Why Trans Activists Can’t Trust The Left
From moderate liberals’ self-centered tantrums to far-left radicals’ conspiracy theories, it’s impossible to deny that the left has a transphobia problem.
Even though I’ve been an out trans woman since 2015, and knew I was queer ages before, this year marked the first time I attended a Pride parade. Checking my usual cynicism at the door, I went all in, marching exuberantly with my partner and her wife in the Equality NY contingent behind NYC Mayor Bill deBlasio. Everyone should experience a joyful Pride at least once, I figured. (My partner agreed heartily, rollerblading the entire parade route on less than four hours of sleep.)
Much of my marching time was spent exhorting bystanders to cheer for trans rights. As we passed the iconic Stonewall Inn, I turned once again to my right and screamed “If you have rights because of trans women of color, make some fucking noise!” Hoots and cheers ensued, and we proceeded on our way.
Little did I know that less than two hours later, when #NoJusticeNoPride activists blocked the tail end of the parade to call attention to violence against trans women of color, deportations, and the ongoing corporatization of Pride, 12 of them would be arrested by the NYPD. As those same Pride bystanders — standing outside the bar where Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, “The Saint of Christopher Street,” resisted arrest and started a riot that would change the world — watched the arrests, they cheered again. Not for the protesters, but for the police. Judging from photos, at least one of those arrested was a transfeminine person of color.
The message, though unintentional, was clear: The cisgender Left, those who claim to support trans people and our struggle for civil rights (and who make up the vast majority of those at NYC Pride), are quick to cheer our oppressors when that support becomes inconvenient. Bystanders were happy to acknowledge Pride’s sociopolitical roots as long as that acknowledgment was brief and didn’t get in the way of celebrating. As soon as political statements became an inconvenience, their support was swiftly withdrawn. Similar protests took place at other Pride events; D.C. attendees were quoted in the Washington Post yelling “Shame!” and “You’re going to ruin the parade!” to #NoJusticeNoPride activists.
The cisgender Left, those who claim to support trans people and our struggle for civil rights, are quick to cheer our oppressors when that support becomes inconvenient.
It’s not that this is new information, exactly; The Establishment’s own Katelyn Burns reported earlier this year on how quickly liberals sought to blame Hillary Clinton’s election loss on transgender activism. While support for trans rights has ostensibly increased on the left, many still predicate their allyship on trans activists catering to their needs. A Facebook post by D.C. attorney and Catholics for Equality co-founder Phil Attey recently went viral in trans social media groups when Attey demanded to be called “non-trans” instead of “cisgender,” a term which is not pejorative. “If you want to keep us as allies,” Attey wrote, “start by not calling us things we don’t like.”
This kind of conditional support for trans rights is not uncommon among moderate liberals; trans activists are tone policed and told they’re “alienating allies” in a manner similar to how white people deal with anger from Black Lives Matter.
Trans discrimination isn’t an invention of the right wing. Liberals have been perfecting it for years.theestablishment.co
But arguably a more injurious phenomenon is the transphobia that plagues radical leftism. Earlier this month, Left Forum — a yearly conference in NYC where socialists, communists, anarchists, and assorted other leftist radicals compare notes — was lambasted for advertising a panel titled “Misery for Profit: Who Is Funding the Transgender Movement and the Impact on LGB.” The panel’s organizers (former attorney Jane Chotard, author Jennifer Bilek, and “ex-liberal” Federalist contributor Taylor Fogarty) advocate a ludicrous conspiracy theory that trans activists’ “immense funding” can be sourced to “giant pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries,” and that “transgender is [sic] a political coup…introduced by the 1% to control homosexuality, reinstate male supremacy, and utilize gay children as fodder for scientific experimentation.” Left Forum later canceled the panel, stating that it had never been approved and had somehow “fallen through the cracks” against all odds.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) have been a vocal part of radical feminism since the 1970s, and though their numbers are small, their influence can be exponentially more toxic.
As Jay Michaelson noted on The Daily Beast last year, “gender critical” feminists are frighteningly quick to collaborate with the far right when attacking transgender people. It’s not a new phenomenon; as far back as 1980, radical feminist Janice Raymond influenced the Reagan administration to block transgender people’s access to government services. In 2013, lawyer and notorious “Gender Identity Watch” founder Cathy Brennan distributed a statement from the conservative Pacific Justice Institute — designated as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — promoting false harassment allegations against a transgender high school student. Working together, both types of extremists can inflict significant damage to trans rights campaigns.
Even radical leftist organizations that claim to cater directly to trans needs are of dubious reliability. This year’s Trans Day of Action (TDoA) march on June 23 was partially organized by the Audre Lorde Project, which positions itself as “a Community Organizing Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two-Spirit, Trans and Gender Non Conforming (LGBTSTGNC) People of Color Communities.” But three weeks before the march, Olympia Perez, a Black trans woman who served as co-coordinator of ALP’s TransJustice program for two years, was suddenly ousted from the organization. In a Facebook post, Perez described her firing as “abrupt, aggressive, and violent,” accusing administrators of physically backing her into a corner and trying to provoke a fight in order to retrieve her office keys. (Most of ALP’s board of directors and staff are cisgender.)
When I asked ALP representatives at the event for a statement, I was told to consult a letter ALP had previously sent out — but no letter from the organization is publicly available as of this writing, and calls to the ALP offices have gone unanswered. Instead of focusing on Perez, I was told, I should talk to attendees who were happy to be marching for trans justice. The irony was not lost on me.
It’s impossible to deny that the left has a transphobia problem, whether you’re looking at moderate liberals’ self-centered tantrums or far-left radicals’ conspiracy theories. So it shouldn’t be surprising that many trans people distrust cis folks by default, even (perhaps especially) those who vocally tout their allyship. After all, cis leftists haven’t stopped watching Real Time with Bill Maher months after he called trans people “weirdos” during an interview with noted transphobe Milo Yiannopoulos. Nor have they demonstrated much concern for the 15 trans women of color who have been murdered so far in 2017 (Ms. Magazine’s coverage of Ebony Morgan’s murder earlier this week was limited to just two sentences, and the story has gained virtually no traction outside of LGBTQ-focused publications and local news outlets). Several months ago, in the wake of the Women’s March, I wrote that I was encouraged by cis participation in trans activism. These days, it seems like we have less and less of that to count on.
Cisgender allies are an important part of the fight for trans rights, but those who would adopt that label must accept the difficulties that come with it. Being a friend to the transgender community, diverse and cacophonous as it is, is far from easy or painless. We wage a daily war against violent transphobia, both from individuals and from our culture at large. Our rhetoric is that of a population under siege, reeling from a constant influx of reactionary, ignorant hate. Not even spaces that are made for us always feel safe. Being a cisgender ally to trans people means you have to sign up for all that and more. If you want to walk our path…well, that’s the sort of terrain you need to prepare for.
Trans people know that the Left, as a whole, is not our greatest enemy. But that doesn’t mean it’s automatically our friend, either. So if you’re a left-identified person reading this, and you call yourself a trans ally, ask yourself: Am I truly ready to put in the work for trans justice? Because if not, you’re the reason trans people can’t trust the Left. And you need to help us make a change.