50.50: Opinion

Anti-trans activism by some UK queer people is shocking and damaging

The alarming wave of anti-trans activism in the West threatens to undermine rights in less privileged parts of the world

Levan Berianidze
31 March 2021, 12.01am
Bianka, a transgender woman from Georgia, was murdered in her home in 2016.
Photo by George Nebieridze. All rights reserved.

I am a non-binary LGBTQI feminist activist from Georgia in the South Caucasus, at the intersection of eastern Europe and western Asia. Homophobia is rampant here: queer people face violence and marginalisation in all aspects of their lives.

But the experience of members of the trans community is unparalleled. Many trans women are forced into sex work to survive, and even fear walking outside during the day. Many others have had to flee the country to escape its conservative brutality.

I am therefore shocked by the role of some 'LGB' (lesbian, gay and bisexual) activists in recent assaults against trans rights in the UK and elsewhere in the West. Disturbingly, these assaults appear to be gaining political power and threaten to reintroduce conservative ideas about gender and sexuality that could have a damaging effect on global feminist and LGBTQI movements.

The West continues to dominate global politics, and remains a key reference point for people around the world. This neoconservative wave of anti-trans activism has the potential to not only undermine rights in the West, but to spread internationally – and roll back victories that movements elsewhere have struggled to achieve.

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The mere existence of transgender people is itself a form of resistance

Since 2012, I have been organising LGBTQI rallies (the first of their kind) in Georgia. I was previously executive director at Equality Movement, the country’s largest and most influential LGBTQI rights group. I also founded Horoom, a series of queer events including club nights that have helped to build an independent, non-formal and non-hierarchical queer community. We’ve had thousands of attendees and created one of the most important safe spaces for mobilising, educating and empowering LGBTQI youth.

As an activist and academic, I know that the early instigators of much LGBTQI rights activism in the West have been the most marginalised, including trans women and queer people of colour. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were the initial leaders of the US movement that emerged out of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, had a revolutionary vision: queer liberation and justice for all.

It is painful to see how the global LGBTQI rights movement has been co-opted by white LGB people, neoliberal ideology and a politics of respectability and assimilation. This attempts to portray queer sexualities as normal and respectable, stressing their similarities to heterosexuality. Instead of challenging the oppressive division of people into heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals, this kind of politics seeks integration into the heteronormative system, which remains intact.

It focuses on issues such as equal marriage rights for same-sex couples and LGBT integration into the US army, rather than challenging these historically problematic institutions. Marriage is a system based on – and which sustains – heteronormative gender and sexuality. The army is a tool of imperialism, death and suffering.

Queer liberation and justice for all

In contrast, the mere existence of transgender people is itself a form of resistance against the false ‘naturalness’ of a sex-gender-sexuality system that produces gendered and sexed bodies and identities in a binary and hierarchical manner, often defined through socially mandatory heterosexuality.

Reinvigorated attempts to marginalise trans people in the UK are another unfortunate illustration of what many LGBTQI movements have become: places that serve the interests of a few privileged lesbians and gays while excluding trans and gender non-conforming people, queers of colour, and poor and immigrant queer people.

The results of these trends are devastating. White, middle-class, cisgender lesbians and gays have gained protection from the state and more social acceptability, while other queer people, especially Black trans women, have faced disproportionally high rates of violence, police brutality, poverty and homelessness.

It is essential to criticise transphobia among feminist and LGB movements. Social justice movements must be places where the most marginalised voices are centred and amplified and where demands for queer justice are made – from transforming education, police, healthcare and immigration to democratic and equitable sharing of power, resources, wealth and respect.

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