The fight for trans equality must be recognised as a class struggle | Shon Faye

Trans people are frozen out of work – this will change only if we move beyond the vicious and obsessive arguments about the boundaries of identity

A third of UK employers are less likely to hire a trans worker, according to a new survey. This is hardly news to those of us in the trans community. People are much more transphobic than they think they are, according to the British Social Attitudes survey. Yes, 82% of people say they are not prejudiced against transgender people “at all”. But according to the same survey only 41% of Britons think trans people should “definitely”’ be able to teach kids. And only 43% are happy to confirm that trans people should be police officers.

Prejudice – much of it unconscious – makes employers less likely to hire a trans person. The fact that policing and teaching are specific areas where people don’t trust us is telling – in the public psyche, these are both considered positions of authority. It’s certainly easy to wonder if the persistent misrepresentation of trans people as deluded or deceitful has infected the minds of those who quietly decide not to hire them.

Trans unemployment is not monitored in the UK – but in Ireland it’s at 50%. In the UK, it’s certainly much higher than the national average. Half of those trans people who do manage to find employment have to hide the fact they are trans – either they are closeted and unable to transition, or they transitioned some years ago and are able to hide their history (though unchangeable physical traits will permit only some trans people to do this). If you are in work and not hiding the fact that you’re trans, you’re at risk of workplace harassment, which can run from procedural injustice to verbal taunts or violence – one in eight British trans people have been physically attacked at work.

Even when trans people are able to be out in work, not all the work available to them is good. I still remember the first time I ever knowingly spoke to a trans woman. I was about 20 years old. In my summer vacations as a student, I worked in one of the many call centres in my home town of Bristol. It was cold calling: a truly thankless and lowly paid job on a zero-hours contract, where the time you are away from your desk on a toilet break is recorded and, if deemed too long, flagged to a manager who sternly tells you to urinate more quickly in future.

The office demographic was unlike anywhere else I have worked, in that two minority groups were overrepresented: visibly trans women, and women from Bristol’s Somali community. A customer service role where you didn’t have to face the customer in a wig or a hijab was no doubt a common incentive for both sets of women, who are also over-represented in Bristol’s hate crime statistics In the end, I was caught smoking by a manager during work time and simply never offered any more hours – employers can in effect “sack” you with impunity when you’re on such a precarious contract. For the trans women I worked alongside, I can’t imagine it was easy to get time off for critical medical appointments, which are handed down on high from the NHS gender identity clinics with little room for negotiation.

Physical transition is expensive and traps trans people in a vicious circle – the more you look like society’s idea of an acceptable or conforming man or woman, the more likely you are to get employment opportunities. But to achieve this appearance usually requires subsidy. The NHS does offer up to eight sessions of free laser hair removal on your face – but only after languishing on a waiting list for anything up to two years. I didn’t wait, and needed about 20 sessions; it cost me well over a thousand pounds. I paid because I knew that if I didn’t have a beard shadow, street harassment would diminish and employment prospects would increase. It worked. Most trans people are not middle-class writers, however, and most are not able to move in with family for long stretches as I did to help finance my transition.

Instead, the answer for many is sex work. Too much of mainstream British feminism is still stuck in a self-righteous paroxysm of disgust to seriously consider sex work a form of labour. Yet it is labour in which the workers have no legal protection, and no union – and they risk criminal prosecution, as well as putting their own personal safety at risk, to earn money. In the trans community particularly, sex work has become a necessary, if precarious, financial lifeline for those who have been frozen out of the labour market. Sex worker emancipation and trans politics are intimately connected – not because sex work is “empowering” but because they overlap in their analysis of labour relations, workplace safety and dignity. Both movements demand better healthcare, less social stigma, fairer distribution of public resources and evidence-based policy.

The trans movement is easily infantilised as amounting to the whinges and navel-gazing of trendy middle-class students who have OD’d on Judith Butler. But the idea that trans equality is a kind of middle-class liberalism, a luxury unconnected to the “real” politics of class and labour, is a media myth. Class is determined by your ownership of assets or capacity for acquiring them. The vast majority of trans people in the UK score low on both counts – they are by definition working class and have little agency over whether they can sell their labour, the kind of labour performed or the conditions in which they work.

To move forward, trans liberation must be recognised as a class struggle as well as a feminist and anti-racist endeavour. The time for vicious and obsessive arguments about the boundaries of identity has passed.

• Shon Faye is a writer, artist and standup comedian


Shon Faye

The GuardianTramp

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