Friday 31-03-2017 - 11:01
Today marks Trans Day of Visibility. Along with Trans Day of Remembrance (20 Nov) and LGBT+ History Month (Feb), its one of the key dates of the trans calendar.
Reflecting on the recent LGBT+ History Month, it was astonishing how much of trans people’s history has been erased and made invisible. Many LGBT+ societies posted pictures of LGBT+ people from history and most of the trans people featured were alive today. It's been said by some that trans people ‘don’t have a history’, as if we emerged out of the ether sometime in the 1960s.
The reality is trans people had a vibrant history of activism and scholarship before then. Germany’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, led by Magnus Hirschfeld, had collated a vast sum of writing, literature and activism around trans issues by the 1920s and early 1930s. This archive was famously burned by the Nazis when they came to power – although the fact that the books burned were related to trans people is relatively unknown. Through book burning, as well as other acts of violence and repression, trans people were literally erased from history and rendered invisible.
This process of violently enforcing invisibility on to trans people is one that is ongoing. It’s the same process that says that trans people must ‘pass’ as cisgender in order to be acceptable, the same process that denies the need for gender neutral toilets, or even questions our status as ‘real people’. This isn’t just an ideological question about the nature of gender, but an attack on our right to exist in public spaces.
Trans people are made invisible, but in other ways, we are hyper-visible. Trans people who move through the world ‘looking trans’ feel the eyes of strangers, the whispers and sniggers of people on the bus and unfortunately, sometimes violent harassment. Visibility itself can also be a violent process: the fact that the other day on the trans activist calendar is one for remembering our dead, mostly trans sex workers and trans people of colour, it is evident that sometimes visibility can get us killed.
This is why Trans Day of Visibility often sits uncomfortably. Trans people have an often complex and strained relationship with visibility which is at odds with a day that seems to support a narrative that all visibility is a good thing. It has a tendency towards ‘awareness’, and a creeping imperative to come out of the closet and be proud. Awareness isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t always good either: TERFs and fascists are increasingly aware of trans people, and they are organising against us.
The problem with Trans Day of Visibility is that it places the responsibility on the individual trans person themselves to be visible, to educate others, to come out and be proud of themselves. There is little effort to look at the social environment and challenge narratives that make it unsafe for us to be visible. There is no focus on creating environments in which trans people can be sheltered from visibility if that’s what they need to feel secure. This is where our priorities must lie.
In the run up to Trans Day of Visibility, be aware that visibility isn’t for every trans person. But solidarity is for everyone.
Along with Transgender Day of Remembrance, on 20 November.
NUS Trans Campaign