With trans issues gaining increasing visibility in the media and the formal political arena, a reactionary backlash has surged in response to deride, undermine and (sometimes violently) repress the voices of trans communities.
From fascists marching on university campuses in the US, to hate crimes escalating in the wake of Brexit, to non-binary people ridiculed on daytime television and in the press, to a doubling-down on discriminatory practices that deny us access to restrooms, employment and healthcare, the right of trans people to exist in public spaces is increasingly under threat.
This backlash forms part of a broader attack on the scope of our public resources under the rubric of neoliberalism. Higher education is a key site of contention around trans politics, with advances in this context often deemed a result of entitled, fanciful, free speech-infringing, social science pretension. Examining the relationship between HE institutions and trans discrimination is therefore an essential part of building a counter-narrative of materialist transfeminism that can further illuminate the mechanics of exclusion underpinning capitalist society, the specific material realities of trans life, and horizons for our collective liberation.
1. Universities can be liberatory spaces for trans people…
For both queer and trans people, university can offer a sanctuary from LGBTQIA+ exclusionary nuclear family units, providing a space to explore, discover and unshackle our identities in ways we’d not previously imagined or thought possible. The habitual fear and sense of shame entailed by self-policing and concealing our identities to maintain the favour of our families and communities, often to preserve our material security, can be mitigated by the range of academic possibilities, social spaces and political groups present at university.
2. …But universities also reproduce societal oppressions.
However, our educational institutions are also not only bounded by societal oppression and inequality, but actively complicit in reproducing these power dynamics. We need only look at agency franchises like Unitemps, and how they have propagated and normalised precarious work in and around HE institutions across the country, to recognise this. With the severe neoliberalisation of the HE sector in recent decades, the role of universities as institutions encouraging subversive thought and critical enquiry has been further curtailed, as any (if only abstract) commitment to servicing the public good has been superseded by a ruthless concern for the bottom line in a competing market of educational businesses. This entails a programme of cuts, attacks on working conditions, and privatisation which falls hardest on marginalised people – including trans communities – with the needs of these communities subordinated to the interests of profit.
3. Transphobia is embedded in all society’s institutions…
The material reality of many trans people’s lives is bleak. We are a demographic with astronomically high rates of suicide, disproportionately high levels of mental illness and homelessness due to widespread prejudice, and we – particularly trans people of colour – are the subject of intense and frequent street harassment, gendered violence and hate crime. Such structural transphobia is intimately bound up with queer oppression and misogyny, deepened acutely by welfare reforms, NHS privatisation, casualisation of work, intensifying state control in the form of prison expansion and border militarisation, and so on.
4. … But trans students face specific discrimination within universities.
We must refute the dominant narrative that frames trans (and particularly non-binary) identity as an abstract novelty coddled by universities, severed from and an enigma in ‘ordinary’ society. This is an inherently othering narrative – of extravagant cultural sideshows, elitist affectations and decadent lifestylism – which has been weaponised against LGBTQIA+ communities for decades, and which has re-emerged on campuses with the consolidation of lad culture and conservative, alt-right ideology premised upon the denigration of social justice activism.
Half of all trans students have considered dropping out of their courses, and a third have experienced bullying or harassment at university. Under profit-driven logic, gender studies departments and courses are luxuries to be cut, specialist gender training for mental health and support services unaffordable expenses, bursaries and grants for marginalised students (i.e. those dispossessed from family resources due to transphobia) undue costs, gender neutral facilities and changing rooms superfluous. More trans students than ever are forced into highly precarious work due to escalating financial hardship, compelling us to repress our gender identities so as to not render ourselves vulnerable to discriminatory and unscrupulous employers who will devalue, punish and dispose most readily of those deemed ‘undesirable’ by society.
Spaces for collective association and support infrastructures for trans students are sparse or non-existent. We are more and more alienated and atomised from one another, and traditional institutions of social justice – i.e. trade unions – have been decimated by neo-liberal reforms, with power forcibly redistributed from the community to a managerial and corporate elite. A heightened police presence on campus is intimidating to marginalised students who have always been disproportionately targeted by police abuse and violence, as our universities and public spaces become increasingly securitised.
Few universities opt to permit non-normative, self-certified gender identification in student records, whilst constricting bureaucracy and relentless monitoring and registration practices proliferate. Misgendering occurs relentlessly. University healthcare services that trans students disproportionately rely upon are desperately overstretched, underfunded and understaffed. The installation of gender neutral toilets on campus often requires an overwhelming political struggle. Entrenched undercurrents of trans exclusionary radical feminist (Terf) ideology perpetuate a culture of academia from which trans people are written out of existence and belonging, with trans histories and narratives marginalised. HE institutions are corporate monoliths wherein trans lives are statistical anomalies to be overlooked. Education-as-job-training does not liberate our human potential.
5. Trans liberation and free education are interdependent.
Developing the conversation around trans liberation is an essential task for the student movement to undertake in order to envision a wholly liberatory vision of free education which properly combats and uproots institutional transphobia, grapples with the full extent and nuances of gendered oppression, and honours the autonomy and emancipation of trans communities. Connections must be forged with groups such as Action for Trans Health and Bent Bars in order to confront the multifaceted oppression of trans people which course through all layers of society, from healthcare to prison to education.
Our vision of liberation cannot simply mean refuge for the (generally) more materially advantaged sections of trans people attending university, but a much more fundamental transformation of society. This necessitates grappling with the fact that oppression does not only occur within the walls of our institutions, but that universities themselves can often act as agents of oppression within broader society, reproducing gentrification, knowledge gatekeeping, corporate interests, conservative orthodoxy, social stratification, and imperialism. Ultimately, free education and trans liberation must be interdependent demands.