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Fighting for trans and queer liberation

Responding to the backlash

Below is a transcript from the Tempest Collective sponsored panel on April 24, 2022. Keegan O’Brien, who facilitated the discussion with Kristen Godfrey, Isabelle, Ash Terry, and Eric Maroney, shared some thoughts in writing immediately following the event, which are presented here by way of an introduction.

What’s most terrifying about the current wave of legislative attacks targeting trans and queer youth isn’t just the qualitative shift in intensity, from policing bathrooms to, literally, criminalizing trans people’s right to even exist. It’s the complete absence of an organized, grassroots response in comparison to the scale of attacks from some of the most powerful political institutions and well-funded right-wing forces in the country.

The corporate-funded, top-down advocacy groups that dominate the LGBTQ movement have been tied to the Democratic Party and a legalistic strategy overly reliant on lobbyists and lawyers for decades. The fact that they aren’t calling for national mobilizations and mass direct actions campaigns isn’t at all surprising; movement-building strategies, and confrontational tactics are completely foreign to them.

What does surprise me, is how swiftly the radical, defiant spirit of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) uprising, and the tremendous influence it had on the trans and queer liberation movement, has virtually evaporated. Where are the national mobilizations to occupy and shut down the state capitols in Texas and Florida? Or the modern-day Freedom Rides from New York and California to stand in solidarity with trans youth in Arizona and Oklahoma? Most of the organizing coalitions, to the extent that they existed in the first place, have dissolved, often torn apart by vicious infighting. As one comrade put it, a circular firing squad of “my oppression is worse than yours.” Many activists who only a couple of years ago were leading BLM demonstrations and championing the demands of trans liberation along with prison abolition are now more concerned with building their own social media brand and becoming internet celebrities, completely divorced from any broader movement-building strategies or democratic, member-led organizations.

In an era where major segments of the ruling class have fully embraced a strategy of neoliberal identity politics as a method of movement co-optation, it’s pretty astounding how rapidly the political horizons of what’s deemed possible can be narrowed and shrunk. How quick radical sound bites and rhetoric (center Black trans voices, support for reparations, etc.) can be hollowed out, devoid of revolutionary content, and detached from any kind of politics or strategy that legitimately challenges institutions of corporate power or undermines the structures of class and racial hierarchy in a fundamental way.

We desperately need a revival of the militancy and solidarity, the belief that our liberation is bound together, that we witnessed in 2020 as historic numbers marched in cities across the country, confronting police, taking over the streets, shutting down business as usual, in defense of Black, trans and queer lives. A beautiful, intersectional coalition of working-class and oppressed people, in all our racial and gender variance, made this country ungovernable in 2020. How can the trans and queer movement, and the radical and socialist Left more broadly, become more politically prepared and better organized to help usher in and harness that potential again?

Keegan O’Brien: Welcome this afternoon to the Tempest public forum titled “Responding to the backlash: Fighting for trans and queer liberation.” We’ve got a really fantastic lineup of speakers here this afternoon. My name’s Keegan, by the way. I’m a high school teacher based in Brooklyn, New York, and also a member of the Tempest Collective.

We’re going to have our panelists start the meeting off by sharing eight-to ten-minute statements. And then we are going to turn it over and open it to a collective political discussion incorporating everyone else who’s logged in.

Before I go ahead and introduce everyone, I’m going to just take a few minutes to provide a little context and a bit of an explanation as to why the Tempest Collective has decided to put together this panel today. For those who may not be aware, the Tempest Collective is a revolutionary socialist organizing project made up of comrades from across the country who are involved in a whole variety of social and economic justice struggles, as well as aiming to rebuild a revolutionary socialist current today in the United States. With that said, let’s take a moment to set the context for today’s event and give a little bit of explanation of why Tempest has decided to put this event together.

To start, I actually want to turn back the clock a little bit for a moment to 2014. Time magazine had just debuted their cover story “The transgender tipping point,” featuring a cover photo of Black transgender actress and all-around powerhouse Laverne Cox. With a series of state-by-state victories leading to the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that legalized same-sex marriage, it seemed a dam, a political dam, was breaking. Within the span of just a few years, transgender representation in popular media underwent a seismic shift along with the number of significant legal victories on a state and federal level in education, healthcare, and employment, while an enormous gap remained between the level of cultural representation and the material reality of daily life for most trans people.

For most trans people, especially when class and race are taken into account, it seemed that years of on-the-ground patient grassroots organizing was paying off and that a different future was possibly within reach.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 changed all of that. The far right was empowered and well-funded from the highest institutions of political power. Trans people, particularly trans youth, were in the crosshairs. From so-called bathroom bills to Trump’s transgender military ban, hundreds of anti-LGBTQ legislative proposals made their way into law on state and federal levels.

Posted graphic from the June 19, 2020 international day of action for Black Trans Lives. Toronto, Canada. Image by Jason Hargrove.

Then, in the summer of 2020, an anti-racist rebellion erupted across the country in response to the state-sponsored police murder of George Floyd, with Black trans and queer organizers at the forefront of those movements. Within weeks, the uprising gave birth to a new frontier in the struggle for trans liberation. As dozens of demonstrations were held across the country, drawing tens of thousands into the street under the banner of trans liberation, from Boston to New York and San Francisco, a new generation, fed up with the corporatized, whitewashed politics that have dominated mainstream gay activism, unapologetically demanded “Black Trans Lives Matter” in what was by far the largest demonstration for trans rights in U.S. history. The summer of 2020 marked a turning point from which there is no going back.

Fast forward to now, nearly two years into the Biden administration. We are witnessing yet another wave of attacks from the highest levels of government. From Texas to Florida, the far right is aiming to scapegoat trans and queer people for the social catastrophe brought about by decades of neoliberal privatization and to undermine young trans people’s very right to even exist.

In response, we’re witnessing the complete absence of an organized national grassroots reaction. Most mainstream LGBT and civil rights organizations unfortunately remain committed to a top-down, corporate-friendly lobbying strategy, and minimal long-term organizational infrastructure remains in the aftermath of 2020’s uprising.

While we’ve seen stirrings of grassroots protests, like the workplace actions at Disney opposing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, they’ve been short-lived and oftentimes disconnected from one another and overshadowed by predominantly legalistic strategy relying on lawyers, professional lobbyists, and politicians from the Democratic Party.

This panel is just a small and very modest step at seeking to overcome some of those barriers by bringing together trans and queer socialists and activists from across the country to unpack why these attacks are happening and to begin to strategize how we can build a movement in defense of trans lives, connected and in solidarity with other struggles for social and economic justice.

So this afternoon, we’ve got an incredible lineup of panelists, and I’m going to go through and just take a moment to introduce each of them. First is Kristen Godfrey. They’re a Black, non-binary community organizer and social worker. They’re a member of the Tempest collective and a co-founding member of Thompson house Tucson, a socialist organization and mutual aid collective based in Arizona.

We also have Isabelle who is an intersex activist writer, athlete, and coach from Rochester, New York now living in Portland, Oregon.

Ash Terry is a student at the University of Texas and organizes with the grassroots network Tear It Up and is a member of Trans Resistance of Texas. Both groups have been at the forefront of important activism in defense of trans lives based in Texas.

Eric Maroney is a transgender organizer and an active union member with the AFT. He teaches community college at the University of Connecticut and is also a member of the Tempest Collective.

Ash is going to start us off.

Ash Terry: Okay. So like Keegan said, I’m Ash. I’m with Trans Resistance of Texas, or TROT, which is an affiliate of Tear It Up.

So I guess a little background first, on what’s been going on in Texas. On February 21, attorney general Ken Paxton published a non-binding legal opinion stating that giving gender-affirming care to minors is child abuse. And then the next day, Governor Greg Abbott, through executive action, ordered the Department of Family and Protective Services, or the DFPS, to investigate the families of trans children for such “abuse.”

And in the following days, he ordered the agency to prosecute for this as far back as 30 years and also ordered mandated reporters, including teachers, therapists, and social workers to report all transgender children as though they were being abused, which would potentially out trans kids in unsafe home environments. A lot of teachers and social workers, including social workers working for the DFPS, quit their jobs or publicly stated that they would not comply with this order. Some families decided to flee the state, but nonprofits jumped into action to meet the needs of the families who were staying. Lawyers across the state, reached out to Lambda Legal to provide free or low-cost representation of the families affected.

The ACLU sued on behalf of one of the families under investigation and won a temporary statewide injunction while the policy is under review, meaning that the DFPS is temporarily halting their investigations. The judge presiding over the case said that Abbott’s actions were “beyond the scope of his authority and unconstitutional.”

The case will be heard at a later date and may make its way to the Texas Supreme Court. It should be worth mentioning that this didn’t happen in a void. Texas is kind of weird in that the legislature only convenes on odd-number years. And last year, it was a legislative year. So, in 2021, Republicans introduced seventy-five anti-LGBT bills across the normal session and three special sessions.

Only one of those 75 passed, which was a sports ban for trans youth. Of note among these bills were several that would have done via the legislature what the governor did by an executive order. They failed to pass the legislature, but one of the Republican legislators involved with those prompted Ken Paxton to write the legal opinion that kicked all this off in the first place. So to echo the judge from earlier, Abbott and others are overreaching the boundary of their office to further cruel party goals and score cheap political points at the expense of trans kids. Like literally children. So that’s basically the backdrop of what’s been going on here.

I had personally sat out the 2021 legislative session, but this executive order lit a fire in me immediately. It was so dystopian and cruel that I just had to do something. I got to work immediately. First I reached out to some friends. We were all unaffiliated with any activist group at the time.

We organized a protest at the state Capitol on March 1. Altogether, we had the right sets of skills to make it work. But we were in the end an odd mish-mash of random trans people who had just had enough; we were just fed up and we did what we could with what we had.

So pretty quickly, as we started organizing, other organizations started reaching out to us, which I personally didn’t expect. I fully expected some random people to go it alone, but we had people donating water. We had people coming to play music. We had people offering food. We had street medics offering to help.

And then some members of the DSA reached out to us and offered their help as well. One of their members made a website that allowed users to send a letter to their state legislative representatives and the governor, and another one led our marshalls. Equality Texas and the ACLU made showings at the first demonstration.

And for later demonstrations, Equality Texas offered material support. In the end, on March 1, some 350 people showed up. We got news coverage from every major local station and Vice also made a showing. I think they were just in town doing a story on just what’s going on in general.

One of the local schools gave the kids an excused absence if they attended the protest. We had a showing from about a dozen elementary schoolers and their parents in solidarity with their trans classmates. One thing that personally surprised me was the contingent of Christians present. I grew up in the church, the Baptist church, and they weren’t exactly accepting of people like me.

So it kind of took me aback when I found out how many had shown up. We had clergy come in from across the state to show support, and a lot of their congregations came with them. I’m not sure about the situation in other states, but down here in Texas, it seems we have some eager allies in progressive Christians.

I got involved with another group after this first one was over. And this one became Tear It Up. It was full of seasoned activists, and we organized the second protest on March 13 at the governor’s mansion. This one had a lineup of about ten speakers, trans folks from Texas who were heavily involved in the community, as well as some musical acts from a couple of talented allies.

The planning of this event went much more smoothly, and I learned a lot of valuable lessons from this work. For this one, we were able to interview a trans girl, she must’ve been about ten years old. And we got some recordings to play it from the speakers. So those recordings really drove home to me, the weight of what’s going on. There was one little soundbite where her mother asked what she had done the other day. And she said, “Oh, you know, the usual stuff. I went to school, I played with friends, and then I was planning to hang out with one friend after school, but she said that I had to talk to a lawyer,” and the audio cut off.

She was just ten years old. And her parents were having to explain to her that the government was, you know, trying to break up their family. They were trying to send her into foster care. Really, really drove it home. And if I think about it for too long, it kind of ruins my mood. But about the same-sized crowd showed up to this one as the first one. It went off very peaceful. There was some weirdness, but it did end up, you know peacefully, nobody got hurt. And everybody played their part perfectly. And then with TROT, we organized a die-in in on March 31. This one was a lot smaller, a lot lower key, but more dramatic. We showed up, listened to a speech, and laid down on the Capitol steps as though dead.

We were there. There were are only about a dozen of us. And aside from the state troopers telling us we couldn’t use our fake blood, it went off without a hitch. There was a little weirdness at all of these protests like counter protestors and such, but all in all, we’ve been very busy trying to have our voices heard.

Photo by Quinn Dombroski.

But this is only the beginning. So first we’re going to have to wait and see what the courts say about the legality of Abbott’s order. And then next year we’re going to have to fight like hell once the legislature convenes again, at least if this trend of anti-trans bills keeps up for much longer. For now, we’re doing all that we can. The ACLU and Lambda Legal are fighting like hell in court. Other nonprofits are supporting families and funding the work of smaller grassroots organizations. We’re building a community.

We’re getting to know each other, our strengths and our ideas. We’re shouting at the top of our lungs at those in power. And I just hope that they’ll heed us. Protests are probably one of the best ways to have our voices heard. We’re not just lone people sending out tweets into the void. We’re not sending out emails to a congressman’s bloated inbox that some poor underpaid intern has to sift through to send out an automated reply.

We’re on TV, we’re in the papers, local and national. We’re loud, and they can hear us. So we’ve got a lot of work ahead and a lot of politicking. We’re going to have to learn to fight smart and fight dirty if we want to win. I do have hope for Texas, though. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but I do think it’s going to get better.

We have drive, we have momentum, and we have powerful allies. So I think we have a pretty good chance of winning. So for anyone who wants to get involved, go to We’re organizing all across the country. If there’s some fuckery going on in your state, there’s a good chance that we are there. There’s also a donate link, so if you can’t donate time, then you can donate money. So that’s all I’ve got. Thank you for your time.

Kristen Godfrey: Thank you. Hi, y’all, thanks for having me. My name is Kristen Godfrey. I use they and she pronouns, and I’m living in Tucson. I’m on O’odham land. So I’m gonna give a little summary of what’s been happening in Arizona, and talk through some of the ways that I’m hoping that together we can push us to have more solidarity efforts and be in struggle together.

So on March 30, Governor Doug Ducey signed two anti-trans bills into law, one of them being SP 1138. It bans types of medical care for trans youth. An example includes that trans young people cannot get gender-affirming surgeries before the age of 18.

And then he also signed SB 1165, which prevents trans kids from participating in sports, specifically not competing in women’s and girls’ teams at schools in the state, and this is going to affect public schools and private schools who play public schools. I also think it’s really important to include the fact that he also signed a 15-week abortion bill in figuring out the connections about how this is a fight against queer and trans people, intersex people, and cis women.

And I want to talk about what pushback has been like in the state, but I also need y’all’s help in staying hopeful, but it’s been pretty grim, too. I mean, what Ash was talking about, all the protests that have been happening on the ground, that has been lacking in the state of Arizona.

I’m hoping that in this talk today, it can be more of a call to action and demanding that we connect this fight to other movements to increase our solidarity efforts. What would it look like to not leave a Palestine protest or a Black Lives Matter Protest without talking about these anti-trans bills and how they’re connected?

What would it look like to show up for all this union organizing, specifically with Amazon and Starbucks, while centering trans people? What would it look like for the union to protect trans people so that we can connect it to these anti-trans bills? Which I think is really important. I hope that this can be a call to action, to support trans people and young trans people in gaining the organizing skills they need so that they can lead us in the struggle.

Oftentimes, I’m seeing that it’s not the trans youth who get to lead us on this. And I have worked alongside LGBTQ youth and young people for the past nine years. And I think that as bell hooks says, we must see young people not as property, but as humans with the rights that they have, and we must respect those rights and we must give them the space to lead. And I was just listening to a podcast and Demita Frazier, who was a part of the Combahee River Collective, and they wrote this amazing statement that has really transformed organizing.

But she says that if she could make one edit to that statement, she would change it to say that if Black trans women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression. [The original wording in the statement was “Black women,” not “Black trans women.”]

So I really focus on that. In the state of Arizona right now, I currently work at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I’m in the LGBTQ Center, and we have just been working to move students left and providing them space to organize. Just recently, 25 to 30 trans students just started organizing a meeting weekly to plan a teach-in. The goal of the teach-in is to provide political education to both the Tucson community and to university students, faculty, and staff. That teach-in is going to be on April 30. It’s going to be hybrid. So I’ll include that flyer when I get done speaking.

And then there are organizations in Tucson that have been really centering on the material conditions of queer and trans people moreso than the pushback against these anti-trans bills because we know material conditions are so important that we have to fight for, and for people to show up, you need a house, you need shelter, you need water and food to participate in struggle. And so some of those organizations include the Outlaw Project, which is a project led by a Black trans woman in Tucson to build tiny homes for trans folks to have housing.

Another project is called Thompson House Tucson. Some comrades and I are working to build a socialist organization rooted in mutual aid, to provide host homes for queer and trans Black, Brown, and Native people ages 18 to 24. So that’s really what the fight in Tucson specifically has looked like, fighting for those material conditions.

And then also, talking about what it has looked like in Arizona, there has been a lack of movement-building and struggle in Arizona since the passing of these two laws. Calls to state legislators, and then having trans kids testify at the courthouse in Phoenix, have been centered and led by the Human Rights Campaign, HRC, which we know is an organization that has a reputation for criminalizing Black folks and not supporting Black trans people.

They have worked really, really hard to center this mostly white cis middle-class mother fighting like hell for her child narrative. And while every parent should find like hell for their kids, there is a lack of trans leadership leading the fight against these bills, spinning it as a social issue that has to be decided by the courts.

And we know that neoliberalism is so good at sinking its claws into any fight for queer and trans people. So, this pushback by liberals has included talking points like, trans people need to be more visible. Trans kids don’t deserve to be bullied, and trans people need to be given more visibility opportunities.

We know that visibility does not bring safety or a living wage. Centering visibility means surveillance. As trans people, we will continue to be murdered and see an increase in trans houselessness. So language like, “Protect trans kids” is used, instead of saying, “Let’s fight alongside trans young people who know exactly what they need.”

I also think this pandemic has really taken out a lot of important people who, like Keegan said, have been leading so much of this. So this pandemic has negatively affected poor and working-class people of color. Who were the ones leading the biggest uprising in U.S. history after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered?

And so what would it look like to support folks who have been targeted by the pandemic so that we can continue to be in struggle and organize with one another? And this is an attack from the ruling class to uphold bio-essentialism, this belief that there is a sex binary, when we know that sex is also a social construct created by those in power to oppress and exploit intersex people, queer and trans people, and cis women.

So we know that this cannot be a moralistic fight. But this has to be a fight based on principles and being in struggle and figuring out how to be in solidarity with each other. So I really look forward to the conversation. And thanks, y’all, for having me.

Isabelle: Hey everyone. I’m going to focus a little bit more on kind of a theoretical defense of trans athletes, because I feel like that’s something where we get a little bit bogged down in the specifics.

I’m just going to cover as much ground as I possibly can as quickly as possible. I just want to start out by saying that it’s absolutely exhausting that we have to have another panel defending trans people, simply living, especially children. But as always, we can’t dictate the ebbing and flowing of culture or popular politics or the ever-changing targets of Right-wing scare-mongering and straw-man arguments.

So here we are. I want to focus specifically on sports, because currently there are at least 29 states with bills that are either in consideration or have already been passed banning trans athletes’ participation in sports, almost always specifically banning trans girls or, or in essence, banning trans girls.

I want to talk through a socialist defense of trans athletes and trans participation in sports, just to equip us for that. I want to lay a foundation as to why should revolutionary socialists care about sports at all.

I gave a talk a few years ago where I did a deep dive into the long and sordid history of sports in the West. And my conclusion was that basically, the invention of modern sports has always been in service of the ruling class and in service of imperialist propaganda. Modern sports were intentionally crafted to turn ruling-class children into leaders of imperialist armies and industrial armies at home and to prepare the working-class immigrants and poor for their coming life with backbreaking labor.

Still today, you can see that that’s more or less what sports represent in the major leagues now. The NFL, for instance, receives millions of dollars a year from the Department of Defense for their roles as pawns in U.S. propaganda. But on the flip side, we’re seeing trans youth all over the country fighting against these anti-trans sports bills. There’s always been an undercurrent of political movement and class struggle fought both on the field or off the field, just as it is on the shop floor and in the streets.

So from Muhammad Ali, to Kaepernick, to the U.S. women’s national soccer team, to trans athletes right now, the struggles on the field are super important and they can reach audiences otherwise unimaginable for us, and because of this, sports present an important platform for radicals that we really can’t ignore.

But I find that the trans athletes debate specifically is one that you wind up getting a lot of “what-about-ism” on. So I want to just kind of talk through some of that. I think first and foremost, the job of socialists today is to vigorously defend the right of bodily autonomy and a life worth living for all.

You know, it is very important that we talk about bread issues, material conditions, but we need our roses too. We need to be able to protect and defend trans athletes against attacks from both the dishonest and vile agenda of the Right and also chauvinists and TERFS in our own circles and in the shadowy parts of the “Left.”

I want to just start by saying, this debate is no more rooted in the ethics of trans women or trans girls competing against cis women than Gamergate was rooted in the ethics of game journalism. It’s like if the sporting world cared about cis women athletes, they’d be paid more, first of all, and Brittney Griner would be like home safe now. But instead, women athletes have to tap into broad-reaching legal frameworks like Title IX or the Equal Protection Clause to guarantee that we can play sports at all.

As socialist feminists, we also have an added stake in this struggle because it’s not just trans women, but all women who are negatively affected by this debate. And when we begin to imagine what Kristen was saying, this biological determinism where there’s some kind of predefined, separate and less equal “fair play” that women are allowed to participate in, what we actually wind up doing is diminishing the ability and aspirations of all female athletes.

What opponents are saying when they’re calling for transwomen to be banned, with all of their academic or moralistic language, is that cis women are incapable of achieving the kind of greatness that cis men can. Campaigning against trans women based on whatever constellation of biology seems to move the goalposts enough that day allows trans folks to either purposefully or accidentally create what I call a “grass ceiling,” a turf ceiling, beyond which cis women are not allowed to have bodies that would make them capable of performing at whatever level that may be. As socialist feminists, we assume there’s no limit to female greatness. It’s kind of a grandiose way of saying something like that, but we don’t believe in biological determinism.

We don’t believe that our bodies are incapable of doing whatever we ask them to do. I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of biology and physiology, but I do want to highlight a couple of facts that will be helpful in dispelling some of these myths.

The International Olympic Committee has allowed trans athletes since 2004, and the NCAA has allowed trans athletes since 2011. In March 2022, Leah Thomas, who’s kind of the poster child of the target for right-wing trans panic this time around, became the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division-1 national championship in any sport ever. She won the women’s 500-yard freestyle, and that’s over ten years after trans women were allowed to compete. Only one openly trans athlete has ever competed in the Olympics, Quinn, a non-binary Canadian soccer player who won gold in the 2020 summer Olympics with the Canadian women’s soccer team.

Of course, strangely there is no panic that ensued then. And it might be because Quinn isn’t a trans woman, so maybe they don’t fit into the narrative. Since 2004, only one openly trans woman has won a world title of any kind. It was Dr. Rachel McKinnon who in 2018 won a gold medal in Cycling Masters World track championships.

So I mean, the idea that that trans women are going to—there’s this myth that trans women are going to come in and just dominate every single sport. And it’s just so silly. It’s not happening. It’s not happening with trans girls and it’s not, it won’t happen with trans women. It hasn’t happened with trans women.

So McKinnon was asked to talk about what she thought about the debate around trans athletes and whether or not it was fair for her to compete. And she said, “It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. If I win, they attribute it to me being trans and having an unfair advantage. And if I lose, the same people will think I must not be very good anyway. People will never attribute my winning to hard work, which is what I think I deserve.”

There’s a Brynn Tannehill post that has an awesome Twitter takedown of a lot of these myths. Basically, she says, it’s been 18-plus years now, and millions of participants in this experiment of the International Olympic Committee allowing trans women to compete in sports. And she concludes that we’ve thoroughly field-tested the hypothesis that trans athletes will dominate if they’re allowed to compete. And statistically, we can reject this hypothesis with a high degree of certainty.

I think that it’s important to know that all of these elite organizations have guidelines that dictate who can and cannot participate in women’s sports. I think that a lot of this is to placate the Right and to placate TERFs, and things like that. And these things are usually based on testosterone levels, which is also imperfect.

I mean, you have women like Caster Semenya who have naturally high, naturally occurring high testosterone levels. You know, Caster was assigned female at birth, and the iteration of the rules as it is, it means that she can’t participate at all without being drugged.

I want to talk just a little bit about what makes trans and intersex athletes such good targets, specifically. I think part of it is because TERFS— like there’s this strange bedfellows of TERFS who are often these queer, highly educated, cis women in academia, and then you have the right wing. So it’s like you have this sort of left cover for, a wolf in sheep’s clothing for, the Right, who feel that they have this cudgel of defending the oppressed because the TERF argument is that trans women oppress cis women. So despite the Right’s decades-long campaign to destroy the quality of life of gay and lesbian Americans, TERFS, and certain brands of socialists, continue to help them with their agenda when it comes specifically to trans athletes and to trans people more broadly.

So, there are three parts to how I think we should respond to these questions. First and foremost, trans people are who they say they are. They should compete where they feel most comfortable.

I mean, the stakes are so low with competing. No one is going through the pain and suffering of living in a trans body in America today just to stand on a platform and get a shiny disc and say, oh yeah, I’m better than all those other people, you know? No one’s doing that. So let’s not replace the speculative harm of trans women winning everything against cis women with the actual harm of banning trans athletes.

And harm reduction is what this is all about. Eighty-two percent of trans individuals have considered killing themselves, and forty percent have attempted suicide, but these numbers go down significantly, especially for trans children when they have loving and supporting communities. So we may not know their stories, but there are definitely trans athletes whose lives have been saved by safe and welcoming sporting communities. And we need significantly more of that.

And lastly, I think it’s important to remind people of the scale here. The New York Times recently reported on Utah’s ban on trans student athletes, and they found that that that ban will affect four children—four children—in a state with three million people.

Four children, only one of whom identifies as a trans girl. Imagine that your life could be forever harmed by a group of adult bullies, for lack of a better word, who you can’t even vote out of office because you’re a literal child. Imagine a legislative body in a state of 3 million people deciding the fate of a single child, judge, jury, and executioner.

When we talk about these bills and politics, we have to remind folks that we’re talking about our comrades, people that we’re having quiet conversations with, but there are faces behind all of this and what really sums it up for me is that trans athletes deserve a life worth living, and that includes open access to the joy of sports.

Eric Maroney: Thank you. Wow. First I just want to say thank you to Ash and to Kristen for the critical work that they’re doing on the ground. And also thank you, Isabelle, for your writing and your advocacy on behalf of trans athletes. I also want to say thank you to Tempest for convening this space and hosting this discussion.

I imagine it goes without saying to folks who are on this phone call, but it is critical that the Left engage in identity-based struggles, as these are not separate from our understanding of political economy. So I think that, undoubtedly, we are experiencing a moment of political reaction, and certainly there is a degree of opportunism at work here.

The sort of tough-on-crime and family values rhetoricians have declared open war on access to abortion rights, on the Black Lives Matter Movement, and on relative advances made by LGBTQ people over the last several decades. And although I think that this is most definitely motivating conservative voters ahead of the midterms, there’s a lot more at play here than simple political calculus. The far right, the alt-Right, you know what we might call the Trumpian wing of the Republican party, these are sort of milieus that are motivated by a deeply profound anti-feminism.

What I want to try to do in the brief time that I have here is to unpack some of that anti-feminism but also point to why I think it’s important that the Left really takes understanding it seriously, because understanding this anti-feminism will inform the ways in which we respond to the backlash.

So, to members of the alt-Right—and when I say alt-Right, I mean both what we might traditionally consider the alt-Right but also the far right and the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party—a general white supremacist milieu—but to the alt-Right, the sort of disintegration of gender roles is one of the primary causes of Western degeneration.

We can consider this grouping as a grouping of Western chauvinists who see the West is in decline, as if the erosion of gender roles is the primary cause of this decline, or one of the primary causes of this decline. The antidote, then, is this sort of gender discipline that is underwritten by an extreme adherence to biological essentialism.

Interestingly, like the Left, the alt-Right very much identifies neoliberalism as something that is antithetical to social well-being. Family precarity is something that is the result of the same intentional set of neoliberal policies that the Left would identify. However, the alt-Right takes it a step further and identifies a sort of lapse in traditional values as something that is emanating from neoliberal logics.

I think that there are any number of pieces of evidence that we can point to, but I think that the most relevant for our particular situation is Governor Ron DeSantis’s sparring with the Disney corporation. And so folks I’m sure are familiar with that. Maybe about a month ago, there was a walkout at several Disney corporate locations throughout the U.S. More workers were protesting the Florida don’t say gay law. This is the law that prohibits Florida schools from any mention of non-cis-gender or queer experiences. And so following the walkout, the Disney corporation was forced to make this tepid response in opposition.

The governor of Florida has now seen Disney as their sparring partner. And so DeSantis has come out and said, you know, Disney’s being dishonest and that they’re over the line, but most importantly, I think that we can’t underemphasize the importance of statements like this. He says that the state of Florida is governed by the people of the state of Florida, not by a group of California corporate executives, in what might seem like a moment of rhetorical flourish. You know, these things take a life of their own. I’m sure people have seen the sort of communist Disney memes now, where the D is replaced by the hammer and sickle as though Disney is going to be the pinnacle of revolutionary cultural production.

But nonetheless, the point being that the sort of rhetorical equation of California corporate executives with queer youth and their families, I think, demonstrates the Right’s culture-war framing when it comes to this political backlash. So LGBTQ people in general, and trans people specifically, are cast as these sort of out-of-touch coastal elites, whose neoliberal brand of multiculturalism is harmful and is a threat to the white and the white-adjacent American family. And I don’t have time to talk about this, but potentially in discussion, we can talk about the ways in which far-right talking points have filtered into the mainstream over the past ten years. I do want to say that as conspiratorial as this position may seem, there is a kind of logic to the alt-Right’s thinking.

A lot of my thinking about this topic has come from a recent book called The Anti-Gender Movement in the Populist Moment. And I highly recommend it if you’re able to get your hands on it.

In this book, Polish feminist Agnieszka Graff is writing about the anti-gender movement in its European context and is noting that, at the same time that deregulated capitalism has displaced workers and eliminated the social provisions of the Keynesian era, there’s also been this flourishing of transnational corporations. Because neoliberalism has insisted on the open flow of capital, Western corporations have experienced nearly unlimited mobility and at the same time, individual family units have had to weather the sort of devastating impact of economic restructuring. And so simultaneous to this, there’s also a new set of values that are being projected. So, what do I mean by all this? That the multicultural public relations arm of Amazon and Google becomes presented as both an ideological and a material threat.

So not only are wages and the nature of work changing, but this is also corresponding to a sort of corporate identity politic that can be interpreted as undermining the family and undermining traditional sex roles. And I think that when we talk about neoliberalism, it’s important that we think about it both as a set of market policies and as a cultural project that disrupts social patterns. And so in this vein, the political Right sees the re-imposition of traditional gender roles as being an antidote to the alienation and the individualism of neoliberalism gone off the rails.

When I share this, I’m not meaning to say that the Ron DeSantises of the world or the Greg Abbots of the world, or even the Donald Trumps of the world, for that matter, that they have broken with their neoliberal commitments. Rather, they’ve latched on to the alt-Right’s intellectual production, or the alt-Right’s talking points, in efforts to exploit it for their own ends. It’s important that the alt-Right solution is reactionary through and through, but it is equally important that we acknowledge that thinkers are accurately noting the neoliberal evisceration of state provisions and the way in which that has strained the family.

That comes in the form of food insecurity, homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health crises. All of these things, of course, have been compounded by the COVID crisis and now the off-the-rails inflation. And so interestingly enough, neo-liberalism has created all of this misery.

We’re also experiencing a shift in the workforce where more and more working people from the American context, more and more American workers, are aging out of the workforce. This is complicating what people refer to as the crisis of care. You know, statistics like ten thousand Americans, according to the AARP, are turning 65 each day and the number of older Americans is set to double over the next several decades. And since elder care like childcare is something that is priced out of reach for most people, that work then is, there’s a requirement that it be provided in the home. And we know that that kind of labor, that kind of socially reproductive labor, is most often provided by women. This is a fact that makes the regimenting of gender all the more necessary based on the logics of capitalism.

So simultaneous to this shifting of the workforce, we also have experienced the 2021 great resignation, where 4.5 million people have left the workforce. Some, of course, are leaving in search of better opportunities or working conditions. But many people are leaving in order to provide care or carry out care work in the home. And all of this, as I mentioned, is leading to a crisis of care labor. Again, according to the AARP, there’s a prediction that by 2030, 151,000 will be the shortfall of people who are able to provide this kind of labor. By 2040, 350,000.

And so there’s a tension that arises here and a need for an increased, both productive and reproductive, laboring of gendered bodies. I think that we are arriving at a moment in which the imperative capitalist logics must attempt to assert greater control over our bodies more generally.

I think that control always requires surveillance, and surveillance most definitely requires categorization, right? Because we need to categorize bodies in order to be able to surveille them. What this has looked like has been like a reissuing or a tightening of definitions about what kinds of bodies fit into what kinds of categories.

I’m glad that Kristen and Isabelle spoke about the struggle for abortion because we are most definitely concerned with the redefining of what a pregnant body is. We can see that with the explosion of state restrictions on abortion rights, there is a redefinition of what a child’s body is.

Efforts to shift that definition from 21 to 25 seek to prevent trans youth from access to gender-affirming care. And I know folks on the call will be able to talk about how, from an abolitionist perspective, that has happened to Black and Brown children in the criminal justice system, but the redefinition of citizen bodies, gendered bodies, athletic bodies, all of which always are at risk of becoming criminalized bodies.

No Pride Without Black Trans Lives, with image of Marsha P. Johnson, Stonewall activist and founding member of the Gay Liberation Front. Image by Eden, Janine and Jim.

And I think that we can point to Liz Herrera in Texas, as well as the families and the trans youth who are the newest victims of state surveillance issuing from identity-based oppressions.

And so why is any of this important? Well, I mean, at an intuitive level, the Left most definitely understands that neoliberal multiculturalist politics of representation are not a viable tactic, right? Disney is not coming to save us. And we don’t need another Target commercial where a trans man is smiling over a roll of paper towels. It’s not that representative politics are not important at all, but rather that a politic of representation without redistribution only leads further credibility to the right wing’s reactionary solutions.

And so when some of the most visible activism has been American Airlines, the Marriott, Airbnb, signing onto these letters in opposition to the Florida ban, we have a lot of work to do.

I want to close with this. I think that other speakers on the call have already pointed to some of the solutions forward, but I want to emphasize a couple of points here in closing.

So first, I think that legal strategies, although important, are not going to win the day.

Second, I think just as Planned Parenthood and NARAL had failed to put out their resources to mobilize national campaigns in defense of Roe, the major LGBTQ organizations are similarly exhibiting the same blind faith in the Democratic party and in the courts. In order to counter this backlash, it’s going to require deep, deep coalition work with both pro-choice activists and, I would argue, abolitionist activists as well.

Third, this coalition work has to issue from a shared understanding of our precarity, one that understands that that precarity always requires the threat of criminality, and not one that seeks to elevate trans people as sort of morally more deserving than others.

Fourth, I think that we need to look for ways to knit together local struggles that will force the major organizations to fall in line behind us. And I think that panels like this are a good example on how to begin to do that work. But this is a very humble beginning, and we need to look for more places to do this kind of thing.

Fifth, I think that our demands have to go beyond just reactive. Queer liberation is not just about rolling back the most recent legislative attacks, but also about progressive tax reform, about state-funded healthcare, state-funded childcare and elder care. All of these material preconditions that are required for the bodily sovereignty of all working people, trans-bodied people and cis-bodied people alike.

And then finally, where possible, I think that we need to engage with our labor unions. I teach community college English, and I’m a member of the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers, and without my union, I would not have been able to have a safe transition. I have protections, anti-discrimination provisions in my contract and a quality healthcare plan that allows me access to a broad range of gender-affirming services.

We need to leverage our unions. We need to author resolutions and use them to educate and agitate among our coworkers, for example, in Florida, where the health department has recently issued guidance opposing even social transition. For folks who are unfamiliar with that, it’s like test driving a car before you buy it.

You have to try these things on before you modify your body or don’t have to, but there’s a logic to that. Where Texas has come in and even said the department of health has issued guidance against that. Education and healthcare union should be issuing resolutions pledging to use trans students’ preferred names and pronouns.

But I think that none of this, none of this can happen without understanding that the attacks on trans youth are also about categorizing and containing bodies more generally. And that is always, always in the service of the logics of capitalism. Thank you.

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