Trans folk talk about gender euphoria and gender dysphoria. But for many, how we discover who we are is principally neither euphoric nor dysphoric. It is simply an exhausting confrontation with a society that insists on treating us as an abstract question. So many of us initiate our own understanding of being trans as an external abstraction, which we then have to integrate so that “who I am” is less alienated and self-harming.
What is what it like to come out as transgender in Britain in 2023? To address that, I must go back a few years to 2019, when everything about this country irrevocably changed for the worse, a qualitative shift after decades (arguably longer) of quantitative shifts in the wrong direction. But this year is also when I finished one stage of a process of profound self-discoveries that will ultimately see me realise a significant part of myself. (Ultimately, because I am far from there.)
Four years ago, I was still unhappily identified as a man; I was in a losing Labour Party, dreading an ill-timed and conceived General Election. Many socialist comrades were convinced pollsters were part of a Tory conspiracy to demoralise the left. But I was thoroughly aware that the Corbyn project had hit its fundamental limits as a top-down cult of personality. (Not because I rejected Corbyn’s ideas, nor as a criticism of the man himself, but because I am not a social democrat and do not believe the Labour Party proved an adequate container of radical dreams.)
Worse, the incoming administration was not the Conservative Party of old, the evil of which was limited by liberal Burkeians and one-nation medievalists, but a ragtag group of culture war fascists operating under the borderline criminal leadership of Boris Johnson. He was coming into power with a profound legacy of moral corruption and ineptitude haunting his “brand”. He needed scapegoats.
Fortunately for Johnson, he was given a target for widespread ire not by his own party’s right but by the liberal establishment and the failure of the left to stand in solidarity with the transgender community. It was the weakness of Britain’s progressives that would ultimately secure a far right shift in the nation’s discourses, a betrayal for which there has still been no reckoning. (And for which there might never be one.)
Since his predecessor, Theresa May, opened the possibility of reforming the Gender Recognition Act, the floodgates of British transphobic paranoia were unleashed. It was because the left adopted such paranoia that we ended here. For years, a tiny and much maligned but largely invisible group became the focus of the hatred of a new coalition of the far right, religious extremists, and radical feminists. But this new political force, dubbing itself gender critical, took off only because it had the cover of much of the left, encompassing social democratic and revolutionary factions.
This seemingly unstable assortment of politics, unified only by an obsessive hatred of trans people, was able to embed itself in the media, in every mainstream political party, and across much of the left. It weaponised the alienated resentment of previously largely apolitical middle-class women who spent too much of their time on Mumsnet, much as GamerGate had for middle-class adolescent cishet men on toxic online anon boards. It created a perfect storm within the more progressive side of the British political spectrum.
As too much of the left had failed to sort itself out over Brexit, often siding with a project that had its entrails in creeping fascism, they were ill-prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with yet another group of the marginalised. It was easier to simply capitulate to the voices of established cis women who spuriously claimed that trans identity was inherently reactionary. Thus, confusion over anti-racism became confusion over misogyny and transphobia. A theoretically incompetent labour movement, atomised and unable to think, turned against the very people that formed one of the least powerful contingents of a diverse working class.
I was very fortunate. I found a grouping in West London who intuitively sided with the marginalised even then. And then additionally landed in a revolutionary organisation, Anti*Capitalist Resistance, who likewise bucked the trends. I found the side of the British left who remembered its purpose for existing.
In this context, the worst thing happened. Coronavirus-19 struck the country under its worst imaginable management. Covid combined with horrifying policies, brought about the social murder of many elderly and disabled people in unprotected care homes and communities. The crisis also meant the further disorientation of the socialist movement on fundamental questions of solidarity and a nightmare for anyone who wished to see a better world. Racialised and queer people were also severely hit, and in the queer community, transgender people were the most badly impacted, in the UK and elsewhere. (And that puts to one side trans people who are also disabled, Black, or otherwise marginalised.)
In this context, I realised that I was not a man. It might seem contradictory, but as someone protected by a cushion of some material comfort, I could reflect on myself, away from other pressures that have since resurfaced. It was when I had time, freed particularly from the harsh and intolerant environment of the Labour Party, to ask fundamental questions about myself and my identity. (Significantly, I was not then representative of trans or nonbinary people, especially pre-coming out, as this tends to exert downward pressure on class positionality.) It was 2020, and I announced to my friends (and later the world) that I was nonbinary.
Again living up to my surname, I was lucky in my experiences of the awful pandemic and have been largely fortunate since coming out. There have been challenges and traumas, but all of my family, the vast majority of my friends, and my partner have been stalwart and enabled me to endure what would nonetheless prove one of the most challenging periods of my life. That luck should not obscure the reality trans people face in general.
This is a country in which 88% of transgender people do not report the most serious hate crimes, and yet in 2020-21, reported hate crimes against trans people increased by 16% and then a further 56% during 2021-22. All hate crimes have increased, but anti-trans hate crimes increased faster than any other category. Galop has specifically rejected the police excuse that more people are reporting, citing the known gap between incidents and reportage. This abominable status quo is fuelled by both government and media choices, and as I was writing this piece, a transgender 16 year old girl was stabbed to death by two 15 year old children.
Earlier in my process, I wrote an essay, initially for myself but publicly released, sorting through my feelings on my gender. Earlier still, I intimated that I was questioning my identity in a speculative essay about English transphobia. And I have written a little about being trans. In a future piece, I hope to conclude this story, my coming out experience mainly, focussing on my medical transition. For now, I will merely say that being trans is at its core euphoric, that dysphoria is important but not universal, and that a great deal (although not all) of it is social in origin.
Trans people will survive this moment, even in a place like Britain. We have no choice but to survive. But the nature of that survival is as yet undetermined. We can flourish as a testament to a society that transcended its hatreds and parochialism, or we can subsist, re-emerging into public consciousness every few decades to test whether we can finally find acceptance.
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