Estelle Davis is one of the co-founders of Taking What We Need, a grassroots solidarity fund created by and for trans women in Montreal. It provides material support to trans women in the face of the many exclusions, barriers, and costs that they experience. Scott Neigh interviews Davis about the limits of the politics of visibility, about the barriers that trans women face, and about the solidarity fund.
It was 2014, or thereabouts. In the broader culture, it was a moment that some have come to call the "trans tipping point." Transgender people, particularly trans women, reached an unprecedented level of visibility. A key symbol of that moment was the appearance of Laverne Cox, one of the stars of the TV series Orange is the New Black, on the cover of Time magazine in June 2014 – the first openly transgender person to do so. Another milestone was US President Barak Obama's mention of trans people in his 2015 State of the Union address – again, the first time that had ever happened. There was also a more generalized increase in the visibility of trans people in popular culture, and at least a modest increase in the willingness of non-trans social movements, even those with relatively moderate progressive politics, to more consistently recognize trans people as legitimate subjects of their own struggle for justice.
Around that time, Estelle Davis was living in Montreal and coming out as trans. She was also getting to know two other newly-out trans women who soon became close friends and political collaborators. While still fully recognizing the importance of representation and the ways in which visibility both symbolizes and sometimes catalyzes certain kinds of change, the emphasis on a politics of visibility "didn't sit well" with them, according to Davis.
For one thing, many trans women face barriers to accessing employment as well as public- and private-sector services, to getting appropriate identification, and far too often just to existing in public space. On its own, cultural visibility does little to change any of that. Moreover, it is through visibility – that is, it is because someone is visibly marked as trans – that many of these barriers have their impact. As well, trans people who do not fit comfortably within the gender binary often face significant barriers navigating institutions that are rigidly gendered. And of course trans sex workers, trans migrants, and Black, Indigenous, and otherwise racialized trans people face marginalization and violence in a whole range of intersecting and compounding ways.
In addition to significant barriers to accessing income and the resources that they need to live, trans women also face major costs associated with transition. There are many different choices that different people make when it comes to gender-affirming surgeries and other bodily modifications, but almost none of them are paid for by the public health care system in Quebec.
Davis and her friends had long been a part of scenes that you might variously describe as "punk" or "DIY" or "anti-authoritarian." So out of these discussions of barriers and costs and the limits of visibility, they decided to take action in the do-it-yourself spirit, and in a way that would do something concrete to address the material barriers facing trans women – they founded Taking What We Need.
The core work is raising money for the fund. Individuals can donate online (via PayPal to email@example.com) and at times they have solicited donations from organizations or via community appeals. But most often, the fundraising has happened through organizing parties, shows, and a wide range of other events that combine raising money with building much-needed community spaces.
Trans women in Montreal are able to make a one-time application to the fund for help with whatever financial needs they are facing. Davis and her collaborators are careful not to make it bureaucratic and intrusive like a social service would be, but they still have a sense of how the fund is being used. For some, it goes towards costs related to transition, like laser hair removal or surgery. For others, it is used for needs like housing. And applying it towards expenses related to immigration is also common.
Image: From Wikimedia.
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.
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