Queer Activism in Leftwing Spaces
(i) A Brief Note, Reader
It’s been a month since the initial post for the Queer Scotland Today element of the #ManyVoices initiative was posted. At the time, my ambition had been to produce the project in three distinct phases looking at, in turn, state-backed organisations supporting the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community whilst navigating the harsh realities of austerity, moving on the consider community groups and self-organised collectives at the local level, before closing with reflections on international solidarity. A confession, however, is that this proved more difficult to enact that anticipated.
The precarious nature of modern funding for most organisations in the community, social care, and health care sectors mean that – as many of us already know through practice or experience – workers are often already stretched beyond their means. In addition, it was always going to be a big ask to have current practitioners publicly disclose the challenges they’re facing when this might mean speaking out against or openly criticising bodies whom their organisations are reliant upon to sustain any form of practice.
What I’m pleased to reveal now, though, is that the last two weeks have been speaking speaking with queer workers, service users, and activists across Scotland on a broader remit of understanding queers lives in Scotland. Adopting a less rigid approach to the project is, perhaps, a more authentic reflection of the state of flux the participants within this project live in. As such, over the coming weeks, articles featuring anonymised accounts from those previously employed within L.G.B.T.Q.+ oriented organisations, a series of interviews with queer parents (coupled and lone) on the hetero -normativity of state-run support, discussions with activists and educators, a three organisations chat on the creation of queer spaces within political parties, and an interview with the C.E.O. of one of Scotland’s leading L.G.B.T. charities.
These will be released on a regular basis going forward, so, for now, thank you for your patience in progressing this aspect of #ManyVoices. For now, I’m pleased to bring you the first of these insights – an interview with Gemma Rae Moncrieff, queer activist and trade union organiser.
(ii) Queer Activism in Leftwing Spaces: A Personal Account
Gemma is someone I’ve known for several years now. During my own placements whilst undertaking my B.A. Hons. Degree in Community Education, my first mentored practice sessions took place with a charity supporting queer identifying young folk, where, as she mentions, Gemma was a participant in one of the weekly groups. We’ve met again within Edinburgh’s trade union and leftwing political spaces, and she’s someone who I admire as an activist. I’ll let her introduce herself, below, but I’m grateful we had the chance to speak for this project.
Luke: Where I’d like to start, initially, is with a little bit about yourself … Perhaps a by talking about your own experiences as a queer young person and how that’s shaped your activism?
Gemma: So, I’m thirty years old now. I’m a transwoman and I see myself quite clearly as that. I’ve been out to the wider population… well my family since I was about twenty – so coming up to a third of my life living as myself. Initially, when I came out, I didn’t have much by way of support services around me, like, it was the university I was attending at the time who had a L.G.B.T. support group that revolved about alcohol and dating. That wasn’t really what I was needing though.
It was actually out on one of these alcohol-fueled nights that I saw in the women’s toilets an advertisement for a queer youth groups. When I arrived, like, initially I felt quite skeptical – just with such a wide age range and variety of needs, and maturity. Despite that, it was quite a nice space when I arrived. To begin with, it was great to have this open space, a group that was running on a regular basis for trans young people and not just because it wasn’t revolving around drinking. Our frequent socialising spots are usually, as you know, cafes, bars, or nightclubs, that kind of thing. I found that having the solidarity and support of other queer and trans people around my age, was absolutely essential.
When I turned about twenty-two, twenty-three, I had already become a sort of ‘elder’ within the group. It began to feel like I’d received all – or most – of the wisdom I could from that space, so I started imparting what I could on to other young people. But the worker at the service started to recognise these skills I had. It was quite an interesting transition period for me. It was the start of my time working with that particular youth group, like, I accepted a job with them when I got offered it. Beyond that though; what I was going through was typical, sort of, ‘trans stuff’… At the time, I had no solid job behind me, I’d been trying different apprenticeships and I had quite bad mental health. Having the youth work space in both contexts though, somewhere to grow and develop my skills, it was absolutely amazing at the time.
Luke: Aye, that sounds fantastic. I’ve got pals that are running a queer cafe now, where they’re trying to address that general imbalance of queer social spaces being so centred on alcohol and dating. I’m hopeful of having an interview with them up on Bella in the next wee while… How was it, running the youth group having been a young person prior to that?
Gemma: It was interesting being in a trans group, a space for trans young people, that wasn’t being run by a trans person. I think I may still have been the only trans person to have run the service. In terms of the friendships that can exist and emerge in these spaces, it feels a bit like an after-school club. It’s very much a support service so it becomes quite difficult to maintain some of those friendships away from the groups; but I certainly had quite a stark experience when I had to form these professional relationships with the same people that I would’ve been going out drinking with just a few months ago. That was quite a weird moment of boundary setting. Going into being a youth worker, I was quite good at it having been a service user. I definitely felt good at the job because I had that experience; and the transition from service user to worker was better for it.
Luke: How was it with that distinction between having these broader, you know, ‘real world’ experiences – the apprenticeships.
Gemma: On the whole, it was definitely better than anything I’d been to at that stage. For a while, aged twenty and a half, I went to a trans women’s group at an adult L.G.B.T. support service. That just wasn’t for me though – at least not at that point in time. It was more self-managed but it felt like it had quite a hierarchical vibe to it. Just by comparison to the youth group though, whilst there was a paid youth worker at the groups who was there to support the running of the sessions and look out for the young folk’s welfare, it felt more freeing. There was the structure to it, but it felt like there was less that could go wrong. That’s probably the benefit to these youth spaces, making it safe for young people to explore these concepts of gender. In terms of the experience I had as a youth worker though, it felt a little more freeing. It’s very strange though, cause whilst it had a lot more structure to it, but, by comparison, the only trans spaces that really exist tend to be the ones organised by support services.
Luke: I’m wondering, you talked earlier about identifying specifically as a transwoman specifically. Could you talk a little about how you arrived at how you situate yourself now and what that means for your approach to activism?
Gemma: I think gender, for me, has always been a process of trying to understand myself. It’s that Marxist thing of ‘becoming’. It’s really difficult to deconstruct yourself and then rebuild what feels right. Initially, it’s very confusing trying to organise a set of thoughts about yourself. Previously, I didn’t identify as trans, rather I identified for a long time as non-binary trans person for quite a long time. It’s maybe in the last five years that my position has become more solidified. Not to dismiss those who are non-binary, but for me I think that ambiguity gave me a space to explore my gender. As I got older and more into myself, I just felt more comfortable with using ‘she’ pronouns. I’d already been transitioning medically for close to three years by that stage, so I think it was just reaching a point where I could be comfortable being me.
Luke: I remember from my experience working within some of these some L.G.B.T. youth spaces, it felt quite useful to be doing those check-ins with pronoun use and ensuring we were addressing people as they felt at the time. It’s certainly something that helps everyone involved to have a space in which to explore themselves and, perhaps with that growing maturity, to eventually settle into themselves. Can you tell me a little more about that queerness and, as you say, transness, and it’s relationships to your time in activist spaces and the trade union movements?
Gemma: You know, I do find myself wondering, ‘would I be this radical without the transness?’. I do believe that there’s all this stuff that just leaves trans people totally fucked. There’s so much that is just hampering you when you’re trans – housing, healthcare. I do believe that having the chance to explore and see the nuances between genders has helped me gain, or at least understand, more perspectives. I feel it’s kind of inconsistent to stop asking those questions after working on or dealing with your own gender identity.
You know, there’s a certain power in it; a certain strength to being able to ask things and to hear the answers to things that you might not feel comfortable with being told. Asking, ‘well, why is it I need to be stuck in a 9-5?’ Long term, though, it’s certainly important to come into that, and, to be honest, I do consider myself as having a form of privilege now after going through all of that.
Luke: That makes a lot of sense. It’s something that came up pretty constantly when I did my interviews recently for the Ph.D., like, those who’d gone through their own hardships (gendered, financial, racisms, or all these other prejudices and assumptions), many of them – obviously not completely, came to find new kinship and solidarites with other folk.
Gemma: I see it more as having wisdom than materially benefiting from it – I went through, and am in, these roles where I’m still just above minimum wage. I think it’s part and parcel, you know, your political self does impact your life chances and what opportunities are given to you. I had to make a choice between focusing and exploring my transness or my university degree. At the time, that was just the choice given to me, and long term I feel a lot better about myself; more sure of who I am. It meant that I was materially harming myself but I am better placed for not having spent another year wasted on a degree that I didn’t really want to be doing.
Luke: That constant questioning aspect, I imagine that’s what led you more towards these radical and anarchistic spaces?
Gemma: I can actually trace a path. My friend who I’d met through another national queer charity, their partner needed a house. We then decided to find a house together with a few other people, and it was through him, and the education there, that started me on this path.
I’d been broadly left – like a lot of young people are. I was twenty-four during the independence referendum, so I was in support of Scottish independence but I hadn’t really done a lot of challenging my own opinions – or really had them challenged. There were definitely snippets of radical thought though. It was in this gradual introduction that I started making connections with anarchist organisers and various trade union groups.
At the same time, I’d also been getting more involved in trade unionism. I joined my first trade union back when I was twenty-three. I started to realise that was a link between your job conditions and queerness – that to accept your queerness was often to tarnish your own future wages. I couldn’t really stand for that. It wasn’t, then, much of a jump between realising there was a clear connection here and how fucked that was.
Luke: Yeah, it’s sounding like quite an organic understanding of inter-sectionality began to emerge. Not just that ‘I’m working in this sector or doing X’, but the further connections there – between gender pay gaps and so much more.
Gemma: Aye. I think the seeds of that had been planted in my head a long time ago; it’s that sort of vulgar, horrendous, even the barbarity of rounding your life down into hourly units of minimum wage. When that realisation came to me during my first job at sixteen, I couldn’t shake that. I hated that. I felt it was just such an unfortunate practice
I worked for a while at a mobile phone retailer in the city centre and the amount of shit I had to put up with there – not just for being trans but because it was customer service – it was awful. Whilst I was there though, there was a colleague (and she wasn’t queer) but witnessing her say ‘no’ to the bosses was an eye opening experience. I’d never seen that in my life before and that was just astounding. I stood there thinking, ‘I want to be like you’.
Luke: Taking that then, you said earlier that meeting the friend and their partner, then progressing into these more far-leftist spaces. Were there many others you met in these spaces that had gone through similar journeys, with their queerness or otherwise?
Gemma: I think there are definitely a number of experiences with that. I was very privileged to witness people taking steps into discovering queer identities. Coming into contact with a lot of queer people more than anything, with that interaction there comes a lot of solidarity. Just by the act of being around queer people can help folk realise that there’s another way of being. Being around it, seeing that, it can inspire us; it lets us see what can be done. There are definitely just all these people who’ve gone through these processes of questioning and, like, antifascist action groups are often considered as very masculine spaces so it’s incredible to see queerness emerge out of that.
Luke: Can you talk to that a little bit more? How challenging assumptions over the male bodied and, at times, more violent stereotypes of some radical activist spaces was?
Gemma: I think everyone benefits from it. With toxic masculinity. I think a lot of trans people need to learn that you can stand up for yourself… And, I want to add there, that there are people who’ll take that to the extreme which can be quite dangerous. The fact is, though, that we have organised and we have supported antifascist action across the U.K.
There was so much more going on though and we were able to bring in a sense of care to our activism. The amazing thing was, like, at the start of each meeting we’d ask everyone how they were doing. I remember, there was one difficult moment in the group and this young man, like, not from a particularly ‘hard’ part of town, but just when we were doing the check in I remember that this seventeen year old man asked for it. I remember thinking, ‘shit! You know, maybe this has affected you’, it was just this really positive development that happened in a way I’d maybe not considered myself. There was this, perhaps, breakthrough of understandings around mental health and how we could look out for each other. This was at the time when I was still doing my youth work, it was sort of ‘youth worker by day; antifascist organising by night’!
Luke: Ye, I get that. With my teaching, when I’m running these sessions on, say, queerness, I do try to bring in these two understandings of queerness. Obviously the one most of us might associate with queer identities being related to L.G.B.T. experiences, to gender and sexuality, but also the broader conceptualisation from, say, bell hooks, Emi Koyama, or, say, David Halperin, who suggest that subversive activism and going against heteronormative expectations can be considered as queer action. We could go down avenues of chatting about how even on the far right we find groups who believe they’re going against the state, fighting in these counter-hegemonic ways – and there’s no shortage of examples where extremists have targeted queer, trans, and non-binary folk, globally, here in Europe, and a fair few examples right now in Scotland. What I want to talk about though, is this mental health space and self-preservation amongst those taking action or struggling with themselves.
Gemma: There was a lot of informal counselling in the youth groups. There’s certainly a space for that, and one of the main entry points for our work was teachers and guidance staff phoning up saying, ‘I’ve got this trans young person and I’m not sure how best to support them’. It means having to invest a lot of yourself into that
There is this parallel between the way that most of the organising spaces in the trade unions are quite bureaucratic; whereas, say, the I.W.W. is that bit more informal. Things are a bit weirder in that they are not as smooth or shiny as the big unions, but the quality and personal advice that we can give is so much better. It’s definitely what a lot of mytime and energy goes into and where my beliefs lie. People have it within themselves to run a lot of their lives.
Luke: For this Many Voices project, I’ve been speaking with other folk who’ve been service users at youth groups (queer-specific or otherwise), and many talked about a lack of transition or a handover period when they exited these youth groups and went over to adult services.
Gemma: Well, within our union ran a women’s and non-binary group. I think, on ‘my presence’ within the union, I think there’s a level of respect that I’ve gained through my work and status as quite a prominent transwoman. Many people know I’m trans. I can’t really speak to others’ experiences, but there are always – even in a smaller group like the I.W.W. – people who are going to go against change and social acceptance of thoseple; those who hold onto those outdated views… From what I’ve seen in other unions, there does often seem to be a bit of tokenistic element to L.G.B.T. equality. I obviously don’t want to name names, but within perhaps these more Trotskyist groups, there are people who think that black issues, disability, or queer issues distract from their main goals of liberating the worker. They put forward arguments around the worker from waged labour, but, whilst that’s really important, it’s very easy to forget these additional barriers. It’s a serious issue, and I want trans people – like all people – to be more interested in that, but I don’t feel that one needs to come over the others.
Luke: Perhaps just in closing them, outside of these groups like the I.W.W., where there is perhaps that better understanding or acceptance of queerness, what’s that been like for you? Have you encountered much resistance to that inter-sectionality and queer approach?
Gemma: It’s been a while since I was involved in the Scottish independence referendum movement, like, I was really active in the run up to that first one. There’s this assumption from some who feel that there’s this more pressing issue of independence that needs to be resolved – and there’s certainly an argument that could be made to suggest that the Scottish Government is perhaps hamstrung – much of the relevant powers are already devolved. Once Scotland is divorced from Westminster, there’s a belief amongst many that everything will just be good. I still believe in Scottish independence and perhaps there might be this big outpouring of goodwill to some minorities after a successful referendum, but that won’t change things like the huge waiting lists at support services.
On a personal level I do worry about how dismissive it was can, at times. You don’t build allies by telling people that their issues don’t matter as urgently. It’s groups like Mutual Aid Trans Edinburgh, I.W.W., and others who are working towards community-based support and mutual aid – that’s the kind of practice I want to see, the building of autonomous power within and between communities. Whatever the context, we need to break with these top-down structures. That the main thing; not the dismissiveness of trying to build allies by saying ‘we’ll deal with your issues later’.
Luke: Just in closing then, is there anything else you’d like to touch on
Gemma: Just some advice: join your local unions; and keep questioning things.
Luke: Gemma, thank you
A massive thank you to Gemma for her time, and, as always, my thanks to the team at Bella Caledonia, I’m privileged to be a part of the Many Voices programme alongside Tomiwa Folorunso, Zozan Yasar, Sean Wai Keung, Annie George, and Anahit Behrooz. To keep up to date with our work, check back on Bella’s website or search #ManyVoices on your social media platforms.