When Caitlyn Jenner, former Olympian and erstwhile patriarch of the Kardashian clan, came out as a transgender woman in early 2015, magazine editors around the world rubbed their hands together in glee. This is, I should note, not a new phenomenon: transgender women have been a figure of public interest since Christine Jorgensen made news headlines around the world in 1952: ‘Ex-G.I. Becomes Blonde Bombshell’. There was nothing new about Jenner’s story – it is no news to the world that transgender women exist – and yet every development of her transition has been recounted with breathless enthusiasm in gossip magazines and on Jenner’s own reality show, I Am Cait. In fact, what the Jenner story demonstrates is that there is a perpetual cultural rediscovery of transgender people, especially transgender women.
Transgender scholars like Jay Prosser have noted the ways in which trans autobiography can function as a means of self-determination, but it is very rare that trans people are given a platform to tell their own stories, in their own words. In the main, transgender people have been, and continue to be, ventriloquised by a vast array of self-declared experts – doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, journalists and feminists – a trend powerfully described by Julia Serano put it in her landmark book Whipping Girl:
[A]s a group, we have been systematically pathologized by the medical and psychological establishment, sensationalized and ridiculed by the media, marginalized by mainstream gay and lesbian organizations, dismissed by certain segments of the feminist community, and, in too many instances, been made the victims of violence at the hands of men who feel that we somehow threaten their masculinity and heterosexuality.
The narratives that emerge from these discursive arenas are overwritten with cisgender (that is, not transgender) anxieties and desires, and replay familiar tropes, such as an overwhelming focus on the medical aspects of transition – especially on the genitals, forever a subject of lurid fascination among cis audiences – rather than on lived experiences. And while transgender women and men are asked, repeatedly, whether they have had ‘the surgery’, non-binary transgender people – those who identify as neither male nor female – are treated with incomprehension, permanently framed as a cultural impossibility. As a result, transgender bodies and identities become a kind of exoticised other on which to displace cultural fears about sex, gender and sexuality.
What all of this leaves out are the cold, hard facts of transgender life. Across the globe, transgender people have some of the highest rates of murder, violence, homelessness, unemployment and HIV infection. Fifteen years ago, Canadian theorist Viviane Namaste talked about what she called the ‘institutional erasure’ of transgender people. She notes ‘how [government] agencies deny service to these people, as well as why transsexuals decide not to make use of such organizations’. Much has changed since Namaste wrote those words – but much has not. In many ways, this is due to a lack of research. While studies looking for the cause of transgender are legion, there are very few examining transphobia, and this makes it difficult to know the full shape of the problems facing the transgender community.
In 2011, the US-based National Center for Transgender Equality published the largest study of transgender life, with 6450 participants. Entitled ‘Injustice at Every Turn’, the results are staggering: 90 per cent of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job, 20 per cent reported being fired for being transgender and 16 per cent reported feeling compelled to work in the underground economy – that is, selling drugs or doing sex work – in order to survive. Overall, the study found that transgender people reported much lower household incomes than the general population, with many living in extreme poverty: 15 per cent reported making under $10,000 a year (nearly four times the percentage of the general population), while another 12 per cent said they made up to $20,000. Furthermore, one-fifth reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives because they were transgender. A majority of those who tried to access homeless shelters reported being harassed by shelter staff or residents, with 29 per cent having been turned away.
It is difficult to know how well Australian transgender life mirrors that of the US. A recent story in Fairfax’s Daily Life about Victoria’s new Sexuality and Gender Commissioner, Rowena Allen, contained the staggering fact that only 10 per cent of transitioning employees stay in their existing jobs. It is unlikely that those transgender workers move up the employment ladder; transition is an automatic and often precipitous class demotion.
Despite the lack of local statistics, we can assume that much of the broad shape of transgender life is the same in Australia as it is in the US. We can assume, for instance, that transgender people here also rely on subsistence level work (including sex work), that they experience high rates of unemployment and homelessness, and that they endure regular harassment and violence. It is also likely that racism and classism shape the lived realities of Australian transgender people. It is known that trans people of colour in the US face intersecting forms of oppression, and early evidence suggests that similar challenges are faced by Indigenous trans people (sistergirls and brotherboys).
To put this another way: transgender people are generally working class or poor. Moreover, the protections of the Keynesian social welfare state have never applied to transgender people. Employment protections for transgender people in the form of anti-discrimination law are, in historical terms, novel; those that do exist speak more to the needs of middle-class transgender people. The relatively easy transition of already-successful transgender people like Group Captain Cate McGregor – lest we forget, bosom buddy of our decidedly reactionary former prime minister Tony Abbott – should not distract us from the broader picture of transgender un- and under-employment.
Pushed to precarity
We can get at the state of transphobic societal conditions by understanding better the precarity now experienced by much of the general population. In State of Insecurity, political theorist Isabell Lorey writes that:
In neoliberalism the function of the precarious is now shifted to the middle of society and normalized. This means that the function of bourgeois freedom can now also be transformed: away from dissociation from precarious others and towards a subjectivizing function in normalized precarity. Whereas the precarity of the marginalized retains its threatening and dangerous potential, precarization is transformed in neoliberalism into a normalized political-economic instrument.
In Lorey’s view, neoliberalism has transformed the social field so that the precarity once reserved for the marginalised is now generalised. The protections of the social welfare state and the unionised workforce have steadily been eroded, so that those who previously experienced security (in particular, straight, white, middle-class men) are now employed in the same casualised work mode that women and people of colour have always experienced.
Though precarity is a universal condition of the neoliberal state, there remains a ‘differential distribution of the precarity of all those who are perceived as other and considered less worthy of protection’. Even with a rapidly changing discourse of normality, transgender people who cannot afford the medical treatments available to the likes of Jenner remain decidedly marginalised. Consequently, precarity at work and at home remains rife. This discourse of normalisation elides the diversity of transgender experiences, including non-binary experiences in which there is no socially acceptable form of ‘normal’ to which one can transition.
Indeed, the precarity enforced by the neoliberal state hits vulnerable populations like transgender people more heavily, for the erosion of welfare state protections means that individuals must rely strongly on family and social networks – which, for many transgender people, may be thin to non-existent. Thus the increased rate of homelessness for transgender people, in particular for young people, who continue to be kicked out of home upon coming out and who are faced with limited employment options. Neoliberal discourses of self-sufficient heroic individuals are cold comfort for those with few social supports.
Feminism and transgenderism
One place that transgender people have historically looked for support is the feminist movement, though solidarity has not always been forthcoming or inclusive.
Earlier this year, a controversy arose over the naming of a dance party in Melbourne called Pussy Power. The dance party, which advertised itself as a ‘gay straight transgender friendly’ party with an ‘all femme DJ line up’, attracted a heated debate. Transgender activists protested its naming, claiming that its biological essentialism in equating vaginas solely with cis women excluded trans women (who may not have vaginas) from the event. In the end, the party renamed itself ‘Let’s Go Dancing’ and was eventually cancelled. To the casual observer, this might seem like an extreme overreaction on the part of transgender activists. That was certainly the position of Brigitte Lewis in Overland’s online magazine.
So why did transgender activists react in this way? The answer is simple: cisgender feminism has failed transgender women many, many times in the past, creating a climate in which transgender inclusion cannot simply be assumed. The lazy conflation of cis-female body norms with womanhood remains a feature of a certain strain of cis-feminist politics, allying itself with a naïve belief in confession – that is, that speaking the (cisgender) female body is enough to challenge the rigid social and political norms that circumscribe gender performance. Though some anti-essentialist feminists like Judith Butler have inspired transgender activism, there remains a significant quotidian cis-centricism that marginalises transgender people, especially transgender women, from feminist activism and thought. A recent example of this involved that popular online feminist group ‘Destroy the Joint’, who posted a widely shared meme that aimed to raise awareness of unequal pay. The image depicted women and men in different occupational dress with the text ‘just add a penis!’, implying that the possession of a certain genital configuration would ensure better pay and employment conditions – clearly untrue for many gender-diverse people and trans women. The obvious gaffe of equating bodies with gender in itself was pointed out on the group’s Facebook page by numerous cisgender and transgender feminists, but the moderators ultimately declined to change the image. In examples such as this, it is clear that many cisgender feminists prefer the easy – or lazy – ‘humorous’ shorthand of penises and vaginas to a considered trans-inclusive politics, which would require confronting their own internalised beliefs about gender and biology.
But there is a damaging history lurking in the background for transgender activists. When some heterosexual feminists warned of the ‘lavender menace’ – that is, lesbians – during the early years of second-wave feminism, the movement quickly made such sentiments a thing of the past. Yet there remains a large swathe of transphobic feminism – especially radical feminism – that not only excludes transgender people, but also regards them as agents of the patriarchy, as the enemy within. Feminist luminaries like Germaine Greer, (the late) Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond have all written hateful screeds for major publishers attacking the very right of transgender people to exist.
Sadly, these transphobic sentiments live on: feminists continue to accommodate the hateful speech of trans-exclusionary feminists. Every time a cisgender feminist blithely praises a writer like Greer, who has spewed transphobic vitriol since the early 1970s, transgender people hear a not-so-subtle message: you are not important to feminism. The trans-exclusionary feminism of Greer and her ilk has done real irreparable damage to transgender people, especially transgender women, who have been the target of much of the vitriol. It has had real consequences, in the form of de facto cis-only homeless and domestic violence shelters, healthcare and so on. Sally Goldner, executive director of Trangender Victoria, tells me that, in Australia, ‘it is not that shelters are necessarily promoted as cis women only; it’s that when a transgender/gender diverse woman turns up they treat the transgender/gender diverse woman in a discriminatory way’. The death from exposure of American trans woman Jennifer Gale in 2008 – a result of her being offered shelter only in a men’s dormitory – is but one tragedy in a broader pattern of transgender institutional precarity.
As the political spotlight in Australia turns to the plight of women and children fleeing domestic violence, it is important to acknowledge that trans and gender-diverse people have consistently been let down by the very services who are supposed to protect the vulnerable. Who knows how many transgender women have gone back to abusive partners rather than risk the transphobic infrastructure of homeless and domestic violence shelters? A transgender woman who is fleeing domestic violence is a woman who is fleeing domestic violence. Women-only shelters – rightly understood by many feminists as an important feature of the front line against male violence – should cater to all women. Unfortunately, trans-exclusionary feminist thought has inspired trans-exclusionary institutional practices, explicit and implicit, which are a significant part of the broader pattern of exclusion discussed by Namaste. In other words, there is a material history that must be accounted for by cisgender feminists that goes well beyond the naming of dance parties.
It must also be said that cisgender feminists have, by and large, come a long way since the early 1970s. Though transphobia is still all too often tolerated, many cis-feminist-helmed events, including the aforementioned Pussy Power, are working to include transgender people. ‘I feel it is extremely unfortunate that one very loud and strident strand of feminism […] has in the past overshadowed the large majority of cis females who are supportive and empathetic towards transgender/gender-diverse people,’ says Sally Goldner. She notes the cooperation between Transgender Victoria and last year’s Girls on Film festival as one instance of bridge-building between transgender people and cisgender feminists. Goldner argues that the exclusion of transgender women from shelters is reliant on a cissexist reasoning that ignores the diversity of female bodies – many cis women may look as ‘masculine’ as a transgender woman yet their inclusion in women’s spaces is not contested in the same way. ‘Fear of difference needs to be worked through rather than succumbing to that fear,’ Goldner says. ‘Education and communication are again the answer.’
While many cis feminists could do much more on transgender inclusion, there is a marked reduction of the kinds of hate speech popularised by the likes of Greer and Jeffreys. (The latter of the two – a former professor at Melbourne University – has written extensively against transgender access to medical treatment and social support.) Indeed, the assumption that ‘feminist’ and ‘transgender’ are antithetical categories, that any encounter between feminism and transgender is a bold new concept, is simply untrue. In fact, transgender women have been part of – and pushed out of – feminist groups since the early 1970s. To just choose one prominent example: a transgender woman named Beth Elliott was vice-president of the San Francisco branch of the lesbian feminist group the Daughters of Bilitis, but was ejected from the organisation in an acrimonious vote in 1973 on the grounds that she did not qualify as a woman. Despite this and countless other examples of transphobia within the feminist movement, transgender women have been and remain a part of feminist activism, including supporting reproductive rights that are unlikely to affect trans women personally. The apparent separation between transgender women and feminism is a direct result of cis-centrism, a failure to recognise the contributions of transgender women in feminist and queer communities, as well as cis-sexism, a failure to recognise that trans women’s issues are women’s issues.
It is, then, perhaps unsurprising that trans activism has more successfully allied itself with lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) activism than with feminism. That there is a connection between the heteronormativity that oppresses queer lives and the cis-normativity that limits transgender lives has been a winning argument for transgender activism. In groups like the Safe Schools Coalition, which advises schools on issues of inclusion, both sexuality and gender identity are key features of their educating work. Sad to say for feminists, but the LGBT movement is at present more effectively building infrastructure for its activism and establishing a public consensus around issues like inclusion in schools and marriage equality. As such, it seems likely that much of the future of conversation around gender will be helmed by LGBT organisations rather than feminist ones – a missed opportunity for cisgender feminists.
What do transgender people need?
There is little doubt that the broader cis-feminist movement fails to provide an unequivocally welcoming place to transgender women. What is also clear from the Pussy Power debacle is that a transgender activism that confines itself to the linguistic and the cultural is ultimately a solipsist, middle-class form of activism. A dance party explicitly included trans people but made them feel uncomfortable due to its semiotics? Well, life is not Tumblr; everywhere else is transphobic, too. The transgender community faces much deeper and more serious problems than finding an affirming place to have a drink and a dance.
Transgender people remain barred from easily changing their birth certificates by a recipe of transphobia, homophobia and classism. To change one’s birth certificate, one must have expensive genital surgery – something far out of the reach of most transgender people. Even if one does have genital surgery, one must be single, for Australian states fear creating same-sex marriages via transition. In other words, a married transgender person must first undergo surgery and then divorce from their partner in order to have the correct documentation. While marriage equality would likely fix one half of this equation, the other remains murky and mired in classism.
Transgender activism has therefore focused primarily on lobbying the state for improved access to the correct documentation, arguing that hormone therapy (or even simply self-identification) should be the requirement, rather than surgery. To some extent, this strategy has been successful: transgender people can now get Australian passports with the correct sex marker with only a letter from a doctor. However, any time a birth certificate is needed (for employment, for example), the vast majority of transgender people are required to out themselves. ‘Passing’ as cisgender, a necessary survival tactic in a transphobic world, is thus a fraught and ambivalent process. Indeed, trans acceptance in the workplace is conditional on an individual’s ability to approximate cis norms – a requisite excludes transgender men and women who do not ‘pass’, as well as non-binary people who may embody forms of gender that are neither male nor female. Though a number of non-binary people in Australia have received passports marked with an ‘X’, we remain in a society in which there are usually only two sex/gender options on institutional documentation, and in which there is a general lack of acceptance of transgender identities as real and meaningful.
This means that a transgender activism focused solely on documentation is incomplete. Transgender activism can and should lobby not only for eased standards in changing sex markers on documents, but also for full coverage of and easy access to gender-affirming surgeries on Medicare. Restricting the procedures to middle-class transgender people who can afford to travel to Thailand is unjust and unfair. Access to expensive surgery might seem to some a luxury, but it is not – for transgender people of all classes, many of whom live with crippling body dysphoria, this surgery is vital for their very existence.
Transgender people also require access to safe and appropriate support services. Transgender women require unimpeded access to domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters. The equivocations of the cis-feminist movement must be ended once and for all.
Furthermore, there needs to be a radical transformation of the workplace. Transgender people working in casual, low-paying jobs require unionisation of their precarious workplaces. Numerous studies have shown that workers belonging to unions are paid significantly higher than their non-unionised colleagues. While unions like the Australian Education Union have been working hard to promote sexual and gender diversity, there remains an urgent need for protections for transgender people involved in less secure forms of work. Middle-class transgender people must show solidarity with the struggles of trans sex workers and support the activism and educational efforts of groups like the Scarlet Alliance and the sex worker-directed group Vixen.
The neoliberal crisis – manifested in numerous fields, from employment to the destruction of the social welfare state, to the creation of security state apparatuses like Border Force – requires a broad leftist coalition organised around precarity. It is time to stop fighting the same battles over transgender inclusion and to move towards a radical acceptance of transgender issues as fundamental human rights. A start would be the widespread recognition of the ability of transgender people to self-define themselves – transgender women are women, transgender men are men, non-binary people are neither, or both, or fluid. Transgender people cannot form alliances with those who negate their very existence.
In the wake of the failure of many families to care for their transgender members, we need social movements – indeed, a whole society – with a new ethics of care for its marginalised. At a time in which the very ethos of public healthcare is under attack, it will take more than the transgender community to get trans-related surgeries covered by Medicare. Cisgender people can help the transgender community in material ways, by employing transgender workers, by running education programs for businesses, by lobbying for trans-positive legislation and by refusing to participate in the societal devaluation of trans identities and bodies.
Indeed, the social conditions of neoliberalism may offer new opportunities for solidarity between the transgender community and other struggling communities. Marxist Sherry Wolf puts it this way in her book Sexuality and Socialism:
Material conditions exist to allow most people who are exploited and oppressed to shed reactionary ideas and to empathize and organize with others. However people may identify their sexual preferences and desires, all workers must work and struggle to pay the bills. And since straight working-class people are neither the oppressors of LGBT people nor beneficiaries of that oppression, the conditions exist for them to break with homophobic and other reactionary ideas. Just because someone cannot identify as gay or transsexual does not mean that they cannot identify with gays or transsexuals.
Neoliberal precarity has meant that the economic and social vulnerability long experienced by the transgender community is now a condition shared by almost everyone. Transgender activism cannot afford to miss the classed dimension of societal transphobia, nor miss the opportunity for making broader coalitional alliances with the rest of the precariat. But the chief responsibility for forging solidarity lies with the cisgender majority. It is not enough to simply consume transgender people for entertainment, nor replay the same old tired tropes that sensationalise transgender bodies and identities. It is time for a new conversation about transgender, and a new politics based upon shared need. As the old labour slogan goes, an injury to one is an injury to all. The working class has nothing to lose except its transphobia.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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