Traumas & Futures

In a retrospective article of its previous work on the trans* struggle, Rowan Fortune asks what it means to persist despite having already reached the point of crisis, having already borne witness to years when solidarity palpably failed. This article was written with invaluable assistance from Twilight O’Hara.

 
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”

― Bertolt Brecht

In the work of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K. stands accused of a crime he cannot understand within a system that permits no redemption or closure. The accusation happens before the events of the novella; he is judged guilty in medias res. This is a position with which most trans* persons could find resonance. We are damned, despised and rejected, we must now plead for our humanity, but the decision against us occurred before our story began, and there is no delineated path to innocence.

I have written more words on trans liberation than on any other subject, maybe barring my doctorate thesis in utopian studies. Four pieces stand out, developed alongside others, especially my dear friend and trans* sibling Twilight O’Hara. These should be considered open letters to socialists, trans* people, and anyone else. They attempt a conversation that needed to happen years ago.

A Trans* Guide to Cis Solidarity: Beyond Oppression (April 2022)

Global Anti‑Trans Movement (February 2024)

Trans* Visibility (March 2024)

Be Realistic – Demand the Impossible! (March 2024)

My first essay on the trans* struggle was Notes On British Transphobia. It was published before I understood myself even to be trans: “When I first heard of nonbinary genders, I was initially dismissive. Now, I wonder if my relationship to gender does not fall under that umbrella.”

Like many pre-trans people, “eggs” in the community’s nomenclature, I had to grapple with the weight of anti-trans hatred before I could find a space to be myself. To become trans* meant overturning embedded assumptions so I could merely try, for the first time in decades of existence, to live even dimly in a way that was not mired by repression, self-hatred and trauma.

Now I am a nonbinary fem over a year on HRT. My life is considerably worse by any metric because of the oppression I have faced. I have met with public violence and lost many social ties. I have developed mental health issues and only began to grapple with the consequences of half a lifetime of inauthentically and fear.

Still, I would choose to transition again and again and again. I would prefer to do it earlier, even if I faced worse situations. Not because the difficulties of being trans can be weighed and measured against the advantages, but because transition is the stuff of being alive at all. It is a sine qua non.

Unsurprisingly, my thoughts have evolved since my days as a confused egg, but what strikes me after rereading this piece from January 2020 is how much I correctly grasped the stakes. I stressed that we are not fated to see this prejudice overwhelm British politics and broader social life but that to take an alternative course required urgent solidarity. That solidarity did not materialise.

Trans* people are no longer awaiting the crisis, the point that should never have been reached; we are living it. I warned that “when the principle of solidarity is abandoned in favour of short-cuts to mainstream respectability, it becomes all but necessary to throw those who once were our natural allies under the bus of fascist rhetoric.” These words are no longer a rallying call; they are chilling reminders of lost dreams. 

We were never destined to end at this juncture, making arriving here all the more bitter. Like many trans* people, I have been raising the alarm for a significant time; I do not feel that the left (in its liberal or radical forms) paid heed. To some extent, this failure is now simply a fact, locked in. But there are still futures to save, and to understand how that can happen, I repeat a familiar gesture: turning back to the missed opportunities.

The Dark Times

Since that tentative, inadequate foray into writing on the struggle, I have written over thirty more pieces on trans* liberation, sometimes alone and sometimes collaboratively. Much of this was direct reportage. That includes for Trans Pride London in 2021, 2022, and 2023 and demos in solidarity with drag queens as well as called by Trans Action Block and Trans Strike Back!

In this vein, I also wrote about transphobia in the Labour Partypopular culture, and the media. These observational pieces contained the core socialist demand that the “labour movement must become more deeply connected to this vital struggle”. Under Trans*Mission, for week after week after week (and on and on and on and on and on), I reported on the absurdities and vicious attrition of transphobic attacks. After switching to a monthly format in July and August 2023, it proved to be a project I could no longer sustain.

The abiding message remained “that only concerted, mass solidarity can turn back the tide of hate that we are currently witnessing.” This was grounded in a profound apprehension. In September 2021, I pleaded the point for the first time in the most straightforward terms: “Trans and nonbinary people cannot win our fight for freedom alone”. A plea reiterated and developed in March 2022:

“We need cis people to commit to taking some of this burden in the coming years. We need more unions to care enough to show up to our protests (during a recent trans pride, many unions opted to attend another generalised left protest that had no demands, no unified message and no reason to exist whatsoever). We need the prejudice of transphobia to be addressed in all liberatory organisations and called out in workplaces, education, political parties and everywhere else.”

And in an increasingly Sisyphean/Cassandra mood, the point was retread in a yet more personal, if slightly too diminishing, register in February 2023:

“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.”

Theory

The demand for solidarity, however, was not only recycled in reportage but formed a core refrain of my and Twi’s theoretical work over the same period. There were false starts and relatively unproductive diversions; a three-part essay published over September and October 2021 on Transgender Solidarity (I, II, III) provided vital building blocks, including engagements with others’ ideas.

However, missteps were made as we learned not only about the parameters of the struggle but even what it means to be trans*.  The second of those essays was muddled; it wrongly treated t4t—a survival strategy I would later partially adopt—as a form of political separatism. Similarly, Queering Everybody (I, II), published January 2023, was a middling look at an important, if flawed, book on the possibility of a marxist queer movement. 

I would still wholeheartedly support an earlier theoretical intervention addressed to the marxist publication News & Letters, in which Twi and I develop the trans* struggle in specifically marxist humanist terms. I equally remain convinced by the ideas in a later praising but critical reply to rs21’s pamphlet on trans* liberation, in which the problem of transphobia and how to respond is framed as an issue of social consciousness shaped by historically contingent capitalist conditions.

We wrote in a context where, outside of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, we found distressingly few socialists willing to engage authentically in response. There were only a smattering of exceptions, some more notably and appreciably in-depth. Overall, our ideas never benefited from the critical sharpening we felt necessary. The four pieces mentioned previously attempt a deeper understanding, but even these were self-evident failures against the absence of a genuine trans* movement.

Respectively, the first argued that solidarity requires tackling the alienation of cis people from trans* oppression to develop a more authentic relationship with trans* humanity, rooted in an appreciation that trans* liberation is also always cis liberation. Next, I contended that the scale of the crisis is defined by a global and cross-political shift towards reactionary politics. These both identify the extent of the problem and a possible way forward.

Thirdly, I claimed that the trans* movement must self-conceptualise on the broadest basis to build an effective fightback. This outlined how an organisational footing could functionally emerge. Finally, Twi, NJ Catchpole and I noted that our demands and challenges to cis humanity must become bolder to be effective, based on a marxist understanding of revolutionary tactics’ role in securing reforms.  

Crisis

On 10 April 2024, everything changed in the British context. The release of the Cass Review solidified years of anti-trans sentiment across all of the relevant institutions of British civil society and the state, as well as a hardening of public attitudes. It wholly and officially reframed trans* existence as a pathology to be “cured” rather than an authentic expression of humanity, setting us on course for a heightening of trans social murder.

Since then, the Labour Party (the likely next party of government) has committed to being an anti-trans organisation on terms fully aligned with the Tory Party’s death cult. We have seen leaked secret NHS talks about referring children who access gender-affirming care to social services and coercively detransitioning them. It is no exaggeration to say the agenda, both for youth and likely for trans* adults in the upcoming NHS follow-up review, is nakedly eliminationist.

Meanwhile, the public face of this attack, Dr Hilary Cass, has both rowed back her findings and gone further in her rhetoric against trans* people. She has said that transition success should be measured by social factors shaped by anti-trans oppression, such as employability, relationships, and socialisation. She has consistently held to the logic that the fact of our oppression should be taken as a justification for it, but this is now explicit.

At the same instance, her pathologisation of us has reached new heights as she has turned to pornography as a “cause” of trans* existence. The widespread pseudo-aetiological obsession with porn exposes only a cisgendered fetishisation of trans* life, one that is implicitly violent. In the case of Cass, that violence extends to mealy-mouthed support for abusive so-called “conversion therapy”, claiming a “balance” is needed between eschewing institutional abuse of children and facilitating it.

The government is actively putting out calls for further biassed and pseudoscientific anti-trans research that will undoubtedly share Cass’s prejudicial perspective. They mean to drown us in a deluge of such nonsense in a context where our humanity is already systematically denied. Our exhaustion is part of the point.

Of note, Trans Safety Network has recently produced an invaluable, detailed look at how structurally entwined conversion therapy is throughout NHS provision for trans* people, predating and shaping the Cass Review. It is becoming self-evident that the whole of the NHS operates as a purveyor and advocate of anti-trans abuse and torture.

Endurance

As a marxist and a student of utopias, I am drawn powerfully to the work of Ernst Bloch and his idea of the Not-Yet-Conscious. Bloch claims that human consciousness is essentially futural, engaged with endlessly overcoming and surpassing itself in the world. Hope is not a mere mood but foundational to being human. When the anticipatory drive of a human being is impeded, consciousness becomes dangerously fractured and distorted.

How do trans* people continue under such conditions? I cannot speak to everyone, but I must admit I no longer know. I am defeated, unable to conceive of tomorrow, and therefore mired in trauma. The situation has led me, and many I know, to a place of profound grief and depression and a resounding feeling that the future we dreamed we could win has been, at best, pushed beyond the spans of our lives.

And so I again, with desperation entirely overtaking hope, with a part of my humanity diminished, demand that cis people who consider themselves our friends do the unthinkable: get in our lane, get involved, write about our struggle, seek out and join our demos and actions and meetings. I demand that the work is done so that our struggle is recognised as part of working-class resistance to encroaching barbarism.

This will mean cis friends exposing themselves to the messiness of a deeper involvement. To make mistakes, to work through hangups, which cisgender life can otherwise leave hidden. As with every interaction across social differences, this entails vulnerability and exposure, embarrassment and self-revelations. As Twi and I wrote in the Trans* Guide, “to become accomplices in the creation of a queer utopia, not allies in pursuit of a set of unsatisfactory compromises.” But compromise is enticing and always easier.

Cisgender people’s hesitancy in committing to this makes a tragic sense. However, it must be understood that their interpersonal sensitivity is not equivalent to our survival. Irrespective, genuine friends of our cause will undoubtedly be surprised by trans* patience since this is an already routinely practised trans* skill. But even if there are trans* folk for whom all patience has been lost, how can it not be worth the risk?

I no longer demand this solidarity to avoid a crisis that is already foregone; I do so more immediately to seek to avoid as much trans* suffering as is now possible to avoid. Liberation remains the horizon; it must be, or no struggle (with or without cis solidarity) is possible. However, I know I am not alone in expressing, with a regret I cannot articulate, that there is now a prior goal of blunt necessity: life.

Recently, I adopted it/its pronouns. This was an act of reclamation. The choice is not a repudiation of humanism, which remains foundational, but a recognition that humanism is not a given but a movement and progression that can never merely be uttered into being. If trans* humanity is to be condemned to a Kafkaesque farce, I will find solace in facing that situation with as much honesty as I can muster. 

I no longer expect to see a world that treats me as fully human, but I believe trans* people who are being born today might still yet glimpse that future. As for hope, it is too great an ask (even if it is strictly of the will). Indeed, in this context, it becomes a cruel expectation. Endurance must replace it; that must be enough because it is now all that is available until hope again returns, not as a demand on the oppressed but as a socially realisable possibility. 


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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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