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Where does trans oppression come from – and how can socialists fight it?

In Trans Awareness Week, KRISTINA HARRISON explains how transgender people are too often persecuted for breaking societal gender norms that are tied to the subjugation of women

AS A child growing up on a council estate I was bullied and felt brutalised by a male gender role that rejected and ridiculed my shy, caring and sensitive nature.  

I found boys’ relationships so cold, shallow and violent and yearned for the apparent gentleness and closeness of female relationships.  

I felt that so much of who I was as a person had to be repressed and hidden — my tenderness, emotional and tactile character, my “illicit” pre-sexual excitement at having make-up put on me in a primary school play, and then, the forbidden thrill of privately acting out my (undoubtedly sexist and sexualised) adolescent conception of “being a girl,” then later still the fear and burden of feeling I was always expected to be the active agent and initiator of flirting when I so desperately wanted to escape that and have permission to be passive, the shy recipient of sexual attention.  

Finally, I met my first love, a male friend, the first person I came out to and who took me out and treated me as if I was his “girlfriend” though sex was a one-sided affair in which I insisted my “male” parts were off limits.  

That relationship was a life-changing revelation which, though brief, was so joyful and felt so right because for the first time in my life it allowed me to temporarily escape from the straitjacket of masculinity and what for me had been its unbearable denial of self.  

It made me realise that if I could have surgery and succeed in living and being taken to be female, I could fully and freely express myself and escape the expectations and policing of masculinity permanently.

For most of my childhood I had felt that, if I’d been born female, my personality and likes would have been respected, loved and rewarded instead of ridiculed, despised and shamed.  

I believe this is how people can begin to feel a sense of being trapped by their bodies, because it’s our sexed bodies that determine how the bulk of the world treats us.  

If you happen to be a feminine boy, much of the world sees you as an aberration. You can be the target for bullying, social ostracism, even family rejection.  

Masculine girls often feel similarly othered. As openly gender non-conforming adults or as trans adults we are often discriminated against by potential employers and suffer high rates of unemployment.  

If we do get a job, then bullying and discrimination at work for being trans is still prevalent. Many young trans people lose family and support networks through rejection or estrangement and become homeless and are vulnerable to sexual exploitation.  

Our healthcare is inadequate, especially our much-needed mental health services and waiting lists are cruelly long for surgery.    

In some areas, despite big improvements in the last few decades, we are still menaced and threatened or even violently attacked, overwhelmingly by male street thugs raised on a diet of toxic masculinity and homophobia. 

So where does trans oppression come from? Most importantly, how we can fight it, particularly those of us in the labour and trade union movement with an interest in uniting working people in principled opposition to all oppression and exploitation.  

For socialists, oppression doesn’t stem from individuals being unkind to each other — it comes from the needs of the rulers of various class societies to create and justify systematic exploitation or discrimination towards a particular group.

In terms of women’s oppression, for example, it’s evolved historically to keep women in a subordinate role to men, in a care-giving and child-rearing role that initially was about guaranteeing paternity and therefore the rights and ability of the ruling (male) elite to pass on their inherited wealth to their sons.  

In modern society it is in part to socialise women with gender norms that encourage them to believe that their hugely disproportionate burden of unpaid caring, domestic and child-rearing labour — often on top of full-time work — and their commodifiable and exploitable sexualisation is a natural part of being a woman rather than an intolerable discriminatory exploitation.  

The gender norms for men have traditionally prepared boys for dominance over women, for work and for war. 

Together they constitute a system of hierarchical “roles” perpetuated via TV, corporate newspapers, the toy, movie, music, fashion and advertising industries, organised religion, Establishment politicians, social media as well as in the home.  

When these norms have been challenged, sections of the Establishment have viciously defended them.  

Most notoriously in modern Britain, tabloid newspapers have played a critical role in demonising gay people, trans people and any gender non-conformers, both inviting and justifying discrimination or even violence against us.  

In simple terms, trans oppression flows out of our “transgression” of these gender norms that serve to oppress women.  

Our scapegoating for alleged “perversion” of or “deviancy” from these artificial standards has been central to systemic discrimination.  

In other words, our own liberation as gender non-conforming people is tied to the liberation of women from this same system of norms.

By the time we reach adulthood, most trans people have had our fill of societal rejection. Many of us have felt the cold barbs of society’s ridicule, marginalisation and menace.  

We’ve felt unloved for who we really are, sometimes even by our own families. We demand an equal place at the table as equally valid human beings, but we are not a hive mind.  

We are individuals and there are differing viewpoints within the trans population. Mine is very much a minority view, but I urge trade unionists to consider the full range of views of trans people, gays, lesbians and women over the issue of self-certification of gender.  

One thing is for sure. So long as females are oppressed, marginalised and demonised, denied their right to organise, to self-definition and self-determination, we cannot be liberated from transphobia.

Kristina Harrison is a Unison member and socialist campaigner.

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