Trans* Visibility

On Trans Day of Visibility 2024, Rowan Fortune reflects in an open letter to the trans and queer community on the need for a political definition and understanding of trans* and queer struggle.


The word trans* with an asterisk has come to signal the broadest possible use of the trans category. The standard definition of trans, someone whose gender does not match that assigned to them at birth, is serviceable, but trans* is powerful. 

Trans* includes anyone whose experienced gender is not acknowledged by the systems of oppression we call transphobia, intimately interwoven into the gender binary. Indeed, in some sense, transphobia is the gender binary at the level of its social ontology. 

The gender binary is rooted in the development of the family under capitalist conditions; therefore, the struggle against it is also more widely the struggle against those conditions. Capitalism did not invent misogyny, but its stark differentiation between men and women, conducive to the cooption of women’s labour in unpaid social reproduction, replaced premodern patriarchal ideas of gender like those advocated by Aristotelianism, which saw women as essentially merely deficient men. 

Because trans* necessarily engages with all of this history, it is more radical than the mere identity of trans. While trans should already be sufficient, trans* is militantly broader, bringing in gender nonconforming people of all types who have a vast array of unique experiences with the logic of transphobia, which at a higher level of abstraction is also the logic of misogyny.

This inclusiveness stretches from butch lesbians to femme boys, from binary trans women and men to nonbinary neo and a-genders. It encompasses all of those outside the policed parameters of gendered appearance and people with intersex conditions whose bodies are violated at birth. This notion of trans* is not about identity, and while it is rooted in social positionalities and experiences, it is more than those experiences.

I have previously written for A*CR about Trans Visibility Day, and while that piece sounds far too optimistic, given the grimness of the current struggle, it is also still serviceable. It rightly charts the day’s history as a corrective to the more melancholy Trans Day of Remembrance, reflects on the challenges facing trans people, and politely requests cis support.

What that essay did not manage was achieved better in a later piece written with my comrade and dear friend Twilight O’Hara, A Trans* Guide to Cis Solidarity, about which we both recently talked for a podcast hosted by the fantastic anti-fascist and revolutionary Jack Graham. Here, we demanded solidarity framed within the larger emancipatory project of revolutionary socialism. Liberation for trans* people, we insisted, is liberation for cis people, too.

Thinking about visibility, I wonder what kind of visibility we need. I recently collaborated to develop A*CR’s theoretical understanding of anti-racism, examining the political concept of Black with a capital ‘B’. I had much to learn. The specifically British understanding of Blackness as a site of struggle resists the notion being redirected back into the specific racial experiences that inform it. Instead, it turns outward towards shared oppression. 

Those who encountered racism from Afro-Carribean backgrounds and those who experienced it from Pakistani backgrounds, as two prominent examples in the 1970s and 80s, had not only different social contexts but faced different struggles. (Whether from police intimidation under the “sus laws” or fascist street violence, respectively.) What this conception of Black insisted is that they faced the same system of oppression, which one movement should dismantle. 

This framework emphasised the unity of organised resistance because, regardless of the diversity of the people being oppressed and their encounters with oppression, the oppression itself had one social basis. The opposite approach, fragmentation into smaller and smaller encounters with racism, is not only an inadequate basis for liberation but potentially gives up the goal entirely. 

In yet another arena of struggle, the Disabled People’s Movement today, we can witness the problem of fragmentation in action. In Bob Williams-Findlay’s new book Disability Praxis, he sums up the issue neatly:

“With no coordinated British Disabled People’s Movement, and an increase in the number of impairment-specific groups springing up, not to mention the generational gaps that now exist since the 1990s, the need to find common ground, as well as acknowledging the diversity of experience, has never been greater.”

The queer movement now is in crisis. From the commencement of the backlash against trans identity around a moral panic about gender recognition certificates, it is hard to assess the situation and avoid feeling that we have been defeated. Increasingly, our task is not to win here or there because there is no basis for such victories, but to work out how to return from a comprehensive retreat. 

Hate crimes against trans people have risen 156% in four years, with anti-LGB hate on the rise, too. The crisis of transition healthcare has deepened, with puberty blockers more greatly restricted than in the past and wait times spiralling so long that the NHS is effectively ceasing to offer care. The media constantly agitates against us, and young trans women have been murdered and assaulted. The shadow of Section 28 has been revived, and politicians regularly mock trans existence.  

But operating in the queer community, I do not see a unity of resistance but rather an insistence on our differences. I see trans femmes organising away from trans mascs. I see the creep of so-called transmedicalist views (rightly derided as truscum) into the mainstream of our culture. This is the idea that only binary trans people who ‘fully’ transition are valid. This is often not overt but expressed in the language of difference; “they don’t go through what we go through”, “aren’t as serious”, “aren’t trying hard enough”, etc.  Again, transphobia is the gender binary, and such views are a simple surrender to it.

To merely call this out as an evident and grievous mistake misses the point. That queer organising is weakening as the threat worsens is no coincidence but constitutes the inevitable flight into cheap moralisms in the face of despair. If we are going to lose anyway, why not find solace in the company and reassurance of those most like us? Why try to save liminal members of our community or those who complexly share in our oppression if we cannot save ourselves?

This is what defeat looks like. It is an understanding of trans bereft of politics, devoid of breadth, and lacking in any analysis of our oppression because it has renounced the idea of a world where to be trans is as incidental as to be cis. Trans* is hope. Trans* is less concerned with the specificity of the experiences that drew this person or that person into the struggle against transphobia, and where it engages poetically, it does so in dreaming of a world without transphobia. 

This is not because that specificity of experience is uninteresting but because it is what we must safeguard shoulder to shoulder in all of our vast differences. What is essential is not what is interesting about us but the oppression that would snuff out all of our sisters, brothers and siblings. Without those lives, nothing interesting remains. 

As with queer (that loose configuration contained by a reclaimed slur), trans* offers us a project, a politics, a radical chance at a future where bodily and gender autonomy can be realised in the struggle against the binary. Trans*, then, is profoundly queer, for it recognises the basis of trans* oppression in the misogyny of class society, which is also the basis of the oppression of sexual minorities in stepping outside the prescriptions of the gender binary. 

Trans* seeks not just unity against transphobia but builds on that unity to demand cisgender solidarity not as a plea to the charity of cis people but as an insistence that our freedom is also theirs. An insistence that without trans* freedom, there is no freedom for LGB people, for cisgender women, or even for cishet men. It is a rallying cry, one we need to reorganise our struggle and find a basis for victories. 

As an ageing, depressed, chronically ill, neurodiverse, nonbinary trans femme, bisexual queer who is sick of seeing my siblings languish without HRT, pushed into inauthentic detransition or fear even leaving their homes, this is the visibility I now seek. Not all those disaggregated bits of me, but all that stands in the way of the flourishing of everyone. Not just trans visibility, but trans* visibility! 

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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.


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