How Mutual Aid Is Reaching Its Limits for Transgender People in the UK
Demand always outstrips supply.
by June Bellebono
3 November 2022
“It wasn’t solely just financial help and support with food,” says 25-year-old Freddy. They’re referring to the £100 they received at the beginning of 2022 from Trans Mutual Aid Manchester (TMAM), a grassroots, transgender-led mutual aid group that has been operating in Manchester since 2020. “Unbeknownst to them, they were a massive source of hope and inspiration for me to come out. They helped me feel so much less alone.”
Freddy was newly out as trans and in a precarious financial situation when they discovered TMAM after attending one of their clothes swap events. Although they had reached out for support, there was a long waiting list at their local food bank. TMAM plugged the gap.
“It made such a lifesaving difference,” they say. “I was already suffering greatly with my mental health, and the stress of not being able to afford to live or eat was crushing me on top of that. […] Having that support from my community was invaluable – it made me feel connected and supported [at] a time of huge isolation.”
When they first applied for funding from TMAM, Freddy initially requested £30. TMAM offered them £100 which, alongside weekly free food deliveries by Queer Family Tea – a Manchester community group offering food deliveries to LGBTQ+ people – enabled them to survive a difficult period.
Freddy is one of many trans people who find themselves relying on community support for survival. Transphobia in the UK is not limited to the cultural sphere: a 2021 survey by TransActual revealed that 27% of respondents had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, and 70% stated their access to general healthcare services was impacted by transphobia (these numbers are even higher for trans people of colour and disabled trans people).
Trans people are also more likely to be unemployed, in precarious work or in the position of hiding their identity at work, with one 2018 report finding that one in three employers were “less likely” to hire an ‘out’ trans person. This environment – and the rising cost of living – means groups at the sharp end of inequality are far more likely to need state welfare support, which falls grossly short.
The lack of state provision means many trans people end up seeking community support. This has prompted spikes in fundraising pages on websites such as GoFundMe: the tag ‘transgender uk’ currently results in over 700 live crowdfunders. The website also published ‘The Ultimate Guide for Gender Confirmation Surgery’ promoting fundraising as an answer to funding gender-affirming treatments. Social media has further seen the normalisation of crowdfunding individuals publicly sharing intimate ‘trauma narratives’ to convince strangers they are worthy of monetary support.
Mutual aid networks, similarly to crowdfunders, operate from a place of wealth redistribution, but are more centralised and often cover the sharing of resources which aren’t just financial. The driving factor is to promote a ‘solidarity not charity’ ethos with the aim of building a horizontal network that actively challenges the oppressive structures. A practice with an ancient history, mutual aid networks now represent a lifeline for many trans people, and more and more are popping up: from localised ones, to needs-specific national ones covering particular aspects of scarcity people are facing.
G(end)er Swap, which launched in 2017 as a clothes swap space in London and now operates nationally, works to alleviate costs of social transition for trans and gender non conforming people who wish to explore different forms of self-expression. Santiago ‘Santi’ Sorrenti, who founded the group after questioning their gender identity and realising how unaffordable building a whole new wardrobe from scratch was, tells Novara Media the group also runs initiatives such as a programme which “supports trans women in prison with clothes and transitional items”. The social cost of transitioning is often forgotten; groups like G(end)er Swap are key in ensuring trans people can access gender-affirming items such as binders, wigs and underwear.
For those running mutual aid funds, demand almost always outstrips supply. “[The biggest challenge is] the fact we can’t help everyone,” says Shash Appan, founder of Trans Aid Cymru (TAC), a group serving trans, intersex and nonbinary people in Wales. Most of the group’s funding goes towards helping people with food and bills, rather than gender related care, Appan tells me. “More recently, with cost of living struggles, the housing crisis, high rent prices, [and] absurd landlord requests, more and more trans people are coming to us for help.”
Trans Aid Cymru began in June 2020 after the Conservative government scrapped promised reforms of the Gender Recognition Act – “we realised electoralism isn’t going to save us in the short term,” says Appan – and offers a range of services alongside grants, including access to resources, a GP map and casework advice. The work is demanding. “We were tired [when TAC started] and still are pretty tired, to be honest,” Appan adds. The inability to help everyone who needs it is taxing. “That is always what takes its toll”.
I know what she means; I’ve a personal stake in this space. I was a co-organiser of a Covid-19 hardship fund for LGBTQ+ people of colour in 2020 and, more recently, mutual aid funds administered through grassroots group We Exist. Just like Traid Aid Cymru, We Exist receives regular messages from both individuals in need and service providers reaching out on behalf of patients and clients asking for assistance. The demand is simply not in proportion to what can be offered, quickly crushing the will to ‘do good’ with the realisation that your (unpaid) hours and efforts to help people only manage to reach a tiny percentage of those needing help, with many more left disappointed
As the general wealth and resources of the trans community decreases further thanks to the external economic pressure and transphobic climate, it becomes more obvious that a dependence on mutual aid is unsustainable. Mutual aid is meant to be an alternative to government negligence, where individuals support each other in lieu of the state, but as it stands, the trans community is too deprived of resources and the aid it’s able to provide is way too scarce. At a time of such systematic disadvantage, reliance on other forms of support is necessary, whether in the form of a reform, or of committed efforts from the left.
Wanting to challenge this set up, LGBTQ+ community shelter, centre and domestic abuse refuge The Outside Project (TOP) operates “to counter some of the conditions which force people to rely on small and informal mutual aid networks in order to survive,” says TOP representative, Laurel. The initiative campaigns for queer and trans provisions in the homelessness sector, acquiring resources from central and local governmental funding, as well as organisational and individual donors, without losing the roots of its mission.
Through TOP’s work, it’s become apparent what state reforms are most immediately needed to alleviate pressures on the trans community and beyond, says Laurel. Policies that ensure genuinely free, accessible healthcare (without a four year wait for a first appointment, and the streamlining of bureaucratic processes, such as the administration needed for an identity change, are a start, as well as rent caps and a more efficient benefits system.
While trans mutual aid is acting as a life raft for many, it also demonstrates how trans communities are left behind by wider organising.
Mutual aid works if the provision of support is done by someone with the necessary resources and capacity: at the start of Covid-19 we saw plenty of mutual aid groups where young and able-bodied people went shopping for at-risk folks. The same dynamic does not currently exist in trans mutual aid; it relies on under-resourced trans people supporting other under-resourced trans people.
“We can’t live on constantly sending £10 out of the community to fix emergencies” says Ada Cable, advocate for Queercare – an autonomous transfeminist care organisation providing UK-wide training, support and advocacy. “Doing efficient mutual aid requires capital investment, or at least large-scale purchasing to reduce the amount we’re losing.”
Consistent infrastructural support is key for trans organisers to keep doing the vital work. But with an increasing transphobic climate, amid a wider economic crisis, the need for solidarity interventions from people outside the community is more urgent than ever.
June Bellebono is a community organiser and editor of oestrogeneration magazine.