We Don’t Need Visibility, We Need Solidarity
Yesterday was Transgender Day of Visibility. This is a day that I have very mixed feelings about, as do many other trans women. TDOV was started in 2009 by Rachel Crandall as an attempt to set aside a day to celebrate and acknowledge the lives of trans people. Prior to the promotion of TDOV, trans people had already marked a day of the year specifically for recognizing trans people. Since 1999, trans people have used November 20th as Transgender Day of Rememberance, a day to memorialize those in our community who have been killed by anti-trans violence. Crandall has stated that she promoted TDOV as a way of moving beyond the “negativity” of TDOR in hopes that trans people could “to focus on all the good things in the trans community, instead of just remembering those who were lost.”
Since 2009, TDOV has grown significantly in prominence. In its earliest years, the event was largely online in nature and focused on spreading images or stories of trans people to literally increase visibility. The event quickly grew beyond this with in person events emerging in the US, UK, and Canada. Now, president Biden has even gone so far as to issue a presidential proclamation recognizing TDOV and decrying violence against transgender women of color in particular, while calling for an end to discrimination against transgender people. Playing up the idea of making transgender people more visibile, Biden also praised his administration for nominating and confirming a trans woman to the position of assistant health secretary.
While Biden’s proclamation has gotten plenty of media attention, it is not actually anything new. Of course we did not see recognition of TDOV from President Trump, but Biden is simply continuing the legacy of the Obama presidency which twice recognized TDOV. This is interesting, because it indicates the extent to which national politicians paying lip service to trans people in the name of visibility is nothing novel. More importantly, it shows us how little this visibility actually does to affect the lives of trans people. Despite the fact that Biden is making the same kind of statements Obama was making nearly 10 years ago in 2012, trans people have continued to be subjected to intense violence with the rate of annually murdered trans people moving steadily upward since the days of Obama’s original proclamations. Furthermore, trans people are facing an overwhelming cultural backlash, with numerous states seeking to pass legislation specifically designed to make the lives of trans youth more difficult by excluding them from gender-appropriate extra-curricular activities and even trying to ban access to transition related and life-saving healthcare. In the face of such repression both in terms of state legislation and in terms of acute violence, we might wonder exactly how much yet another statement to boost our visibility actually does to make our lives better and alleviate the violence we face.
Trans people are, at this moment, extremely visible. This visibility goes beyond presidential proclamations and federal appointees. Since the establishment of TDOV in 2009, trans people have managed to garner a fair bit of attention in an attempt to increase our visibility. In 2014, Time Magazine coined the turn Transgender Tipping Point to describe a cultural moment in which trans people had risen to national prominence. The concept of the tipping point paid particular attention to an increase of trans people in pop culture, pointing to figures like Laverne Cox. The term would gain further popularity, with the rise of controversial trans figures such as Caitlyn Jenner also contextualized as an instance of this tipping point. The framework of the Transgender Tipping Point basically assumed that American society was finally being forced to contend with the existence of transgender people due to increased visibility, representation, and prominence of transgender people in the everyday cultural fabric of America. This concept of the Tipping Point also assumed that this increased visibility would lead to garnering further political rights. In 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges secured the right to gay marriage nationally. This led many to speculate that with this progress in gay rights, trans rights were logically going to be the next battleground in the slow march of social progress.
This optimism and emphasis on visibility and representation which underpinned the Tipping Point framework was unfortunately extremely off target. In 2016, the United States elected far right president Donald Trump, leading to an emboldened reactionary turn in US culture on the whole. Whatever social progress was made through increased visibility was quickly turned on its head. The visibility of trans people was quickly turned into a weapon to be wielded against us. Trump, the GOP, and the grassroots reactionary movement that was emboldened by them all began to attack trans people are part of a strategy of culture war. In order to rally their base around obviously destructive policy, the right began to attack trans people both in terms of legislation and enforcement rulings of existing federal laws as well as through creating a culture of fear around trans people. Images of trans women depicted as hulking men in dresses began to be circulated in right wing memes as well as in ads opposing trans rights ordinance or supporting discriminatory ordinances such as so called “bathroom bills.” The visibility of trans people was thus used as a rally point for reactionaries to distract their base from material realities of increasing poverty in the United States and to rally instead around reactionary social attitudes.
Now in 2021, what should be clear is that a strategy focused on visibility and representation was a total failure. On the one hand, the social shifts which occurred during the years of the Trump administration show how thoroughly visibility can be turned into a weapon used to attack a specific group. The idea that social progress would necessarily follow from increased visibility was based on a sort of naive liberal optimism that emerged from the Obama years. Liberals assumed that the legal gains made under Obama’s presidency would continue as part of a broader arch of social progress. The Trump years proved this wrong. On the other hand, we must make sure we don’t assume that Trump’s electoral loss and the return of a nominally liberal president will put us back on the path of progress. After all, for all their language about visibility, neither Obama or Biden have actually alleviated the suffering, oppression, and exploitation of trans people in any meaningful way. What good does do trans federal appointees do if trans women are still murdered at increasing rates and still imprisoned with men as a matter of federal policy? What good does a presidential proclamation do when trans people’s access to healthcare and social support is still heavily dependent on local and state ordinances that liberals are too cowardly to oppose through overarching federal protections? The increased visibility of trans people has at best failed to turn into actual material change for trans people and at worst has created the basis for a reactionary backlash against us.
These failures are a result of the fact that the entire liberal framework of visibility and representation is flawed. It is a framework that distracts us from the real forms of violence that trans people face in order to persuade us to settle for hollow cultural victories. The visibility framework is, at its core, a liberal strategy designed to silence us and make sure we do not demand the sweeping and overarching social overhauls that would be necessary to alleviate anti-trans violence.
The visibility framework makes several false and dangerous presumptions. First it assumes that the problems trans people face stem from a general public ignorance. The idea is that making the lives of trans people more visible to the general public almost automatically create support for trans people as it will normalize trans lives in the eyes of the public. As a result of this first presumption, visibility politics maintains that the way to achieve progress is to fight for greater visibility and representation of trans people in culture more broadly and in politics.
These presumptions are ultimately incorrect and have undermined strategies for achieving trans liberation. Increased public visibility has not led to an increased normalization; instead, it has led to reactionary rallying as American society swings further and further to the right. The increased visibility of trans people has not led to sympathy from the general public but to an intense backlash. Furthermore, representation has not created actual changes for everyday trans women. While some trans people who work in entertainment or politics may have gained access to money and power, this has not translated into gains for the majority of working class trans people. A few rich and famous trans women has not fixed the problems of intense economic exploitation the rest face, and a few powerful trans politicians has not undone the state repression that trans people face either. This should not surprise us; the visibility framework is a liberal strategy that eschews organization of the masses of oppressed people in favor of increased representation of an elite view. Such a strategy can never benefit the majority of trans people.
If we actually attend to the problems that trans people face we quickly find that these are not the sort of problems which can be overcome through a strategy of visibility. Transgender people, primarily indigenous, Black, and Latina trans women face significant systemic violence, exploitation, and discrimination. A 2015 survey from National Women’s Law Center found that “43 percent of Latinx respondents lived in poverty in 2015, 41 percent of American Indian respondents lived in poverty in 2015… [and] 38 percent of Black respondents lived in poverty in 2015.” This rate likely stems from a broader systemic problem of employment discrimination. The National LGBT Task Force has found that the trans unemployment rate hovers around double the national unemployment rate, and that “transgender workers are nearly four times more likely than the population as a whole to have a household income of under $10,000.” The same findings report that consistent employment discrimination has been a contributing factor to this problem, as it has forced trans people to settle for the worst and most exploitative jobs in particular. Many trans people have also been forced to look for work outside of the official economy or within the grey economy, leading to significant overrepresentation of transgender people within sex work. According to findings from The National Center for Transgender Equality, 69% of trans sex workers reported some form of employment discrimination with 25% of trans sex workers reporting unemployment.
All of these numbers attest to an important fact: the majority of trans people are members of the working class or lumpen class. Black, Indigenous, and Latina trans women in particular are not only largely working class, but on the margins of the working class itself. These women face extremely high levels of discrimination and underemployment within the official economy and are overrepresented within sex work. These women work some of the lower pay and most exploitative jobs out there, and have little protection from mistreatment. Furthermore, these workers are subject to state repression at very high rates, with the NCTE study finding that 64% of trans sex workers reported mistreatment from police in the form of physical and sexual assault. 39.6% of these workers who had ended up in the legal system reported mistreatment from judges and court staff. Within this population, Trans people of color were twice as likely of being arrested as white workers. 58.8% of these workers reported being jailed or imprisoned. This attests to the fact that trans people are largely working class and largely overpoliced. This over policing and incarceration is particularly problematic as trans women are federally and in most states incarcerated in mens prisons where physical and sexual assault by inmates and corrections staff constitute a consistent problem.
When we look at these material realities that trans people face, we can start to understand the inadequacy of a strategy of visibility. These numbers make it clear that trans people suffer under the regime of capitalism and that the white supremacist carceral and policing system of the United States is a crucial site of anti-trans violence. The struggle against anti-trans violence cannot succeed if it is reliant on merely raising awareness of trans people. Representation and visibility have not and will not trickle down into material and systemic change.
The conditions which produce the exploitation and oppression of trans people are material in nature. Capitalism creates the conditions in which workers are reliant upon a wage and kept on the verge of starvation or imprisonment in order to force them to take terrible and exploitative jobs. The state and its carceral functions are at their core about maintaining the class rule of the capitalists and ensuring that even further exploited workforces within prisons can be maintained. The enemy of trans people is not invisibility, it is capitalism. Only combating the capitalist system that exploits, marginalizes, and imprisons trans people can ever lead to real systemic change. The struggle against white supremacy and the various material institutions through which it perpetuates itself is also of the utmost importance. Anti-trans violence in the United States is situated at the intersection of capitalist exploitation, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-indigenous, and misogynistic ideologies which all perpetuate violence and repression.
If you chose to celebrate TDOV yesterday, that is your choice, but it is important that moving forward we understand the liberalism and utter insufficiency of a strategy of visibility. It does not matter if politicians like Biden pay lip service to our oppression so long as they perpetuate the capitalist system which creates that oppression in the first place. Furthermore, visibility is often a potential gift to reactionary forces as it allows them to rally around cultural anti-trans attitudes. If we are to fight for the liberation of trans people we must fight in solidarity with the masses against capitalism itself. This requires a strategy that moves beyond visibility and representation. It requires a strategy that builds solidarity between trans workers themselves and between the working class more broadly to struggle for an end to capitalism. We have to conceptualize trans liberation as a matter of liberation from capitalism and the carceral state it produces. We must reject a focus on cultural change or a naive belief in continual progress as a result of spotlighting from liberal politicians. Real progress comes only from solidarity and struggle against capitalist oppression and exploitation.