bread & butter, meds & shelter: understanding transphobia as a material issue

thinking of transphobia as an attitude issue shifts our focus away from the fact it’s first and foremost a material issue.

image by digital transgender archive

Wherever I refer to trans* people in this article I am referring to all trans and non-binary people but especially those of us who are affected by transmisogynoir (i.e. transfeminine Black people) or racialised transmisogyny. Transmisogyny is the unique experience of oppression where misogyny and transphobia intersect. I use the acronym TMA to refer to transmisogyny-affected people and TME for transmisogyny-exempt.

one of the common liberal (mis)understandings about transphobia is that it is an issue of representation. if this were the case, it begs the question of why it hasn’t been easier to resolve. we have seen greater representation in the media and in public office and yet the situation has become worse if anything. the other liberal obsession is with attitudes: transphobia has been explained as simply an issue of bad/wrong attitudes. take slogans such as ‘SOME PEOPLE ARE TRANS. GET OVER IT‘ like the one being used on t-shirts by UK LGBT charity Stonewall – far from being the bold, stick-it-to-the-man statements that the purchasers of these t-shirts view this as, it’s reductive and misleading. if all we needed to overcome transphobia was for people to ‘get over it’, it wouldn’t seem so daunting and, to many, hopeless. it foregoes the need to provide housing and healthcare, reduce barriers to access, arm trans women, or in short, do anything that makes our lives more liveable – or worth living. attitudes are just symptoms of the problem; the economic system as a whole is the actual cause of transphobia. transphobia is not merely an issue of representation or of attitude; it is principally a material issue.

transphobia is not merely an issue of representation or of attitude; it is principally a material issue.

it is oversimplistic to say that cis women are simply jealous of trans women and fear us appropriating what little resources they have access to. if this was the entire truth, then we would be able to observe that the most impoverished cis women are the most transmisogynistic. this is not, in my experience, the case, and i am yet to see any evidence to show this trend. it would be more accurate to say that:

1) cis women who have experienced dispossession or impoverishment may internalise transphobic propaganda (the existence and dissemination of which is explained by the need to uphold the colonial/patriarchal mythology around sex); and 

2) being TME is an indicator of class position and transmisogynistic cis women (and TME people in general) perpetuate transmisogyny in order to maintain that class position by safeguarding their monopoly on access to jobs, houses, spaces and resources through gatekeeping and discrimination.

while trans* people can come from any background and are not all nominally poor, transmisogyny and transmisogynoir can have a proletarianizing effect on people and, all other things being equal, TMA people have limited access to spaces, services and resources in comparison with our TME/cis counterparts. ‘transfeminine’ or ‘transmisogyny affected’ should therefore be recognised as indicators of class position.

under capitalism, the primary mode of distribution is commodity exchange, which means someone’s access to something is determined not by their need but by their ability to pay for it. this is already a problem but is intensified for trans* and especially transfeminine people. we end up having to pay more for things than cis/TME people due to the aforementioned gatekeeping and monopolisation, so in effect the purchasing power of our pounds is less than someone else’s. while in theory capitalism should allow anyone who is able to pay to access goods and services, the imperative to uphold the patriarchal and eugenicist mythology around sex and gender (which trans* people, some more than others, threaten just by existing) sometimes takes precedence. as a result, the state erects barriers for access which denies us access to basic or life-saving things. gender identity clinics (GICs) are an illustration of this. they make us jump through hoops in order to receive a ‘diagnosis’ of gender dysphoria, for a (usually cis) stranger to confirm that we are in fact trans* and not just liars. we have to conform to caricaturistic stereotypes about trans* people, and in effect our condition for accessing gender-affirming treatment through GICs is that we do not pose too much of a threat to the sex/gender mythology which underpins transphobic society. meanwhile all that cis people need to get breast enhancements is the desire and the money to pay for it, and they can access HRT much more easily. we end up having to choose between this exhausting ordeal or paying thousands to go private, just to feel affirmed in our gender which should be treated more as a right than a reward for having lots of money. 

while trans* people can come from any background and are not all nominally poor, transmisogyny and transmisogynoir can have a proletarianizing effect.

this medical negligence paired with alarming rates of housing discrimination (25% of trans people have experienced homelessness) and appalling unemployment rates (1 in 3 employers are less likely to hire a trans person) force trans* people into precarious conditions – employment in unsafe and unregulated sex work, domestic abusive housing situations and mental health crises. again the choices here are to pay more than our cis/TME counterparts or to suffer by not having our basic needs met. for example, the gatekeeping of housing by TME people means that to escape homelessness, housing insecurity or abusive housing situations, many of us trans women would have to somehow either pay a large portion of rent upfront and/or try to obtain a whole, much more expensive, studio flat to avoid gatekeeping by existing tenants, who often do as much interrogation as landlords and letting agencies. in most cases this is impossible due to the employment discrimination just mentioned. instead of treating housing as a human right, TME people lock us out of housing by expecting us to either be rich or in full time employment in the formal economy, both of which cis/TME people are simultaneously making impossible for us. these are the economic conditions that multiple marginalised trans* people have to navigate in order to survive. when these issues are viewed in isolation it’s easier to misattribute the causes of transphobia, but when taken together it is evident that transphobia is a systemic phenomenon with an economic basis. 

just as Malcolm X argued that the Black nation on occupied Turtle Island should arm and defend themselves and develop their own services in order to remove the need for reliance on an inherently anti-Black state and society, trans* people in the uk need to create our own services and develop self-determination. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera understood this and put it into practice when founding and running Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in New York. building self-determination would mean, among other things, to follow Marsha and Sylvia’s example by pooling any resources we have together in order to feed, clothe and educate trans* youth who would otherwise be homeless, unsafe and at the mercy of transphobes. only by removing reliance on transphobic state and market services which we are so often locked out of can we practice the autonomy needed for us to not only survive but also thrive.

only by removing reliance on transphobic state and market services which we are so often locked out of can we practice the autonomy needed for us to not only survive but also thrive.

to fully overcome transphobia, we need to develop self-determination and overthrow capitalism.

the first thing we can start doing ourselves, today.

the second has to come from the working class as a whole.

we must ensure that those of us – Black, transfeminine, disabled, sex workers – who sit most at the margins of society are centred in this and in everything we do in the name of trans* liberation. whilst I believe that vanguards are necessary and that the precariat (which includes a lot of trans* people) will comprise that vanguard, i also recognise that a large portion of the british working class is reactionary and remains invested in maintaining their privilege over the working class in colonised and neo-colonial settings and TMA people at home.

this makes them unfit to lead the struggle against racial capitalism. our role in the fight against capitalism as trans* people in the imperial metropole is to develop autonomy and to use our growing autonomy to practice solidarity with the working class in colonised and neocolonial countries who are themselves fighting for self-determination and against the forces of capitalism and (neo-)colonialism.