Intervention — “Trans Liberation in the UK is Under Threat: How Geographers Can Respond”

James David Todd (University of Glasgow)

Trans lives are flourishing with greater visibility now than at any period in our recent history. Yet in the UK, trans and gender diverse people and communities are often both hyper-visible and socio-politically marginalised. Despite queer and trans communities demonstrating increasing solidarity and cohesion, at present, nationally significant sources of concern for trans folk across the UK emerge with alarming regularity. Gender conservative (often self-rendering as “gender critical”) voices wield significant power over national discourse around trans lives, rights, and legislation which they often deny holding. Transphobic voices are often afforded national media platforms to present trans people—trans women in particular—and the advancement of trans rights as an “ideology” that threatens (according to the source) cisgender (cis) people, cis women, cis women’s safety, cis women’s and gender separated spaces, children, equalities, law and order, and more (Armitage 2020; Jones and Slater 2020).[1] As recent social science work discusses (e.g. Pearce et al. 2020), these voices have been strengthened by the societal legitimisation of “debate” around almost anything related to trans people. More recently, this has been exacerbated during the lives and aftermaths of variously proposed, consulted, abandoned, and—in the case of Scotland—constitutionally halted reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA), legislation that multiple parliamentary consultations and enquiries have concluded is outdated and onerous. Through the passing and vetoing of GRA reform in Scotland,[2] trans people have been placed at the centre of a constitutional conflict between the UK and devolved Scottish Governments (Torrance and Pyper 2023). Indeed, the protracted GRA reform has become a proxy for enabling increasingly legitimised trans-hostile discourse, as gender conservatives have attached their so-called “concerns” about the progress of trans rights in the UK. This has occurred alongside the stagnation of trans rights legislation and affirmative healthcare, and the increasing visibility of gender conservative activists’ links to the far-right.

In April 2023, these societal developments crossed another newly worrying threshold as Great Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)[3] responded to a request for advice on amending the Equality Act 2010[4] from the Minister of Women and Equalities. In a letter to the UK Government, they stated that they had “come to the view that if [the protected characteristic] ‘sex’ is defined as biological sex for the purposes of [the Equality Act 2010], this would bring greater legal clarity in eight areas” (EHRC 2023). The letter also claimed, in phrasing that framed trans and cis women’s rights as in conflict, that there are instances where the state is involved in “balancing competing rights, for instance the rights of trans women and of biological women” and that there are cases where “human rights law may require the statutory recognition of biological sex” (ibid.). A key conclusion within the letter stated:

On balance, we believe that redefining “sex” in [the Equality Act 2010] to mean biological sex would create rationalisations, simplifications, clarity and/or reductions in risk for maternity services, providers and users of other services, gay and lesbian associations, sports organisers and employers. It therefore merits further consideration.

If adopted by the Government, this redefinition would produce a situation whereby trans people’s legal rights under both Acts could be stripped back as any single-sex space could exclude trans people automatically, rather than in limited circumstances where “[s]uch treatment by a provider has to be objectively justified” (Equality Act 2010). Meanwhile, concern has been expressed that groups such as trans women could lose legal protections they are currently provided for under the Equality Act, such as equal pay. A consortium of LGBTQ+ charities and organisations condemned proposals outlined in the EHRC letters (Consortium 2023), whilst the UK’s largest higher education union released a statement contesting the advice (UCU 2023). As sociologist Ruth Pearce (2023) writes, these proposals are seemingly positioned to “terrorise” trans people and to make trans lives “impossible”. Indeed, such developments, even if unimplemented, stoke seemingly ever-building discursive and literal violence against trans people in the UK. In other words, they are not only an existential threat in themselves but detract and direct attention away from everyday issues facing trans people, including healthcare inadequacies,[5] discrimination, and inaccessible public spaces. Yet, as narratives of trans lives and geographies demonstrate (Todd 2023) they also have a counter-effect that gender conservatives, transphobic legislators, and politicised human rights agencies perhaps do not anticipate: the strengthening of trans and queer communities, the consolidation of queer and trans spaces, and the movement of allies toward active defence of trans liberation.

In geography, there is urgently needed work to recognise the realities of the here-and-now of trans lives that must go beyond the “trans geographies” or even the queer geographies/geographies of sexualities canon. What I propose in this Intervention is that geographers have both a key role and responsibility to play in order to highlight both the impacts of the dangerous precipice to which trans and gender diverse people have been brought to in the UK (and indeed in many places around the world)[6] and how trans people are responding to—and often flourishing in spite of—the current environment. As Eden Kinkaid (2023a: 3) writes, “the making of queer futures happens through deviant acts that make new pathways possible”. Geographers, attuned to the spatial, temporal, and (increasingly) intersectional dimensions of everyday life, are uniquely placed to undertake scholarly acts of deviance running against the societal grain of transphobia and moral fear and panic that work to bring about more just, progressive, and liberatory futures for trans people of the UK and elsewhere.

UK Trans Geographies: Work Must Continue

Although geographical literatures and pedagogies continue, in some forums, to be shaped through cisnormative, heteronormative, colonial, and misogynistic logics and exclusions (DasGupta et al. 2021; Kinkaid et al. 2022), trans and queer geographers have made strides in documenting and exploring trans people’s lived conditions in several global contexts, particularly across North Atlantic (March 2021; Todd 2021). Some of this work has been conducted in the UK, albeit often by so-called “early career” scholars, many of whom will not see their work develop in the same way as previous academic generations due to the current precarious university labour context and a potential relative devaluing of queer and trans geographies. Through this small body of work, and literatures from other social science disciplines using geographical frameworks, the impact of socio-political and societal transphobia, cisnormativity, and gender conservativism on UK trans people’s spatial and embodied encounters in spaces and times as diverse as the everyday, healthcare sites, and educational settings has begun to be evidenced (Bonner-Thompson et al. 2021; England 2022; Gleeson and Hoad 2020; McLean 2021; Pearce 2018; Pearce et al. 2020; Todd 2021, 2023). Doctoral work—often produced through participatory and voice-raising methodologies—has emerged in geography around the everyday lives of UK young trans people (Todd 2020), the politics of trans ecologies of identity (Brice 2020), gender queerness in Scotland (Anderson 2019), the lived experiences of trans people across the UK (Lo Marshall, UCL), and trans experiences of public bathrooms (Ged Ridley, Newcastle). More doctoral scholarship is yet to emerge around trans and non-binary lives and their implications for urban planning theory and practice (Matt Smith, Brighton; see also Smith et al. 2023), Christianity and sacred spaces (Peter Jones, Leicester), and other geographies of UK trans lives.[7]

In addition to this burgeoning work, we have new and now established spaces for discussing trans lives and emerging trans work in UK geography—again, much of this led by “early career” scholars—via the Queer Geographies Postgraduate Reading Group ( and the RGS-IBG’s Space, Sexualities and Queer Research Group events and “work in progress” fora ( One such recent event, “What counts as geographies of sexualities research?”, evaluated the messy, often subsumed place of trans geographical research within sexualities scholarship. We are also seeing a small growth in trans representation at our academic conferences, with recent trans geographies sessions organised at the RGS-IBG and AAG conferences. However, importantly, as trans and queer geographers in the UK we cannot continue presenting to and talking amongst ourselves: geographers ostensibly committed to trans and queer liberation must show up, particularly in the face of rising and increasingly overt hostility and violence.[8]

Recent efforts to examine trans lives and socio-political shifts impacting trans people in the UK and beyond have produced nuanced understandings of the spatialities, temporalities, and broader geographies of trans people’s everyday lives. Crucially, these efforts are increasingly bringing a diversity of trans voices and lived experiences to the fore. This work must continue. In the UK context, it is important that we connect narratives of trans lives to key political and policy developments, particularly as trans people and communities are subsumed within distractive and materially harmful “culture wars”. We should connect issues faced by trans communities to other marginalised groups to find resonances and unite through broader and intersecting struggles. We can counter hostility and gender conservative movements by both demonstrating how trans and gender diverse people have and will be impacted by policy shifts (or lack thereof) and by social and political transphobia from across the political spectrum and by illustrating how trans lives continue to flourish in all their multiplicities, complexities, and beauty. What happens when we demonstrate how some trans people are thriving (or could thrive) rather than merely surviving?

We also have work to do in bringing trans histories to the fore. Trans communities in the UK have long and rich histories that demand geographical attention. Affording voice to past trans lives will go some way to working toward more secure trans futures. To this end, our research must ask how wider society can learn from trans people’s historical geographies.

“Deviant Acts”: Recording Trans Joy and Gender Euphoria

Returning to Kinkaid’s (2023a) notion that queer futures are made (possible) through the production of deviant acts, geographers must also pay attention to the full and rich lived realities of trans lives. In academic research, we rarely see trans joy and gender euphoria. Particularly in geography, expressions of trans joy, love, friendship, protest, cohesion, and community are barely present. Rightly, we hear about how exhausted and depleted trans folk are, but—unlike in other queer geographies research—do not often witness the gender euphoric body, the intimacies of flourishing trans and queer relationships, the joyful sounds of trans pride, the ecstasies of trans sex (although see Howitt 2023), the dancing, sweating, moving trans body, nor even the mundane realities of everyday life. Yet these utopic, hopeful visions exist in the here-and-now. Perhaps to give more attention to these could constitute a “deviant act” that holds the power to demonstrate how dangerous and cruel the rolling back of trans rights would be.

Figure 1: A selection of artwork demonstrating spaces, times, and materialities of trans joy produced by young trans people as part of my research around the everyday lives of trans youth in the UK (Todd 2020)

To this end, we also need research and writings that fuck with and invert cisnormative and heteronormative academic norms and boundaries of expression. I want to see an academia where trans art, poetry, and protest sit alongside excerpts of voices of experience. This work can often evidence the lived and material consequences of policy, and social, political, and legal discursive shifts just as viscerally and powerfully. For example, Humphrey (2022) uses poetry to examine how amendments to the GRA would work and to expose some of the supposed negative consequences of reform as unfounded:

And no one needs a GRC
to enter a toilet to pee
I do not need a GRC
to empty my leaky body.

I acknowledge that such explicitly trans representations can be difficult to present in a context where journal metrics are often at the forefront of decision-making. However, there are some academic shifts that all geographers engaging around trans lives can undertake. To this end, I repeat and heighten my call for geographers to reflect the minutiae of trans people’s everyday lives “in their full diversity and complexity, and continue to move beyond representations of trans lived experiences as marginal and solely traumatic … beyond [the] lack of representativeness of, and low engagement with, the full diversity of trans communities … and often superficial engagement with trans spaces and social movements” (Todd 2021: 11). The need to record and explore trans joy in geography has never been more pressing.

However, this work and work to counter the current UK socio-political context from within geography and the broader academy cannot be solely led, read, attended, heard, and shared by trans and queer geographers. It cannot solely be the preserve of precarious colleagues, postgraduate researchers, and our students. Advancing trans rights and a socially just and liberatory trans research agenda requires those committed to trans equalities and those concerned by recent socio-political events in the UK to take action. As Kinkaid (2023b) states, “Geography could be and should be a place where we build other worlds, other possibilities, other spaces for queer and trans life”. In other terms, we must commit to a transing of geography—a process that must take place through, upon, and within our spaces and work—in order to (re)direct the discipline to trans liberation and the dismantling of cisnormativity.

Everyday Activism

To date, geography has not been infiltrated by the same level of gender conservativism that has saturated other disciplines. This is perhaps, at least in part, due to the hard work of trans, queer, and feminist geographers to engage in progressive research agendas and teaching around gender in ways that recognise intersectionalities and diversities. To continue this work, geographers committed to trans liberation must engage in everyday forms of activism that can improve the lives of their trans and queer colleagues, students, social networks, and, indeed, wider society. There are everyday activities that geographers committed to trans liberation can undertake: attending queer reading groups; upholding and sharing trans and queer postgraduate work; raising trans inclusion on EDI committees; integrating teaching around trans lives; making space for gender embodiments and pronouns to shift and change; aiding trans students and colleagues to navigate the neoliberal university’s cis and binary-gendered expectations; and discussing, contesting, making visible gender conservativism and hostility to trans people and transness as this unfolds in the UK and elsewhere.

The power of such everyday acts cannot be understated and is perhaps best reflected in moments of connection queer and trans academics have with one another and with their students, some of whom are seeing themselves and their lives reflected back for the first time in our discipline’s spaces (DasGupta et al. 2021). Indeed, there are trans, non-binary, and gender diverse students who “show up every day glowing to be in a room with someone like them” at times where queer and trans geographies are taught (DasGupta et al. 2021: 496). My own experiences as a student and teacher have impressed on me the queer potentialities and power imbued in making trans and queer lives visible in the classroom. Indeed, queer and trans research and teaching holds the potential to offer freedom and embodied comfort to those we engage, in contrast to the increasingly anxious normalities of everyday life that many trans and queer people experience.

Our research and teaching can become enabling and liberatory sites that can create pathways to positive, affirming futures for trans students and scholars. Those of us already queering and transing the classroom must continue and redouble our efforts to engage in this important and highly political work. At a time where queer theory has been likened to paedophilia by senior social scientists, we must show that queer and trans geographical work can resist gender conservative, transphobic, and cisnormative events and movements, and to uphold and project queer and trans voices and experiences.

Of course, much of this everyday activism within academia is made more difficult when trans, gender diverse, and queer faculty are not being hired or promoted, research not being taken seriously or funded, and “early career” trans and queer scholars are not making it onto the ladder of neoliberalised, precarious academic employment as generational precarity embeds further. Trans and queer people must be included within an emancipatory and visibly trans geography, one that recognises the existence, contributions, and value of trans and gender diverse geographers in the first place if we are to achieve trans liberation within and beyond the discipline (Kinkaid 2023b).

Conclusions: The Utopias Already Present

This is an extremely dangerous and precarious time for trans people in the UK and in many locations worldwide as trans communities become increasingly hyper-visible and socio-politically marginalised. Despite the growing strength of trans and queer communities and long and rich trans histories, trans people’s ability to engage in everyday life is increasingly under threat in the UK. As geographers, it has never been more important for us to dismantle the logics of cisnormativity, transphobia, and gender conservativism. And it has never been more urgent that we explore and represent the lived realities of trans and gender diverse people and entangled trans pasts, presents, and futures from trans, non-binary, and gender diverse perspectives. Indeed, this Intervention demonstrates that geographers can be at the scholarly forefront of defending, shaping, and advancing trans liberation. As I have argued, this work is not only about searching for ways to bring about future trans utopias, but about recognising the trans utopias already present. Trans, non-binary, and gender diverse people are often flourishing in the here-and-now and are not going away.


Thank you so much to Francisco Fernández Romero and Dave Featherstone for generously reading and commenting on a draft of this piece.


[1] Of course, such discourses ignore that many trans people are women, children, in need of equalities legislative protection, and so on.

[2] The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill passed in the Scottish Parliament with 86 votes in favour and 39 votes against. Members of all parties represented in the Parliament voted for the legislation.

[3] The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is the national equality body for Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales; Northern Ireland’s equivalent is the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission). It currently holds United Nations “A” status as a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI).

[4] The Equality Act 2010 was designed by the then-Labour Government to combine existing equalities legislation into one law. It created legal requirements with respect to nine “protected characteristics” (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation). Trans people are currently protected under the “gender reassignment” characteristic, which incorporates anyone who is “proposing to undergo, is undergoing, or has undergone a process” of social transition. “Gender reassignment”, although outdated in language, is not a medicalised characteristic.

[5] Among other issues, trans healthcare services are greatly exceeding NHS target waiting times nationally, with vital services undergoing service reviews and structural change.

[6] Although note that this is not universally the case and some states have implemented legislation supporting trans communities. For example, Argentina and Uruguay have adopted a law requiring the public sector to reserve 1% of jobs for trans and travesti people.

[7] Lo Marshall:
Ged Ridley:
Matt Smith:

[8] Often, spaces focused on trans and queer geographies are attended almost exclusively by trans and queer folk. Straight and cis colleagues committed to trans and queer liberation must increase the visibility and activeness of their allyship.


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