Y’ALL BETTER QUIET DOWN
KIMBERLY NIXON and the Canadian Legal Precedent of Transmisogyny
In Canada there is a horrifying legal precedent that has almost embedded trans-misogyny into the law. It goes to back to Vancouver in 1995 when Kimberly Nixon, a transgender woman, attended a training session for volunteers who wished to become counselors for the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter (VRRS). Vancouver Rape Relief is a women only organization that is, according to their mission statement, committed to advocating for women’s equality. The centre “works as an active force dedicated to challenge the social attitudes, laws and institutional procedures that perpetuate male violence against women and children.” Amongst other things they run a 24 hour rape crisis centre and provide shelter for women and children escaping male violence.
Prior to participating in the training, Kimberly Nixon had passed a screening process intended to identify those who do not agree with the core beliefs of VRRS, in particular, the belief that women are never to blame for the violence to which they are subjected. She was motivated to volunteer her services because of misogynist violence she had experienced in her lifetime both before and after coming out as a transwoman. During the training session, a facilitator, solely on the basis of appearance, identified Nixon as transgendered. Nixon was asked to confirm that she had lived her entire life as a woman and, when she responded that she was a transgender woman, was asked to leave. (Chambers, 318, 2007)
Infuriated and humiliated by this experience, Kimberly lodged a formal complaint against VRRS to the BC Human Rights Tribunal. Kimberly did not challenge the “women-only” policy of VRRS, rather she asserted that was a woman and therefore entitled to both access the space and undergo training. VRRS contested that while Kimberly may claim she is a woman, she is not woman enough to be a peer counselor. VRRS found it irrelevant that Nixon had “previous experience working with women in crisis, as she had been a peer counselor at Battered Women’s Support Services and had worked at a transition house for women dealing with male violence and/or mental health concerns.” Evidence during the trial confirmed that Kimberly had been very effective in her work. VRRS argued that these life experiences could never compensate for the reality that she had been born a man. The VRRS asserted that “there is significant danger that a male counselor, someone who may still have some male characteristics though dressed as a female or a man in disguised as a woman” will be disturbing to someone (seeking counseling) who is already extremely disturbed and afraid. (Chambers, 318, 2007)
An article written by the VRRS in response to Kimberly’s complaint clearly laid out their position:
“Assaulted women call us to receive feminist assistance from other women. Across the country they choose women’s services like ours over police, medical facilities, and de-gendered counselling services. They do so precisely to assure they will be greeted by women, that is: by others who have suffered the same basic life long conditions and therefore can understand the assaults and resistance in the same way. Among the women who came forward offering to testify for us were women who had very particular sets of such expectations. One mother had been herself attacked by a police officer in Europe during the war, by a husband later in Canada. She brought her adolescent daughter to us after an attack saying very clearly that she did not want to discuss such things with a man or someone who had been a man. Women told us they did not want to guess at the door whether or not this was a man. Even deep voices, male insignia like baseball caps and boots can make women nervous. Men are always chaperoned by one of us if they are in the entry of the shelter. The sound of a male voice sends tension through the house. But more often the worry was that someone who had grown up being treated as male simply did not share the reference women make in our telling each other about assaults, the objective or subjective experiences of being raised from girlhood to womanhood.” (From, https://www.rapereliefshelter.bc.ca/shelter-movement/women-only-space/women-only-space)
While choosing to not even touch the claim that baseball caps and deep voices send women into panic, one of VRRS main arguments states that misogyny and pervasive sexual assault, while indeed violent, are unique shared reference points for women in a patriarchal world. If this is indeed the case, it is deeply hypocritical to exclude transwomen from this analysis considering that transwomen statistically experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault and abuse. According to the 2009 NCAVP report on hate violence, one in two transgender individuals are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives and transgender survivors experience rates of sexual assault up to 66 percent. Furthermore,
“50 percent of people who died in violent hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people were transgender women; the other half were male, many of whom were gender non-conforming. Sexual assault and/or genital mutilation before or after their murders was a frequent occurrence. Hate crimes are more prevalent against people of color. In 2009, 53% of LGBTQ hate crime victims were people of color.” (from https://www.ovc.gov/pubs/forge/sexual_numbers.html):
During the trial, the VRRS argued that since “woman” is defined by the VRRS as someone who has lived their entire life as a female, Ms. Nixon was not, and could never be, a woman for the purposes of the shelter. However, as Barbara Findlay, counsel for Kimberly Nixon, put it, the “argument that the dignity interest of a transsexual woman is not engaged by being expelled from a women’s organization is startling. It is the quintessential nature of the oppression faced by transgendered people that their gender and their right to be in or participate in gendered spaces is constantly and derisively challenged. For a transsexual woman to be denied participation in a women’s organization is perhaps the most humiliating experience she can have.” (Chambers, 322, 2007)
In 2003, after eight years of tedious legal battles and multiple appeals, it was decided by the Supreme Court of British Columbia that discrimination had not occurred in the case because Kimberly Nixon was not a woman and that gender difference was not a basis for a discrimination claim. Even if Ms. Nixon was determined to be a woman, the court stated that the VRRS was entitled to prefer a sub-group of women under section 41. Nixon can say she is a woman, and, in most contexts, the law will support her self-definition. Yet other women, and women’s groups, are under no legal obligation to accept her as the woman she claims to be. (Chambers, 322, 2007)
While this case only played out at the provincial level (meaning it did not go to Supreme Court of Canada), it has still set a dangerous legal precedent, whereby special interest groups (such as women’s shelters) are legally entitled to define the boundaries of their own membership. This means that they can privilege certain subsets of a particular group over other subsets and it is not considered discrimination. On the ground, this translates to a disastrous reality whereby women’s shelters are under no legal obligation to work with or accept transwomen into their services. Even considering the fact that transfeminine people in general are considered to be very high risk for homelessness, poverty, and sexual assault. At ASTTeQ in Montreal (Action Santé Travesti(e)s et Transexuel(le) du Québec) a trans-led support and advocacy organization, one of their main mandates is to push homeless shelter’s into adopting and centering trans-inclusive policies. This is still today an extremely hard sell. A frightening number of transgender people are turned away from shelters for “looking like a man” or “pretending to be a woman” and left with nowhere else to go.
What exactly does it mean to be a woman?
“Woman”, much like, “man”, is no longer a self-evident category of analysis. Third wave feminisms, queer theory, and critical gender theory among others have all challenged longstanding and repressive understandings of sex and gender. The biological criteria that we usually associate with sex, including genetics/chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive morphology, external reproductive morphology, hormones, and phenology/secondary sex features, are infinitely variable and can be contradictory. Moreover, psycho-social aspects of identity and experience do not inevitably correspond with any particular aspect of one’s biological makeup. Third-wavers, queer theorists, and critical gender theorists assert that woman is not only made, not born, but also that ‘woman’ is an artificial category. (Chambers, 310, 2007)
In many ways, the history of feminism is a history of struggles against biologically and socially deterministic understandings of the world. If gender and sex are both constructed, contradictory, and mutable, then we must recognize that there will be many women who do not possess XX chromosomes, many men who do not have XY chromosomes, and many non-binary people with all different kinds of chromosomes. To do otherwise would be to subscribe to biological determinism which is frequently used to justify social determinism and the horrors of oppression. The deep-seated hypocrisy in the claim that biology is destiny for Kimberly Nixon, but not for cis-gender women cannot be tolerated. This is misogyny in full form.
Michele Landsberg, a prominent Canadian journalist and “feminist”, followed this line of thinking and asserted at the time of Kimberly Nixon’s case that: “Out of politeness, I’d be willing to call that surgically altered person a woman and use the feminine pronoun. But a part of me will always feel outraged that a ‘woman’ could be defined as an outward set of physical characteristics-lack of penis, fake breasts-along with an ultra-sexist ‘female impersonator’ style of clothing and gesture.” Going even further, however, she explicitly positioned Kimberly Nixon as an enemy of the women’s movement and compared her to a rapist: “Woman-centred services are besieged with enemies enough in this backlash era. What a twisted irony it is that the latest and perhaps fatal blow should be inflicted by someone who wants to be a woman-but doesn’t hesitate to inflict potential ruin on a woman’s service that tried to say ‘no’ to her unwanted advances” (Chambers, 325, 2007)
This brings me to possibly the central question of this piece. Namely, why are transwomen and transfeminine people so often accused of being rapists? Even, and especially, in cases when we are the ones on the receiving end of violence?
Transgender Deceivers as seen through the murder of Gwen Araujo.
In Newark, California, on October 3, 2002, Gwen Araujo, a transgender woman, aged seventeen, was beaten, killed, and then buried 150 miles away in the Sierra wilderness. On October 3, 2002 she attended a house party with a few of her friends, including two men she had previously engaged in consensual sex with. At the party, she was discovered by forced inspection, meaning they pushed her into the bathroom and ripped her clothes off of her body, to be a transgender woman. The men with whom she had sexual relations became enraged and violent. One of her killers, after vomiting, put her in a choke-hold. Afterwards, she was punched in the face, choked, struck in the head with a can of food and frying pan, kneed in the head, strangled with rope and struck with a shovel until dead.
The tragic and brutal case of Gwen Araujo illustrates quite succintly the way in which victims of transphobic violence and hate are subject to blame through accusations of deception with intent to cause harm. To put in another way, that transgender people are concealing a hidden “truth” and that this hidden truth needs to be both “revealed” and “penalized” for it is dangerous.
WHAT LIES BENEATH THE DECEPTION?
After her violent assault and murder, it was suggested by many close to the defendants that Gwen had herself engaged in wrongdoing by perpetuating “sexual deception.” For example, Jose Merel (one of the murderers) was quoted after her death saying “Sure we were angry. Obviously she led us on. No one knew she was a man.” Part and parcel of the accusation of wrongdoing is blame-shifting rhetoric which attempts to excuse the murder. Jose Merel’s mother, Wanda Merel, was quoted as saying “If you find out the beautiful woman you’re with is really a man, it would make any man go crazy.” On top of this, despite the fact that the only sexual assault we know to have occurred was the forced genital exposure to which Gwen was subjected, some commentators like Zach Calef from the Iowa State Daily, argued that Gwen’s murder was not a hate-crime because Gwen had raped her killers. “The men did what they did because Araujo violated them. He used lies and deception to trick them into having sex. He was not honest with them and had he been, none of this would have happened. A hate crime should not even be considered. No one killed him because he was a cross-dresser. These men were truly violated. They were raped” (Bettcher, 244, 2007)
This position, while it may appear extreme, was actually upheld during the court proceedings when the defendants attempted to use the “trans panic defense” clause to justify their murder.
WHAT IS TRANS PANIC DEFENSE?
Trans panic defense is a legal defense usually used against charges of assault or murder. A defendant using the defense claims that they acted in a state of violent temporary insanity because of a purported psychiatric condition called transsexual panic. The defendant claims that they have been the object of homosexual romantic or sexual advances. The defendant finds the advances so offensive and frightening that it brings on a psychotic state characterized by unusual violence. This defense is currently available for use in all US States besides California.
Gwen’s murder is a horrifying example that reveals part of the way in which transmisogynist ideology functions. According to her killers and their supporters, Gwen’s murder was justifiable because she herself had both deceived and sexaully assaulted her murderers. Like the anti-trans bathroom bills in United States, like corrections policies that place transfeminine people and transwomen into male detention facilities, like homeless shelters which refuse access to transgender people, and like the murder of Gwen Araujo, not to mention countless other transwomen of color, we can see that underneath the “deception” of being trans is a threat of harm which relies on the accusations of sexual assault and violence to maintain legitimacy. This goes as far as indicting trans people for the violence inflicted upon them. Transmisogyny and transphobia cast us as pretenders who wish to enter into private spaces, whether this is bathrooms, bedrooms, shelters, community organizations or prisons in order to take advantage of and sexually assault others. The trope of the transwoman rapist literally equates the existence of our gender non-conforming bodies and even our genitalia with assault outside of any actual violence. Our bodies in this transmisogynist context are threats to be preemptively disarmed and punished. Many cis-gendered people and non-transwomen still to this day consider penises to be weapons, literally. Instead of understanding patriarchy to be a series of power dynamics spread out across society and legitimized at material sites like governments, the military,the courts, patriarchal family structures, the media, etc., penises take the blame. LOL.
It is critical in this discussion to also centre the way that assault and danger are embedded and coded within white supremacist ideologies and therefore take on different connotations across race and class. For example, the myth of the black male rapist which was used to justify lynchings in the United States is a racist trope that continues to code black bodies as dangerous in a white supremacist context and effects blackness specifically. Black transwomen, therefore, face racist and transmisogynist danger tropes at the same time.
Because transgender people are understood to be deceivers in a transmisogynist context, we are very often pushed into a dangerous double-bind into which we cannot escape. The double-bind rests on the belief that there is a contrast between our outward appearance (which is fake) and our hidden biology (which is real).
On one side of this bind we can choose to disclose that we are transgender and mark ourselves as pretenders and masqueraders. On the other side, we can refuse to disclose that we are transgender and run the risk of being “found out” which means being marked as a liar. Both ends of this double bind run the risk of potential violence, there is no escape from that. It is important to note, that femininity is naturally understood as artifice in patriarchal orders, and so transfeminine people appear as doubly artificial. (Betcher, 50, 2007)
However, this is all based on the assumption that a transgender person can pass as a cis-gendered person. For many transgender people, trans-feminine people of color especially, passing can quite literally be a question of life and death. To pass a cisgendered person means you may be able to enter into the realm of the living. You are no longer marked as a fake, a deceiver, or a pervert.
Passing is very often a product of class privilege which is in and of itself a racialised concept. Upwardly mobile transgender people have wider access to a range of costly medical and cosmetic interventions that can drastically increase their odds of passing and therefore increase both their quality of life and their life chances. What many non-trans people may not realize is the sheer amount of both financial means and time invested required for many transgender people to achieve any amount of successful passing ability. A transwomen may need hormone replacement therapy, significant amounts of laser hair removal, electrolysis, a tracheal shave, a vaginoplasty, facial feminization surgery, breast augmentation, a new wardrobe, an extensive makeup collection including concealers, and wigs in order to move through the world discretely. It goes without saying that the costs of all these interventions are significant. In Québec some of these procedures are covered for people who have RAMQ but many are not and, more importantly, people without healthcare have no coverage for any treatment whatsoever. Electrolysis, laser hair removal, tracheal shaves, and breast augmentation are all considered cosmetic and are therefore not covered by RAMQ, despite the fact that these surgeries are the ones typically relied on the most for « passing » purposes. Non-status migrants and those people without healthcare must pay upfront for everything. This leaves many people, especially trans migrants in desperate situations. Inaccessible and arbitrary healthcare practices leave countless people out in the cold.
There are a number of transgender people who question the concept of passing altogether. They believe that emphasis on passing reinstates harmful cis-gendered norms within the transgender community that negatively affect everyone, cisgender people included. Transgender lives should not increase in value as we appear more and more cisgendered. Our lives are always inherently valuable no matter what. One of the most beautiful things about trans communities is that we collectively demonstrate and prove the incredible diversity of gender embodiment and expression in humyn beings by just simply being us.
The dynamics of passing can also create competition and tension within trans-communities. We sometimes fall prey to evaluating each other based on cis-normative ideals and judging a person’s commitment or validity as transgender based on how hard they are trying to pass. It’s important to note that these attitudes come from cisnormativity but we still have the ability to perpetuate them on ourselves and each other. These attitudes not only contribute to transmisogyny, racism, and classism, fatphobia, and ableism amongst other things but also ignore that many people have no interest or desire to pass as cis-gendered. We are not failing nor less valuable when we do not pass.
In addition, passing can also contribute to a dynamic where transgender people who can move through the world as invisibly trans may distance themselves from others who don’t because they do not want to be “found out” which could be dangerous, or even because they no longer wish to associate with non-passing people. This unfortunately re-inforces hierarchies and makes community building difficult.
The « neutral » trans subject
There has been a growing tendency in liberal feminist discourse to speak of a neutral trans subject, a trans person removed from any material context who is “at risk.” (Namaste, 18, 2009) Popular feminist critics like Judith Butler for example speak about a “continuum of gendered violence across the trans-spectrum.” These types of uncritical analyses allow for super millionaire white celebrities like Caitlin Jenner who have bodyguards, mansions, unlimited amounts of cash, and complete access to gender affirming surgeries to understand themselves as oppressed. At a more grassroots level, generalized analyses can also allow trans-organizing to shift away from more radical models into liberal ones. At ASTTeQ, an organization that was started by transwomen sex workers living with HIV who were fighting for their lives, we are seeing more and more that the people who access our services are neither sex workers, HIV+, transfeminine, or even necessarily in financial dire straits. Not to say that transgender people all across the board do not need support (they often do), but only to say that moving from a specific context to a generalized one usually means the most privileged subsets of a population may begin to monopolize discourse and benefit from the available resources at the bereft of others.
In contrast to liberal analyses like Butler’s, Mirha Soleil Ross and Viviane Namaste point to a category of feminist analysis that recognizes the sheer amount of violence enacted against broke transfeminine sex workers of colour.
From Mirha Soleil Ross :
“I invite people to take a minute to look at the Web site for theTransgender Day of Remembrance. You’ll find four people from Toronto: Grayce Baxter, Shawn Keegan, Deanna Wilkinson, and Cassandra Do. They were all trans prostitutes who were murdered while working. According to the web site, they were killed because of “anti-transgender hate or prejudice.” But Grayce Baxter-who was a completely passable, post operative transsexual woman-was working as a genetic woman and was killed by a client who didn’t even know she was a transsexual. He learnt it from the newspapers’ headlines-“Transsexual Hooker Disappears”-before surrendering.” (Namaste, 17, 2009)
Mirha Soleil Ross and Viviane Namaste counter popular feminist discourse that mobilizes this neutral transgender subject by refusing to generalize. What they offer in its stead is an analysis of the regulation of public space which considers “not only the repression and violence against transvestites and transsexuals, but also that directed against the homeless, street vendors, and street prostitutes. In such a framework, violence against trans people is part of a continuum of violence against the poor and the disenfranchised in the broader context of global capital. The repression and displacement of “travestis” is linked to the forced removal of street people, prostitutes, and “undesirables” from specific sites. This process is enacted again and again with gentrification, heightened surveillance and policing policies, safe neighbourhood acts, and the increasing criminalization of poverty, homelessness, sex work.” (Namaste, 23, 2009)
As we honor and fight the violence that many transgender people have suffered, we must never forget the conditions and the context under which this violence has overwhelmingly taken place. To centre a “neutral” trans subject who experiences violence outside of colonialism, misogyny, racism, anti-sex work violence, anti-drug use violence, serophobia, mass imprisonment, classism, and the hatred of the poor is pretty much just gonna lead to a trans MRA tbh.
Chelsea Manning : Truth vs. Truth Telling
In many ways, Chelsea is the perfect figure of the transfeminine deceiver because not only is she “a man masquerading as a woman” but she is also a whistleblower inauthentically and illegally leaking classified documents into the public. For those who are unaware of Chelsea Manning, she is a United States Army soldier, who in 2010 leaked almost three quarter of a million classified and sensitive Army documents to Wikileaks. For these actions, Manning was ultimately convicted with 17 offenses and sentenced to a 35 year prison term. However, her term has recently been somewhat miraculously commuted and she is slated for release later this year.
Through an analysis of Chelsea’s story we can begin to break down and resist some of the more harmful transmisogynist ideas which cast transgender people as threats to be disarmed and punished. Her story is interesting because at the same time that she was thrown into the public eye for her whistleblowing activity, she was simultaneously coming out as a transwoman. When we compare these two processes side by side new points of analysis emerge that open up spaces for resistance.
Necessary to analyzing Chelsea’s story are the heavily regulated yet differing spheres of the private and the public. While these are obviously vague terms they can still help us understand a logic which motivates trans related punishment. “Whistleblowing” is an activity whereby information which is legally protected through systems of law within a private sphere (like for example classified military documents) is “leaked” by an unauthorized person outside of that regulated sphere into a separate public not legally entitled to view such information. As such, this illegal movement of information from the private to the public is understood as inauthentic. The person who facilitated this movement is usually punished for breaking the law.
Similarly, non-conforming genders and sexualities through systems of violence and hyper-visibility, are understood not only as inauthentic within public discourse, but also unfit to even appear. Street based violence and assault, the dual processes of hyper-visibility and non-recognition (OMG look at that faggot!!), and gender regulated public spaces (like washrooms for example) cumulatively act as not welcome here policies. These dynamics affect almost all visibly gender non-conforming individuals, but homeless and street-based trans sex-workers or drug users, people who spend the majority or all of their time in the public (no private home or place to escape to) are adversely affected. Modern anti-trans discourse promotes the idea that transgender people should not be allowed in public SPACE at all. Joseph Grabowski, one of the masterminds behind the “Free Speech Bus” which is touring America to promote the idea that biology is destiny, claimed that transgender people should not be recognized in public settings, “They can live that out privately.”
Chelsea, by both coming out as a transwoman and by leaking classified Army documents is challenging the regulation of private and public spaces and her positions within them. Through the eyes of power she is labeled a traitor both to the patriarchy (as she appears to renounce “manhood”) and as a patriot of the United States. In fact it is her very status as a transwoman that illegitimizes her whistleblowing, and it is her whistleblowing that questions her legitimacy as a transwoman.
Whistleblowing is often understood to rely on the power of truth, but Lida Maxwell argues that Chelsea Manning’s activities are more accurately described by a process she calls “truth-telling”. Unlike truth which is abstracted from both the person speaking the truth and the context from which it emerges, “truth telling” centers the individual and the actions she undertakes.
“Truth on the one hand is ultimately concerned with validity that is abstracted from any action or person that vaults the truth into the public sphere, while truth telling concerns both the persons and the actions that lead to moments of telling. Truth has the ability to re-instate the status quo – while truth telling has a much more profound potential, to transform both the person speaking and the public into which she speaks. Truth telling can transform the social order in such a way that someone previously considered illegitimate to speak the truth, may now become a proper truth-teller. It is in this sense that transformative truth-telling differs from whistleblowing. The whistleblower seeks to restore the social world by putting an end to deception, while the transformative truth-teller, through challenging our conception of proper truth-telling, seeks – at least in part – to imagine and build a new world.” (Maxwell, 2015)
In this sense, Chelsea is not necessarily concerned with “righting a wrong”, but is more invested in actions which challenge the notions of legitimacy and illegitimacy altogether. This is a process which seeks to transform and even eradicate the dominant order rather than reproduce it. Trans-inclusion policies in the Government for example, may one day allow for a transgender member of Parliament to like vote on omnibus bills to put more people in prison, but this does literally nothing to transform the violent nature of the State.
LIBERAL TRANS POLITICS IN A NEOLIBERAL AGE
Neoliberalism is a term that refers to a series of dramatic shifts in political practices and policies that have reshaped the current social landscape in the last 35 years or so. In as few words as possible, Neoliberal policies have pushed to the forefront political changes which have centered National debt, austerity measures, the war on terror, the rise of criminalization and immigration enforcement, the dismantling of welfare programs and trade unions, and an ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
In Canada, the Parliamentary process has come to be defined by massive Omnibus Bills which alter hundreds of policies in one quick swipe of the pen. Due to their size and scope, Omnibus Bills severely limit the process for debate and scrutiny in the House of Commons. In the last ten years, the passing of multiple large Omnibus Bills intended to encourage a massive growth in the structures of law enforcement, both in criminal punishment and immigration contexts have taken place. Some examples of these Bills include:
Bill C-10 was introduced in 2011 and it instituted mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking, sex crimes, child exploitation, and some violent offenses. It cut down on the possibility of conditional sentences and eliminated double time for time served. It implemented harsher sentences for young offenders and also eradicated the pardon system to put in its place the record suspension system which has many more barriers. It also allowed immigration officers to deny work permits to those at risk of being sexually expoited.
Bill C-36 was introduced in 2014 and criminalizes sex work. It specifically makes communication for the purposes of prostitution a criminal offense by criminalizing clients and restricting the advertising of sex work. It also criminalizes people who benefit from the money made off of sex work and makes almost all street-based sex work in “public” places illegal.
Bill C-51 was introduced in 2015 and set out to extend Canada’s anti-terrorism laws. It instituted information sharing amongst 17 Federal institutions, gave police extended powers to preventatively detain or restrict “terror” subjects, banned the promotion of terrorism, and gave CSIS new powers beyond simple observation.
Ironically, at the same time that we are seeing this incredible growth and economic investment in policing, imprisonment, surveillance, and the war on terror we are simultaneously hearing Neoliberal Governments arguing that the economy and paying off the “National Debt” are number one political concerns. The common tactic that Governments are using to respond to National Debt is the application of austerity measures, meaning the consistent slashing of social programs, health programs, and money to the community sector. So even though Governments like Canada have a supposed debt problem that needs to paid off, spending on the Defense budget has gone up 27% in the past decade, and spending on the Criminal Justice system has gone up 23% in the past decade.
In 2015 the Harper Government committed 292.6 million dollars in new funding to intelligence and security agencies to investigate and fight terrorism. In 2016 Canada Border Services received 77.4 million dollars in new funding to prevent the spreading of “weapons of mass destruction.” Several Immigration centers across the country are getting complete re-hauls. The hypocrisy evident in this kind of spending in an age of National debt and austerity is beyond obvious. The Liberals under Trudeau are seemingly much less concerned with balancing the books this year, yet it is important to note that even though in 2017 there has been no increase in spending on Defense, past spending increases made by Harper still stand. In the USA under Trump it is obviously a completely different scenario. His budget released in March 2017 proposes 54 billion dollars in reductions to “non-defense programs” and the defense budget is set to increase by ten percent, the largest increase since Reagan was in office. There is also, of course, the 4 billion dollars Trump is committing to the southern border wall.
In Canada, the application of these Neoliberal policies have had undeniable effects. The number of “visible minorities” in prison has increased by 75% in the past decade and white inmates have significantly declined. Even though the crime rates have been steadily decreasing in Canada in the past two decades, the prison population has increased from 12 000 inmates ten years ago to over 15 000 today. Close to a quarter of these inmates are indigenous people, and the incarceration rate for indigenous women in Canada is up by 80%. Over five million people in Canada live in poverty, that’s one in every seven people. Between 1980 and 2005, the average earnings among the poorest people in Canada fell by 20%.
In the face of a Neoliberal world, trans-activists have a choice to make. We can either choose to respond and fight back against the policies and changes that Neoliberalism is bringing, or we can go with the classic yuppie bullshit model and use Neoliberal logic to advance our goals and attempt to assimilate within the system. Bill C-16 which was introduced in the House of Commons in 2016, provides a perfect example of this kind of yuppie assimilation. The Bill adds “gender identity or expression” to the list of protected classes under the Canadian Human Rights Act. It supposedly protects transgender people (after the fact) from transphobic hate speech, but what it really does is increase criminalization, most likely against communities who are already criminalized. It does absolutely nothing to help transgender people get off the streets, get out of prison, gain financial autonomy, access education, or have a better quality of life. Hate crime laws have very little effect if any on the livelihood of any communities, except rich ones.
While Bill C-16 is being touted and waved around by the Government as a tremendous commitment to improving the livelihood of the transgender community, they simultaneously cut funding to transgender organizations doing on the ground support work to its most marginalized members. Bill C-16 gets voted in and ASTTeQ, an organization that has been supporting broke, HIV+, sex working, drug using, migrant, and homeless transgender people for almost 20 years, has its entire budget cut. How does an anti-hate speech law do anything for the thousands of transgender people who will be adversely affected by ASTTeQ shutting down? Short answer is: it doesn’t.
Furthermore, ASTTeQ was not the only community organization affected by these cuts, many longstanding HIV organizations, including the Canadian Aboriginal Aids Network and the Canadian Aids Society, which collectively represent over 100 organizations had their budgets significantly cut. What is rarely mentioned is how the increasing criminalization of immigration, sex work, HIV “non-disclosure”, the endless war on people who use drugs, and the ever expanding war on terror severely limit the life chances of many of the most marginalized people within and outside of the transgender community.
As the modern liberal transgender movement fights for inclusion into white capitalist society, they will become predictably preoccupied with electing a transgender official into government, getting more transgender police, lobbying for easier laws to change identity documents for Citizens only, pushing Governments to adopt hate crime laws, and trying to rise up the corporate ladder. I just read an article last night about a transgender woman who was explaining how coming out as transgender made her a better C.I.A officer. I actually barfed on myself. We have finally reached the moment where transgender assimilation is possible. We must stay vigilant. When we celebrate every supposed “success” through policy, we must ask ourselves how this fits into the bigger picture of resistance and who exactly the policy prioritizes and who it forgets.
Any trans-politics that centers inclusion into dominant society, will only ever reproduce the system. It will create a privileged class of transgender people who are able to climb up the ranks, while the rest of us continue to swim in open water, trying not to drown.
STREET TRANSVESTITE ACTION REVOLUTIONARIES
In thinking about ways to move forward and challenge this trend toward assimilation, I think its important to remember the historic roots of trans and queer struggle as a movement that actively sought to transform societal conditions, redistribute wealth and power, and centered the livelihoods of those people who are the most marginalized within society. I think actually Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries or S.T.A.R. is a rich example of trans activism that resisted assimilation and centered a politics of solidarity.
“Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were not respectable queers, nor were they poster-children for the modern image of “gay” or “transgender.” They were poor, gender-variant women of color, street-based sex workers, with confrontational, revolutionary politics and, in contrast to the often abstract and traditionally political activists of Gay Activists Alliance, focused on the immediate concerns of the most oppressed gay populations: “street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time” (Sylvia
Rivera quoted in Feinberg ). Within the predominantly white, non-gender-variant, middle-class, reformist gay liberation movement, Sylvia and Marsha were often marginalized, both for their racial, gender, and class statuses, and for their no-compromise attitudes toward gay revolutionary struggle.” (Nothing, 6)
After participating in the Stonewall Riots and fighting back against police brutality, Sylvia and Marsha implicated themselves heavily in the burgeoning gay and lesbian activist communities that were forming in and around New York City. Sylvia was an extremely active member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), two groups forming in the wake of Stonewall. S.T.A.R. was formed in 1970 partly in response to the limitations of the GLF and the GAA which were focusing their efforts on getting the first ever gay rights bill adopted in New York City. Pissed and disillusioned that the language of the bill, which both Sylvia and Marsha fought for, offered no protection whatsoever for drag queens, sex workers, and street-involved people, S.T.A.R. put its efforts elsewhere.
“With the dropping of transvestites from the New York antidiscrimination bill – which Sylvia was arrested climbing the walls of City Hall in a dress and high heels to crash a meeting on (Wilchins) and which she attacked a Greenwich Village councilwoman with a clipboard in the service of (Highleyman) – the gay liberation movement turned toward assimilation and reform and began to distance itself from revolutionaries, street people, queers of color, and gender-variant individuals.” (Nothing, 8)
From the beginning, survival, as both an attempt to provide for the basic needs of living and as a tension toward self-defense and offensive struggle against a society that threatened them, was central to all of S.T.A.R.’s activities, and is key in understanding their positions in the conflict within the gay liberation movement. The immediate concerns of life – food, housing, money, safety – were central to all of S.T.A.R.’s projects. Sylvia and Marsha – who, in a common practice amongst street queens and queer sex workers, had secretly turned hotel rooms into temporary communal living spaces, sometimes for 50 or more people, began work on self-organizing spaces and projects to provide for their needs and those of other street kids.
Equally important to establishing living situations and securing food was the need for self-defense against bashers and police. The generalized sharing of skills amongst queer street kids and sex workers focused heavily on discerning what situations were safe and which weren’t, and protecting each other from police. Police and imprisonment were violent and intense, especially for broke street queens.
“It is no surprise then, that S.T.A.R. originated in the frustration with gay liberationists’ failure to confront police at NYU; that S.T.A.R.’s first public appearance was at a Young Lords demonstration against police repression; that Sylvia’s impassioned 1973 speech indicted the gay liberation and women’s movements for forgetting its prisoners of war; or that, upon reentering gay struggle in the 90s, Sylvia focused on police violence against Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima, in addition to the murders of Matthew Shepard and Amanda Milan. Sylvia’s attitudes on the police are clear: “We always felt that the police were the real enemy. We expected nothing better than to be treated like we were animals-and we were.” (Nothing, 10)
At the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day rally in Washington Square Park. Blocked from speaking and physically attacked by cisgender feminists for parodying womanhood, Sylvia stormed onto the stage, grabbed the mic, and confronted the audience for its whiteness, class privilege, and lack of concern for prisoners.
Y’ALL BETTER QUIET DOWN
SYLVIA RIVERA’S SPEECH AT THE 1973 CHRISTOPHER STREET LIBERATION DAY RALLY:
Y’all better quiet down.
I’ve been trying to get up here all day, for your gay brothers and your gay sisters in jail! They’re writing me every motherfuckin’ week and ask for your help, and you all don’t do a god damn thing for them. Have you ever been beaten up and raped in jail? Now think about it. They’ve been beaten up and raped, after they had to spend much of their money in jail to get their self home and try to get their sex change. The women have tried to fight for their sex changes, or to become women of the women’s liberation. And they write STAR, not the women’s group. They do not write women. They do not write men. They write STAR, because we’re trying to do something for them. I have been to jail. I have been raped and beaten many times, by men, heterosexual men that do not belong in the homosexual shelter. But do you do anything for them? No! You all tell me, go and hide my tail between my legs.
I will no longer put up with this shit.
I have been beaten.
I have had my nose broken.
I have been thrown in jail.
I have lost my job.
I have lost my apartment
For gay liberation, and you all treat me this way?
What the fuck’s wrong with you all?
Think about that!
I do not believe in a revolution, but you all do. I believe in the Gay Power. I believe in us getting our rights, or else I would not be out there fighting for our rights. That’s all I wanted to say to you people. If you all want to know about the people in jail – and do not forget Bambi L’Amour, Andorra Marks, Kenny Messner, and other gay people in jail – come and see the people at STAR House on Twelfth Street on 640 East Twelfth Street between B and C apartment 14. The people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white, middle-class white club. And that’s what you all belong to! Revolution now! Gimme a ‘G’! Gimme an ‘A’! Gimme a ‘Y’! Gimme a ‘P’! Gimme an ‘O’! Gimme a ‘W’! Gimme an ‘E! Gimme an ‘R’! huh— Gay power. Louder! Gay Power!”
Betcher, Talia Mae, 2007, “Evil Deceivers and Make Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion.” Hypatia, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer 2007, p. 43-65, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/218001
Chambers, Lori, 2007, “Unprincipled Exclusions: Feminist Theory, Transgender Jurisprudence, and Kimberly Nixon.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 19., N. 2, 2007, p. 305-334, muse.jhu.edu/article/240046.
Maxwell, Lida. “Truth in Public: Chelsea Manning, Gender Identity, and the Politics of Truth-Telling.” Theory & Event, vol. 18 no. 1, 2015. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/566093.
Namaste, Viviane. “Undoing Theory: The ‘Transgender Question’ and the Epistemic Violence of Anglo-American Feminist Theory.” Hypatia, vol. 24, no. 3, 2009, pp. 11–32., http://www.jstor.org/stable/20618162.
Nothing, Ehn, “Queens Against Society.” In Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries: Survival, Revolt, and Queer Antagonist Struggle. Untorelli Press, p. 3-11, https://untorellipress.noblogs.org/files/2011/12/STAR.pdf