What solidarity do trans people want from allies?
A question from Sina Brown-Davis on Twitter asks:
What solidarity do Trans people want from allies, how can communities enable more self determination by Trans people?— Sina Brown-Davis (@uriohau) March 29, 2021
This is impossible for an individual to answer. There will be wide-ranging perspectives within the distinctly non-monolithic set of all trans people.
So I can only answer for myself. Here are my responses, which may be a little different to the usual, prevailing narratives.
First, I want cis people (and, frankly, some trans people privileged by race or wealth or non-disability) to recognize the trans population's own diversity. Trans experiences are individually unique, but fall within a distribution that is notably racialized and divided by class and ability.
The experience of an immigrant brown trans person is going to be significantly different from a Pākehā middle-class trans person, most of the time. The experience of a Disabled trans person will be significantly different from a non-Disabled trans person, most of the time. The experience of a Māori trans person will be significantly different still.
The consequence of differences
Second, when we have recognized this diversity, we must be mindful of the different consequences that systems and policies will produce for different subgroups. There will be people more vulnerable to systemic oppression and abuse than others. Any first draft of a policy is likely to risk unintended consequences—such as racialized harms—even if it is otherwise deemed a progressive policy in the interest of trans rights.
Knowing how the balance of power within the trans communities tilts towards the more-Pākehā, more-wealthy, more-abled, means we must exercise critical caution when considering policies and laws proposed for our benefit. Trans rights for the benefit of cis people is not the same as trans rights for the benefit of trans people. But this is also true for other cross-cutting categories like race, class, disability, and so on.
For individual allies going about their lives—perhaps on social media—this disparity means an obligation to hold an ongoing conversation with diverse sets of voices among trans people. It is too easy to accept the popular conception that all trans people are white, and all nonwhite people are cis. Listening to different voices is essential to break that presumption of monotony.
For power-holders representing systems and enacting policies, it is vital that appropriate consultation is held with a range of vulnerable people among the trans population. Nothing about us without us. Individuals can support this by holding their political representatives to account by asking: are you consulting widely enough?
Third, media representations of our diverse stories are often missing. Instead, unrepresentative tropes, stereotypes and narratives emerge, sometimes even sincerely offered as if it is helpful. One pernicious trope is the “born this way” or “born in the wrong body” story. That may be true for some, but not all, trans people. This is often understood in opposition to fluidity and natural change (almost in fear of directed change, i.e. conversion therapy), as if people do not evolve in their self-understanding, do not develop new feelings (such as at puberty), or do not come out later in life. It produces systemic policies that, for example, only acknowledge a single change in name or gender, from and to fixed, approved gender descriptors, and that demand definite and certain and enduring gender descriptors for the colonial state to categorize and surveil people.
It is for allies in media to work on adapting this story-telling to represent a wider range of trans people. There are already media institutions for some ethnic groups (e.g. Māori TV) which do some of this work but could do more. There are still others (e.g. Apna TV) which remain outright homophobic and transphobic. Pākehā media continues to platform reactionary perspectives and monocultural narratives routinely. Unaffiliated individual allies may take it upon themselves to hold their media to account, and avoid uncritically amplifying stories just because they appear to be superficially trans-friendly. Allies could, for example, begin by critiquing their venerated national-treasure media figures like RNZ's Kim Hill, who for years has platformed bigots and transphobes, and adopted hostile lines of questioning targeting trans people.
Acting individually differently
Fourth, strategic inaction is as important as action. Do not support a petition when you have not ascertained its tradeoffs, benefits and costs—even loosely or casually. Do you know who is going to be left behind by a proposed bill in parliament? Do you know who will bear the brunt of unintended consequences, and are you comfortable with that sacrifice? If you cannot answer such questions, then hold off from supporting laws and petitions. Instead, learn more, by continuing that ongoing conversation with diverse voices in the trans communities, until you can be satisfied our varying needs will be met.
Another kind of inaction pertains to the rising, hostile engagement by allies against so-called “TERFs” (or, more generally, proactive transphobes). A strategy of escalation does not benefit trans people generally, because it provokes backlash and hardening of positions. As with any conflict resolution process, we can accept that reconciliation may be impossible, and that is hurtful to realize because the division around transphobia within LGBT+ communities is an open wound. However, we can still pursue de-escalation that seeks to reduce the temperature and avoid further reactionary harms that trans people would face. Tough-guy rhetoric from cis people is unlikely to blow back on cis people, whereas some poor trans person could be victimized by a transphobe down the line.
Different systemic solutions
An alternative to escalation would look to support and protect trans people in healthcare, education—especially community education to reform colonial norms and values—and so many other interventions across government and society. Much of this should be based on partnerships within the diverse communities represented in the trans population—racialized-religious communities included.
While an escalation approach to solving real problems like conversion therapy, such as with a criminal ban, remains inappropriate, we must still support solutions that will end these harmful practices in more effective and equitable ways.
Written in the context of finding alternatives to a criminal conversion therapy ban, I have drafted a proposal of 20+ policies and interventions for LGBT+ benefit with racial equity that government can start acting on immediately. For all the urgency of the petition to ban conversion therapy with the weight of the justice system, we know that drafting a (nuanced, responsible, sensitive) law will reasonably take a long time. But there is so much more that the government could do overnight—”urgently”, “immediately”, “now”.
These reforms and programmes in my draft proposal are prioritized by their value for shifting certain norms and behaviours away from conversion therapy, mainly by prevention and diversion. But, in principle, they are really about lifting up the most vulnerable among the trans population (non-wealthy, Disabled, ethnic minority rainbow people). Rather than one singular policy outcome, that broad approach is likely to have many benefits for rainbow intersectional equity.
Beyond government, we can hold political parties and other organizations to account. When they promote their allegedly rainbow-friendly policies, we can ask whether they consulted a reasonable representation of trans people. Or did they mainly turn to Pākehā, possibly middle-class trans folks (if any)? Individual members of these organisations—Pride itself, or a political party, or another organization—can advance accountability in those structures by paying attention and vocally questioning whether justice is being done.
The above is the beginning of an answer to the questions posed. There is more for me to learn and there is more to be said. It is my contribution to what should be a broader conversation representing a wide variety of perspectives, experiences and identities from trans, non-binary, and gender-decolonial communities.