It’s OK to be Frustrated at the Priorities of Trans Activism
Let’s talk about the trans 1% vs 99%
Welcome back to Trans Realist, a 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.
As I said last time, one of the most important things I want to do is to ask the difficult questions about where we are going, as a community. Last time, I talked about different kinds of visibility, and their ability to bring about either acceptance or backlash. This time, I will explore a related question: the priorities of the trans activist establishment, and where they are leading us to, as a community.
I know for a fact that many trans people are actually frustrated about where the loudest activist voices are taking our community and our priorities right now. At a time when many members of our community are still struggling with the basics of life, when many of us live in fear of the building resentment and backlash to current trans activism and what real life effects that is translating into, the activist establishment is basically refusing to even listen to our concerns with an open mind. What is perhaps making it worse is that most trans people want to live a quiet life, and don’t want to speak about trans issues on a big platform that will attract attention to themselves. This perhaps represents the silent majority of trans people, and they practically don’t have a voice against the loudest activists. Hence, the loudest activists continue to claim to represent us as a community without being challenged much, and people in the mainstream media, who are often well intentioned but don’t really understand us, think that’s all there is to our community.
What I am worried about is that, as things stand, the plight of the trans community is divided between a 1% and a 99%, and will stay like this for the foreseeable future. The 1% consists of trans activists, public intellectuals, celebrities, athletes, successful writers and the like, who receive unprecedented access to the spotlight in this new era of trans visibility. Even though they are often at the center of much controversy and backlash, they still receive lots of support and admiration from others, thus overall it is still a good life for them. Their lives are often removed from the needs and concerns of everyday trans people, and some of them, either out of lack of awareness or a need to stay interesting and relevant, will act in ways that cause resentment and backlash to the trans community. Once again, some of this backlash will be felt personally, but it will usually be more than compensated for by support and admiration from others. However, the rest of the backlash will fall on the 99%, the everyday trans people who just want to live their quiet, unremarkable lives. These trans people live in constant fear that the next wave of backlash could result in the removal of existing protections and rights that allow them to live at their current level of comfort. For them, the prospect of living a quiet life in peace is under constant threat, like living on an island that is frequently visited by powerful hurricanes. As the trans-related political climate gets more and more toxic, the fear gets worse, just like how as climate change gets worse, people living on islands have to fear powerful hurricanes more and more. For the trans 99%, life is helpless, and it doesn’t look like getting better anytime soon.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the trans community having public figures is a bad thing. There certainly needs to be some people who are willing to sacrifice their privacy, step into the spotlight and represent the community. However, the important point is, what effects are our public figures and activists having, on the lives of everyday trans people? For example, having fights over language might bring a sense of justice to some activists, but it also alienates many people, because it often amounts to challenging non-trans people’s own perception of their gender, as well as long standing cultural norms that are cherished by many. This kind of activism thus causes significant resentment that can boil over into debates over trans rights. Is the satisfaction of these activists worth trading away the civil rights that enable trans people to live quiet unremarkable lives? Because this is what I fear is happening right now. Moreover, some activist causes might even have direct harmful effects on trans lives. For example, the long-standing movement to ‘demedicalize’ transness, i.e. remove gender dysphoria as a medical condition, has caused anxiety for many trans people, who fear that their insurance coverage for hormones and surgery might be removed as a result. Activism that is based on philosophical ideals but can have deleterious consequences for trans people in the real world is something we really can’t afford to have.
I believe what we need is to have trans public figures who will actually think of what is best for everyday trans people, in what they do, and trans activists who will actually think about the real world impacts of their activism. To achieve this, I believe we need a critical mass of people who are willing to have a realistic discussion about what our priorities should be. I personally will always be a voice for a ‘trans realist’ set of priorities, which focus on the needs of trans lives in the real world, and how these can be realistically secured in the here and now. But one voice is not enough. Therefore, if you have similar concerns, please don’t be afraid to speak up. Please don’t feel pressured to stay silent, because some people might not like what you have to say. Only by speaking up will our views eventually form a ‘critical mass’ in the community, where our concerns can’t be ignored anymore. And only then will things have a hope of changing. It is for this hope that I keep working and speaking up, and I hope you can join me too, if you feel the same way.