clearly a new phase of the anti-feminist anti-queer backlash has begun: populists deploy trans people as an irritant to further a much broader right capitalist agenda. A series of shockingly brutal murders of trans women and travesti enmeshed this rise of organised heterosexism with a barrage of ad hoc violence. Elected officials, clergymen, and volunteer murderers are all part of a ruthless wave of activity to protect the existing gender order.
Needless to say, trans people are not alone as provocative entries in the bestiary-imaginary of the hard right. We are positioned alongside migrants (and of course, often enough are also migrants). Migration and transition are each framed as a grave threat to family, and nation.
It is no accident that trans people and migrants share the dubious honour of being points of fixation for the far right. Transition and migration are both situated at the intersection where national imaginaries cross individual ones.
Fascism imagines the nation as the extension of the body of the fascist — his power, his righteousness, the hegemony of his identity and his place in the world. This fiction must work hard to obscure its own bad logic, and it falters every time a trans person enters a restroom.
Both migration and transness interrupt and threaten the fiction of a coherent nation-body relationship. The geographic displacement of migrants brings the national border and the idea of national identity into question. Transition doubles the insult by producing a crisis at the bodily level, thus threatening the idea of a natural and orderly relationship between the body, the family and the state. Both are social reproductive crisis for the right.
Meanwhile for many trans people emigration has a double face: an uprooting and often a flight from unsafe circumstances, but also a chance to move to a foreign land (or unfamiliar city) where no one knows your old name, or face. Those who simultaneously cross both geographic and gendered borders to begin life anew are doubly threatening to the right.
Ire over transition and nativist hostility towards migrants is twinned with the historical and ongoing colonial use of granted power. Colonial states offered a subset of citizens partial inclusion as the central perk of taking on identity categories that reinforce the state’s power. At the level of race, aspirational whites (including migrants) leverage and accept whiteness as a class collaboration, at the expense of black and indigenous people. At the level of gender, trans people disrupt the order of the home, the site where the fiction of borrowed power plays out, and makes itself ordinary.
To transition is to 'give up’ that borrowed power, to question its value and challenge its use as a currency. To accept migrants as fully human and deserving of food, comfort, and life is to take on the displaced trauma of capitalist accumulation, and its effects on human beings and our world. In both cases there's an eruption of material reality that perversely threatens the abstracted, essentialist definitions that hold up far right ideology.
For boundaries to remain 'natural,’ they should be crossed over only in exceptional circumstances. For the patriotism and natalism the right holds dear to survive, trans people and migrants must remain unwelcome freaks.
Insofar as the integrity of casualised white supremacy and the nationalist project are threatened by our existence, the erosion of that power is both a necessary and desirable site of activity for intersectional trans politics.
Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has addressed this commonality of racialisation and transphobia by terming them both a hammering: a chipping away of ourselves which refuses to let up, and which constantly threatens to erode us. As a woman of colour living in the West, Ahmed describes how she faces continual pressures which intensify markedly when she attempts to participate in public life. Muslim women in particular face a tangle of projected fears: to avoid being too ‘radical’ in their critique of society, yet demonstrate a countenance which clearly conveys themselves as no doormat. To be wilful yet moderate, assertive yet assimilated. In much the same way, transphobic pressures combined with dysphoria congeal in our experiences to leave us often pinned into place. We face down the conservative equivalent of ‘impossible demands’.
The ‘affinity’ Ahmed rightly identifies should be embraced by trans politics today: whatever differences exist within the community, we share together with other targeted populations an interest to resisting the mores of polite society, and the state. Developing our consciousness of conditions that over-arch across all attempting transition is the first step towards achieving our emancipation. But retrieving our particularity does not mean declaring ourselves unique: when we consider questions such as street abuse, the politics of desire (lovers who yearn for come nightfall, but would never be seen on the street with at noon) or fertility, we discover that trans particularity is never as particular as all that. A myriad of potential alliances and dialogues can be revealed by even cursory comparison of our social conditions to those of other minorities.
This work is already well underway, and even the piecemeal wins we have achieved have attracted untold scorn from the political right.
V. Trans In Public
Revealed in the driving contempt that reactionaries have for trans people is the particularity of our experience. While ‘LGBT’ has proven an indispensable article of strategic convenience, trans people are differentiated by our inability to avoid declaring ourselves in some way. To transition is to 'come out’. This sets a limit on our entry to the politics of respectability.
Thanks to this, trans people are difficult to merely ‘tolerate’, as our emancipation requires point blank acceptance on an everyday level: from being in-put to the correct section of a database, to terms of address. 'I don't care what you get up to behind closed doors' almost works for many gay people (an almost which is its own torture), but is a non-starter for trans politics.
While adopting normative nuclear family models and taking up inclusion discourse may work for a demographically predictable minority of cis queers, even those transgender people who are most eager to participate in assimilationist identity strategies will find their bodies and assertions reluctantly radicalized. However we might long for our identifications to be normalised, among broader audiences even the mention of us will remain tinged with the exotic.
We are the indigestible disruption to both liberal inclusion projects and the fascist fixation on purity, because we visibly render incoherent the internal consistency of the very structures from which we are excluded.
In one way or another, transitions always have to happen in public. Toby Beauchamp points out that narratives of concealment and contradictory obligations to disclose are crucial components of transgender identity: “the expectation that trans people will, through the process of transition, eliminate all references to their birth gender and essentially disappear into a normatively gendered world, as if they had never been transgender to begin with” is countered by demands for “strategic visibility” as when advocates urge transgender travellers in the US to declare themselves in order to avoid the attention of DHS. This contradiction is even more implausible where it intersects with racism, ideas of citizenship, and national borders.
The conclusion we want to take from this is not that our collaboration with other queers should see them learn their place, acknowledge their ‘cisgender privilege’, fall docile and passive in the face of our harrowing exposure to the systemic bootheel, or anything of the kind. We need creative partners, not subordinates.
Instead of ranking oppressions, we should observe the ways in which the demands of the heterosexual regime play out for each queer: from the commonplace fetishism of the ‘straight acting’ gay man (who supposedly roams the street gruff and tough, only becoming an obvious homosexual in the bedroom), to the censorious and binaristically-committed old hands of transsexualism (who decry all transitions which don’t follow a neat linear path overseen by medical professionals), to those who style themselves as ‘lesbians not queer’ and frown upon all sapphic expressions that land outside the limits of homely respectability. In each case, the desires and idealised forms foisted on us from within LGBT communities are shaped starkly around expectations the heterosexual regime has of us. We might term this array of coercive works (from Masc4Masc aesthetics to trans-medicalism) the attempted ‘management of deviance’.
Each flavour of the ‘politics of respectability’ should be rejected not only because the gender order and capitalist economy that they help to sustain are immoral, but because these are false bargains. No matter how carefully we are shorn of our bisexuality or ruthlessly we excise campness, there is no moderate pathway that leads to our liberation.
As our consciousness of ourselves as queer expands, we will learn anew the shared interest that will upset the cosy niches we had found in the existing system.
We side with Italian gay communist thinker Mario Mieli, in seeking out the fear of transsexuality that resides within homophobia. All queers have a shared cause in resisting heterosexuality as a regime. Trans politics is a flavour of queer politics, and other queers are our peers and siblings.
VI. Aging and Assimilation
The successes we’ve achieved so far have opened up questions that are so tangled we have scarcely begun to address them.
Consider a pair of trans people: the first has been taking testosterone for a decade, and now at age 27 worries mostly about how to respond to the few people who will rudely question the scar that runs across his forearm. The second is approaching her sixties and is well aware that no matter how far she drains the savings she’d prepared as a pension, her status will remain obvious to those she encounters.
Which of these figures can we expect to become more ‘normal’ (or at least numerous) as trans culture continues to expand? The answer is of course both.
Even as trans politics succeeds in expanding familiarity with trans experiences, and ‘lowers’ the stakes of transitions in this sense, new opportunities and disparities arise as this always-uneven process unfolds itself. The temptation to declare that the phenomenon of childhood transitioners threatens to pull apart the stability of trans- as an identifier mistakes the work of analysis for a definitive moment. While the rise of accepting parents willing to incorporate transition as one aspect of rearing their children is heartening, this does not represent a definitive break from the material conditions of being trans, and especially does not undo the manner in which our oppression exists in joint with others.
The response of reactionaries shines a powerful light through these muddied waters: in the eyes of the US state the response to which of the two aforementioned figures has a legitimate claim comes: ‘Neither.’ Yet we know that this point of formal principle exists quite aside from the practical differences of transitioning after decades of adult repression, or as a teenager.
What considering these questions reveals to us quite quickly is that assimilation is only arbitrarily extended as an option for trans people. No matter what our convictions might be, the truth is only a slender minority can ever ‘blend’ into the heterosexual order smoothly. For quirks of circumstance from twists of the genome to developmental differences (not only from the kindness or acceptance of parents, but the location an upbringing takes place), we find ourselves in quite different positions in relation to heterosexist norms.
The pressing work to be done here for a new trans politics is operating across these obvious rifts of contextual disjoint. There is a vital work of translation that must be done between the innumerable local idiolects and ever-shifting mores that continuously arise amongst the narrow niches we have dug out for safety.
To speak of ‘translation’ reflects the drift of contemporary trans politics (especially online). In the face of seemingly intractable, and ever worsening, problems too many activists have become preoccupied not with revolutionary activity, but the mere reformation of language.
Too often, we’ve found that struggles around deployment of language in trans communities becomes antithetical to the inclusion and survival of young or new-to-trans-community members. At its most absurd, intense rows have focused on quirks of typography: an asterisk may be demanded one year, and condemned the next. The churn of freshly forbidden terms and neologisms ensures divisions arise continuously, chasms of analysis and accompanying experience sliding into incommensurable furrows. This shifting assembly of shibboleths and faux pas can be policed unforgivingly, and often centers specificity of language above the needs, love, and desire that ostensibly produced that language.
Too often, we have forgotten that trauma is a tangible component of what we're working with as individuals and communities. The hard work of solidarity has been replaced by a certain snobbery of dialect. There will always be many left beyond these circles who largely live lives outside the fine tuning of acceptable discourse, and who yet both face oppression and have much to offer any campaign toward transsexual emancipation.
A new trans politics fit for the harshness unleashed by the past decade must move well beyond elevating terms of art to an end-in-themselves. We must learn to master a dozen tongues, if that’s what it takes to survive together.
VII. Trans Solidarity: A Politics of Reassociation
Along with it’s better known twin dysphoria, dissociation shapes our lives and communities, pervading our interactions with the world, draping a gauze across our perspective, and often causing us to slip apart from each other.
Dissociative tendencies shape both the individual psyches of trans people, and the dynamics which unfold within our communities as this tendency to draw away from the immediate plays out between us. This tendency is well recognised in contemporary trans culture. Imogen Binnie’s debut novel Nevada features its protagonist Maria being dumped by her a live-in girlfriend as a last ditch effort by her partner get an earnest response. Later the narrative follows Maria’s struggle as an internet-honed activist to gain traction on a closeted young ‘man’ (James H), who has committed to carefully overlooking the impulse toward transition. Maria’s polished talking points and blogpost reciting monologues sail past the point at hand repeatedly, with James H having fully entrenched himself in a haze of marijuana and peculiar online cultures to avoid confronting the obvious. Unable to enter a genuine dialogue, or to truly focus on the other for more than brief moments, the two uneasily fail to reach each other. By the end of the novel, our anti-hero Maria is zoned out while feeding a casino slot machine, as her ward drifts away, still unconvinced.
Far from a moralising condemnation of these failings of contact caused by longstanding responses to trauma, Binnie’s tale stresses the developmental worth a capacity for drawing apart, or checking out. For those those growing up without recourse to transition, a foggy distance from the immediate can be a trusty palliative. Trans survival can require a telltale numbness. Having been a tool for survival, after transition begins this lifelong state can become hard to shrug off. Dissociation is the debris left in the wake of a great tide.
There is a certain double entendre to talking of ‘dissociation’, which we wish to tease free: at once the condition can be understood as an individual state, a shroud of distancing from the world or the senses. But also the impact is one that plays out collectively: a glazing of the eyes and connective vagueness that causes us to overlook potential sources for camaraderie and coping, even as they stare us in the face.
Trans politics today demands a work of reassociation, an undoing of the aftermath of the closet that yet clings to us. This move is one of reunification: of easing us out of the over-individuation required for us to weather harsher periods.
This project can be described in Sara Ahmed’s terms of ‘affinity’, or in a more old-fashioned turn of phrase ‘solidarity’. To develop our affinity with each other we must explore how transition has shaped each our lives creatively, and with a spirit that resists the cruel bargains of the heterosexual regime and coercive moments presented by capitalism. We need to do better than simply restating the divisions that drive trans people apart: the time has come to undo them, so that all of us might live.
Trans communities are rich with rifts and differentiated experiences that are sure to only expand — as childhood transitions become more common, industrial reserve armies expand dramatically, and wealth still less evenly distributed across generations. Yet the turn towards state transphobia in the United States and Brazil shows that there will for the foreseeable future be a rock solid basis for solidarity between all those obliged to navigate transition in the face of bureaucratic capitalist states. The work that the current moment demands of us is expanding well beyond this: elaborating a positive sense of emancipatory shared interest, shaped around the prospect of revolution, rather than a mere rearguard maneuver against reaction.
It’s time to overcome the waves of vagueness, the muzzle of numbed-up retreat from the sensuous, and if need be to howl until we can truly hear each other.
VIII. Our Vulnerability, Our Survival
The fear of loss represses the cry to respond, to build more liveable futures for ourselves and for others. The exhaustion of work and hunger muddles our thinking and quiets our outrage.
Those who can usually exchange solidarity for the furnishings of assimilation — less terror at a traffic stop, skipping the typical airport frisk through first-class travel, a better paying job and a 'nice neighbourhood’ to match, doctors that do not humiliate or run a two year waiting list, the power of settled gender roles within schools, publics places, work, and the home.
It is for this reason that the most revolutionary communities emerge at the edge of survivability, where the options are change or death. Philando Castille could not purchase security. Tonya Harvey could not purchase security. The children of Loray Mill workers in 1929 North Carolina could not purchase security. Marsha P Johnson could not purchase security. Tamir Rice could not purchase security. Ally Lee Steinfeld could not purchase security. The unnamed Honduran teenagers murdered in Tijuana could not purchase security. The millions dead of AIDS as a consequence of stigma, inaction, drug prices and racism could not purchase security. The migrant women incarcerated at the border and pinned between deaths with their children cannot purchase security. The transgender person, adult or child, who is torn between the violent demand to assimilate and the anguish of suicide or the quiet death of the closet cannot purchase security.
Human beings are politicized when there is no safe alternative, and the most effective organizing occurs at the margins of survivability, when the production of a future becomes the center of a life because the present itself has become unlivable. The work demanded of trans people now is that of collective survival, and we can learn best from other movements who have confronted this challenge. The process of transformative engagement in building such a future generates points of contact, and love feeds bravery — ACT UP members followed a rotating circuit of resistance and arrest, imprisoned and released in the mornings to repeat the cycle of loving and fucking and fighting and dying together, because there was no other choice, and it is better to be together than it is to go it alone. The New Right’s regime and research establishment had left queers to die, until their hand was forced by the dying. Tenuous stretches of Black Lives Matter activists face down weather, insult, heavy tons of engine-driven steel, and the fury of the police and white America. The state was faced down with nothing but their bodies and their words, hands clasped together because there is no other choice, and it is better to be together than it it is to go it alone.
As trans people, we light up a host of social contradictions. The failure of the conviction that the natural sciences can make ontological distinctions that survive contact with the subjects they were supposed to neatly categorise, that there is something holy and essential and nakedly true about gender, the bare and fragile comfort that there is a moral and eternal nature to family relations, the fiction of a gentle settlement with bigots that can be grasped through concessions to polite society and careful collaboration with the state. We challenge the idea of transition as teleology, that colonial categories will be the last word, that one developmental stage leads naturally and necessarily to another, that the suffering endured within our world is unavoidable — a given.
This is both the target painted on our backs and our promise. If we are to survive as trans people, a desperate and precarious need, we will require a political movement that seeks sincere solidarity with those whose oppression does not allow them to purchase safety. We must embrace the revolutionary possibilities of transition, and the challenge it issues to the normalcy of so many forms of violence. Our politics cannot pause at the boundaries of language. We cannot be satisfied by analyzing and adding to that perpetual proliferation of terminology and scenes that defines trans culture. Instead we need a trans politics that is truly intergenerationally and situationally inclusive, one that can mobilise not only those at a specific juncture of their transitions. Surviving the 21st century will require drawing in everyone who has a shared interest in self-protection on the basis of expansive solidarity, against the assaults waged on our basic dignity by state and household.
We must not forget that trauma is a tangible component of what we're working with (and through) as trans people. A commitment to confronting and healing that damage offers us a way forward, towards a movement that draws us into reunion with ourselves and with others, rather than one that breaks us apart. As trans people, we can bring the creative knowledge of our dissociation to bear; may our love keep us living, our anger keep us visible and defiant, and our solidarity anchor us to one another. We can conclude the labour we've already each committed to: of producing a more habitable future, whatever the cost, however harsh the backlash. Let’s get to work!
Nathaniel Dickson is a queer writer, communist, and graduate student in the University at Buffalo's English Department where he is dissertating on collective desire, futurity, and apocalypse.
Jules Joanne Gleeson is a queer historian, left communist, comedian, and Londoner. Lately she's been writing about embodiment, ethics, endocrinology, and other messy processes. Her work can be read here.