Breaking the Silence on the Taboo Questions of the Trans Community
Questioning the real world effects of visibility and ‘liberation’
Welcome to the first episode of Trans Realist, a new project where I have a conversation with my fellow trans people, about what could be done to make our lives better in the real world.
One of the most important things I want to do in this project is to ask the difficult questions about where we are going, as a community. The past few years have seen major changes for our community, and, let’s face it, not all of it has been positive. Let’s start with this: we have gained a lot of visibility, but what has it done for us? A decade ago, the appearance of trans issues in mainstream media was still a rare sight. Nowadays, there seems to be trans related news in the mainstream almost every week. Meanwhile, things aren’t clearly getting better for trans people, in our everyday lives. In fact, some might argue that things are actually getting worse. Just in the past two months, I have heard a lot of trans people across the US and the UK panic over trans related government policies. It is getting to the point where, I believe, an urgent intervention to change the direction of the ship is needed.
Much of the narrative coming out from the trans activist establishment has focused solely on the anti-trans attitude of conservative politicians for our current plight. And I acknowledge that we don’t deserve to be used as a political football. I hate the situation we are in as much as any other trans person. However, the fact is, there will always be people who are inherently hostile to us. On the other hand, I believe the future trajectory of trans rights and acceptance is ultimately in our hands: I believe it is up to us to make a choice to save ourselves from an anti-trans future. I believe our choices will play an important role in whether we can win acceptance or not. Right now, we are not doing very well in this regard, and we need to do everything in our power to improve our game, if we want to live in a future where we, and those who come after us, are generally accepted by society, and have the civil rights we need to live a comfortable life.
Which leads me to the next question: is all visibility good? Drawing on experiences from gay rights movements, particularly marriage equality, it has been concluded that visibility is important for acceptance. However, the experience of trans visibility in the past decade has painted a very different picture. When I came out in 2006, we were at least left alone by most people, unfortunately I don’t think we can say the same today. The fact is, all visibility is not equal. Some forms of visibility advance acceptance, others lead to backlash and misunderstanding. For example, being visible as a constructive member of society is a good thing, but being visible in political movements considered extreme by most people isn’t so good. And trans people have also been involved in a disproportionate amount of deplatforming controversies recently, which is certainly not good visibility. The marriage equality movement succeeded because it promoted the ‘good’ kind of visibility, but what we have had in terms of trans visibility so far is a mixed bag, which has led to confusion, frustration and even resentment from some sections of society. This clearly needs to change.
A related question is the over-focus on philosophical and epistemological views of transness. As I often like to say, I don’t expect the whole world to agree with me on the philosophy and epistemology of gender and transness, because we can’t even agree on these issues within the trans community itself. For example, I don’t believe that gender is a social construct, but some trans people do believe in that theory. Ultimately, what trans people need from society is acceptance and reasonable accommodation, so we can live our lives without fear of discrimination, and unfair limitation on our opportunities in life. This does not have to depend on answers to philosophical questions such as ‘what is gender’, ‘what is a man’, ‘what is a woman’, and so on. Indeed, over the past few years, the intense debate over these questions has only served to distract from the core issue at hand: the need for the inclusion and humane treatment of trans people in society. Much of the trans activist establishment today seems to be invested in philosophies that they believe will lead to our ‘liberation’. However, as I have demonstrated over the past year, these obsessions seem to have only served to imprison our strategy, and hamper us in terms of providing effective arguments for our acceptance in the trans debate. In any case, this obsession with philosophical ‘liberation’ is clearly an unaffordable luxury in terms of priorities, during a time when many members of our community are struggling with the basics of life. We owe it to our most disadvantaged members to be more pragmatic going forward.
This is why I am advocating for a ‘trans realist’ approach, as an alternative to the self-defeating kind of activism that has been far too dominant in our community in recent years. In this approach, we take a realistic, reality-based view of what can and should be done to actually improve the lives of trans people in the real world. In saying this, I don’t mean that we need to abandon philosophizing about the trans experience at all. I am philosophical by nature, I love to have philosophical debates about the trans experience, and I won’t stop doing that. However, there is a time and place where we must focus on the pragmatic needs of trans lives, and I hope that a ‘trans realist’ movement can provide that space.
I hope we can build a ‘trans realist’ movement, where we can come together and do what is going to be practically the best for trans lives. We don’t have to agree with each other’s philosophy. What we need to agree on is to put the real world needs of trans people first. In this space, we will talk about pragmatic solutions to improve trans acceptance, because this is the only way we will win the civil rights we need to live comfortably, and prevent anti-trans politicians from trampling on our hard-won rights. There will be room for making compromises with those who might have concerns about proposed reforms, because we will only be able to win broad based support by working hard to address valid concerns from various stakeholders. To achieve this end, there will be no ideological purity, no litmus tests, and no taboos in what we can discuss. There will also be a culture of civility, because we can only have constructive conversations by insisting that everyone behave reasonably and civilly towards each other. For too long, these priorities have been unfairly labelled ‘respectability politics’ by the activist establishment. What we want is constructiveness rather than respectability, and there is nothing wrong with wanting a more constructive approach, especially when things are clearly going in the wrong direction for us. It’s time that rationality prevailed again, and a more constructive chapter of the trans rights movement is written.