Be Realistic – Demand the Impossible!

The trans* struggle has reached a crisis. Some will be tempted to temper our expectations and make more moderate demands. Rowan Fortune, NJ Catchpole and Twilight O’Hara explain why that is a quick route to defeat. Trigger Warning: This piece includes a difficult discussion of trans* suicide and depression in candid terms. Main image by Steve Eason.

 

“Only by demanding from bourgeois society all that it is capable of granting have we succeeded here and there in obtaining a small part.”

Rosa Luxemburg

In the wake of the Cass Review, a barely disguised political attack on trans* humanity, we have seen our communities suffer, as trans* people from Britain and the US. We understand well the temptation to retreat in the face of such brazen hate, but we also know what the outcome of that response has been historically: further defeat.

The dehumanised can do nothing to appease their dehumanisers except cease to exist, which is why we hope our community will do the opposite. We must adopt a programme of minimal accommodation, maximal existence. We have nothing to gain from anything less.

Yet, it can never be so simple. Ours is a community so defined by trauma that one of the most popular dogwhistles against us, “41%”, refers to a 2011 statistic regarding attempted suicide among trans* youth in the United States. In the UK, two thirds have reported depression.

We are besieged by hate, unprotected from torture in the guise of “conversion/exploratory therapy”, with increasingly limited access to lifesaving transition healthcare; how could anything but such dire rates of suicidality and depression be the result?

As trans* people we know the precarity of our community, which has only ever partially become a political movement. We know many trans* people have experienced a sharp downward class mobility, which can leave them shellshocked, or even nihilistic. Neither mental state is a firm foundation for organising.

Indeed, these circumstances have too often given rise to the cheap, fake recompense of moralism, to self-hatred in the guise of transmedicalist views (that only binary, medicalised trans* people count), in petty divisions between trans mascs and fems, in allowing cis society to pathologise our genders and selfhoods in dysphoria diagnoses.

Despite this, we still share the conviction that trans* liberation can achieve gains at speed, albeit not alone and only after changes to the essence of our struggle. Among the greatest obstacles standing in the way of once again being a movement capable of winning are the various mechanisms our community has adopted to cope with defeat. In short, we must change ourselves to change the world.

As every trans* person knows, whether they seek medical interventions or not, changing ourselves happens in worldly ways, via sensuous, profoundly felt and embodied methods. We insist that we must stand up and fight together, and do so in such a way that makes us into the very movement and people capable of winning.

Trans* Care

Nonetheless, there is a tension in trans* life that must be attended to. One that requires an awareness of nuance that is too often lacking. A tension between intense vulnerability and of needing to insist on our joyful existence. Between euphoria and dysphoria. Between the world we want and the one where we reside. It is in this textured, liminal reality trans* life persists.

We share the belief that any pathway to sustainable models of care and resistance for us cannot neglect or solely emphasise either dimension, but must tackle the messier affects of trans* life and survival and then how that becomes socially organised and powerful.

Such a focus is neither about a myth of trans* power nor a surrender to trans* despair. Rather, it must be to insist that for most trans* people (those not buttressed by wealth), the baseline of life is inherently and explicitly political. It is political in ways that socially and sensuously alienate our everyday lives not only from a prescribed “normality” but even from our own selves.

We do not accept that the cisgender mental health crisis is a generally good framework for the experiences of trans* people in our crisis. Our depressions and pains, which are often also neurodivergent and poorly catered to at multiple levels of social provision, cannot be managed out of existence by institutionalised models of care that are only secondarily, as an afterthought, about us.

Many wrongly assume that suicidality is always a consequence of biomedical mental health issues. For people who are denied any means by which to exist as themselves, to be accepted in who they are at the most foundational levels, such a perspective ignores the calculations and pretexts of trans* suicidality.

As trans* people, we do not benefit from being told that our depressions arise from a failure of our reasoning; our depressions are a consequence of a failure in cisgendered society. We are not fighting over principle, but over the contours of life itself. Our lives. Depression is how we understand our stakes.

A framework that is more illuminating than “mental health” is shared trauma, which operates as a blockage to self-development and sometimes life. All depression is political but the mere rolling out of accessible existing treatments for such “mental health” problems cannot heal trans* people. We must be given a hand in remaking care on our terms. We need the uniqueness of our selves and traumas embedded in the enriched practices of care.

We must radically assert our humanity because, until it is recognized by others, a shocking number of us live in states where suicide becomes the organic outlet for our impossible situations. Trans* suicide is always to be prevented, but the terms on which it occurs reveal the extent to which there can be no accommodation to the social conditions that make this course painfully common.

That situation is why we cannot merely patch together reliable alternatives to trans* care in the also precarious webs of t4t (trans for trans) relationships and queer spaces, however prefiguratively significant and imperfectly vital. As long as trans* people are marginalised, our attempts at survival are limited, will operate against often untenable conditions. This is not unique to trans* existence, but it is an overwhelming feature of it.

By trying to appease our oppressors we inadvertently perform their task for them. By some measures, this is grimly rational. How do we expect to preserve trans* lives if some of us fail to respect our fundamental dignity? Just as we can seize small concessions by raising the most “extreme” demands, we can also only retain our integrity as human beings by doing so. To lay claim to less than the whole of our humanity is to surrender the whole of our humanity.

In Anti*Capitalist Resistance’s (A*CR) reply to Cass, co-production is mentioned twice in our demands. This was not a mere nod to the Disabled People’s Movement or, better but still inadequate, only an acknowledgement of intersectional links between trans* liberation and disabled people’s liberation. Co-production must be at the heart of trans* liberation because only co-production can bring such care into being. We posit it as having the potential to be the driving philosophy animating trans* liberation. Because presently, trans* care is simply not a reality.

We make do with cis care as best we can. All of our care is designed to cater to cisness, to norms that do violence to us, to expectations that are not ours, to a model of healing that is often experienced as a form of conversion “therapy”. Trans* care is an idea we must make real through trans* resistance. An idea long overdue! If not in 1992, certainly in 2024!

Reform and Revolution

In a context where trans* care is not real, trans* people are often wounded, traumatised, precarious, atomised individuals learning each day how best to endure as we undergo transitions that also frequently make us more emotionally and physically vulnerable. We are vulnerable because the stakes are our selves, often at the level of our flesh and blood.

Glib talk of trans* power and the stock of performative optimism common to the left cannot reliably engage everyday trans* life, nor counter a human inclination from trans* people to seek certainties whatever they can – even in the systems that hurt us. When you are drowning, you grab hold of whatever can prevent you from sinking.

It is true that full liberation for us, as for all of the oppressed, entails a revolution that can also break the logic of the gender binary, of misogyny, of racism, of disablism, because all of this serves to sustain class society. Nonetheless, trans* life cannot wait for revolution before it secures even the fundamental necessities of existence as a socially defined group.

Nor is the case for revolution made more convincing when many adherents of it are themselves enmeshed in transphobia, when the left remains infested by this prejudice. A problem that requires an entirely different focus, but focus all the same.

As trans* people and as revolutionaries, we cannot help but appreciate why “One Solution, Revolution” is such a hollow rallying cry for many from our community struggling, as we are too, in the here and now. Why it feels insulting to be told to look to a labour movement whose unions are often led by bigots, whose histories are often defined by an impoverished comprehension of class that excludes us alongside the broader oppressed.

While there are many revolutionary trans* people, it should come as no surprise that many also shun the left and prefer either to trust in liberalism, in the false promises of piecemeal reforms irrespective of the demonstrative failures of that process, or give up hope and live in the moment, in a fearful holding-pattern.

Socialists must bolster the autonomous self-organisation of trans* people to win the trust of the community, and they must do so in ways that deliver tangible victories.

But equally, as trans* people ourselves, we believe that we should be honest to other trans* folk and make the case for why a revolutionary trans* liberation movement is the right basis on which to organise.

Because we equally share the belief that our current predicament, while not helped by a left too slow to notice of trans* life, was reached by the prevailing systems in power. In our national contexts, which always need linking globally, by “democratic” capitalist states.

Foremost, contrary to the vulgar idea of a “One Solution, Revolution”, this basis should not be considered all or nothing. It is our claim that by demanding a great deal we can attain the pieces that make life more generally liveable.

The political class will “give” us speedier “diagnoses” when we robustly demand none. They will try “granting” us better healthcare when we demand co-productive healthcare parity. When we defend our communities ourselves, they will “spontaneously” see the moral outrage of the violence done to us on the streets.

That is how the powerful operate. They make concessions to a strong movement making the most ambitious demands to break and confuse that movement, to splinter those within its leadership who are socially better positioned.

A revolutionary footing, however, gives us the organisational capacity to keep demanding even as they offer tempting bribes. It gives us the networks of prefigurative care to maintain one another through the challenges.

In dribs and drabs, we thereby secure the basics to endure. Through condescending “allowances” that they will later claim as signs of their beneficence, progressiveness and paternal solidarity. Against them, we remember they gave us nothing, that we fought for every scrap as every oppressed movement won every social good they were “gifted” from on high.

We thereby remember that we will continue to win through our actions alone, and use those victories to bolster ourselves and persist in demanding for more until there is no further demand to be made, because our humanity is finally and fully acknowledged alongside cis humanity.

The Ultimatum

In this we echo the humanist words of our Black sisters in The Combahee River Collective Statement of 1974, whose demands for Black women’s liberation remain to be fulfilled in the context of a racist and misogynist US society and culture:

“To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.”

The cultural mainstream will always give a group they marginalise significantly less than we demand; if they were inclined to deal with us in good faith, they would not marginalise us to begin with. If we demand only a tiny part of our liberation, they will give us nothing. We are punished for our failure to imagine all that is possible; pessimism is always self-fulfilling.

That was the error of making mild Gender Recognition Act reform the British centrepiece of trans* resistance in 2018. It was the mistake of trusting Joe Biden’s promises to back trans* humanity in 2021, before his presidency oversaw the worst period for trans* life in recent history.

We behaved as though we were not worthy of more, of full healthcare, of complete social recognition, of protection from routine violence. And they met our lack of ambition with their typical attacks.

This weak request to an establishment that barely recognised us as worthy of acknowledgement kickstarted the current backlash against trans* existence, with a deluge of media nonsense spouted about how self-ID is an existential threat to purely reactionary notions of “our women”. Meanwhile, our voices were erased.

Likewise, in our dealings on the radical left, two of the authors (Twi and Rowan) feel that we have too often accommodated cis-apathy. We stand by our framing, but we ought to have pushed harder. A*CR presented a welcoming home to us, but our attempts to engage the rest of the left to think deeply about the trans* crisis were not met by enthusiasm or even sincere understanding. We sensed this disaster at least two years ago, but accepted the miserable role of Cassandra. We too felt the urge to moderate our perspectives, an urge Cass has erased.

Too many cis people cannot see Cass for what it is because, in their minds, they have already compromised on recognising trans* humanity. The Cass Review is not a qualitative break for them, merely a quantitative one. We must make clear what is at stake: ourselves, their friend’s and family’s souls.

The trans* movement asked for the scraps under the table, so they promptly decided that we are easily dismissed. We need to demand the table!

And that genuinely means we, as trans* brothers, sisters and siblings, as trans* friends alongside cis friends who see our strength and join us in demanding the impossible. We need cis solidarity, but for our demands to work we must formulate and make them as strong as possible.

To cis readers, there is an ultimatum. It is not ours, but a fact of our situation. Surrender apathy or consciously give up on the continued social existences of trans* people.

Transphobes have clarified that dynamic; in the words of arch-bigot Helen Joyce, we are in our mere existence “a huge problem to a sane world.” We have no place in the reality they are bringing into being. Only cis people can “decide” if they accept that reality, for us trans* folk there is no us remaining in that future.

At this moment of crisis, we should say clearly we mean to take everything from them, because everything is already ours.


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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

Twilight O’Hara is a psychology student and revolutionary socialist in the United States. She is at work on a book reconstructing Marxism based on philosophical idealism.


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