RECLAIMING RADICAL TRANSFEMINISM: TIME-TRAVELLING TRANS* POLITICS IN NEOLIBERAL TIMES
BY RAJU RAGE
I am a trans person of colour who has been involved in trans activism and part of feminist, queer and trans communities for 15years. I am currently not part of any trans communities or organised trans activism but , rather, explore trans issues in my work, particularly how colonisationhas shaped and impacted constructions of identity today, in terms of norms, ideals, morals and codes of conduct looking specifically at gender, race and culture. I consider my art to be political and a fusion of art and activism. I had previously been involved in radical creative activism but became disallusioned at the sheer force of neoliberalism consuming the LGB, queer and trans communities I was a part of, radical as well as mainstream. I became literally sick of speaking out critically and facing the fire as an already marginalised member of the community as a tpoc. Burnt and in need of self- empowerment and healing, I have dedicated the last few years to my own arts practice as well as organising in qtipoc focused spaces. I am currently part of an arts collective, Collective Creativity and subeditor of Beyond the Binary. I work, exhibit, perform my work and present the politics/issues around the work I make at various institutional and non-institutional spaces.
With an intersectional trans of colour perspective I would like to take you on a time travel expedition to attempt to unpack the neoliberalism plaguing our communities and its impact. I would like to provide a contextualised analysisbridging the gap between theory and lived experience, which I feel is often lacking in discussions about feminisms which seem to also be frozen in debates about trans inclusion and universality and unity in trans politics which do not allow us to make important distinctions and thus creates erasure, hierarchies and perpetuates oppression amongst us. I am anti neoliberalism as I believe we need to move away from gaining individual freedoms that our communities are being co-opted into and instead work towards collective struggles against oppression, especially against those communities that face the worst oppression, namely racialised and gendered communities in poverty. Solely posting about dead trans people of colour (women) of colour on social media and mourning them once a year as a form of detox, in order to acknowledge them is clearly not enough and is downright offensive. Tokenistic inclusion models are not going to change the structures that are invested in killing transpeople of colour, it will not solve the housing, employment, medical care, criminalisation issues or lower poverty, deprivation, violence and death but will only reinforce the centre and a margin. A pseudo diversity model that is actually just assimilation into white patriarchal hegemony.
I advocate for a deterioration of the concept of unity and universality of trans* politic though I am not advocating for division but actually working in a coalition model towards healing justice where everyone’s issues are dealt with and not just those who are the most dominant.
I am not interested in a feminism that reproduces gender norms and hierarchies or in a queer feminist politic that reproduces marginalisation with anti-normative politics that does not interrogate the privileges of anti-normativity in an oppressive society. It is surely safer for some people to present as anti-normative and non-conforming than it is for others who will face more violence and marginalisation for it. I’m not interested in any political group who idealise certain expressions of gender and produce new forms of hierarchies and exclusion that claim some forms of expression are true and others are false. I believe this links to a colonial imperialist white supremacist patriarchal outlook which replicates how the state functions to eradicate us.
I am interested in a feminism that opens up fields of possibility for gender that also looks beyond gender oppression. Where all binary frameworks are destabilised. Many trans people are already destabilising these frameworks and are pioneers of this activism.
This may seem like a contradiction in statements and had we more time I could go into it further. to put it simply it isn’t simple, but more a representation of how messy and complex this discussion is and needs to be around these issues, rather than a binary argument. Can we allow time, space and energy to have this difficult conversation?
So in thinking about Transfeminism in futurity, I believe we need to move beyond the co-option of transfeminist discourses, whilst simultaneous marginalisation of those affected by the issues it raisesoccurs. For example the cooption and preoccupation of Stonewall uprisings without considering present day local activism which erases movements occurring now and provides an alibi to not deal with them. I would like think through the issues of the present which were informed by the recent past which I would like to briefly excavate, which I feel needs to be acknowledged in order to move forward.
I’d like to take you back in time to 2 years in London that are important to unarchive: 2008 and 2011
In 2008 I was part of a political performance troupe called D’Artagnan and the Three Musclequeers touring around Europe in white queer festivals with performances that dealt with issues around gender and race. I also co organised a grassroots Transgender Film Festival at Brixton Ritzy that was focused on trans people of colour programming where we held a panel on Transfeminism. Hate Crime law, a new policy was in full effect and we were visited by the local police who wanted to protect us from violence that they assumed we would face as trans people in a perceived criminal Brixton, mainly due to it black community. We declined which seemed to agitate the officers who were forced to carry out a protocol. We never had any issues and didn’t need to be saved from our own communities. We provided our own escorts for people who felt the need for protection. The same year, a couple months before, PRIDE was sponsored by the metropolitan police and we were invited to perform on the first ever BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) stage whilst at the same time a transwoman and her supporters was harassed and threatened with being arrested for trying to use the woman’s toilet by an officer and a lgbt liaison officer. A day before this all went down a Trans Community Conference was held at Police Headquarters with an asylum seekers strand that only one asylum seeker attended.
As part of a creative activist collective called ‘The People’s Revolutionary IDeas Eatery’ (we know you can feel isolated being a radical queer of colour in our crazy times of war, imperialism and racist backlash) we planned a series of interventions and actions that sadly I do not have the time to go into the juicy details of but amounted to an anti-police bruitality performance on the BAME stage of Pride and a bombardment of the conference the day before as dragqueens raising angry intelligent questions which seemed to shock the crowd (our intelligence as brown femme perceived transwomen?). We also responded to the incident that occurred with the harassment of the transwoman but were shut down.
One of our members, Jin Haritaworn who is happy to be named (an academic who’s work you may know on the subject of ‘Gay Imperialism’, trans racism (in Transgender Studies Reader Vol 2) and in ‘Trans Migrations’ wrote the following:
‘If gay corporate interests have been quick to assume their mascot status in the war, self-appointed trans leaders are following closely in their steps
Police entered and dominated the event as sponsors, employers at the job fair, and glorified ushers with clubs. Even more twisted, on the day before, the self-appointed trans leadership had entered the London Metropolitan Police itself and used its headquarters as a venue for the ‘Trans Community Conference’. Asylum was declared one of the policy foci of the conference, and there was a strand on trans asylum seekers. Would people with an insecure immigration status feel comfortable in a police venue? we asked one of the organizers, in a last-ditch attempt to keep up the pretense that this was really a terrible misunderstanding. He replied: The asylum strand was not intended for asylum seekers anyway, it was more for policy makers. This was our chance to communicate with the police, and wasn’t it great that they wanted to listen! We might even have a few visitors from border control. We gasped, we cursed, and we got very angry. More than ever, it was glaringly obvious that reason was wasted on these people…. We were pissed off, and we were not going to express this in ways which could be easily consumed or placated. Instead, we went for unauthorized action and performed participation. A group of four to eight individuals (FTMs, genderqueers, intersexed people and allies of various South European and non-white backgrounds), we ‘took part’ that day by donning our glad rags, tiny skirts, big tits, high heels, make-up and wigs’
As part of the interventions we created a zine that we handed out at PRIDE 2008 with the following intro
Our friends. Gay assimilation, Trans assimilation, and Terror
Are we scared of faggots? We are transgendering people of various colours and allies
in London, and it isn’t only the most powerful gay men that are selling us out…….
we look around us and see powerful white gay boys joined with powerful white
straight boys, going to war, in our name. And we are frightened. We see sexual
liberation reduced to a dirty word used to discipline, deport, and kill brown people
of all genders and sexualities. We are celebrated for our size, skin texture, hair
distribution, pigmentation, we are sexy and dangerous, and we are to listen very, very
carefully while our white cohorts educate us about the oppression of queers in the
global south. And we are alarmed because powerful white trans people are joining
the gays in jubilantly putting that T into the LGBT, these experts in Muslim gender
affairs, from honour crimes to forced transitioning. We wonder what it means to need
to claim our ‘T’ when it is being harnessed in our name as a part of the Euro-American
civilizing mission. We are worried about the losses we suffer when we object to
being the token brown transfags who will make your project look less problematic,
your festival less white, and the war on terror less imperialistic. We don’t want to
shut our mouths. The disgusting things that are happening in this moment of
assimilation compound neatly with our fear of losing friends and lovers, of losing
the only bits of community we have as they are branded and used as weapons against
us all in the name of freedom, liberation, equal rights, consumer rights, human
rights, representation. We are sick to the stomach in the mouth of our own erasure.’
Fast forward to 2011 where organisers of the East End London PRIDEwanted to march into ‘homophobic’ predominantly brown Muslim neighbourhoods despite the fact that racist and religiously motivated attacks were 8 times the number of homophobic attacks. It turned out one of the members was part of the EDL and after a lot of drama and unrest it was cancelled. However, there was a huge amount of anti-Islamic sentiment with the Pink Paper publishing articles that polarised the debate between Muslims and gays. Erasing Muslim LGBT people and many LGBT communities joined in. More of this can be read about in Safra and Imaan’s, Decolonize Queer and Bent Bars projects statements aswell as Haritaworn’s work.
So where are we now? Currently there seems to be no form of organised radical transfeminism in the UK. The liberals and conservatives seem to be winning and many trans activists coopted into organisations whose policy and activity is complicit in state violence and perpetuates a neo liberalist agenda. We all need jobs we can keep and be safe in, especially as transwomen and trans people of colour. I know survival is imperative so I do understand the assimilation and there are good intentions. However, what does this mean for our future as trans people of colour who are multi oppressed, for being racialized and gendered and many of us in poverty? Has violence, poverty and deprivation in our community decreased or have a few priviledged mostly white members managed to transgress their oppression and at what cost? There is still a war against Islam, there is still anti-black racism, an increase in police/state violence and we are still stuck on inclusion models. The newest issue in the trans community is inclusion of trans people into Stonewall the former LGB charity who are notorious for receiving criticism for their problematic saviour work over the years. I would like to reiterate the questions we submitted to the trans community in our open letter to trans organisers and Pride 2008 participants in London, since they are still relevant.
Whose political voices have been heard?
What are these recommendations being made and what are their consequences?
Who is making them and what gives them authority to speak for all trans people?
Whose voices are being sidelined?
Whose interests are being represented?
What kind of a society are we envisioning?
In summary, we see an urgent need for a feminist, queer and trans politics which:
- stays autonomous of the police.
- goes beyond tokenism, opportunism and paternalism, and seeks to empower all queer and transpeople rather than a select few.
- refuses to be enlisted into racist backlash and imperialist war.
- challenges corporate LGBT interests rather than training them to hide their oppression of us behind more ‘pc’ language as well as meaningless policy
We look forward to hearing allied voices.
Pride and Solidarity,
People’s Revolutionary IDeas Eatery
While you think about those questions and statements I would like to leave you with a last quote from our PRIDE statement
‘We talked back, calmly and quietly, playing by their rules. We worked our asses off, while staying obediently in our ‘diversity’ and ‘awareness’ corners. The margins belonged to us, in part, because we were educated and light. We asked, politely and intelligently, to please not kick our issues off the agenda again. We waited for that moment of inclusion….We appealed to a false rhetoric of Community and Experience, and saw our labour converted into ever new money-making enterprises for white people, read our words translated into ever new p.c. acronyms, for policies made up to keep us down. We defended queer and trans identity with our nails and our teeth, until we realized it had been turned to capital for a select few hyper-privileged opportunists. And yet we were afraid of losing this community, because at this time and place, in2000s London UK, where gender violence rules the streets……we had nowhere else to go. Tired as we were of being tokenized, patted on the head, divided, and ruled, we put up and we shut up. We probably sold out somewhere on the way. It was the war on terror that signaled enough was enough. The unhesitating support that British feminist, LGBT, trans, even radical queer activists have lent to their leaders under the auspices of ‘liberation’, ‘sexual citizenship’ and ‘gender recognition’, the enthusiasm with which gender activists are enlisting themselves as imperial citizens…..has finally forced us to keep eyes wide open. And we are – scared. But, even more, angry and disgusted and, increasingly, disloyal.
As people of colour, who are assumed to be more body and emotions than mind, more naturally in place as sex workers, manual workers and unskilled white collar workers than in lecturing halls and arts centres, as multiply oppressed people whose minds have been sharpened for survival, we cannot afford to give up on our intellects. We are continually exploring and fucking with both traditional and alternative genres and political strategies. Nevertheless, we ultimately agree with Lenelle Moïse’s words: I’m not gonna recommend a good book to the jerk-off/who is holding a real or symbolic gun to my head (The Fuck You Now Manifesto).’
* We choose to work anonymously in order to highlight a gendered and racialized division of labour which puts us at risk and structurally undervalues us while treating us as objects of charity and open sources of special, minority information. Our access to queer and trans discourse is unequal and precarious. We are the first to be excluded as ‘traitors’ and ‘killjoys’, and yet we often remain alone in speaking out against feminist, gay and trans racism and imperialism. We would liketo see white anti-racists use their own names against white racists.