Trans Liberation and the Student Movement

Tal Moskowitz, 8, below, a transgender child, holds a sign as his parents Faigy Gelbstein, left, and Naomi Moskowitz, upper right, of Long Island, hold separate signs during a rally in support of transgender youth at the Stonewall National Monument, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in New York. They were among demonstrators The crowd gathered Thursday night in front of the Stonewall Inn. The family were speaking out against President Donald Trump's decision to roll back a federal rule saying public schools had to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender identity. The rule had already been blocked from enforcement, but transgender advocates view the Trump administration action as a step back for transgender rights.

This is the text of an introduction by NCAFC activist Luke Dukinfield for a session at NCAFC’s recent Winter Conference

The intention of this session is to begin to open up a conversation about trans politics within NCAFC. This fairly vague starting point, of course, might deprive the aim of focus: however, marking out the ground that needs to be covered and mapping out its contours might provide us some sense of direction, especially as the data on transphobia in education is so threadbare. Indeed, the broad materiality of trans life is still disacknowleged – we lack even some of the most fundamental legal rights and protections, are habitually subject to state and gendered violence, are besieged by the most vicious forms of media hostility and fearmongering, comprise the majority of the victims of LGBTQI+ homelessness, and suffer disproportionately high rates of ill mental health and suicide.

The pervasiveness, gravity and brutality of the discrimination encountered by trans people in every sector of society lends this conversation urgency, with a fraught political landscape of austerity, neo-liberal dispossession, a resurging far-right, and Brexit heralding an entrenchment in discriminatory practices that deny us access to public spaces and resources. With the recent (progressive) proposed updates to the Gender Recognition Act – the process by which a person can officially change the gender on their birth certificate and thus have their gender honoured for all legal purposes – the vitriolic scrutiny, derision and hatred waged against trans lives has escalated. This reactionary backlash has been reminiscent of the moral panic around Section 28 – which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by schools and local authorities – wherein the most virulent tropes casting trans people as abusers, interlopers and enemies-within have been ruthlessly invoked.

As such, for all the discussion of a trans ‘tipping point’ in 2014 – indicating a positive shift in the landscape of media and cultural representation for trans people – we recognise how fragile these shifts can be, and indeed that they must be consistently defended and underpinned by a material restructuring of the power relations in society. We must of course celebrate where gains have been won, and the affective impact for many (especially young) trans people of positive representation cannot be emphasised enough – however these gains have not coalesced into a coherent social movement on the ground. Again, this is not to underplay the advances within LGBTQI+ movements around trans politics, and the important campaigning undertaken by various groups such as No Pride in Prisons or Action For Trans Health – but this has not borne the scale, collectivity or strategic scope of historical liberation movements. It is important to note that particularly the LGBTQI+ liberation movement was indeed initiated and sustained by many trans people of colour, and the fact that the rights and freedoms of trans people are still lagging so far behind the rest of our community attests to the contours of marginality and neglect that are replicated from society across our movements, the wresting of their political trajectory by the trends of neo-liberalism and so-called ‘respectability politics’, and the disqualification of narratives of trans history and struggle.

This, I think, is in evidence, too, across the student movement. Though in many ways we have incorporated trans and queer politics more effectively than many mainstream left institutions – perhaps due to our unique proximity to radical enquiry and spaces of (relative) cultural and political independence – we have not been immune to the aforementioned trends and indeed specific tensions are posed by both the dynamics of ‘student politics’ and the academy as an institution. Sometimes we are complacent around the political landscape of trans politics, taking as given that trans liberation is implicitly embedded in our movement’s praxis, whilst foregoing an understanding of how insidiously transphobia can infiltrate our spaces, and indeed sometimes eliding the more difficult question of what happens outside those spaces.

It’s perhaps beyond my scope here to precisely delineate the current character of trans politics within all the varied institutions, groups and societies that loosely comprise the ‘student movement’ – though I would invite discussion on that topic – but it appears to me that trans politics within universities have been largely confined to and undertaken by Pride and Feminist societies (or supportive social networks and micro-communities). Each of these communities have their own unique tensions, of course – with, for example, the former sometimes overshadowed be the overarching depoliticization, pacification and commercialisation of the legacy of Pride, and the latter often still beset by hangovers of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) ideology. One can critique these specific tensions, alongside the sublimation into the plane of the purely discursive and cultural that societies, especially as institutions bonded to defanged SUs, often entail – whilst also reckoning with the fact that this sublimation is not simply a product of but a response to dominant political trends, an indispensable seeking out of community, affirmation and sanctuary from the debilitating rituals of everyday bigotry, and also a response to the failures of a dominant left that has long neglected trans oppression and trans struggle.

The spectre of ‘identity politics’ is invoked to characterise some of the modes of political conduct within liberation societies – and, to be completely frank, I do not think these critiques without merit, especially as universities as spaces lend themselves towards a politics of ideological purification and secessionism rather than one of solidarity and struggle – however we should be wary of how this claim is cynically deployed to denigrate the very notion of liberation politics in and of itself, and how this charge has been levelled historically by the left and right to delegitimize marginalized struggles. Part of our efforts towards trans liberation in education must surely be thus rooting ourselves in these communities and uniting the affective significance of alternative cultural spaces with the collective empowerment of an orientation towards active political organization.

This kind of intervention has been raised frequently within NCAFC’s own LGBTQI+ caucus – though, it seems, executed with limited success. Indeed, discussions around trans politics have been fairly absent within our spaces, though the incorporation of non-binary people within the previously women’s caucus has brought interesting ideas around trans politics into the fold of the organization. Despite this, the conversation is underdeveloped – it’s why we are all here, in this largely unprecedented session dedicated solely to trans liberation, and similarly why activists have engaged in a trans liberation intervention in the motions debate happening tomorrow. Again, I think we must be generous in our critique (but critical nonetheless) – the women and non-binary occupation of Senate House in 2015, for example, provided active and empowering welcome to trans people within the kinds of women’s spaces that have traditionally excluded us. My organizing with this caucus has been predominantly affirming and sometimes frustrating, frequented by both interesting conversations and pressing interventions around gendered oppression within education coupled with a neglect of some of the basic necessities of trans inclusion within these spaces such as the preparation of gender neutral toilets.

The politics of militancy, solidarity and pluralism historically embodied by NCAFC drew me into its spaces, with the inspiring activism undertaken by the women and non-binary caucus testament to this, but the still underlying questions of trans liberation and its role within the vision and struggle for free education went, and continue to go, largely unanswered. To this end we have actually fallen behind some institutions within the student movement in the context of trans politics. Not only must we reaffirm the commitment within our caucuses to trans liberation, we must also ensure these debates do not solely occur within caucuses, but herald more long-term cultural shifts within our organization, recognizing the fact that – not least because our rights in society are so threadbare and a movement to assert them lacking – there is an institutional foregoing of trans politics that must be redressed. The development of this conversation, here, must be sensitive and diligent – grappling with the vulnerability and exclusion trans people often feel within left institutions that have traditionally forsaken us, addressing the complex questions of the most effective formats for trans organizing, and balancing the impulse for bottom-up autonomous organizing with collective institutional responsibility over the fate of trans politics, etc.

This conversation must also be expressed through a specific analysis of the dynamics of transphobia within education. The analysis offered here will focus on Higher Education, as that is the environment to which my experiences are relevant – though examining and tackling institutional transphobia within primary and secondary education is even more crucial a task, because this kind of discrimination within such formative years can be even more fatal. Theory borne out of our other caucuses can be useful in orienting and grounding ourselves here – the women and non-binary caucus has always asserted that free education is a gendered demand, for example, because marketization entrenches draconian, degrading and precarious work practices wherein disproportionately male Vice Chancellors and management luxuriate in obscene salaries at the expense of maltreated, low-paid, and outsourced female migrant cleaners. The LGBTQI+ caucus has asserted that the degradation of financial support consequent to a marketized model of education, such as the cuts to maintenance grants, disproportionately affect queer students who are often estranged from unaccepting family, and that living grants for all – a lynchpin of our vision for free education – would benefit us the most.

We can directly extrapolate these two examples to trans students: due to disproportionate levels of financial hardship we are often compelled to take on work as we study, almost uniformly in increasingly casualized service sector jobs. The systematic dismantling of employment protections combines with overt employment discrimination and the insidious material marginalization of feminized, affective labour to create a hostile and brutal set of work relations for trans people. As universities are compelled to act more and more like businesses, with all else subordinated to the profit motive, the axes of social division through which capital thrives to discipline and dispossess labour embed themselves within the educational landscape. The gutting of financial support affects trans students especially acutely, with many of us severed from family resources due to deep-seated transphobia. This, coupled with astronomical rises in rent and living costs ushered in by privatisation, increasingly prices poor and vulnerable trans people out of Higher Education.

The logic of the market surrenders the public good, such that gender studies departments are luxuries to be cut, health and support services that trans people disproportionately rely on are severely overburdened and underfunded, gender neutral facilities are superfluous, and specialist gendered training for support staff is an unaffordable expense. Education-as-commodity does not serve the ends of personal transformation or collective empowerment to challenge injustice in society, but rather that of processing indebted consumers and compliant graduates into market relations. Hence space to explore ourselves and form communal subjectivities becomes more and more limited in the neo-liberal university, with spaces for collective association and support infrastructure for trans students more and more sparse, trade unions decimated, and alienation, atomization and disempowerment fracturing our institutions.

The spectre of police becomes evermore present as our universities resort to force to aggressively root out dissent and defend their reputations, impacting marginalized people historically subject to state hostility – especially trans people of colour – most acutely. Our campuses thus become ever more securitized, with bureaucracy, monitoring and registering practices proliferating and entailing constant fear of misgendering and deadnaming for trans students. Mental health issues widely afflict university populations due to the academic and financial strains and pressures of education as a frantic competition, disproportionately affecting trans students already subject to widespread prejudice. All the while, TERF ideology and curricular erasure of trans histories and struggle continue to fray academia, culturally disqualifying us as participants in and bearers of knowledge. Bullying, harassment and abuse are widespread, with 1 in 3 trans students reporting to be the subject of this violence, a transphobic enmity deepened by the rise of alt-right and ‘lad’ culture on campuses.

Despite the very material dispossessions encountered by trans people within education and society at large, the dominant narratives about trans lives are frequently infatuated with questioning our reality and validity. This is especially relevant to how transphobia is constituted through Higher Education: trans, especially non-binary, identity is ridiculed as a delusional novelty, coddled by elitist academic spaces detached from the rest of society. HE has thus become an arena of scrutiny and contention around trans politics, with this set of politics scapegoated for an ostensible fostering of entitlement and narcissism (the entitlement of wanting secure work or self-affirmation, seemingly). Thus, dominant narratives have promoted some of the most pernicious historical tropes deployed against the LGBTQI+ community by both left and right, through the prism of Higher Education, to deride, trivialize and undermine trans politics as a set of frivolous sideshows, bourgeois affectations and cultural pretensions. HE thus forms one aspect of a backdrop justifying cultural belittlement.

Whilst we should reject the reactionary terms of this debate entirely, forming a materialist narrative of trans liberation in education that refutes the idea that universities are havens of trans rights, careful not to collapse leftist critiques of liberal identity politics into trans politics as a whole, we must also reckon with the social stratification our universities prop up in society – gentrification, work casualization, reproduction of capitalist cultural hegemony – and assert that we demand the complete transformation of society, not simply universities as sites of cultural refuge from its worst excesses. To this end the student movement must unite with the labour movement, with renters’ unions, with campaigns against prison, police and state violence, with campaigns for the decriminalization of sex work, to intervene in the multifaceted material injustices wracking trans life, armed with the recognition that class struggle is and should be a demand for trans liberation.

So, by way of conclusion, some pressing questions that underpin the conversation for me are: how does transphobia manifest internally within the student movement and how can that be tackled? How does transphobia manifest on an external basis, systematically within our institutions and in society at large, and how can we address that? And, finally, what are some demands for trans liberation in education, how should we construct and wage struggles against transphobia, and what are the pitfalls in the existing structures of the student movement to this end? I hope, with more sessions like these, we can begin to answer these questions and many more – with the understanding that not only is the free education struggle incomplete without trans liberation, it is also weaker without it. This task is urgent, and we must rise to it – we can rise to it.