After a long time of feeling beaten, I’ve been inspired by the film Selma not to be daunted by the much more minor danger I have put myself in as someone who defends trans people’s civil rights.
First of all, the film has taught me I am unlikely to be shot or physically beaten, that things are not as bad for me as they are for many people of colour, and I remind myself every day of the enormous privilege I have in this world.
But I have been endangered in other ways. The gaslighting from people who seek to invalidate trans identities is a heavy burden. The foundation of all trans oppression is that because ours is an unusual, minority experience, therefore we are wrong, delusional, and politically undermining of the majority position and values others cling to. The burden trans people carry is delegitimisation and social exclusion, which is no small burden. Social support has time and time again been proven to protect people’s mental health and wellbeing, and to render them less exposed to societal violence and abuse. Trans people are expected to go without such support.
Some months ago I stopped blogging, closed my facebook page, removed myself from all feminist and trans activist spaces, and severely curtailed my social interactions in order to protect myself from the mental violence of these campaigns. I had been targeted individually, and unfairly, and became quickly aware that being out as a trans person put me outside the “circle of care” for some people, and gave them a sense of entitlement to speak about me in ways that to me and those close to me seemed extreme and outrageous. Online, I have fared even worse when I have been mistaken for a trans woman, so I hold an awareness that I still have relative privilege. This is what has kept me wanting to stand up and use that privilege to challenge the oppression of trans people, and trans women in particular.
To be clear, these campaigners exist all over the world, and I oppose all of them. That some of them live in my home town and are a little closer to home adds to my discomfort, but everyone who knows me knows I have stood up against trans exclusion and delegitimisation for years and long before I was aware of the particular individuals who are most involved locally with such campaigning.
I know I have acted with integrity, but I have been outspoken, and it is unsurprising that I’ve been targeted and attacked by people who want to silence me, and that the positive, bridge-building work I’ve been doing has been undermined. When I saw what happened at Selma – the violence people were prepared to use to maintain their dominance, I felt at once enormously privileged by comparison and at the same time a sense of resonance – I know I have been experiencing another kind of oppression, and those close to me know this too, and understand its profound impact on me and on my partner.
By choosing to stand up for my own and others rights, particularly those of trans women, I have put myself in the firing line, but I am not the one pulling the trigger. Activists always get a bad reputation in contrast to those members of minority groups who keep heads down and “know their place” – feminists are seen as oppressive, full of hatred and anger towards men, black activists are seen as violent and dangerous. Trans activists are treated no differently by those who wish to stop us having civil rights and who wish, let’s be honest, that the rights we have in the UK, such as the Gender Recognition Act, and our protections under the Equality Act, would be revoked and that we would not be recognised as a legitimate minority group with a legitimate experience of oppression.
Often my friends as much as my enemies urge me to “pipe down” because they don’t want to see me hurt, and they know in their bones that people who are vulnerable and stand up for themselves do, always, get hurt. And so I have, in fact it has nearly broken me at times.
But I will keep working towards change – I have done some good, and I will not be intimidated and silenced by the way I, other trans folk, and people who have offered me allyship have been targeted. I have always strived to work with integrity, and in a non-violent way that builds bridges and brings people together, but there are some positions I will not build a bridge to because that would require the reversal of rights I already have as a trans person, and give credence to the outrageous claim that giving me rights erodes somebody else’s.
If anyone believes any of the rather extreme things said about me or many other trans activists, I urge them to check the evidence and in my case I also urge them to challenge me directly and have a conversation with me about their concerns, because I am not in a position to do anyone any harm. There are bad apples in every movement. I am confident that despite my lack of charm I am not one of them.
There is currently said to be a trans “tipping point”; we are finally achieving a modicum of acceptance and recognition, but the gaining of rights is always accompanied by a backlash from those who either fear the pendulum will “swing too far” or believe that those asking for rights were never oppressed in the first place, and therefore their protection will afford them unacceptable privileges.
So we need ally support now more than ever. We need allies to be strong. We need them to not turn away from what is happening and fill in the blanks in their mind with a story that allows them to do nothing, a story where trans people are responsible for their own misfortune, where the concerns they express are “individual” and “personal” rather than a collective call for human rights and an end to oppression, and a plea to cis people to start noticing and scrutinising the actions and behaviours of those who actively campaign against our rights, acceptance and recognition.
Our rights, let’s be clear, to be recognised as who we say we are, to live in our identities unimpeded, and not to be segregated or subjected to “separate but equal” treatment.