Monica Roberts at TransGriot is exploring the future of the trans* movement:
“One of the things I was pondering recently was triggered by me seeing a pic of a five year old trans girl. I began to ponder what her Trans World that we 2K10’s activists are fighting tooth and nail to shape, would be like 10 to 20 years from now…”
Blogger apparently won’t accept a comment this long, so I’ll post my thoughts here instead:
Any time we try to wax prescient about a social issue and its future, we have to be careful not to forget the pendulum effect of social progress. We have a period of great strides, then a stage of regression, then more advances. I believe Dr. King understood this before anyone in human rights movements, when he spoke of the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice: it is glacial, and fraught with forward-then-backward strides, but it eventually inches forward. The trans* movement is definitely in a forward swing, no doubt about it, but eventually we’ll hit another backward slide before advancing once again.
But it’s also crucial to see our own social movement as part of a much larger picture. More on that in a moment.
Trans* communities still have a few more years of forward motion, no doubt. The far-right religious persecution complex is unconvincing, and the longer washroom panic is touted but fails to manifest in actual harm, the faster that tactic evaporates. If Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERFism) manages to change some of the thinking within feminism, that contraction could come sooner, but I don’t believe it will, unless we play too eagerly into TERF persecution games. More likely, that contraction will happen because of changing priorities. Something more urgent will come to the fore, and we’ll once again be seen as a 0.01% -sized minority… and that will trigger the next stagnation or regression.
We also have to keep in mind that social movements have a horrible track record of turning on their own, as the difficulties of earlier generations becomes forgotten. I see a time coming when youth (not this particular generation of youth, who are fighting pioneering battles of their own, but perhaps the generation that comes after them) start being unable to understand how it could have been so difficult to come out or why people would have waited until their late 30s, 40s, 50s or older to begin transition. And with we older folks being more ravaged by incongruent hormones (especially for trans women, since testosterone is such a vicious chemical), lookism will become a serious issue, as well as greater inter-movement criticism about socialization (sometimes deserved, sometimes overstated). There will inevitably be a new quest for the “appropriate face” of the movement, as if such a thing could exist, and increasingly those who pioneered progress for trans* people will become seen as a liability to that.
There is a bright side, though, which is found by looking at the larger picture. Social progressives have reached a wall. The corporate, religious and political worlds have merged into an oligarchic monolith that we cannot face any other way. In order for *any* social movements to progress in the larger scheme of things, there has to be a coming together, and getting away from colonial / umbrella-style thinking so that we can all rediscover what it means to be an alliance: that it’s not an assimilationist melting pot, the borders of which need to be rigidly policed and people either belong or they don’t (we keep trying that and failing), but rather a critical mass of varied and unique individuals who all deserve a voice and (the harder part) who all also need to listen… and who stand together for mutual advancement, equitably. Feminism, racial justice, environmentalism, labour rights, sexual minority equality (LGBTTIQQA2S, as well as poly people, sex workers and other emerging groups), issues of global climate change, reproductive rights, classism, privacy rights and personal liberties (as opposed to neoliberalism), the rights of the disabled, the rights of youth (as opposed to parental ownership), economic justice… in the near-term, all of our destinies are bound together, even if our objectives differ and sometimes even conflict. The political left is going to have to decolonize if it is to survive. It will take time, but the need will be for everyone to have a seat at the table. We no longer have the luxury of infighting… it’s time to either work this stuff out, or else to put the differences aside.
Those lessons will be hard. The lesbian and gay establishment is still learning that it cannot speak for trans* people, but rather need to empower them. Some pockets of feminism, likewise, remain too blinded by dubious data and an ideology that says that all sex work is inherently victimizing to actually listen to sex workers when they speak out about what will either harm or empower them. It’s seductively easy to slip into patronizing condescension and predisposed belief than to listen to and learn from profound lived experience.
It’s also difficult to get others to care about an issue without ceding “ownership” of the issue. One can’t say labour rights “is an LGBT issue” in a way that means that LGBT people should be dictating what labour needs — but one must still recognize how the systematic dismantling of labour harms the economically vulnerable (including many LGBT people), and amplifies inequality in a deep and systemic way. Social movements usually see things as an all-or-nothing endeavor: either we own it, or we don’t have an obligation to care about it. That has to change. Incrementalism is a lie and steals fire from true, substantial change. Individual movements must let go of the “us first” impulse and start seeing “everyone together” as the goal.
In these ways, social movements might almost ever be stumbling recklessly toward unity.
So as much as things like lookism will surface in later generations for the trans* movement, it will be mitigated by the larger evolution of social movements. And as much as TERFism might seek to alienate trans* people from the feminist movement and the greater conversation about gender, it will similarly be mitigated by this. Exclusion will be a lesser factor (eventually). Learning to look inward and deal with our own biases and challenge ourselves to rise above them will be the next (and probably much harder) step. And it will be absolutely necessary.
It also won’t be complete or perfect. Social movements have a horrible record of backlash and subterfuge, mixed with self-sabotage. So it all might fail. Oligarchism might siphon off individual movements one at a time and absorb them. The lesbian and gay establishment are already vulnerable to this, for example, given the classism that infects the hierarchied LGB(T) establishment. It is here that the lateness of trans* empowerment and the emergence of poly folks, sex workers, asexuals, et al could prove a saving grace, and in which the LGB community’s gradual (stumbling) learning of how to support trans* people without trying to speak for them could provide lessons for changes to come.
But other assimilations could still be on the horizon. If the energy industry did a public about-face (for whatever motive), for example, it could possibly absorb the movement against global climate change. If that resulted in substantial reduction to the harm humans do to the planet, that would be great, yet I could see this sort of a time coming: environmentally-conscious alternatives become available and harnessed by the corporate sector, but the change will require wealth, and those who can’t afford to adapt are seen as the real / new menace. In this way, people who once lobbied against oil and gas become suddenly not able to afford the progress they fought for… one more way to keep the masses turned upon each other.
Each time the co-option of a movement happens, it steals progressives’ fire, and a movement toward critical mass to address oppression on a grander scale could fail. Society is at a pivotal time.
And as the political world polarizes, militarizes and veers into mass espionage, that could bode badly overall for social movements, which have historically been viewed as radical and threatening. So the political pressures will be very much against a coming together of progressives.
And the greatest fear of all is that the general public is remarkably and tragically apathetic. Just getting people to vote is a difficult task (and that’s if they’re allowed to under growing suppression). If progress is to happen, it needs something to motivate people in a grand way: not just to scare people about how bad things are getting (which there’s already plenty of, and can be demotivating of itself), but to inspire people with a new vision of how things can be. That vision is still being formulated.
So that’s the lens I look through.
Returning to trans* communities, the science will improve, certainly. As Monica says, we’ll see advances in surgical options, probably the biggest leaps deriving from cloning. Surgical advances on genital-specific health care are more challenging for trans* people, though, because it’s not just about a penis or vagina: the surface stuff can almost be done now (not quite for the guys, but the technology is almost there), but a lot of the inner biological infrastructure will take longer.
Additionally, we might discover the biological triggers (I suspect there’s more than one) that contribute to (as opposed to exclusively cause) someone being trans* — and that could be a mixed blessing of its own, depending on what that future generation decides to do with that new information.
The human rights advances will continue in the west, although Asia and Africa will take longer. If the social-left decolonizing of activism I wrote of earlier happens, this will significantly help in those regions, as much of the anti-LGBT sentiment there has gained traction because the political right figured out how to hijack the language of decolonialism and mask their own colonial aims. If the left comes together, the deceptive spin will eventually fail, and LGBT people will become properly recognized as the oppressed class rather than as a potential oppressor to fear.
The backlash to that will be that the political, corporate and social right will seek to dismantle the human rights mechanisms themselves: human rights commissions, rights laws, diversity policies… all of that will be framed as no longer relevant (i.e. “racism is over” / “feminists are the real oppressors,” etc.) and an impediment to the nation’s best interests (a slier way of saying corporate and religious interests). That’s a looming fight we’re just seeing emerge right now. We’re winning a lot of the battles, but the war is shifting to a new and larger front.
I apologize for that sounding preachy, something that is certainly not helped by referring to the royal “we.” I know we have our own individual limitations. We can’t do everything. Living in rural Alberta now, I’m very conscious about how much less I do and can do than before, so I don’t say any of the above with judgment. It’s simply my limited, fallible observation.
Push, pull, forward, backward. And gradually, we’ll get somewhere. But it will be rocky.