Alexandra is a trans woman, lesbian, and union steward living in Burlington, VT. This article discusses transphobia at length.
Burlington Republican Party Chair Christopher-Aaron Felker is running for the Ward 3 City Council seat again, despite spending $5,000 to garner just 14% of the vote for the same seat less than a year ago. Felker has scrubbed his public image of his past extremely transphobic comments, now calling for civility and a campaign focused on “community safety,” but he has never publicly apologized or made amends for his history of hateful rhetoric.
Felker is running on a center-right platform, which calls for “rebuilding our Police department,” along with reforming “oppressive” city zoning. He also celebrated the withdrawal of Burlington’s Palestine Solidarity resolution, which he incorrectly described as anti-Semitic. These stated positions are in line with the priorities of Burlington Democrats.
Last month, Felker wrote to the City Council lamenting “a truly shocking degradation of civility in this chamber,” again mimicking the rhetoric of city councilors from all three parties. He “advised” the Progressive majority “to immediately stop pushing unnecessary, divisive issues that only serve to divide our community.”
Felker’s letter exposes once again how calls for civility by capitalist politicians are calls to silence the oppressed. Felker does not hold himself to his own standard, either in person or online. At a December 1st City Council meeting, he spoke against mask mandates for twice as long as his two-minute allotment, raising his voice to a shout at the end. Much more disturbing than that public outburst are the hateful comments he made over the past several years on Twitter.
According to screenshots, in 2018, Felker told a trans woman on Twitter: “you also seem to think that a cheap wig & fist full of hormones makes you a woman – You’re wrong there too. Facts don’t care about your feelings. Nobody cares how you identify. No lesbian has a penis. No gay man has a vagina. Homosexuals exist. Trannies [sic] aren’t homosexuals.”
In the moral world of Felker – a gay Republican politician – becoming angry over the eviction of houseless neighbors in Burlington’s South End is uncivil, but calling trans people “trannies” is not.
Press coverage of Felker during the previous election campaign focused on transphobic posts that were unearthed after an archive of his deleted Twitter account, @UrOrwellianLife, was found. However, the previous tweet was not reported by the press at that time.
Felker’s posts baselessly suggested trans women commit sexual assault at higher rates than men, falsely promoted the claim that gender-affirming surgery is practiced on minors, and argued that recognizing the identities of trans youth was a form of conversion therapy targeting lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. He also falsely claimed it was impossible for a trans woman to be a lesbian, or for a trans man to be gay. Despite this, he claimed to VTDigger last June, “I’m not phobic of any transgender person.”
Felker’s claims are not unique: they reflect the ideology of the “gender critical” movement, a marriage of anti-queer conservatives and transphobic radical feminists. The gender critical movement portrays trans women as sexual predators who transition in order to prey on cis women, while claiming that trans men and non-binary assigned female at birth youth are victims of brainwashing. In the UK, gender critical activists have successfully swayed the press and large sections of white, middle class mothers to their movement.
In the US, conservatives around the country have made restriction of trans youth healthcare a priority. These policies would be the first step in undoing any progress trans organizers have made. Radical feminist Janice Raymond described the strategy still used today by gender criticals in her 1981 book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male:
“I contend that the problem of transsexualism would be best served by morally mandating it out of existence…. I believe that the elimination of transsexualism is not best achieved by legislation prohibiting transexual treatment and surgery but rather legislation that limits it.”
More recent gender critical books, such as Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters, attempt to convince parents that trans activists, the media, and others are pressuring children to transition (a concept they call “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria”). In reality, our social context is still one that heavily discourages transition through bureaucratic and social barriers.
Felker is not the only anti-trans candidate to run for city council in recent years. Independent socialist and radical feminist Peggy Luhrs ran for city council in 2020, winning around 6% of the vote. She lost to Perri Freeman (P), who is gender-queer. Luhrs has defended Felker on her facebook page, where she has also made dozens of posts equating trans women with sexual predators.
What is the answer to this anti-trans radicalism? While the implementation of anti-trans policies promoted by Felker and Luhrs in Vermont are unthinkable in the current political climate, the liberal status quo still makes the daily lives of trans & non-binary workers difficult.
Under our private-insurance based healthcare system, which usually only covers some healthcare services and surgeries desired by trans people, the ability to access medical care depends on wealth or a good job. Until we have a single-payer, nationalized, or otherwise free healthcare system that has strong protections for trans health, working class trans people’s access to healthcare will depend on the whims of employers.
Trans people are also more likely to be victims of physical, sexual, and relationship abuse. The transmisogynistic attacks which cast trans women as predators serve to cut us off from resources to support survivors at a time when all social services are under attack.
Many trans people struggle to transition because they rely on unsupportive family or partners for housing. A free housing program would give trans people the freedom to escape abusive living situations, while also addressing the epidemic of trans homelessness.
A majority of Democratic and Republican politicians oppose these reforms, which would better the lives of trans and non-binary people in Vermont. The Burlington City Council has passed a resolution decriminalizing sex work (trans sex workers are disproportionally subject to violence and police harrassment), but the resolution does not change actual police practice.
Felker’s candidacy is not just an opportunity to expose his bigoted views. Doing so without taking the opportunity to point out the political issues that shape and limit trans lives ensures debate happens on reactionary terms. Meanwhile, more liberal and progressive politicians are able to hold us hostage while ignoring these substantive issues.
Recognizing Felker as a transphobic bigot is not enough. We must go beyond simplistic slogans (“trans women are women”) and fight the capitalist economic system, transphobia, racism, and all the other forms of exploitation and oppression that harm trans workers.
Felker should be condemned by Democrats and Progressives, but that is not enough. Trans workers should organize to identify the most important issues we face, recognize the inability of liberal capitalists to address them, and build power in our own workplaces and communities.
Note: While The Rake could not identify links to the tweets mentioned in this article due to Felker deleting that Twitter account, the editors believe these screenshots are credible. Felker’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Top photo: CCTV Center for Media & Democracy Programming, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.