Tilt West’s Roundtable, Intersections & Transition (Photo credit: Whitney Toutenhoofd)

Trans Liberation & Colonial Erasures



By Nishant Upadhyay, in response to Tilt West’s Roundtable, Intersections & Transition

Often the media is abuzz with how we are living at the moment of trans visibility and how, finally, trans rights are on the table. In many ways, this a false narrative because it erases the experiences of those on the margins of normative trans and gender non-conforming (gnc) identities. Here is where intersectionality plays a major role in our understanding of the logics of white-neoliberal-cisheteropatriarchy — through the stories and experiences of those who are left out of the imaginations of trans-ness.

Witnessing the discussion at Tilt West’s gathering on “Intersections & Transition,” I was left despairing about how trans and gnc discourses are often deployed within white and cis communities, which are not always mutually overlapping, to undermine the liberation visions that trans politics offers us. While race and colonialism were topics of conversation, their discussion was largely limited and limiting. In spite of Dr. Rushaan Kumar’s critical prompts and remarks in the discussion, the conversation mostly steered away from the lives of trans and gnc peoples of color and calling out structures of transphobia, colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy that shape their lives. Although half of the participants identified as people of color and several as non-binary or trans, the conversation kept centering whiteness and cisness. The relative whiteness of the room speaks to these racial and colonial erasures. On these erasures, I offer five reflections.

Post-gender is not the same as post-race.

As much as trans politics is invested in undoing the binaries and labels, we fail collectively if we use a trans*analytic to argue against racial and ethnic labels. Race and gender do not function in similar ways. Non-binary and no-label gender politics points to the limits of binarism and cisnormativity, and demonstrates the need to go beyond the binary to account for the galaxy of gender identities and expressions. However, to impose this on race obfuscates the materialities of how race functions. Invoking trans politics to go beyond racial and ethnic labels is troubling. Post-gender is not same as post-race. In fact, post-race always already is racist. Thus, to use trans politics, specially by white and non-black peoples, to call for label-less futures is deeply rooted in racism and white supremacy.

Intersectionality is not obsessed with identities.

In the discussion, this post-gender/post-race analysis was being offered as a corrective to the assumed flaw of intersectionality, which is that intersectionality essentializes categories and identities. This (intentional) misinterpretation speaks to the privileges of whiteness. Black feminists and other feminists of color engage with intersectionality to tell us how identities are socially constructed, relational, contextual, and mutually co-constituted. To read intersectionality as being obsessed with racial and other identities, to me quite literally signifies that “I am white but I don’t want the world to question my privileges and positionality.” Intersectional critiques are not arguing for reifying identities, rather it’s the structures which produce these differential and oppressive lived experiences which maintain these identities and the differences. Going back to the previous point, to use trans politics as a way to critique intersectionality reeks of whiteness and colonial erasures.

Our notions of gender and sexuality are a product of colonialism.

Colonialism has to be central to the conversations on transphobia and cisnormativity. We can’t understand contemporary experiences of trans and gnc folks without understanding the last 500 years of colonialism. As much as race is a product of European colonialism, so are gender and sexuality. As feminist scholars of colonialism have demonstrated, cisheteropatriarchy and binarism were/are central to the project of colonial violences. European notions of gender and sexuality were not only imposed on colonized and racialized peoples, but were also used to deny their humanity. Decolonial feminist scholar María Lugones expands: “the gender system is not just hierarchical but racially differentiated and the racial differentiation denies humanity and thus gender to the colonized.”

Trans and gnc identities are not new; rather, colonial processes have worked to destroy these identities and expressions globally. This destruction worked in North America against colonized Indigenous peoples through genocidal logics that impacted Indigenous women, two-spirit and gnc peoples, as well as against African diasporic/Black peoples, as gender was obfuscated to justify their enslavement. In other parts of the world, transphobic laws like the Criminal Tribes Acts of 1871 in British India were imposed by European colonizers to criminalize gnc communities.

Attempts to characterize a common “transnational” experience are dangerously reductionist.

The global south or the “transnational” is often invoked in conversations on trans-ness in North America to say one of these two things: either that “we” have it so much better here in North America for trans peoples, or that trans peoples in other parts of the world, say Kathoeys in Thailand, Hijras in India, Fa’afafines in Samoa, Muxes in Mexico, etc, have so much more socio-cultural acceptance and recognition. Both logics create a false narrative of universal and homogenous trans identities.

First, things are not better for most trans and gnc folks of color in North America. From all the anti-trans bills and legislations across states in the US, to murders and killings of black and brown trans women, to everyday denial of basic humanity and rights, there are numerous testaments to the violence of transphobia. This form of trans-nationalism, drawing upon the analytics of homonationalism, reproduces the exceptionalism logics of North America as queer and trans friendly, without accounting for ongoing colonial, racial, and neoliberal processes in North America.

Second, to identify/label all gnc peoples in the global south as “trans” erases the local contexts, histories, and experiences of peoples. While, there are many people in the global south who identify as trans, there are many others whose identities can not to reduced to being trans. In many of these contexts, one’s gnc identity is not just an individual identity but rather a social, cultural, spiritual and communal identity and marker. North American/white definitions of trans-ness do not account for these complex identity formations and histories of colonialism (see the point above). To fold all identities into one universal marker of trans-ness, following the similar logics of “gay international” and “gay imperialism”, is trans international and trans imperialism.

There will be no trans liberation without decolonization.

Finally, within the North American context there is no trans liberation without the decolonization of Indigenous landsand abolition of all forms of anti-blackness. Without centering anti-racist and anti-colonial politics, trans rights are always going to be limited and only benefit a select (white) few. Writing as a non-binary queer person of color, this is how I envision any form of decolonial queer and trans liberation and futures. However, I am also writing as a dominant caste Hindu Indian diasporic person; and within the Indian and Indian diasporic contexts, gender and sexual struggles are incomplete without the annihilation of caste and caste structures. Thus, any one-dimensional struggle for queer and trans justice is limited if anti-racist, anti-casteist, anti-imperial, and decolonial analytics are not central to them.

Nishant Upadhyay is an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.




Tilt West is a nonprofit org based in Denver. Our mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture for our region and beyond.