2020 will forever be remembered as the year of The Deadly Virus. But while most of our lives have changed to some degree, it's hardly been “the great equaliser,” as some cis, white, able-bodied celebrities seem to genuinely believe. Instead, its impact has been disproportionately skewed against marginalised communities.
For trans people in the UK, this impact has been felt acutely. Back in May, the LGBT Foundation found that 21 percent of trans people have had to claim government financial support since the COVID crisis. Seventeen percent of trans people said they felt unsafe where they were staying, while 45 percent said that they were unable to access medication or were worried about accessing medication. Throw in the fact that trans-related healthcare has effectively ground to a halt across the country and the situation has looked pretty bleak.
It's no surprise that trans people have had to take things into their own hands. This year, crowdfunding services like GoFundMe filled up our Instagram stories and grids more than ever, while a quick skim through the #TransCrowdFund hashtag on Twitter reveals thousands of trans people seeking funds from willing donors. Crowdfunding requests ranged from raising money for private trans-related healthcare to avoiding homelessness (even before the pandemic, a quarter of trans people in the UK had experienced homelessness).
Obviously trans people wouldn't have to turn to crowdfunding services like GoFundMe if there was adequate support elsewhere – but right now there isn't. Transition-related healthcare in the UK might be theoretically free on the National Health Service (NHS), but a lot of the trans people I spoke to told me that this is far from how it works in practice. Gender identity services are notoriously underfunded, with backlogs meaning some patients are having to wait two to three years before their first appointment. Others, like the Leeds and York Gender Identity Service, have cancelled all appointments until 2021.
This can have disastrous implications. Although not all trans people elect to have surgery, alleviating symptoms of gender dysphoria is often considered life-saving. Half of young trans people attempt suicide and studies stress the urgency of trans healthcare as a means of harm reduction.
“I honestly don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for the kindness of friends and strangers,” says Lucia Blayke, founder of London Trans+ Pride. She has had to resort to GoFundMe on five separate occasions, including to fund gender-affirming surgeries. “I was deeply suicidal before my surgeries and just knowing that there are thousands of people out there wanting to save me makes me feel so loved and valued.”
Lucia is far from the only person who views GoFundMe as a last resort. Terr is a non-binary artist using GoFundMe to raise money for living costs after facing unemployment due to the pandemic. They tell VICE UK that GoFundMe represents a “crisis point” for trans people: “It’s clear that the government aren’t going to step in and see us for who we are, so we must take matters into our own hands.”
Chiyo, a trans performance artist, successfully raised £8,000 towards chest reconstruction surgery back in 2019 and was finally able to have surgery this year. He says that he “used the fundraising platform to aid my transition process in a way that alternative measures couldn’t”. For Chiyo, using the platform publicly also helped raise awareness surrounding government neglect: “Being able to share my story with my online following allowed folks to see just how tedious, inaccessible and complicated trans healthcare is in the UK.”
For Chiyo, being able to have chest reconstruction surgery was an essential step in his journey: “I would have never been able to achieve and therefore relish in the gender euphoria I experience now on a daily basis.”
It's not only trans individuals in the UK who have had to turn to GoFundMe, but entire communities. Events such as London Trans+ Pride are largely crowdfunded, while Lucia, who runs Harpies, the UK’s first LGBTQ strip club, has set up a GoFundMe for Black trans dancers who are unable to access benefits due to their limited “leave to remain” in the UK status. “Marginalised people are turning to platforms like GoFundMe because our government doesn’t care about them, at all,” she says.
It's worth pointing out here that GoFundMes likely didn't multiply this year solely because of the pandemic. 2020 also saw movements like Black Lives Matter pick up steam, meaning that ideas like wealth distribution became a mainstream conversation online, rather than one confined to activist circles.
At the same time, the British media continued to fixate on trans people – and not always positively. This may have also had a significant effect on trans people's GoFundMe campaigns. In other words, those supporting trans rights have needed to become louder and more active in their activism.
“We have seen time and time again the constant exclusion of QTIPOC,” says Terr, “And this era of online support has made this fight [for trans rights] gain speed.”
Crowdfunding might be a lifeline for many, but it is far from a perfect solution. As GoFundMe hosts more and more campaigns, it is inevitable many won’t reach their target. Influential users are often the first to receive support, while those with smaller followings are left out. Trans lives should not be at the mercy of social media algorithms.
There is also concern that – outside of trending movements – funds primarily come from other LGBTQ people, perpetuating a cycle of the marginalised giving to the marginalised. “It seems to be a matter of distribution from within the community,” says Chiyo. “Meanwhile, the white cis heterosexuals sit in the houses of Parliament finding ways to keep us all poor.”
Crowdfunding has proved to be crucial this year and highlights the constant resilience and resourcefulness of trans people. But it shouldn’t have got to this point, and it shouldn’t be this way moving forward. GoFundMe can only ever be a bandaid for the systematic disenfranchisement of trans people.