Pitting communities against each other has been part of the establishment playbook for centuries and the strategy has, sadly, not lost its toxic impact.
On 22 July 2020, the British Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, had to stand in the House of Commons and clarify that the government’s response on consultations on the Gender Recognition Act would not include any rollbacks on transgender rights. It was the first time a member of the current Cabinet had definitively responded to the concerns of the community and, while her answer was encouraging, it is a worrying sign of the times that such an assurance had to be asked for in the first place.
And, to be very clear, it did have to be asked for. After months of transphobia from self-described gender-critical feminists (also known as trans-exclusionary radical feminists or TERFs) being normalised in the mainstream, it was not until Labour MP Nadia Whittome demanded an explanation that the Minister made the concession.
This transphobia is part of a wider backlash against progressive queer emancipation that we have seen in many parts of the world, especially where right-wing and authoritarian governments have been able to strengthen their regimes. The first decade and a half of the 21st century saw significant progress in some aspects of LGBTQ+ rights.
Same-gender marriage spread to many jurisdictions, starting with the Netherlands in 2001, and there were several heartening successes in decriminalising homosexuality in several countries. Trans and non-binary identities were also increasingly recognised in many different contexts. Yet, every such instance has inevitably created a reactionary response from a global order that has successfully framed itself as a disappearing minority – while working hard to oppress actual minorities.
Hungary has seen a thorough revocation of transgender rights and self-determination, which is the very model that many are worried may be implemented in other parts of Europe. As with Poland’s ongoing attempts to create “LGBTQ+ free zones”, the Hungarian campaign is part of a dangerous rise in the far-right that is strongly anti-minority. Both regimes have already been virulent in their xenophobic and Islamophobic immigration and refugee policies, making it difficult and draining for the affected groups to form coalitions. The situation in Brazil has been almost identical, only substituting discrimination against refugees with anti-Blackness and anti-indigenous prejudice.
Religious majoritarianism has wreaked havoc in different countries and contexts. Rising Christian Evangelical conservatism in the USA has seen devastating rollbacks of queer rights, such as the horrific “right to refuse” given to any individual who wants to deny service to LGBTQ+ individuals based on religious beliefs – including in the healthcare sector. There have, of course, been successes in the judiciary, including the recent extension of employment protections to queer identity, but the overall direction for the community is bleak.
Chechnya has used its majority Muslim population as a central justification of its longstanding insurgency and call for independence. Yet, it is that same theology that is used as the basis for its pogrom against men suspected to be gay. Similarly, Islamist forces have been terrorising the queer community in Bangladesh, including killing and injuring notable activists. The government’s silence has been an implicit blessing of this crusade.
Arguably, what has made these queerphobic responses so potent is in their ability to fracture support among and between marginalised groups. Pitting communities against each other has been part of the establishment playbook for centuries and the strategy has, sadly, not lost its toxic impact.
Going back to the UK, the strongest current of transphobia has come from cisgender women, including such faux-liberal darlings as J. K. Rowling. Trans rights have been successfully framed as an attack on the sanctity of womanhood and, in a world that is so used to understanding rights as a finite resource, this has, therefore, pitted the trans community as competition for more “traditional” feminists.
Exploiting such important issues as the rising domestic violence rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, transphobes have been able to falsely stoke fear of trans people as a physical, violent threat to vulnerable women – never mind the fact that trans women are among the most vulnerable, including from abuse at home.
Similar divisions and fractures can be seen in many of the other examples mentioned above. Islamists in Bangladesh have not only attacked LGBTQ+ activists, but also bloggers, atheists and secularists, tribal minorities, Hindus and other religious minorities, and bauls. In all those cases, the “threat” posed by these disparate voices has been the same – their existence and philosophies representing a multi-faceted, tolerant society. Yet, the grouping of the victims into neat boxes prevents much-needed solidarity between the various affected populaces.
The Black Lives Matter movement continues to gather momentum in the USA – even managing to get commitments to defund and dismantle the police forces in some cities – but the disproportionately high rates of violence against Black trans women is something that often gets left out of the global coverage of the activism. This has even reached the point where so-called allies of the movement have gone on to misgender and deadname Tony McDade and Iyanna Dior. (Indeed, much can and needs to be said about the general erasure of women, disabled folks, and sex workers when it comes to discussions of police violence in the USA.)
It is vital that we in the community also recognise our own failures as allies in this regard. The urban queer middle class in Hindutva India has seen much excitement at the prospect of a conversation moving towards legalising same-gender marriage since the repeal of Section 377, yet very few of those same activists ever dare to speak up against other issues such as caste, Islamophobia and religious discrimination, the Kashmir occupation, and the worrying definitions regarding citizenship. Even within the realm of marriage, where inter-caste and inter-religious relationships continue to be met with violence, our progressive voices pick and choose causes.
As such, it has become painfully difficult to form trust between causes. This not only prevents movements from growing in number, but it also actively diminishes the capacity of community organisers to tap into other areas of expertise and support. All the while, state machineries and majoritarian tyranny are free to run amok, eroding our hard-won rights.
On an individual level, it may be understandable to seek a healthy balance between self-care and giving it all to a cause. After all, if we are not at our peak, we cannot give our best to these much-needed fights. Unfortunately, systemic oppression cuts across identities and cuts across causes. It discriminates against people, but it is remarkably generous in how many types of people it works to disenfranchise. We cannot afford to respond with anything less than a similarly sweeping approach to our activism.
Not to mention the fact that identity itself is multi-layered. Dividing our engagement into different boxes completely ignores the reality that a person may simultaneously be a racial or ethnic minority, an immigrant or refugee, disabled, queer, poor, and a religious minority. Having concrete demands and context-specific movements are both necessary – but that does not make them mutually exclusive to forming solidarity with other marginalisations.
It is vital that causes work together to form cross-sectional dissent – especially because we have seen it successfully happen in cases already. British queer rights groups saw significant gains after their coalition with striking miners and the working class. Trans, third gender and intersex activists in India have been strong advocates for Dalit rights despite the apathy of their more privileged middle-class queer counterparts. China has seen activism form around both queer liberation and Uighur protest.
We cannot simply use the language of intersectionality; we must embody it in our actions.
Ibtisam Ahmed is a Doctoral Research Student at the School of Politics and IR, the University of Nottingham, UK. His work examines utopias and colonialism, arguing that true utopia can only be achieved by uplifting marginalised voices. He has written and publicly spoken about colonial legacies on queerness, race, classism, and language. He wants to highlight silences and work with marginalised groups to return their agency in academia and in activism.