We Exist, And We Deserve to Dream

We Exist are raising mutual aid funds for trans people trying to access healthcare and uplifting trans creative voices.

PHOTOGRAPHY Lowri Cooper and Rocio Chacon

Healthcare for all is a basic human right. Accessible and affordable care allows us to move through the world with an understanding that our body and mind will be looked after by those responsible for public wellbeing – allowing us to play, learn, and thrive as our best selves. It allows human beings to make mistakes, as we are wont to do – to fall down, to take risks, to climb higher than ever – because only through exploration of self and of the world do we grow. It enables us to feel safe so that we may work towards aligning our external world with our internal ethos and motivations. And trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming (trans*) people deserve no different.

Yet, built upon a precarious foundation of inherently oppressive beliefs, the current healthcare system in the UK fails to support and uplift trans* people. Instead, it demands that they suppress their true selves for the comfort of others. That they risk their wellbeing to placate a restrictive view of gender. And that they limit their boundless potential in order to help maintain the status quo. With waiting lists for NHS treatments stretching to five years while recorded hate crimes against trans* people rise by 81%, the current environment for the genderqueer community is worse than hostile: it’s often fatal.

Accessible and affordable care allows human beings to make mistakes, as we are wont to do, because only through exploration of self and of the world do we grow.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

But, as the LGBTQ+ community – and others who have been marginalised by colonialism and white supremacy – have demonstrated throughout history, when those in power fail to protect us, we come together to look after one another. Mutual aid began to be recognised and practised more widely in response to the UK Government’s failures during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this care that transcends a bio-legal sense of obligation has long been provided within a range of communities, from mixed-status immigrant Latinx families and working-class neighbourhoods, to Black and Brown communities. And for LGBTQ+ people, in particular, these networks were vital during the 1980s AIDS crisis.

At a time when the pain, trauma, and death being experienced by the LGBTQ+ community were not only ignored but also stigmatised by politicians, and many queer patients were ostracised by their bio-legal families – who refused responsibility for end-of-life care of terminally ill people living with HIV – mutual aid saved lives. Lesbians across the world volunteered at hospitals, donated blood, and advocated in solidarity with those in their community who were suffering – not due to feelings of transactional obligation, but rather stemming from a place of true care for one’s own. During an extremely precarious time in gay people’s lives – in fact, on the precipice of life and death – their primary source of care came not through the government or through bio-legal family, but rather through the family that they created for themselves within the queer community.

Mutual aid draws attention to the political landscape that creates need and vulnerability. But – on an individual level – it allows those of us who are ignored, silenced, or even exploited by systems to move through the world with some sense of security. It provides a small safety net for us to be able to think beyond survival; it creates headspace for us to dream. For trans* people, these networks support an existence that inherently disrupts the lethargic tyranny of a heavily binary gendered society. They allow the trans* existence, which is revolutionary and resistance in itself, to be visible in the face of hostility, discrimination, and violence. But they also just enable trans* people to simply be; to exist. Because we do exist. And we deserve to feel at home in our bodies as we navigate the everyday pressures that accompany this existence – from work and relationships, to financial stresses and illnesses.

Mutual aid networks allow the trans* existence, which is revolutionary and a resistance in itself, to be visible in the face of hostility, discrimination, and violence.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

In a bid to provide community support to trans* people, ‘We Exist’ creates space for trans* people to platform their work and to discuss issues affecting the community. Founded by artists and activists Sophie Gwen Williams, June Lam, and Jo Alloway in 2020, ‘We Exist’ is a trans*-led organisation that provides direct financial support for trans* individuals facing systemic marginalisation in accessing gender-affirming healthcare. The initiative offers £100 bursaries to trans* people without access to public funds and/or universal credit through its ‘Trans Healthcare Fund’, and champions trans* creatives through pop-up cafes, exhibitions, and fundraising ventures. Currently, ‘We Exist’ is collaborating with Somerset House’s Summer Festival ‘This Bright Land’ – organised by husbands fashion designer Gareth Pugh and creative Carson McColl – to programme the ‘Trans Day of Joy’ on 18 August.

Following on from the success of their first major art and performance exhibition, ‘In Dedication’ – which honoured the memory of co-founder Sophie Gwen Williams and her vision – I sat down with June to learn more about the initiative’s past, present, and future.

Prishita: Could you tell me a little bit about your initiative? Who is it by and for? What is your purpose behind it?

June: We Exist is a trans-led grassroots organisation and healthcare fund. It was started by three trans community organisers in London during the pandemic, in response to the trans healthcare crisis in the UK. Our primary aims are to raise funds for mutual aid for trans people trying to access healthcare, to raise awareness of this healthcare crisis, and to uplift trans creative voices. 

P: What is the need for this initiative in society? What space is it occupying?

J: There is an ongoing trans healthcare crisis with ever-increasing, and often unliveable, waiting times for treatment and gatekeeping practices for NHS services, which have a profound impact on the mental health of trans people trying to access these services, especially trans women and BPOC trans people. There is a need for mutual aid funding that does not gatekeep – all trans people have the right to access lifesaving healthcare.

We Exist also create spaces for trans artists to build community with one another and to reach a wider audience with their voices and their visions, through trans-led and trans-curated initiatives such as large-scale residencies, group exhibitions, and performance showcases in central London.

P: And the exhibitions that you’ve organised so far have played such a powerful role in bringing together the community. What does community mean to you?

J: Community means people who show up for one another in times of need and times for crisis, as well as connecting over our shared values and our shared joys.

We hope that the need for mutual aid funds will become obsolete through the reform of the NHS system and the introduction of an informed consent model of healthcare for trans people throughout the UK.

June Lam

P: What’ve been some of your favourite moments since setting up this initiative?

Some of the best moments have been seeing how young artists who joined the 2020 residency have built strong community links with one another and gone on to become activists and community organisers in their own right, from setting up support groups and leading chants at London Trans Pride, to curating their own exhibitions of trans artists. 

P: That’s so wonderful! What do you hope to achieve through this initiative? 

J: We hope to continue to grow and raise funds for mutual aid so that more trans people can access healthcare, and to continue to uplift and platform trans voices and strengthen community bonds so that more trans people can feel empowered to challenge the status quo.  

P: And what’re your hopes for the future – both for your initiative and for wider society?

J: Ultimately, we hope that the need for mutual aid funds will become obsolete through the reform of the NHS system and the introduction of an informed consent model of healthcare for trans people throughout the UK.

This column is written in loving memory of Sophie Gwen Williams, who was an inspiration and a true caregiver for the queer and trans community. Rest in Power, Sophie.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

Our Politics Editor, Prishita (they/them) is a writer, editor, and LGBTQ+ community organiser. They’re currently a Trustee with Voices4 London and sit on the Advisory Board for Split Banana, a social enterprise redesigning relationship and sex-ed by bringing in the perspectives of groups traditionally excluded from the curriculum. Prishita has been published or featured in METAL, gal-dem, Hunger, and Dazed, amongst others. They also featured in ‘Soul of a Movement’, a film by British creative directors Carson McColl and Gareth Pugh that documents some of the British LGBTQ+ activists, artists and allies carrying the revolutionary fire of the Stonewall Uprising today.
Prishita‘s writing is represented by The Good Literary Agency, and they’re also a signed model and social human with CRUMB.

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