Trans Day of Visibility is Broken

Trans Day of Visibility (TDoV) was launched in 2009 by trans activist Rachel Crandall, out of frustration that the only widely recognised trans diversity date was a memorial to victims of fatal transphobic violence.


13 years later, if you check LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter on March 31st, you’ll struggle to miss the bland posts, temporary logo swaps and vague statements of support from self-proclaimed trans allies.


Crandall’s goals were admirable. But if the point of TDoV was global celebration and recognition, it was always going to fail in its additional aim of tangibly reducing discrimination.


To enable TDoV to become a recognised event, it needed to be sanitised to the point of irrelevance to make it palatable for cis audiences. To paraphrase a conversation, I had with another activist, ‘as soon as politics are involved, corporations won’t touch it.’


It is my opinion that corporate sector TDoV events that do not challenge the power structures that oppress trans and non-binary communities (namely the cisnormative, colonial, white supremacist, ableist, heteropatriarchy) actively uphold those structures in their omittance.


This statement will be examined through various examples to attempt to autopsy TDoV in its current form and determine how we can build a better alternative.

 

1. TDoV events are typically only held in certain sectors of the professional world, and guests are predominantly non-activists, white, middle class, non-disabled, neurotypical and cis passing.


We generally see fewer TDoV events (such as panels, seminars, lunchtime learning sessions etc) in sectors such as hospitality, retail, engineering and science because those sectors have less of an emphasis on Equality and Diversity work, lack facilities for colleagues to attend such events, or see TDoV as irrelevant to their business.


To be selected as a speaker for these events, you need to be an employee, so that the organisation doesn’t need to remunerate you for your time and cognitive energy. To be a trans person in the professional sector, you also need to be white, middle class, non-disabled, neurotypical and cis passing to get through the recruitment process.


I’m generalising of course, but I challenge you to disagree that the vast majority of guests invited to speak at TDoV events in the corporate sector fit this mould.


There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a white, middle class, neurotypical and cis passing trans or non-binary person. But when these are the only trans people spotlighted by TDoV events, oppressive power structures are upheld by presenting a stereotype of the type of person you will predominantly find in trans and non-binary communities, and the specific issues they will be facing.


Additionally, the prevalence of non-activist speakers drawn from the employee body itself shifts the focus from trans and non-binary community liberation to individualised experiences of life as a trans or non-binary person.


It takes time, a commitment to learning and active, hard work within communities to call yourself an effective activist, by which point you’ve built a significant knowledge base and the cultural competency to speak on a variety of issues affecting your community.


By contrast, the employees speaking at professional sector TDoV events rarely fulfil these criteria. Their knowledge of trans emancipation is largely going to be based on their own experiences and therefore events already lacking the ambition to have themes beyond general transition are kept bland by reliance on individual lived experience.


That’s not to blame the trans people who do get roped into these events. Activism is a career, and if you work full time in the professional sector, it can be incredibly difficult to dedicate any time to community-facing activist work, if you even want to at all.


There is also an element of coercion at play – if your manager is expecting you to participate in a TDoV event due to your gender identity, the power relationship inherent in you maintaining your employment may necessitate that you perform this function, regardless of your ability to do so effectively.


This approach removes expert activists from the conversation and keeps the discussion ineffective and conservative, therefore doing little to challenge cisnormative structures that oppress our communities.


It is also incredibly cis centring. By selecting trans and non-binary speakers based on their proximity to cis communities (i.e, the professional workplace), TDoV events uphold oppressive power structures by forcing trans and non-binary people to assimilate into cis society to have an opportunity to participate in trans-oriented equality and diversity work.


A better approach is for Equality and Diversity Managers to spend time studying work by community-based trans and non-binary activists and paying them to craft a TDoV event for their organisation.


2. TDoV events are rarely ever themed around dismantling power structures of oppression, but rather trans people’s experiences of transition and interpersonal relationships.


Moving from speakers to content, events rarely stray from tired discussions of ‘transition journeys’ and invasive questions from cis audiences interested in ‘how we knew’ or ‘what our parents thought?’


If we are asked for substantive opinions, it’s almost always about the latest media or political tirade fuelling the ‘debate’ around trans rights.


This perpetuates the view that awareness and education about the granular experiences of transition and trans bodies, will be a determining factor in liberation, rather than the dismantling of structures that keep those experiences rooted in trauma, dysphoria and pathology.


It also places the burden of education on the trans person themselves, setting the precedent that it’s acceptable to ask invasive questions of trans and non-binary people, and failing to understand the cognitive labour involved in advocating for yourself and your community to relative strangers.


In turn, this keeps potential allies complacent by failing to give them the language or understanding about the very power structures that need to be abolished and dismantled.


Worse than ignorant, cis audiences are left feeling that they understand the key issues in trans and non-binary emancipation. In reality, they’ve been given a decoy to keep them complicit, making actual activism and radical solutions harder to sell to those who could be best placed to help.


A better approach is to choose a substantive theme for the event, rather than simply ‘Trans Day of Visibility. Here are some ideas for discussion: trans and non-binary inclusive recruitment, fighting cisnormativity in the business sector, capturing trans and non-binary demographic data, the transgender pay gap etc.


3. The framing of visibility is problematic because it reinforces the idea that education and awareness alone will lead to trans emancipation.


Finally, TDoV events rarely consider the incredible nuance of what visibility can mean for trans and non-binary communities, particularly those with intersectional identities.


Visibility itself can be incredibly dangerous, even fatal. The very fact that the only other internationally recognised trans diversity date is Trans Day of Remembrance emphasises this point.


It’s an incredibly fraught time to be visibly trans or non-binary in the UK and failing to account for the dangers that visibility can bring when hosting TDoV events can harm individuals and communities by giving bad actors easy access to our lives.


Events also fail to recognise that trans people don’t inherently need visibility.


We like to assume that to live authentically, people need to be allowed to be authentic in their sexuality and gender identity, usually involving ‘coming out’ (overtly or not) to our family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances.


But unlike sexuality, ‘coming out’ can make a trans person appear less authentic in their gender identity to other people, particularly cis friends and colleagues, and particularly later in their transition.


I find that ‘coming out’ causes cis people to regard me as less male; to begin using the wrong pronouns or getting confused when they address me. Instead of seeing me as male, they see my entire gender history every time they need to refer to me.


Visibility doesn’t help me in those situations. What would help, is the abolition of cisheternormative assumptions and structures.


This framing of visibility as the ultimate goal of trans and non-binary liberation movements obscures the real issues of structural transphobia, and once again, breeds complacency, giving cis allies an easy goal, rather than the hard work of dismantling oppressive power structures.


It also blames trans people for not being visible, while masking the reasons why we are not able or don’t want to be.


A better approach is to de-centre visibility from the conversation and create safe spaces in events for trans and non-binary people to be visible if they choose to be.

 

TDoV events (and cis allies) need to begin challenging the cisnormative, colonial, white supremacist, ableist, heteropatriarchy.


They need to move from upholding structures that allow trans people to merely survive in a world that renders us, our bodies and our experiences invisible (while punishing us for that invisibility) to nurturing alternatives where communities can create space for themselves and guide the work yet to be done.


We need workplace unions, mandatory cultural competency training for cis colleagues and information about the organisations we’re employed by, whom they fund and whom they vote for.


We need mutual aid, democratised trans and non-binary advocacy knowledge, community-led healthcare and better legal protection.


We need to give TDoV back to trans and non-binary community organisers, leaders and educators so that they can begin to create these spaces, and dream of new ones.


Trans Day of Visibility is broken. Let’s stop promoting visibility and start working towards emancipation.