This article was originally published in 2018. This is an updated version as my thoughts on class and gender have developed and grown, as I have.
Kes Otter Lieffe, 2021
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Not all trans women are created equal. More and more, I come to realise how much poverty and precarity define my life experience. Being poor and trans, I do not live in the same world as people who are rich and trans. We do not have the same hopes, dreams or expectations from life. We certainly don’t experience the same risks.
Having survived poverty, unemployment, violent healthcare and occasional homelessness, I’ve nearly fallen through the cracks more times than I can count. As such, I’m painfully aware of how class and queerness can intertwine with each other: classism and transphobia chasing each other’s tail in a downward spiral to the bottom.
Yet poverty and class are still unmentionable things in many radical left, queer and trans scenes. It seems that deciding which subjects are important, which double standards we as communities will break down and fight, falls to certain, more powerful people in our communities. And those same people tend not to prioritise class-oppression. Unsurprisingly really, as they usually benefit from it.
I hear the voices of rich trans and queer people every day. It can be exhausting. We get it, some people have more power. The power to elevate their own voices to gain even more. The power to break through all kinds of ceilings. The power to assimilate into capitalism and no longer be fallen from grace now that they’ve found a way around that pesky part of themselves that is trans or queer. Despite transness so often being equated with powerlessness, there are trans people who are doing just fine for themselves. Which is great — I wish we all were — but surely there are more creative things to do with those piles of resources. There are certainly better ways to show up for other people.
Because being trans and poor is a whole world in itself. It’s precarious housing and precarious work. It’s barely accessing the medical care we need for survival. Being trans and poor is working long hours way before I was old enough to work legally. And often 70-hour weeks after that. It means sex work, it means crossing borders, it means illegality, it means knowing that even though I might be doing better this month, this year, it can all come crashing down at any point. It’s living with the trauma of scarcity and violence and waiting for the next crisis. Because there’s always another one.
For people who are trans and poor, the world of good universities and grants and family support and social capital can seem like distant fantasies. Getting the medicine, laser and clothes to pass as cis and get a super well-paid job in the LGBT Non-Profit Industrial Complex and take expensive trips to Brussels to debate laws over canopées doesn’t feel real to trans and queer people who are barely surviving. And EU laws about ID markers don’t always mean a whole lot if you’re homeless, incarcerated or being deported.
Most tragically of all, being trans and poor means being marginalised by our own communities. It means still finding myself at the edge of the playground while the cool kids, the rich kids, discuss class only through the lens of abstract Marxist theory. It means seeing my needs come last, if at all. It means walking on eggshells with everything I do or say under middle-class scrutiny while those around me crash through life with little regard for those around them. It can mean eviction from ‘safer’ queer spaces –even though those spaces were built by people who are trans and poor, and even though we may be among those most in need of safety and a place to work, rest or just exist. And if being trans and poor comes with being further marginalised (sick, disabled, BIPOC, fat, femme, traumatised, surviving with sex work and so on), things can only get worse in scenes controlled by people with more power who centre their own needs first.
It shouldn’t be this way and maybe it won’t always. Maybe we can find a way to put class on the table and while we’re at it, develop the courage to put all oppressions on the agenda. Maybe we can have the humility to understand that we don’t, and can’t, know everyone’s experience. Maybe solidarity could come to mean something beyond lip service and performativity.
We can’t eat performative solidarity. Thanks though to that person who declared on facebook that they would definitely love to support me, and other working-class, femme, sex-working trans women, on Patreon — to the applause of many thumbs up and love emojis — but then never did. Thanks to those ‘allies’ who disappeared when things got tough, and those middle-class people who told me that, ‘you support me, I don’t support you, that’s just how it works.’
Because a cleaner is forever a cleaner. And always having someone around to take care of your mess and hold your middle-class fragility and very important feelings is a hard habit to break.
Over the last few years of organising I’ve taken a firm stance. Never again do I want to talk about ‘what is a woman’. I don’t live in a world of academic abstractions nor do I care to. And I barely care anymore which wealthy trans actors have made it to Netflix fame this month portraying people who are poor, homeless, sex working, sick. We can’t eat representation either. I do want to talk about material needs, safety, state oppression, precarity, the revolution.
Although the ‘queer’ movement might have become some rainbow capitalist nightmare of rich people getting ever richer on the pink euro, I haven’t forgotten that it all started with prison abolition. Resisting state oppression. Actual liberation of the deepest, most beautiful kind. And while the world spirals into ever greater crises and trans folk continue to be such a convenient scapegoat for oppressive governments in Europe and beyond, I won’t forget. How could I? Precarity is as built into me as my gender.
I’m sometimes told that I should be proud to be trans, that my gender is a beautiful thing in the world, all butterflies and unicorns. Trans pride. The great turning point. Fuck that.
My gender is precarity, and that’s nothing to be proud of.
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About the Author:
Kes Otter Lieffe is a working class, chronically ill, femme, trans woman. She is an author, teacher and community organiser currently based in Berlin.