Part 6: Trans issues as labor issues
Because wealthy white queer people are given the most visibility within the “LGBT” community, straight working people are often given the false idea that being queer is a pursuit of the idle rich. This is an unfortunate misconception but a classic example of the way that capitalism divides and conquers. It is also a phenomenon that repeats itself with trans people. We get mixed up with queer people (even though we do overlap sometimes) and then our costly hormones & surgeries are piled on to create the impression that we’re only “changing sexes” because we’re bored rich wankers passing time. On the rare chance that someone remembers there are poor trans people (often of color), of course, then class-based bigotry deploys itself in a patriarchal vein— the wide swath of destitute trans folk gets swept aside for being sex workers, because fuck, who wants to help out a sex worker? Eyeroll…
Anyway, if you are a cis working person and you are hoping to actually involve trans people in your labor struggles, this is good, because you should be doing this. This is not simply to make labor movements “more inclusive,” although that sentiment is noble, but because many trans issues are labor issues. We are discriminated against in hiring, in promotions, and in raises. We are fired or laid off unjustly. We have to do risky jobs to survive, often. So think about the way you currently relate to trans people, the language you use that can feed systemic transphobia, and how you can personally make your labor activism more appealing to trans workers.
Here is a lengthy collection of suggestions for cis allies with a radical labor mindset.
DO help respect trans friends, coworkers, and fellow activists by correcting people who use the wrong name or pronouns for those individuals, rather than making those individuals constantly self-advocate.
DO make sure you always use the right name and pronouns for any trans person, if you know their preference; when you get in the habit, it becomes easy… she has a shadow? he has boobs? Shouldn’t matter. If you want to be treated with respect you have to show it. You’ve gotta start thinking of people as the gender they are, not the one they were born into. Otherwise we’re not gonna want to be around you. Talking to a trans guy shouldn’t be different from talking to a cis guy, and likewise for girls.
DO respect people’s requests about distinguishing terms like “female-to-male,” “male-to-female,” “FTM,” “MTF,” “trans man,” “trans woman,” “transman,” and “transwoman.” To some of us, different terms like those are great and others are offensive. These days, usually “trans man” and “trans woman” are the safest default.
DO in a radical, “safe” environment, politely ask someone, “Could you please tell me your preferred pronouns?” if you’d like to make sure, not, “Hey, are you a man or a woman?”
DO in a more questionably safe environment, make the best guess on pronouns that you can, and if you’re corrected explicitly, apologize quickly, and use the correct pronouns, then move on.
DO honor requests for specific gender-neutral pronouns like ze/hir.
DO apply what you may already know about feminist gender theory to your daily discussions; using sexist language with trans people easily makes us uncomfortable, and even if we’re not around, that language feeds the vicious cycle of misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.
DO call out others’ transphobia when you see it, monitor it in the workplace, and be prepared to respond with direct action to workplace discrimination.
DO use trans-inclusive speech in general political discussion, e.g. don’t say abortion is a women’s issue, because it is an issue for anyone who can become pregnant.
DO give compliments on a trans person’s appearance like you would for anyone else, such as, “I love your jacket,” or, “You look pretty today!”— not stuff like “in that outfit I would never guess you were trans!” And don’t be too overbearing with any comments if you don’t want to get a rep as a tr*nny chaser.
DO listen to grievances that trans people raise in any setting, and trust their experiences; no one knows what they’re going through better than them.
DO politely, privately offer to advocate for trans people who have a grievance they’re too intimidated to raise on their own.
DO be aware that context makes a huge difference in any of these described situations.
DO be ready to accept correction.
DO own your cis privilege.
DO offer trans-specific aid in outreach to poor/working communities, such as medical services or routes to obtaining them, legal aid for discrimination cases, housing assistance, and so forth.
DO consider having a genderqueer dance party or another social event— maybe a drag costume party, something fun to break the ice; let people know that you’re not all about work and still let people know you’re on their side.
DO relax! We don’t want to spook you. The reality is you won’t get along with every trans person to the extent that you won’t get along with everyone period. But it’s important to give respect. Most importantly we’re people just like you, with tastes and preferences, histories and hopes, strengths and defects, trust and mistrust, greed and generosity; we’re afraid of being awkward but usually very sociable and fun loving and have the same desires to be happy and comfortable in our skin as everyone else.
DON’T “out” anyone you know who’s trans to anyone this person has not specifically said you could out them to. If you can tell then you can tell, but other times you won’t be able to. If you’re gay then you’ve been in situations with your straight friends that are like, “My friend is gay. Yeah, that’s right, I love my friend Ingrid even if she is gay and I don’t care who knows, isn’t that right, Ingrid?” We don’t like being outed either and frankly whether someone’s a boy or a girl is none of someone’s business in the end. Getting to know a person is central when it comes to such personal details, and you don’t necessarily know the depths of how much you could be hurting someone even if you’re trying to help.
DON’T use phrases or language that implicitly invalidate someone’s stated and/or expressed gender.
DON’T use any names or pronouns for a trans person besides what they have asked you to use, unless they’ve given exceptions for what to use around people from their past whom they’re not out with, etc.
DON’T ask a trans person to explain why they are their gender without an invitation.
DON’T ask a trans person about their surgical or hormonal status without an invitation.
DON’T assume that someone else’s name or pronoun “slip-up” is benign; it could have been a passive-aggressive, even threatening attack, and no matter how accidental, it could still have produced a dangerous emotional or material effect.
DON’T grope a trans person, not even in humor. In fact, just don’t grope anyone, but it can take on particular dangerous connotations with us.
DON’T make jokes about trans people or about people who clearly exhibit trans traits.
DON’T force your assistance on a trans person, even if they might objectively need it. It’s patronizing.
DON’T assume you can apply everything about one trans person’s life to another’s.
DON’T assume it’s safe to say words/phrases like “tr*nny,” “ladyboy,” “chick with a dick,” “boy with boobs,” even if you have trans friends who are okay with those terms.
DON’T exclude trans women from women-only spaces or trans men from men-only spaces, no matter how progressive those spaces’ intent or what rationale you’ve invented, whether this is a concert, a support group, a domestic violence shelter, ANYTHING.
DON’T make every conversation like a Gender Studies program. It’s not like this stuff isn’t an issue but sometimes we just wanna talk about regular stuff. Earrings, cute boys, celebrities, anything except “when did you know?, what are you?, are you out to your parents? are you out to your boy/girlfriend?” etc. Remember we’re PEOPLE who are transgender, not just transgender people.
… If you follow these kinds of guidelines, you are much more likely to make your collective, event, union, organization, etc. feel welcoming to trans people, and in your efforts to organize the working class as a whole, it is much more likely that trans people will see you understand the issues they deal with.
Kate Bornstein: Gender Outlaw
Riki Anne Wilkins: Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender
Julia Serano: Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
Leslie Feinberg: Drag King Dreams
This concludes my trans 101 for Wobblies series, but I just wanted to add that last but not least, if you are a Fellow Worker questioning your gender and you think you want to talk it over with someone, I’m always glad to talk. You can find me via the private Boston IWW e-mail list.