What does being a Trans activist mean?
Mostly it means surviving and still being here in a world that often doesn't want us. That is Trans activism on the very deepest and realest level.
Sometimes that's about taking a visible stand for ourselves and each other, and often it's about trying not to be so visible.
Trans activism has this really complicated relationship with visibility, because it’s part of our resistance, our survival, but it can also lead to greatly increased violence which makes surviving a lot harder.
But being visible means standing up for myself and all the other Trans folks here and saying; enough is enough, we are here and we are sick of being treated as subhuman. We will stand up and take space until we are afforded basic levels of humanity.
It's about making visible the amount of violence that we face day to day just trying to live our lives, and about centring the safety of those of us who face most of that violence - Trans women, Trans folks of colour, disabled Trans folks and those of us who are most visibly gender non-conforming.
At its best, being visible also sets an example for younger folks who are grappling with their gender and who they are, that need people to look up to and see themselves represented in. We need visible Trans people who are proud of who they are. In being visible we provide the opportunity for other Trans folks to imagine their possible futures, we literally make different futures possible, in the here and now. Trans people need to be represented through more than our deaths or our fight to survive, we need visibility of Trans joy alongside our suffering. I wish I'd had more of that growing up.
Trans activism isn't just about Trans people though, as at its core Trans rights are really about reproductive justice and bodily autonomy. We often experience the sharp end of the spectrum of violence by a system that wants to control all sorts of bodies. When policies are created to police Trans bodies - they are used to police *all* bodies; through healthcare services, toilets or just getting a haircut. It's in everybody's interest to support Trans people's activism to gain control of our bodies and our narratives.
How did you get into activism?
I got into activism through the climate movement, but I was always a queer, disabled, brown, feminist in that space, and spent years working within the movement to address its issues with racism, ableism, classism, colonialism and patriarchy while also trying to protect the planet from the worst forms of resource extraction and exploitation. I think there are real parallels in the way that humans extract from the planet and create borders and control to police populations in service of profit, and the way that humans extract what they need from the bodies of people, and create borders between our bodies, and control us in service of profit.
Many of the ways we understand and categorise people in the modern world were constructed explicitly by Northern Europe in order to justify their project of global dominance and wealth accumulation (colonialism) via industrial capitalism in the 19th century; they needed a workforce to deliver that expansion and extraction from the planet, and there were certain types of bodies that were deemed useful or not useful in that conquest. The colonisers assigned value to different human life to morally justify to themselves the degradation and dehumanisation of different peoples in pursuit of personal wealth. A key function of that dehumanisation was to reduce people to bodies, and to reduce bodies to a vessel of labour, a tool of production. Black bodies were enslaved to provide free (and forced) labour to expand the extraction of resources for Europe, while disabled people were deemed unfit as they couldn't produce labour needed in an industrial workforce, LGBTQ+ people were deemed immoral because we weren't able to reproduce for the workforce that was needed for industrial expansion.
So I got into activism through wanting to prevent the destruction of our natural world in pursuit of profit, and always knew that liberating our bodies was intrinsically bound up in that fight.
Can you tell us about one of your greatest activism moments?
I think there's a complexity in this question for me, in a very traditional sense it was running a campaign at the end of 2018 around the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) consultation that was going on. It was a government consultation to better understand how to update the GRA (which is the Act that outlines the way that Trans folks can legally change our gender) because it's widely recognised that the process is both outdated and oppressive to Trans people. Unfortunately, it has kicked off a wave of real anti-Trans vitriol in the UK and further afield. I could see that there were a lot of people who supported Trans people but who weren't taking action to support us; both because the consultation itself was cumbersome and complicated, and because the main messaging of Trans-ally organisations wasn't reaching people and answering their questions. Transphobic narratives were winning; and people were getting scared that Trans rights were in conflict with women's rights; that wasn't and isn't true – many Trans folks *are* women, and many of the questions being raised about concerns for women's safety are totally legitimate but affect Trans folks too. One of the most terrifying spaces for Trans people to be in is a toilet or a changing room, and that's what most of the questions about women's safety are about too. The main responses that were getting traction though, were statements like "Trans lives are not up for debate". This is a really great message of solidarity from an ally to a Trans person, but it's not been helping us get to the heart of mobilising support in the current climate because it (a) suggests that Trans people are different from women, (b) doesn't acknowledge that Trans lives are being debated whether or not we are engaging in the conversation (and if we are not at the table we are on the menu!) and (c) it doesn't speak to the very real fear that we are all feeling right now in a political context where hate crimes are rapidly increasing and we are all carrying a lot of fear with us. I really wanted to intervene in the narrative and say; "your fear is real, but under patriarchy we are *all* scared in the face of violence in public and private spaces, so we need to unite". I didn't have any money or resources to do that so I just pulled in advice, favours and time from friends and friends of friends and with a lot of help from great people, including the excellent feminist campaign organisation Level Up, managed to launch a campaign video that got over 80,000 views in 4 days and led to an extra 7,500 people filling in the consultation in support of Trans rights.
The reason that this question is complicated for me though is because that's a very public piece of activism that people see and can say "yeah 7500 people, that's a lot!" but actually as a Trans person – just walking around day to day is a constant form of activism that feels like a great struggle and a greatest moment all the time. Whether I'm trying to get a haircut, or thinking about dating, or just walking home – doing those things as a Trans person is scary, and doing them with pride is a constant form of activism. It helps change people and spaces for the people that come after me. A tangible example is that I have a spine impairment and have been told for years that pilates will help me manage the symptoms of chronic pain and lack of mobility but I've been too scared to go to a class because of being Trans. I started going to one this year, and without ever having spoken to the teacher she's visibly trying really hard to adjust her gendered language and approach to teaching because she sees my body in the space and knows it's different. That's the sort of activism that it's taken years for me to have the confidence to do, and really that I'm most proud of. I'm proud of getting to a point in my life where I can be proud.
What’s the greatest challenge facing the Trans community right now?
The greatest challenge is that part of the feminist movement in the UK (and globally) right now is pitting our lives against the lives of non-Trans women and stirring up a hostile environment for Trans people to live. It's no coincidence that since they've been mobilising against Trans rights in the UK in the last few years that anti-Trans hate crimes have gone up by 81%. It hurts especially hard because it comes from within the movement that Trans people have been fighting for decades. Our fights are the same, and yet a small but vocal section of the movement is gaining a lot of ground in chasing us out, not just of feminist politics but of public space. This has two terrifying effects: (a) it bolsters the rise of the far right and an authoritarian approach to bodily autonomy that we are seeing all around the world at the moment and (b) it leads to horrific levels of violence and hate crimes directed at Trans people. It literally kills people, especially Trans women of colour and sex workers.
How do you think change will come about?
Trans folks are already speaking up as much as we can on and offline for our survival and getting beaten down for it constantly. So I think change will come about when people who support Trans folks start speaking out more publicly about that. I think what the GRA campaign taught me is that my hunch on this is right; there are a lot more people out there who want to support us than don't but people (a) don't realise how dire and hard it is for us to exist safely and access the world in the ways other people get to and (b) who are scared to speak up because they don't know what to say, or are scared of the harassment they'll get if they do speak up. This is because they see the ways that Transphobic feminists and their friends violently troll and harass people who speak up for Trans rights online when they say anything to support Trans people. So I think more allies being brave enough to speak up and speak out and show that these anti-Trans voices are small and not relevant will really help. One of the most significant ways to do this is next time you have a conversation with someone who says something like "but if Trans people get their rights, what about the safety of women" – instead of thinking the best thing you can say as an ally is "that's Transphobic, and Trans lives aren't up for debate", recognise that the person's fear is okay – they just need help finding a more accurate answer to the problem. Trans people aren't punching lesbians on buses in the middle of London, and we are just as scared of toilets as you (if not more!) – so help people to find different answers. Change will come about when our allies get better at engaging people in challenging conversations to realise that we are fighting for the same rights and against shared problems like patriarchy, borders, domestic violence, ableism, racism and control of our bodies. We need more visible support, and we need it now.
Nim Ralph is a trans activist and freelance writer, trainer & facilitator. They campaign actively for queer and trans rights and organise extensively around issues related to anti-racism, disability and the environment. You can find more of their work on twitter: @NMRLPH