To build a new Europe, transgender rights must be central

Ensuring that transgender people are able to live their lives to the fullest must become a moral imperative.

Jun 28, 2023
A sign that reads, 'Hello, my pronouns are...'

The rights of trans people are inalienable – they may also hold the key to freedom for all of us.

Transgender people are under attack. Efforts to further trans rights in Europe are being hindered by attempts to roll back existing freedoms and hate crimes against LGBTQIA+ Europeans are at a decade high.

Ensuring that transgender people are able to live their lives fully, with access to gender-affirming healthcare and legal channels that enable them to participate equally in society, is a moral imperative.

But it is also important to recognise how trans liberation, and the liberation of LGBTQIA+ people more broadly, intersects with other struggles and how standing in solidarity with trans people may help us build a new society that is fairer for everyone.

Breaking the binary

First, it is vital to appreciate that the very existence of transgender and non-binary people is radical.

Our society is structured along clearly gendered lines, in both social and economic terms. Women are socialised to be caregivers and globally undertake an estimated US$11 trillion worth of unpaid work every year. This unpaid (reproductive) labour is what allows the rest of the (productive) economy to go on functioning as it does. For those who most benefit from the current economic system – predominantly straight, white cis men – there are clear benefits to maintaining these gender structures.

Transgender and non-binary people, however, who do not conform to these poles, demonstrate that the categories into which we have been socialised are neither natural nor fixed. They show the gender binary for what it is – a medium of control.

Gender-critical or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, who seek to separate cis women from trans women by viewing ‘biological sex’ (an unreliable characteristic in itself) as the source of women’s oppression, overlook the ways in which the two groups experience shared oppression.

Both cis women (especially working-class women and women of colour) and trans women are overrepresented in domestic work and sex work. Both are more likely to experience intimate partner violence and to live in poverty. By recognising the intersections of discrimination and how they relate to gender, we can better understand how to challenge power structures more broadly.

But these are, of course, exactly the structures that Europe’s most odious players want to see reinforced.

Smoke and mirrors: the ‘trans question’

Hungary’s president Victor Orbán has implemented some of Europe’s most egregious anti-trans and anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation. In 2020, the Hungarian parliament ended legal gender recognition for trans and intersex people, and in 2021, it introduced a law banning any mention of homosexuality or transgender identity to children.

These moves are disgraceful in their own right. But it is not a coincidence that they come at a time when Orbán is clamping down on freedoms more generally, by infringing on the rule of law and suppressing the media and academia, all with the intent of installing an autocratic regime in Europe. His attacks on LGBTQIA+ people, as well as on Roma, women and migrants are less about ‘traditional values’ and more about shoring up systems of domination while, at the same time, distracting the electorate from his manoeuvrings to stifle democracy.

Demonising minorities is, of course, an age-old and often highly effective political strategy. Transgender people are one in a long line of scapegoats employed not only for the purposes of polarisation but also to distract from deeper issues.

This absolutely does not mean that we should not take the Hungarian (or Polish, or Italian…) government’s attacks on LGBTQIA+ people seriously. The threat to the lives and wellbeing of trans people in particular is great – 44% of trans women in the EU report having been the victims of violence, while at least 327 transgender people were murdered globally in 2022. Legislative and rhetorical assaults have fatal repercussions. Condemning these appalling acts of violence and their causes is essential.

Broad-based solidarity

Solidarity with transgender people can include a number of actions. One of the most important is to pressure governments to ensure trans people can more easily have their gender legally recognised – something that Germany is currently attempting to do. This is not just a question of red tape, however. It is still necessary for trans people in 12 EU countries to undergo ‘abusive’ medical processes, including forced sterilisation, to complete their legal gender recognition. A mental health diagnosis is still required in 15 EU countries.

Similarly, trans people remain largely unprotected from the cruel practice of ‘conversion therapy’. Only four countries (France, Malta, Germany and Greece, as well as parts of Spain) currently prohibit it ‘on the grounds of gender identity’.

Easier gender recognition processes, gender-affirming healthcare and the banning of conversion therapy are all Volt policies. So also is tackling discrimination against transgender people in the workplace and introducing tougher sanctions on hate crimes against LGBTQIA+ people.

But beyond trans-specific legislation, we should be looking more broadly at systems of control and oppression and how transgender people are often victims not only of transphobia but of racism and socio-economic discrimination.

To achieve this, we might take lessons directly from the LGBTQIA+ community. LGBTQIA+ people have played important roles in protest movements that extend beyond their immediate interests. During the British miners’ strike of 1984-85, and as memorialised in the 2014 film Pride, gay and lesbian activists stood alongside working-class Britons whose livelihoods were being devastated by the policies of the then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher. More recently, LGBTQIA+ people have been deeply involved in Black Lives Matter, echoing earlier support for the US civil rights movement.

By not falling into the culture war traps laid by the far right, and by acknowledging that attacks on transgender rights are not occurring in a vacuum, we may be better able to support trans people while, at the same time, shaping a Europe that is fairer for everyone.

Article by Kate Fistric.