Advances in sexual awareness are welcome, but transgender people still face terrible discrimination - and condemnation by some feminists. Laura Miles argues that unity against all forms of oppression is integral to the fight for sexual liberation.
Despite advances such as same sex marriage in a number of countries, hatred, bigotry and hostility to LGBT+ people continue to motivate some people. The US establishment may have expressed outrage at the Orlando massacre in a gay club in June, but over 30 US states still have no anti-discrimination protection for LGBT+ people.
And in the case of transgender people, capitalist society remains one in which transphobic discrimination, violence and murder are all too common. On 20 November each year since the murder of trans woman Rita Hester in 1998 activists organise Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) events where lists of those who have lost their lives to transphobic violence in the past year are read out. This November the name of Hande Kader will be included. Hande, a trans woman activist and sex worker in Turkey, was raped and burned to death this July, not long after Istanbul Pride was banned and attacked by the police for the second year running.
Last year 81 trans people were commemorated around the world, undoubtedly an underestimate because many deaths are not notified or the victim’s gender is misidentified. Often the jurisdictions in which such killings happen don’t recognise transphobic hate crimes so they never even make the statistics. In the US 20 trans women were murdered in 2015 — the highest number ever recorded and nearly twice that of 2014. Next highest was Mexico, but Latin America in general has a terrible record of murders, suicides and transphobic violence and discrimination.
While attitudes towards LGB people in the UK and some other countries have become much more favourable, especially among young people, studies show that transgender people in particular continue to face endemic discrimination, harassment and exclusion.
Thus the 2016 Transgender Equality Inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee made 30 recommendations to address the “high levels of transphobia experienced by individuals on a daily basis”. These include reviewing how trans people are treated by the justice system. The tragic deaths of trans women Vicky Thompson and Joanne Latham in male prisons at the end of 2015 demonstrated the impact of current institutional transphobia.
Another report, the Trans Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing Study, found that 81 percent of participants reported avoiding certain situations, such as public toilets and the gym, through fear; 90 percent reported being told transgender people are not normal; 38 percent had experienced sexual harassment and 6 percent had been raped; 37 percent had experienced physical threats or intimidation and 19 percent had actually been physically assaulted; 88 percent had experienced current or previous depression, 53 percent had self-harmed and 35 percent had attempted suicide at least once.
It is clear that while a few trans people may have the good fortune or wealth to smooth their coming out, for most the process is still stressful and traumatic. Class is a factor. Most trans people are unable to boast, as boxing promoter Kellie Moloney did in a newspaper interview, that “Buy to let paid for my £100,000 sex change”.
In some parts of the world the situation has deteriorated in recent times. An Unreported World programme in March featured the severe discrimination and harassment experienced by trans people in Malaysia where the authorities have declared transgender is contrary to Islam. In 2014 the Russian parliament, supported by the Orthodox Church, banned trans people from driving on the grounds that they have a mental illness. In practice this legitimises and encourages gangs of bigots and fascists who hunt down and terrorise LGBT+ people.
In most African countries homosexuality is illegal and transgender people are a despised minority subject to violent oppression. Uganda passed vicious laws recently which carry heavy sentences. Some of this legislation is being driven by religious organisations with links to US Christian fundamentalists. Often the myth is used that homosexuality and gender variance are Western deviations and were unknown before Western colonialism. Homophobia and transphobia are thus dressed in the clothes of anti-colonialism and nationalism.
Such a historically false claim has been challenged by author and trans activist Leslie Feinberg who demonstrated that both gender variance and homosexuality were widespread in Africa prior to Western conquest.
In face of this global picture, solidarity and collective resistance across oppressed groups, trade unions and left organisations is crucial. It was therefore sad to see in June a small group of radical feminists picketing a session of the inquiry into transgender equality being conducted by the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee. They were demanding the banning of trans women from women’s toilets and changing rooms. Such demands reflect claims within radical feminism and among some reproductive rights campaigners that trans women should not be involved as they are not “real women”. Prominent feminists Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Sheila Jefferies have argued this.
Recent debates have spilled over into disagreements about the very definition of “woman”. South African athlete Caster Semenya’s victory in the 800 metres at the Rio Olympics unleashed some very nasty racist, misogynist, homophobic and anti-intersex prejudice. In 2015 an article by Katha Pollitt in the US magazine The Nation entitled “Who Has Abortions?” sparked an intense debate about terminology and definition. If nothing else it demonstrated the divisive impact of identity theories which reject class as the key dimension of struggle in capitalism.
In the US the issue of who can use public toilets has become high profile. In 2015 transgender people were banned from using gender-appropriate public toilets in North Carolina. Bigots in other states are demanding similar legislation.
Such transphobic campaigning is not simply the expression of prejudice or mistaken ideas; it is politically orchestrated. Organisations such as Alan Sear’s Alliance Defending Freedom employ highly-paid lawyers and lobbyists to coordinate opposition to LGBT+ rights. They dig up legal loopholes in state or federal legislation to justify private or public bodies discriminating against transgender or LGB individuals. The key argument against trans women having access to gender-appropriate toilets is that they are really men in drag who may have ill-intent towards the “real” women using the bathroom. Yet there has not been a single recorded case of a trans woman using public bathroom access to attack cisgender women (those whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth).
The transphobia of some radical feminists (sometimes known as TERFs, or trans exclusionary radical feminists) has been conveniently appropriated by the right. Not only does this argument deny the reality of transphobia but it denies trans people the solidarity they need and undermines the potential to build collective resistance to discrimination.
In a bizarre, misogynist and transphobic reversal, the bathroom laws in North Carolina have resulted in police, store detectives and random bigots harassing cisgender women for not looking “feminine” enough. The legislation which was supposed to curb “predatory trans women” is resulting in cisgender women being accused of being men. Inevitably, these bathroom laws have also made gender-appropriate access even more stressful and dangerous for trans women. It is they who have always, in reality, been the primary targets of such harassment and discrimination.
Trans people have organised to oppose these attacks. One example in the UK of collective resistance happened in 2012 when the Observer carried a column by Julie Burchill attacking transgender people. She used foul transphobic language generally associated with right wing bigots. Twenty thousand people signed a petition criticising Burchill and the Guardian/Observer offices were picketed forcing the editor to apologise. Burchill’s column was dropped when she refused to withdraw the comments.
In 2014 trans teacher Lucy Meadows committed suicide after being ridiculed in a Daily Mail column by columnist Richard Littlejohn. Within days of her death thousands petitioned for Littlejohn’s sacking. He wasn’t, but resolutions supporting Lucy were passed at union conferences, and members of her union, the NUT, organised a solidarity demonstration in her home town.
Trans people have been integral to the fight for sexual liberation. Their involvement in the Stonewall rebellion in 1969 and in radical political movements in the 1960s and 1970s has often been under-recognised. The contributions of fighters such as Sylvia Rivera and Leslie Feinberg, both of whom declared themselves revolutionaries and argued for solidarity of the oppressed, should be more widely celebrated.
Now, in a period of political polarisation amid efforts by the capitalist class to roll back hard-won rights we need an awareness of the past struggles of LGB and trans people against discrimination and their struggles to win equal rights and liberation. In the past these struggles often had strong links to socialist individuals and organisations.
Homophobia, transphobia and sexism, from whatever source, undermine the potential for workers to successfully take on our bosses and rulers. Divisions on our side can only blunt struggles against a system that distorts everyone’s living and loving. In the coming period it is crucial that socialists fight both for unity in action and for political clarity in understanding the material roots of transphobia and other forms of oppression.