Global Anti‑Trans Movement

In this transcript of a talk given at the Anti*Capitalist Resistance Internationalism Day School (03/02/2024), Rowan Fortune sketches the crushing realities of being trans in an age of crisis and reaction. (With thanks to contributions from Twilight O’Hara and Terry Conway.)

 

I am going to talk about the global anti-trans movement. It will not be rousing or hopeful; I seek to outline obstacles socialists must confront to participate in restoring hope to the trans liberation struggle. 

The crises are too vast to enumerate in fifteen minutes and too deeply experienced to convey without flattening the impact. I scour the internet for news I once condensed into summaries for A*CR; before it became challenging to my mental health. I can hardly skim the surface. Op-eds in liberal publications advocate our torture; television luridly debates our bodies; BBC columns draw on anecdotal data from hate groups to allege trans people rape lesbians. Some have fled England for Australia, Canada, and France, those who can. 

Trans lives are too precarious, too scattered, too focused on enduring to sustain dreams of liberation. Medical aid and community care groups are often dominated by the tiniest minority with access to capital, who, like all aristocracies of the oppressed—not by moral fault but social situatedness—implicitly demand only the right to be the chief exploiters of other trans people. The future is grim, and we settle on such “radical” demands as 

  • the license to spend money we lack on predatory private or grey-market DIY healthcare, 
  • feeling safe to pee in public toilets,
  • the capitalist state’s barest acknowledgement we exist,
  • the merest relief of endemic workplace discrimination, occasionally backed by union reps.

The view of much of the left is that transphobia is a wedge, confected by elites and adopted by conspiracists, scapegoating and distracting. There is truth to this idea, but a wedge only works if it connects to the organic consciousness of a social base. As marxists, we ought to understand that the ruling ideas of the ruling class are not the ruling class’s machinations but the enacted form of a society made in their image—the slog and shape of each day’s labour, leisure, and rest. 

Hateful prejudices like transphobia are grimly rational in our society. Every trans person knows this; transitioning involves battling internalized transphobia. Psychologists obscure that behind the phrase ‘gender dysphoria’, which naturalizes the conflict between our embodied flourishing and social norms. This is the role medical gatekeepers perform, allowing us to transition if we accept our condition is an aberration, a deviation from capital ‘R’ reality. 

Socialists struggle to relate to trans oppression, while the right has no difficulty deepening it. Chaya Raichik a.k.a. LibsOfTikTok is a far-right online provocateur. She channels hatred (provoking bomb and death threats, sometimes enacted) to queer people and queer-friendly institutions (from schools to hospitals) but began with electoral fraud conspiracies and role-playing Biden’s houseplant in an approximation of political satire. She became famous for targeting queer and especially trans people, but it was a late idea; she seized on it because it gained traction with her audience. Transphobia found fertile soil. 

For the far-right, transphobia is a foundation stone of their contemporary ideology. While theorists of so-called post-fascism insist the modern far right has strategically dispensed with some of the anti-queer focus, citing electoral projects in the 90s and early 00s that pinkwashed Islamophobia and made a little room for a minority of reactionary lesbian and gay people, in truth, fascism has re-instantiated itself on its traditional territory: anti-liberalism, fear of foreignness, notions of queer and cultural degeneracy. 

The far right’s organic social base, Trotsky’s human dust, cannot tolerate trans consciousness because of what it implies about gender. Free social reproductive labour, built on systemic misogyny, is required for capitalist organization, which fascists protect from liberatory struggles. The structure of misogyny is unified with class, a single system, because capitalist class society, represented by the atomized family unit, requires a sharp gender binary replete with rigid gender roles and the denigration of women as breeding vessels and “natural” carers. This is a single vector of oppression: misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, reinforce one another.

Today’s trans consciousness is a consequence of social advances by movements for sexual minorities and women, within which trans people participated, but also the failure of those movements to encompass trans humanity. Moreover, it is a result of how the internet overcame a barrier to trans community formation, a geographically diffuse extreme minority (less than 1% of people). But this occurred in a context marked by global crisis: economic, political, ecological and social—the perfect condition for a reactionary backlash. 

Because trans oppression is downstream from misogyny (as a logical consequence and not secondary in importance), this backlash is like the foreshocks in an earthquake for other threats to bodily autonomy (like abortion access). Abortion access is also vital to trans people, to trans mascs who can and do get pregnant. (These foreshocks parallel attacks on disabled people, and indeed there are overlaps in struggle in terms of bodily autonomy, both with respect to dehumanizing medical systems and the proportions of disabled and neurodiverse trans people.)

It is no coincidence women’s (and trans masc peoples’) right to choose is under heightened attack as trans oppression reaches a fever pitch. In the US, the overturning of Roe v Wade and the cowardice of a Democrat administration has seen Republican-controlled states relentlessly target abortion access, particularly impacting those multiply oppressed and impoverished. But the US is not alone in going backwards. 

In 2020, Polish courts toughened already the most severe abortion restrictions in the EU, permitting abortions only in cases of rape, incest, or when life is endangered. In the UK, a dramatic increase in high-profile cases of women prosecuted for abortion has prompted interventions from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, urging healthcare workers not to report anyone to authorities. Abortion laws here were once progressive and world-beating but have not kept up to date and now too open undermining. 

The denial, in principle, of cis women’s bodily autonomy not only goes hand-in-hand with denying trans bodily autonomy but finds its ideological articulation in the same halls of power. The Vatican’s pseudo-feminist conservative movements (funded and promoted to undermine abortion access) were the origin of the “gender ideology” conspiracy, whereby trans existence is not the expression of human diversity but a plot orchestrated by sinister elites. So-called TERFs merely trail such ultra-conservatives. 

In 2017 Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May promised to reform the UK Gender Recognition Act to demedicalise and streamline the state’s official recognition of some binary trans people. The reforming of the GRC had long been a goal of trans* people, not as a radical ambition, but the lowest of low-hanging fruits. A tiny piece of legal equality pertaining to certificates of birth, marriage and death. This began a tsunami of reaction, with bigots misrepresenting the reform and coalescing in organizations across the political spectrum, including reactionaries on the left such as in Women’s Place UK. 

In 2023 Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the fourth PM to delay May’s other promise of a trans-inclusive ban on torturous conversion “therapy”, used Section 35 of the Scotland Act to kill legislation that would do in Scotland what May had promised to achieve in Westminster. In the past four years, hate crimes against trans people have increased 156%: a 16-year-old trans girl, Brianna Ghey, was murdered, a crime the police (cheerled by media outlets like the Guardian) deemed not transphobic because her killers, also children, fetishised her and planned to kill cisgender people. One of the killers asked the other of Brianna, “Is it a femboy or a tranny?” It is obscene to deny their transphobia.

In less than a decade, the UK has become a cesspit of anti-trans hatred, propelled by its politicians and media, but finding that same fertile ground of reaction Raichik activated in the US, which YouGov data shows is only growing in proportion in the UK. We now face school guidance that seeks to deny the existence of trans pupils, an eerie return to the days of section 28, and harass trans youth into detransitioning. We face a Labour Party that frequently joins Tory attacks on trans life. It is hard to see a viable path forward. 

The British moral panic against trans life was exported. The US is facing an epidemic of anti-trans violence. President Biden painted a crosshair on the backs of trans people, deploying trans rights in his election against Trump, then abandoning trans Americans to Republican state powers; subsequently, each year has seen record-breaking quantities of anti-trans state legislation, over two hundred bills this January. Recently, in a story released by the US investigative journalist Erin Reed, Michigan Republicans discussed their endgame: banning adult transition healthcare.  

The moral panic has found adherents among the world’s opportunistic reactionary leaders. Putin’s war on trans and queer life aims at the swift eradication of queer Russians from civil society. As an openDemocracy article notes, Putin’s agenda has little popular backing, and while it distracts from his government’s failings (not least the slaughter of his imperialistic adventures in Ukraine), the Kremlin’s policies are directed internationally, as when Putin cites British celebrity transphobe J. K. Rowling as inspiration. This is Putin projecting himself as a credible leader of global traditionalism, mocking reactionaries elsewhere, in Britain and the US.

Nor is the EU a bastion for trans liberty; while France and Germany moderately outpace other countries on trans rights, in much of Central and Eastern Europe, the situation is dire. From the LGBT-free zones of Poland to Viktor Orbán’s use of emergency powers granted in the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020 to erase protections and rights from trans people in Hungary. Trans people in Ukraine have had already precarious social situations worsened by the war, and evidence suggests they may have explicitly been targeted by Russian forces. 

Even in India, where trans people have a more extended history of some social acceptance, Narendra Modi’s Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill has been accused by trans Indians of being a trojan horse, with provisions included that deliberately violate other provisions, and does little to address the prohibitive costs of trans healthcare. Meanwhile, in China, queer people in general report that they face relentless persecution, house arrest and even forced confessions. 

Uganda’s government have taken especially extreme anti-queer measures, making it illegal even to identify as LGBTQIA+. The country has the death penalty for what is dubbed ‘aggravated homosexuality’. In many other African countries, circumstances are similarly catastrophic for all queer people, whose identities often overlap. Human Rights Watch in 2022 noted that 33 of the 69 countries to criminalise same-sex relations are in Africa, often laws that are a legacy of colonialism. While the situation is not without faint glimpses of hope, they are faint indeed.

In Latin America, Brazil is the most dangerous place on earth for trans people; as reported again by openDemocracy, Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide recorded a shocking 125 trans and gender-diverse murders in the country just from October 2020 to September 2021. The same openDemocracy piece notes “at least ten Latin American countries are advancing initiatives that could fuel further violence against trans and gender-diverse people.” However, Latin America is not homogenously anti-trans—in 2012, Argentina passed one of the most comprehensive pro-trans laws, which should be celebrated. (Although the recent rise of far-right President Milei could lead to challenges to these developments.)

I find it viscerally difficult witnessing trans people stress how our lives are not radical—a plea for survival. It is partially true, but tragically partial. I recently read something in this genre: that the trans agenda is an average life expectancy. Trans people are scared, and we make ourselves small. It is as if we can cause this to stop by appealing to an empathy that lacks a capable subject. But our flourishing is not small to those who hurt us; it threatens the inhumanity they hold dear; we can never make ourselves sufficiently small to change that. We are radical in a context that radically disavows us, our context—until we, alongside cis comrades, change it.

Cis people can disengage. That is not a moral failing; it is a fact about the relationship between our respective groups and the struggle. These aren’t “issues” for us; they’re our lives. I have tried to tell a condensed story about the world as experienced by trans people, but this story continues. Our only denouement is in defeat or freedom, and the former beckons. Honestly, this story has gone on too long already, and we are tired.


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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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