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Trans 101 for Wobblies, part 4: Common complaints about radical environments

Part 4 of the series on Trans issues by Fey of the Boston IWW. Part one, part two, part three. Originally appeared here.

Part 4: Common complaints about radical environments

Many trans people are politically radical in some way. It would be impossible to say whether radical trans folk are the majority, but the fact remains that it’s largely in our best interest to support movements in favor of workers, poor people, queer people, people of color, and other marginalized groups— we at least largely fall into some of those categories, and our oppression is often compounded by additional parts of our identities. Even amongst non-radicals, I’d say it’s pretty safe to estimate that trans people are often progressive, liberal, or what have you, and in other cases just apathetic— pretty infrequently conservative.

However, those are just my own guesses, and the problem for many politically-minded trans people is that few political spaces are really safe for us. Whether the problems we encounter are deliberately discriminatory or simply unthinking, it is sometimes more comfortable and pragmatic for us to stay out of activism altogether. This applies for any political ideology. I’d like to highlight some specific issues that trans people encounter in radical environments, though; these are often not exclusive to radical groups, but if they’re more general, I’m still mentioning them in a radical context.

1. The “T” in LGBT gets left out.

Cis people, straight and queer alike, are prone to the fallacy that trans people are simply “so gay that they’ve switched genders.” As has already been demonstrated, sexual orientation does not automatically determine sexual/gender identity, or vice versa. Unfortunately, many cis people still tend to assume otherwise, and even if they don’t, they may assume that addressing issues of queer liberation will necessarily cause trans liberation. Cis-dominated radical spaces are often very quick to address queer concerns, while ignoring those same concerns if trans people raise them, and trans-specific concerns are given short shrift even in otherwise “accepting” places. For instance, at plenty of cis-dominated events, including those that address queerness, there is no opportunity to preempt incorrect pronoun usage. Either nobody organizing the event actually has thought about this, or a trans person or ally has requested something like nametags with a space for pronoun preference, only to be rebuffed on the grounds that, “Nobody’s going to have problems with that,” or, “That’s kind of a side issue, don’t you think?” It’s not a side issue, though. And meanwhile, in mainstream “LGBT rights” discourse, the focus from liberal groups like Human Rights Campaign is almost entirely on gay marriage (which only benefits some trans people) and advertisements focused around white, cis, monogamous couples.

2. Trans issues in anti-racist discourse are ignored.

Similar to the above. Many people seem to forget that trans people of color do exist and experience their own unique set of difficulties.

3. Trans women are shunned from feminist discourse (primarily Second Wave, but not always); trans men are considered gender traitors.

This is a particularly serious problem. As important as many radical feminists have been to general left-wing understanding of patriarchy, there’s nothing radical about denying safety and acceptance to women who happen to not fit a cissexist standard of womanhood— which is, not incidentally, a patriarchal standard in and of itself. Likewise, there’s nothing radical about shaming and attacking men who maybe aren’t so enamored of having magical, sacred uteri. Sadly, radical spaces as a whole can be informed by this way of thinking. This means that just as trans women are turned away from shelters for women escaping domestic violence, they are also turned away from environments for fellow thinkers & activists, all generally on the ludicrous grounds that trans women are penis-wielding infiltrators who join radical/feminist organizations to assault cis women or ruin their fun. By and large, no cis women are at risk of attack by trans women. On the contrary— an enormous number of trans women (and men) are in danger thanks to cis feminists who do things like maintain blogs “investigating” trans people and publicly outing us, putting us at risk of losing our livelihoods and support networks.

4. Non-binary trans people are erased even within trans activism itself.

It’s not too much to ask that radical spaces use language like “people” instead of “men and women,” provide fill-in-the-blank options for gender on forms, and respect non-binary pronouns, but this escapes the minds of many, even of trans people.

5. Because sex work is highly prevalent in the trans community, it is in their interest to have greater activism by and on behalf of sex workers.

Whether you regard sex work as an inherently bad profession from which all should be liberated, or you regard it as a potentially positive and life-affirming career choice, either viewpoint can cause problems for radicals. There are dual, competing tendencies to speak condescendingly & pityingly about sex workers vs. to fetishize them. Neither tendency is likely to help sex workers who actively want assistance in changing their lives, nor to provide support to sex workers who enjoy their jobs but want, say, safer conditions. It behooves activists to lend genuine solidarity to sex workers instead. Many trans people would appreciate this, in turn.

6. Trans issues are positioned and belittled as “identity politics” within the labor movement, instead of being handled as labor issues, which many are at their core, even though they do involve identity.

I needn’t go into the entire saga of defining and sidelining “identity politics” right here— I think Wobblies, in general, have some sense of the meaninglessness of distinguishing between “identity” vs. “labor” politics. However, it bears saying that not only should trans issues be supported on their own basis, they very often directly intertwine with labor issues, due to our poverty, our difficulties finding & sustaining good work, etc. In other words, if you don’t have solidarity with a trans coworker who’s experiencing trans-specific harassment from the boss, you’re not sticking to “more important problems,” you’re actively ignoring some of the most important ones.

7. Trans women are misogynistically treated by fellow activists as pathetic or strange, even though trans men are accepted more easily.

In the game of patriarchy, there is considerable pressure on men to successfully perform masculinity, but the true onus is always, of course, on women to successfully perform femininity. It should thus come as no surprise that when sexism replicates itself in radical activist spaces, it still hits women the hardest. Femininine gender performance is maligned, both out of outright misogyny and out of the misguided attitude that gender liberation requires anti-femininity. So trans men— if they’re accepted— can often receive a certain social boost, developing a reputation as daring gender rebels, because they do not perform traditional femininity. Meanwhile, trans women may not receive that sentiment from their radical peers, getting questions like, “But why would you WANT to wear makeup?” The best suggestion I can give to you if you do have that reaction to a trans woman is: think about what’s really the problem with someone wearing makeup. Is it the makeup itself, or is it being forced to wear it in order to have people find you attractive? The latter is obviously the real issue. It’s your body— put on as much makeup as you want. It’s just unfortunate that this is a default expectation of traditional femininity, and that some trans women actually do wear makeup under duress.