An attack on the right to express your gender as you wish is an attack on us all

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Transphobia and homophobia are still rife in workplaces, yet a new generation is growing up with more open attitudes to non-binary gender identities. TKS recounts their experience of challenging discrimination in a college — and how austerity threatens the gains won through solidarity.

Last April Bruce Springsteen cancelled his show in North Carolina, in an act of solidarity with trans activists who were campaigning against the state’s law banning trans people from using the public toilet of their choice. April also saw veteran feminist Germaine Greer restate her view that transgender women are a fiction, which saw further accusations of transphobia. These two responses to the issue of trans oppression illustrate how complex the debates are, making a pressing need for socialists to have a clear understanding.

The issue of toilet rights becomes more high stakes when the same logic is applied to trans people sent to the prison of their birth gender, rather than current gender. I recently met a young trans woman who had, like many young trans people, struggled with homelessness and all the accompanying violence of the streets and the British state, in the form of the courts. When a group of teenagers broke into her flat armed with rocks while she was sleeping, she had to make the choice whether to defend herself and risk the imprisonment threatened in a previous court appearance. Faced with the prospect of a spell in a male prison, she chose not to defend herself.

There is a massive difference between Germaine Greer and the bigots shown in the recent documentary on Channel 4’s My Trans American Road Trip, which explored the reality of toilet bans in the states. The documentary showed right wingers who insisted that gender was god given, rather than a social construct. This is a far cry from Greer’s longstanding rejection of the passive acceptance of gender roles. But Greer’s argument is also one that must be rejected by socialists, as it is underpinned by the pessimistic belief that all men are unbreakably wedded to sexism. According to this argument, a trans woman who has been socialised as a male is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and as such a danger to women-only spaces. Socialists reject the idea that individual workers are eternally tied to particular systems of oppression, in the belief that the tendency towards solidarity within the working class can only be realised through challenging oppression.

In the light of these complex arguments I felt it worthwhile recounting my experiences of dealing with trans issues within a workplace. In 2004 when I started a new lecturing job, the word transphobia wasn’t in common usage and there had not yet been the succession of celebrities, such as Miley Cyrus, making statements legitimising non-binary gender alternatives. I had to deal with an onslaught of transphobic prejudice when I tried to discuss trans issues in an open and positive manner.

Having been a socialist all my adult life I was used to being around people who shared my revulsion at bigotry, and this new college was a shock. Homophobia and racism were openly expressed. Staff would not only fail to challenge bigotry, but they would in some cases actively express and encourage discriminatory ideas in front of students.

Students, as they still often do today, would use the word “gay” to denote something being bad. However, lesbian and gay students would not generally be discriminated against by their peers. As an art teacher I was able to initiate plenty of productive classroom discussions about gender roles and the art world. It wasn’t hard to draw out the contradictions of students using discriminatory terms, while being supportive of their lesbian and gay friends.

Backward elements

My senior departmental line manager had thrown his support behind the worst bigot among my colleagues. With the official sanction of the departmental management, my reputation as a suitable target for homophobic and transphobic ridicule gathered traction among the more backward elements within the college. The college ran on a culture of fear and blame, providing fertile ground for these backwards ideas to grow.

In retrospect I was clearly struggling with my gender identity at that time, and I did not yet identify, as I do now, as having a non-binary gender. I did, however, identify as a socialist and as such, once I had got through my probationary period, I set about building the union and intervening politically where possible. It was clear to me that an attack on someone’s right to dress, express or perceive their own gender as they wish, is an attack on us all.

It is ridiculous to think that every morning my first thought on waking up would be whether the clean clothes I had would be acceptable to those who wished to police my masculinity. The decision of gender conformity, made at the moment of my birth, was being enforced. Despite a lack of clarity about my own gender identity, I stubbornly resisted accommodating to what we now call transphobia. This meant that the spotlight put on me actually highlighted the college’s problem with bullying and discrimination.

Within my department there was an area which had been having real problems. This was largely due to a policy of employing cheap, and therefore often inexperienced, staff. Me and a couple of other female staff members managed to stabilise things and even build some strong courses. Apart from the fortuitous complementary skills we brought to our small team, the essential strength we had was our solidarity. This was solid and not just in the face of management, but also in the face of discrimination.

There were only two non-white members of teaching staff, and they would come from other ends of the building to share lunchtimes in our tiny staff area. We became a focus of resistance to management bullying for all those who suffered it. Eventually this even included the colleague who had started the transphobia against me, who came to us for support when his job was in peril.

Solidly unionised

Faced with the prospect of a (haphazardly) proud transgender trade unionist embedded within a solidly unionised department exposing their poor equal opportunities record, the senior management took action. My departmental manager was demoted and subsequently found work elsewhere. Management both formally and privately apologised to me. Perhaps most significantly, plans for the new college buildings included open unisex toilet arrangements to accommodate transgender students.

We were aware of the power that our solidarity afforded us as a department, but to the wider college community these events appeared discrete and unrelated. If I had come to terms with being transgender and the union had been more proactive fighting over LGBT+ issues, we could have claimed this sorely needed victory as our own. As it was, the college management took credit for the transgender inclusion policy embodied by the toilet facilities.

Just as the building was going ahead, the financial crash of 2008/9 happened and suddenly money was no longer plentiful for fancy flagship educational projects. The building was completed, but the college has been in a dire financial situation since. This has affected the standards of education and consequently Ofsted is circling the institution like vultures. The toilets, however, are indeed unisex and after an initial phase of scepticism they are now simply the new normal. The main toilet block is a wide courtyard around a central basin, which a dozen individual cubicles arc around. There is no reason why anyone should be vulnerable to bullying there, more than anywhere else in the building.

Despite this fairly straightforward solution to a very real problem faced by transgender students and staff, the money has dried up under the austerity agenda. Now, like funding for wheelchair ramps or to make safe outdoor spaces around our institutions, we need to fight for every penny, to make all our lives better. To win these necessities our unions are more crucial than ever.

Capital is greedily recognising the popularity of artists such as Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga and targeting the non gender conforming community as a market. The new young activists we hope to see in our unions have grown up with openly transgender friends and, in my experience, are quite militantly vocal in opposition to enforced gender conformity. It is not enough to just carry a transgender inclusive policy at national level in our unions; activists must be at the heart of resisting transphobia on a day to day basis and consequently building the strength of our unions.

Being transgender has seemed an impossible uphill struggle until recently, when changes in the world have seen an opening up of discussion on gender conformity issues. A great source of inspiration for me has been the way the culture of hip hop has changed over the last few years. Frank Ocean, an openly gay artist, has released one of the most celebrated albums of the year and Young Thug, who proudly proclaims their own gender fluidity, is one of the most celebrated new artists.

As socialists we can point to where ideas have changed, from even the most bleak of situations. In the time of Donald Trump and Tory Brexit, all sorts of confused ideas are gaining traction. Socialists need to clearly argue how, underlying it all, solidarity is the key to challenging and defeating oppression.