In Wales, Trans People are Fighting Back Against Erasure and Poverty

Rudy Harries explores the grassroots movements rising up to support trans people in Wales’ current political climate. 

When I was a teenager back in the late noughties, there was basically nothing in Wales for transgender people. Cardiff was home to a few gay bars, and a lively Mardi Gras once a year, but I knew that if I wanted to experience a queer community, I had to move to England. This had been the case in Wales for generations, and many moved to London and other large English cities in search of community.

These days, we’re seeing more and more queer people move to Wales from parts of England, Europe and even the US, drawn in by a vibrant and varied scene in Cardiff in particular. What’s changed?

Perhaps it’s Wales’ relatively low cost of living that is irresistible in comparison with London or Bristol, perhaps it’s a growth of Welsh pride amongst younger generations, or even the hostile Tory government in Westminster putting us off building a life across the border. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that there’s a significant group of trans people who are intent on building communities here in Wales, and they’re seeing some success.

For me, what’s particularly special about Welsh queer organising is that it’s not dominated by conversations about embedding trans rights in legislation. Instead, overwhelmingly, trans people working for change in Wales have given up on electoral politics in favour of community-based activism.

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Queer organising in the UK has mostly been centred around particular legislative debates for decades –  the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality between men; Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which forbade schools and local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality, and its subsequent repeal in 2003. Since 2000, the Equality Act 2010 has theoretically granted protections to LGBTQ people against discrimination, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in 2013 has granted cisgender LGB people the right to marry in the same way as heterosexual couples, and most recently the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) Reform seeks to simplify the process for having a trans person’s gender legally recognised. While governments were willing to pass legislation to benefit certain sections of the LGBTQ+ community, queer organising in the UK was more willing to focus on lobbying for specific pieces of legislation that largely focused on assimilation (blending in with society as it is) over liberation (changing society to become more equitable).

That unspoken contract was broken when Boris Johnson’s Conservative government announced that GRA reforms would be dropped in June 2020, after two years of consultation in favour of reform. In that moment, a generation of activists in Wales and across the UK turned away from parliamentary politics, and looked instead to their peers. 

Welsh trans people are working to better the community they’re living in rather than feeling like they need to move away to be themselves, and that is something to celebrate.

We were facing an unprecedented crisis inside a crisis: trans people tend to work gig economy jobs to avoid potentially discriminatory office environments, so when COVID-19 swept the UK, most trans people were left unable to take part in furlough schemes, and many were locked down with transphobic family members. Trans people had been denied basic dignity by the state and we were invisible in conversations about lockdown, with the media only mentioning us to stoke a culture war designed to distract from government failures. Hate crimes soared. Something had to be done.

The organisation that would later become Trans Aid Cymru (TAC) was set up in response to the GRA reform being dropped. We started with a drive to raise money for trans, intersex and nonbinary people whose work had been cancelled, leaving them with no income. TAC joined existing groups for LGBTQ+ people in Wales who had historically been left behind in the queer movement such as Glitter Cymru for LGBTQ+ people of colour, Aubergine Cafe for autistic queer people, and Impact for LGBTQ+ youth. In the last few years, TAC has grown beyond anyone’s expectations, and now run a grant scheme that redistributes around £2000 to trans, intersex and nonbinary people a month, alongside social events in Cardiff and Newport, advice and signposting, surgery pack resources, and meals for those who can’t afford regular healthy food.

While TAC has been growing, a host of other organisations have cropped up, all providing for Welsh queer and trans communities in their own way. There are too many to list, but two that stand out are the Queer Emporium, which provide an in-person space for queer people alienated by traditional gay bars along with an avenue for LGBTQ-run small businesses to sell their goods, and Welsh Ballroom Community, who came together to form a space which prioritises and uplifts queer people of colour to support each other and develop performance skills. Today we see trans people in Wales fighting on dozens of fronts for safety, justice and equity for their communities: TransForm in the music industry, Oska von Ruhland and Reg Phillips in heritage, Abby SImmons in tech, Emily Bridges in sport, Kate Hutchinson in education, Tash Oakes-Monger and Dr Kate Nambiar in health.

Welsh trans people are working to better the community they’re living in rather than feeling like they need to move away to be themselves, and that is something to celebrate.

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Meanwhile, the political sphere has become increasingly toxic. Earlier this year, Rishi Sunak’s government blocked Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Act, sending the UK into a constitutional crisis and threatening devolution agreements, not only between Scotland and England, but between England and Wales as well. The Welsh Government unsurprisingly came out in support of Scotland’s right to make their own laws, but as with most things in UK politics, their input on this issue has been mostly ignored.

While Westminster has grown more hostile, the Welsh Government have sought to endear itself to the trans community, making statements of support and commissioning the LGBTQ+ Action Plan for Wales to try and improve our quality of life. However, increasing numbers of trans people, myself included, have grown critical of the Welsh Government’s reluctance to actually listen to the trans people who are picking up the slack that the state has left, ensuring that trans people are housed, fed and clothed. 

The ecosystem of support for trans people in Wales has little to do with the state and everything to do with ordinary people looking out for their neighbours and ensuring that resources and information are shared through mutual aid.

The recent Action Plan has mostly been a bitter let down for trans people. For years trans activists working with the Welsh Government have been clear in their priorities: a healthcare pathway for trans and nonbinary young people, and provision for trans people who’ve faced domestic violence or who are homeless. In their “Action Plan”, the Welsh Government refused to commit to commissioning a healthcare pathway for young people, and rejected calls to provide more LGBTQ+ specific refuge and homelessness support. Instead, they leaned heavily on splashy promises to ban conversion therapy and reform the Gender Recognition Act – promises they know they cannot keep with the Tories in Westminster. The government was willing to tear devolution agreements apart to stop gender recognition reform in Scotland, and they’d do the same to Wales.

Personally, I feel that the Welsh Government is using the trans community as a political tool. While Westminster offers us as a scapegoat for their failures, the Welsh Government relies on us to boost their progressive image and to lobby for further devolution powers. The reality is there is very little that the Welsh Government have done recently to provide any real positive change to trans and queer communities. Perhaps the last thing was to commission the Welsh Gender Service in 2019, but this was done begrudgingly after a decade of pressure, and activists and allies in the NHS did all the hard work figuring out how it would run.

The ecosystem of support for trans people in Wales has little to do with the state and everything to do with ordinary people looking out for their neighbours and ensuring that resources and information are shared through mutual aid. For example, Trans Aid Cymru’s meal share scheme connects people who have spare time to make a batch of food with those who don’t have enough to eat, and in doing so not only combat poverty but build solidarity in local communities. Other organisations like TIN Wardrobe and Trans Tech Tent use similar mutual aid frameworks to provide support and resources to communities, and these organisations routinely refer particularly vulnerable trans people to each other to ensure each person gets as many of their needs met as possible. An ecosystem of support has grown with each organisation that crops up.

What trans people need, more than words, is resources.

This ecosystem is strong, but it’s not indestructible. The cost of living crisis, the growing strength of the reactionary gender critical movement, a bloodthirsty culture war in the media, authoritarian legislation and erosion of human rights protections are all having a huge effect on trans people in Wales. Demand invariably outstrips capacity in small community groups, and activists are getting tired. What trans people need, more than words, is resources. That can be money, platforms, skill shares, food, transport, or anything that could help our support systems keep going.

The so-called ‘culture war’ is a war on trans people, on Black people, on immigrants, on queer people, on disabled people, on women; it’s escalating every single day, and it’s coming for us all eventually. The trans community in Wales have proved that if people stand together, they can protect each other, and the more who stand with us, the stronger we will all be.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer. If you want to support our work tackling Wales’ key challenges, consider making a donation or becoming a member.

This article was commissioned and edited by Kaja Brown thanks to the Books Council of Wales’ New Audiences Fund.

Rudy Harries is a disabled, autistic, bisexual trans man from the Valleys in South Wales. He is an advocate, a writer, public speaker and an independent researcher.

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