Terfs Are Marginal in France. A New Media Platform Plans to Keep It That Way
Liberté, egalité, transfemininité.
by Olly Haynes
14 June 2022
Looking at the camera, a young blonde woman standing on a Paris street instructs her audience: “Trans men are men, trans women are women […] trans capitalists are capitalists.” “The trans argument for socialism” was the second video XY Media – France’s first media organisation centring transfeminist perspectives – published to its YouTube channel in February 2021. In the video, Sasha Yaropolskaya, one of XY’s founders, critiques the contemporary strain of identity politics that prioritises representation above all else and argues that the material issues faced by trans people cannot be solved under capitalism.
The slick visual is typical of XY’s output, both in its colourful style and political emphasis. The organisation’s goal is to inject “a materialist vision of politics into our community,” Alba Estebénet, a 24-year-old activist and journalist for XY, tells me over Zoom. “We’d like young LGBT people to grow up as revolutionary activists, rather than internet-based identity activists.”
XY Media came together in early 2021 after its founders met at a virtual trans support group set up to combat loneliness during Covid-19 lockdowns. Yaropolskaya, 25, fled transphobic persecution from a republic in the north Caucasus in 2019. She met five other trans 20-somethings at the support group and decided to create a space for trans people to talk to each other. “It was one of the most depressing times in the recent history of the trans community,” says Yaropolskaya, speaking to me in a local bar near XY’s office in Bagnolet, a town on the eastern outskirts of Paris. “We were getting suicides of trans people every couple of months.”
There was also an increase in transphobic media coverage, such as a 2020 segment titled: “My 8-year-old son is a girl” and broadcast on France’s biggest domestic network, TFI. “We were scared that on the political level the right would try [to] create more moral panics about trans people, and that transphobia would become institutionalised like in the United Kingdom and the United States,” says Yaropolskaya. XY, she explains, was an attempt to “counter the reactionary wave”.
The organisation now has more than 11,000 subscribers on YouTube after just one year on the platform. It employs six people on a part-time basis and has two rotating internships for trans students of film or journalism, bankrolled by a crowdfunding campaign and grants from LGBTQ+ charities. Although predominantly visual, with content including short reported monologues and explainers delivered by XY’s own journalists and longer interviews with activists and political figures, XY also publishes written features on their website such as a recent examination of the life of trans poet Ovida Delect.
Estebénet met Yarapolskaya through student activism, joining XY just two weeks after it started to help with admin and picking up journalism skills along the way. She says that transphobic politics remain marginal in France. “They’re trying to import the British debate, the talking points, the same lexicon and strategies […] but they can’t make it mainstream here,” she observes. “[O]ur own bigots are too busy being Islamophobic to go deep on transphobia.”
Another reason transphobic talking points haven’t caught on, says Estebénet, is that trans and LGBTQ+ rights have been a pillar of the French feminist movement for decades. Although still fairly liberal in character, the mainstream LGBTQ+ movement has fairly radical elements. In the 1990s, one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ organisations, the Aids activism group Act Up Paris, campaigned for trans rights, as well as advocating on behalf of sex workers and drug users through direct action. “The Terfs were not able to divide our movements like in the UK,” says Estebénet.
What transphobia does exist has mostly boosted XY’s profile. At a pride march in Paris in 2021 a small contingent of trans-exclusionary radical feminists joined with anti-trans banners, Yaropolskaya attempted to rip one, before being detained by police. Scenes of the scuffle went viral. Yaropolskaya was subject to trolling, but also received a wave of support; XY’s founders increased the target on their crowdfunder from €12,000 to €50,000. In the end, they raised €90,000 (£76,754).
XY’s office is situated in Seine-Saint-Denis, France’s poorest mainland département (an administrative division similar to British counties). The district’s population is among France’s most racially diverse; XY’s output reflects this. In one early XY video a woman using only her first name, Rosalind, delivers an arresting monologue on the complexities of being trans and Black. She examines both the homonationalism of LGBTQ+ groups and the homophobia and transphobia of Black communities, without essentialising either in a way that would allow her narrative to “be captured by other political forces”.
Rosalind details how her experience as a Black trans woman gives her a unique perspective on the intersections between these groups: “I used to be a black man and there are certain kinds of behaviour that are socially tolerated towards black men, such as being [stopped and searched],” she tells viewers. “Since my transition, I am no longer searched in the street, but I have other fears instead”.
XY sees its brief as covering intersecting issues. They have produced videos on the Cuban health system and the repression faced by Muslim women in France. Before the 2022 election, they ran an interview with Youcef Brakni, an antiracist activist. The reason, says Rosalind, is because these are all ultimately trans issues:
“If you are trans you have difficulties accessing jobs, you might have a problem accessing housing,” she says. “There are some trans people who are immigrants, and they have all the problems relating to that. Being a trans person isn’t just putting on clothes but […] being subjected to all the worst consequences of capitalism”. Estebénet adds that because XY is “against the police, against the neoliberal state, [groups affected by these phenomena] need to fight alongside each other”. In her view, showing different groups that you have the same interests “is how you learn to live alongside one another.”
XY has big plans for the future, including a documentary series on France’s overseas territories; the Indian Ocean island of Réunion recently held its first pride march last year, and XY intends to shine a light on the experience of LGBTQ+ people there.
Yet it isn’t just for political education that audiences are turning to XY, but for practical advice. The platform has produced videos on living with HIV/AIDs, and another on the dangers of self-administered, non-medical silicone. Paolée Baunez is a fan of the platform and a volunteer for Front de libération transfem (FLIRT), a transfeminist mutual aid group. She says she appreciates these more practical videos “because most [of the] media do not have a lot of information about trans identity and certainly don’t understand our existence”. She hopes to see more practical content coming out of XY on subjects like how to access disability benefits and tutorials for administering oestrogen safely.
Whatever XY does, it will be concerned with trans people’s material realities, not simply their identities. Being trans is “not just some kind of metaphysical thing,” says Rosalind. “It’s about how you fit into society”.
Olly Haynes is a freelance journalist covering politics, culture and social movements.