Last week saw Kemi Badenoch threatening major attacks on the rights of trans people, with the support of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). As part of the struggle against these attacks, we are reprinting a talk given by Connor Liao on trans liberation struggles at the last rs21 all members’ assembly.
Brianna Ghey vigil, London, 15 February 2023 – photo by Steve Eason
This piece is on the different struggles within trans liberation and the terrain on which trans liberation is being fought. The first area in which trans liberation is being fought for is the legal arena. The recent Gender Recognition Reform bill in Scotland (GRR Bill), which was blocked by Westminster, saw transphobes kick up a huge fuss over what is really just a minor liberal reform that would have made it marginally easier to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), which allows you to change your birth certificate.
It’s worth noting that in radical trans spaces, the overwhelming consensus is against involving the state in gender determination. Trans people should not require approval from the state in order to hold the same rights as cis people, for instance, the right for trans women to be housed in women’s prisons if they are sentenced to prison.
Integrating the struggles
What is the role of revolutionaries in this struggle? Firstly, against Westminster and against reactionary currents unequivocally, but secondly, to push the desire for liberal reforms into revolutionary desires for trans liberation beyond the bourgeois state. Winning reformist struggles can empower trans people and our allies to want more, so it’s fine for revolutionaries to fight for these reforms. But this must be in the context of our revolutionary politics.
The fight for the GRR Bill gave the trans liberation movement a taste of political struggle, and regardless of whether or not the bill eventually passes, the outcome will be further struggle. It’s important to note that the changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) that the GRR Bill proposed would make little practical difference to most trans people’s lives. It would make a GRC easier to access, but a GRC in and of itself does not do very much. For instance, I have a GRC and the only thing in my life that’s changed is that I have a new birth certificate now. But my birth certificate never really comes up in my life anyway. You can already change your name and gender marker on every single other British legal document without a GRC.
And this is how it should be. You should not need any kind of government-issued certificate to have accurate documentation as a trans person. A GRC is useful for trans women who face being sentenced to prison, as a female GRC makes it more likely that you will be housed in women’s facilities, but it’s neither necessary for, nor a guarantee of, being sent to women’s facilities. It’s also useful if you’re emigrating away from Britain, and you need to use your birth certificate in that context. However, it does not help people who do not already have British citizenship – so trans people who are trying to enter Britain face the greatest difficulty with immigration and border control.
The current state of trans politics in Britain means that the struggles we see are likely going to be over more liberal minor reforms such as GRA reform. One big issue of the trans liberation movement is the disparate nature of the trans community. Many trans people, especially trans children and adolescents, do not know any other trans people locally. There’s a difficulty of organising. For organising the working class, you could organise your workplace, your neighbourhood – there isn’t a single working class person in the world who doesn’t know any other working class people. So an important way of overcoming this is the integration of trans liberation, not just trans tolerance, into existing working class struggles such as the ongoing strike wave. If it is just trans people struggling, then the movement will lack a lot of momentum. But if the entire working class sees trans liberation as their business, we stand a far better fighting chance.
Fighting for our health rights
The second area in which trans liberation is being fought for is the medical side of things. An issue that severely affects the life of almost every British trans person is trans health care. You may have heard about the horrific waiting times in order to access trans health care. Somebody referred to a gender identity clinic (GIC) today would be looking at five to ten years until their first appointment.
What a lot of people don’t realise is that the waiting times do not end when you get your first appointment. You then have to go through months’ worth of assessments, usually taking about 12 to 18 months total, to access hormones. Only after that are you assessed for surgery separately, which takes a similar amount of time. Once you’re approved for surgery, surgery waiting lists are one to two years for chest surgery, approximately four years for feminising genital surgery, and approximately eight years for masculinising genital surgery. Keep in mind that these waiting times are for after the GIC approves you for surgery, after you’ve already been waiting many years.
There are waiting lists upon waiting lists. There is not just one waiting list you have to pass through. Because of waiting times a lot of trans people want to go private. However, this can get quite expensive, especially if you want surgery. For chest surgery privately that costs £7,000 to £9,000, for feminising genital surgery £15,000. Masculinising genital surgery can cost £40,000 to £70,000. For hormones, it is cheapest to self-medicate compared to going through a doctor; buying your own hormones from a pharmacy is cheaper. However, this is a legal grey area for testosterone.
This creates an obvious class divide. Wealthy trans folk can transition quickly, but this is inaccessible to the vast majority of trans people. The issue is not just funding. Obviously the waiting times are primarily due to the gutting of the NHS by the government. But the GIC system is also built upon the pathologisation and the medicalisation of transgender identity. The GIC works against, not with, its patients.
Within the trans liberation movement, there is thus a debate of how to relate to medical professionals. To be clear, as they currently are, the psychologists at the GIC are the enemies of trans liberation, it is their job to pathologise and gatekeep transgender identity and to prevent transition if at all possible. But the question is whether or not we can transform and co-opt them into comrades along class lines, or if we are to unequivocally oppose them as we do the police.
The final battleground that I’m going to be talking about is the socio-political. There’s a large-scale culture war being waged against trans people. The media scapegoats trans people for the same reason that they scapegoated migrants: because they’re an easy target with little ability to fight back. Many trans people lack the support of family, lack economic stability, and face harassment and dysphoria in their daily lives, that means that they often don’t have the energy to resist. The British media as a rule will always find brand new ways to punch even lower.
There is a large movement of transphobes who are campaigning for transphobic policies on the basis of nominally feminist causes. This movement should be taken more seriously as a threat. It is not taken seriously at present because of misogyny, because people do not think women can be the leaders of a major reactionary movement. Trans exclusionary radical feminism (or TERFism) is a misogynistic movement of overwhelmingly white bourgeois cis women who want to dominate women they see as lesser, who want to prove that they are the good women worthy of bourgeois equality with men.
These are often bourgeois white women who consider themselves managers over women’s issues as bureaucrats in the charity or NGO sector. It’s important to not de-gender the TERF movement either. It’s specifically a trans-misogynistic movement that wants to exclude trans women from all public life because trans women are a group of women and a group of trans people who experience inordinate amounts of gendered and sexual violence compared to other women and trans people.
The TERF movement and transphobes more generally specifically target trans women and children because these are the victims of patriarchy more broadly. Women are the victims of misogyny, and children are seen as property for adults, especially adult men. This reactionary movement has already gotten bills proposed in several US states to ban trans health care for all ages. They did and they will come for women and children first.
Transphobes trade on false concerns over trans women in women’s prisons, without any discussion of the institutionalised sexual assault that both cis and trans women face from male prison guards, and push for policies to control trans children’s bodies and deny them the agency to obtain trans health care. These will obviously get their foot in the door to eventually target adult trans men too, and after adult trans men they will go for cis gay people and after cis gay people, they will go for cis straight women.
We shouldn’t underestimate the severity of the insurgent anti-trans movement. They have already succeeded in the USA getting bills written or in some cases actually getting policy changed to outlaw life-saving health care for trans people. The inability to access healthcare puts many trans people in such a miserable state that many of them see no other option than to end their own lives. This is murder, social murder as Engels put it. The goal of the anti-trans movement is the complete elimination of trans existence.
In Britain, clearly the Tory government is hoping that the British electorate hates trans people more than it remembers the long list of Tory fuck ups over the years. Whilst Starmer is continuing to show the electorate that he’s just as transphobic as the Tories, don’t you worry. The other side of the so-called culture war is mired in liberal notions of trans rights as opposed to trans liberation and trans power. For instance, over the GRR Bill in Scotland, so much energy was poured into struggles which, even if won by the pro-trans side, would have a negligible effect on trans people’s lives.
The ruling class does not want us to be struggling over things which can actually change working class trans people’s lives. It’s important not to give in to the media and the government’s push for a culture war that trans people are to be trapped in the middle of. It’s critical to recognise the manufactured culture war for what it is, and to stand unambiguously by trans people and to not engage with disingenuous debates about trans people’s rights to exist.