The freedom to be: Marxism, gender oppression and the struggle for trans liberation

Transgender people are in a paradoxical situation internationally. The world has never had so many visible trans people in popular culture, the media and even now in politics. Broadly speaking, public attitudes have shifted quite quickly in favour of trans people, although this is mixed. An Australian survey of 54,000 people last year found that 45 percent agree there are more than two genders, and just 38 percent disagree.[1]

On the other hand, trans people have become a favoured punching bag of right-wing politicians. In the midst of a global pandemic, having just acquired effectively dictatorial powers, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán is putting legislation to define gender as “biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes” and thus make it impossible for people to legally change their gender.[2] One-third of Poland is under the control of councils that have declared their jurisdictions “LGBT-free zones”.[3] In the United States, Trump is planning to roll back provisions protecting LGBTI people from discrimination in healthcare and health insurance and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has a very similar attack proposed with the Religious Freedom Bill.[4]

Most importantly, the statistics still show trans lives scarred by violence, poverty and despair. In countries like the USA and Australia, trans people are twice as likely to be unemployed, four times as likely to experience sexual violence, and 40 percent report having attempted suicide.[5]

Laura Miles’ Transgender Resistance is a valuable and timely contribution at a time of flux, danger, hope and controversy in trans lives. The book acts as a compendium of transgender history, science, theory and politics. As Miles discusses these aspects of trans experience in turn, she both applies, and argues for, a revolutionary Marxist method. As such, Transgender Resistance will benefit transgender people new to Marxism, as well as Marxists new to transgender politics.

In this article, I hope to summarise each of these aspects in turn. In doing so, I have sometimes contributed some of my own ideas in support of Miles’ arguments – in particular on questions raised around gender socialisation, self-identification, and identity politics. I believe these additions to be consistent with Miles’ framework.

Gender history

While contemporary trans identity is shaped by the circumstances in which it has arisen, trans people are not a purely novel product of modernity or postmodernity. Gender variance stretches back as far as gender itself. Before the emergence of classes, societies were characterised by cooperative ways of living and cultures that valued equality. Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding created practical distinctions between men and women and some of the work they did. Yet this differentiation did not exist to oppress: individual preferences were not only accepted, but often accounted for with distinct genders.

The anthropological record of early societies is rich with traditions beyond the gender binary. Miles provides us with a sample of these practices, drawing from Leslie Feinberg’s extensive discussion in Transgender Warriors (1996) and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld’s radical study Transvestites (1910). The most notable case is the gender diversity found in practically every Native American tribe before European colonisation. Documented encounters between early Jesuits and indigenous people show that gender variation was widespread and accepted, and that the colonisers detested this. The French Jesuit Joseph-François Lafitau, who spent six years among the Iroquois, reported seeing “women with manly courage who prided themselves upon the profession of warrior” and “men cowardly enough to live as women’’.[6] The most well-documented phenomenon is the “Two Spirit” or “bade” person. These were typically boys who transitioned to womanhood, and thereafter dressed and worked as women, and took male sexual partners. Similar roles are well documented as far afield as sub-Saharan Africa, Siberia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The Bugis people of Indonesia still practise five distinct gender roles.

The “third gender” often performed a religious and/or medicinal role in society. Intersexuality is a dominant theme amongst early religions. Divine beings frequently possessed both male and female anatomy, examples of which remained in the mythologies of ancient Sumer, Egypt, Greece, China and India. “Mother Earth” herself was more likely a being of indeterminate sex representing the time before humanity divided into male and female. “The experience of being a Two-Spirit person – one whose gender status was different from both men and women – was thought to confer a capacity for wisdom and greater understanding of the human condition.”[7] Although attitudes differed from society to society, and Miles cautions us against overly romanticising some cultural practices, the evidence clearly demonstrates that early societies held much more flexible and egalitarian views on gender – even where men and women’s roles did differ, they were seen as equally essential contributions to society.[8]

Gender oppression

The historical record demonstrates that women’s oppression, homophobia and transphobia have not existed in all societies. These are not natural phenomena rooted in biology, but social phenomena that can be abolished if the conditions that gave rise to them are also abolished. Miles draws on Friedrich Engels’ work to explain how gender oppression is rooted in societal changes. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels explains how women were subjugated through the historical process of societies settling, and then dividing into classes. With the development of agriculture, many more children were possible than in hunter-gatherer societies, so women were more frequently precluded from heavy labour in the fields. While work performed by women remained essential, their subsistence became increasingly dependent on work performed by men. It was through the ploughing of the land and the raising of livestock that wealth could be accumulated, owned and passed on. This property became inherited by the son from his father, which meant establishing paternity was necessary for the correct transfer of property. Patrilineality (kinship derived through the father’s lineage) supplanted the ancient and more obvious means of ascertaining family ties through the mother (matrilineality). This was a very protracted process that Engels characterised as the “world-historic defeat of the female sex”. “All the surplus which the acquisitions of the necessities of life now yielded fell to the man”, Engels wrote in 1884, “the woman shared in its enjoyment, but had no part in its ownership”.[9]

The crucial factor, however, was the way that inherited property and settled agriculture allowed for the accretion of unequal wealth between producers over successive generations. As wealth concentrated not just under the ownership of men, but an organised minority of men who used it to control the labour of society, women’s status was decisively devalued to that of a mere vessel for producing heirs on one side, and the incubator of labourers on the other.

As divisions deepened between men and women’s roles, so too did proscriptions against homosexual acts and cross-dressing. The strict sexual codes of the Old Testament show how some of the first class societies sought to enforce the patriarchal family structure against customs and traditions that would have lingered on from earlier times. Such codes were also directed at destroying the local culture and authority of rival societies they conquered, as Miles suggests is the real story behind Sodom and Gomorrah.[10] As class societies grew and dominated, they cemented women’s oppression and sexual repression so deeply into the fabric of life that gender oppression can now appear as old as humanity itself.

Oppression has differed in precise character from one class society to another. Capitalist gender ideology – the gender binary, the inferiority of women, “natural” reproductive roles – is built on the material foundations of the nuclear family, which itself emerged from the crisis facing early industrial capitalism. In nineteenth century Britain, rapid industrialisation had torn the peasant family apart and driven its members off the land into filthy urban centres. Men, women and children were thrown together into factories and barrack-like accommodation. The industrial revolution led to untold misery: in 1845, the life expectancy in Manchester for a working-class person was 17. This crisis of mortality threatened the supply of labour, and the turbulence and dysfunction of urban life threatened labour discipline.

Legislation against child labour and for shorter working hours was passed from the 1840s to the 1860s. The new family wage was ostensibly to cover the male worker, his wife and all dependents. Women were supposed to stay at home, raise children and perform unpaid domestic work. Children would learn discipline from their parents and conformity from school. As Miles explains, the bourgeoisie had a ready model to impose on workers’ private lives that accorded with their goal of social stability:

Much of the legislation was about attempting to mould the working class family in the image of the bourgeois family to enable the capitalist class to exert the greater control of the working class through encouraging identification with middle class values of morality – “family values”, the Church, temperance, and the discouragement of sex outside marriage.[11]

The nuclear family did not come naturally. Unlike the patriarchal peasant household, which bound its members to each other and the soil, the anonymity of urban life provided opportunities to form relations and communities in a variety of ways. Capitalism was “in practice creating the conditions for the emergence of freer sexual relationships and gender roles among working class people”.[12] Women would often dress themselves as men, to access better jobs and pay, or to form covert relationships with other women. Molly houses, where working-class men would go to cross-dress and form sexual relationships, proliferated across the country, but were frequently raided by police and Puritan mobs.

Establishing discipline meant using the state to criminalise such sexual “deviants”. In 1860, the British empire introduced Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which applied to all British colonies across Asia, Africa and the Pacific. This outlawed all sexual acts “against the order of nature” as well as third gender groups such as the Indian hijra. Domestic laws against sodomy were strengthened in 1885, which infamously put Oscar Wilde behind bars in 1895.

Gender science

Fundamentally, ideological attacks on trans people rest on the belief that men, women and their differences are biological facts for all time and all people. “Biological isn’t bigotry”, opponents say. Yet, as Miles astutely notes, the biological sciences have been a central ideological prop in justifying the inequality and oppression of capitalism since the nineteenth century. Bourgeois sexual morality was refracted through medical and scientific fields already obsessed with questions of moral hygiene and racial fitness. Female sexuality, homosexuality and masturbation were deemed pathological afflictions or inborn abnormalities. Sexual behaviour was not proscribed in one heap, as in feudal repression of “sodomy”, but categorised, catalogued and classified. Capitalism sought a more rationalist ideological condemnation, which “science” provided. “Gender dysphoria” is still listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the handbook of psychiatrists.

Miles employs a wealth of scientific research to demonstrate the complexities of sex. In reality, biological sex is not a clear-cut binary, but a spectrum with many chromosomal, hormonal and physical variations. The same is true for our brains, with studies finding very weak differences between the sexes, and these do not account for the effect of a lifetime of gender-conditioning on our brains, or hormonal treatment in the case of trans subjects. This means we should reject the explanation that trans men, for example, have a “male brain” in a female body. This argument, understandably, is sometimes raised by trans people defending their existence. But if most men don’t have a male brain, it begs the question why trans men ought to. Arguments for trans liberation must critique the very assumption that gender difference is a biological fact. The fact that gender is assigned based on genitalia gives the illusion that all differences between men and women stem from their biology. Gender identity is instead a complex interplay of “the person’s self-perceived body, their biological sex, the social perception of their body in the eyes of others, social factors like gender values and expectations, and…their sexuality”.[13] Gender encompasses so much more than biological sex that socialists should confidently argue that trans women are women, and trans men are men, despite not conforming biologically. Self-identification is a sufficient means of determining one’s gender. Trans people’s challenge to biological determinism has also opened the space for people to affirm nonbinary gender identities (neither male nor female) – in which no underlying biological assumptions exist at all.

Gender politics

After World War I, the situation for gender-variant people advanced in Weimar Germany and revolutionary Russia, until the workers’ movement was crushed by Nazism and Stalinism respectively. Between the horrors of the 1930s and conservatism of the 1950s, history arguably reached its lowest point with regard to sexual liberation. This was truly a dark age for LGBTI people.

Things decisively shifted with the Stonewall riots of 1969. Gay communities had been growing in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco ever since US soldiers arrived at their ports after World War II. From the mid-1950s to early 60s, activism was predicated on the conservative approach of politely picketing the White House and wearing suits and dresses to demonstrate that “homophiles” were just like heterosexuals. But the influence of the Black Power and anti-war movements radicalised the gay ghetto, especially young and gender-nonconforming members of the community. Since repression was so severe, a broad spectrum of behaviour and identities were outcast together, and lines of demarcation between gay and trans, though discernible, were less clear than today. Homosexuals who did not transgress gender stereotypes were still forced to live their lives secretly, but those whose gender expression violated norms were the most marginalised. Resentment at constant police harassment and brutality bubbled under the surface throughout the 1960s, occasionally breaking over. In 1966, a riot broke out at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, when a trans woman threw her coffee in the face of a police officer attempting to arrest her.

Stonewall – also sparked by relentless police harassment – was a turning point because of the depth of anger, the mass nature of the three days of rioting, and its rapid politicisation with the formation of the anti-capitalist Gay Liberation Front.[14] Dick Leitsch, a leading GLF activist and riot participant, noted how at the forefront of the rioting were the trans women and effeminate gay men who constituted the most oppressed underclass of the community.

The most striking feature of the rioting was that it was led by “queens”, not “homosexuals”. Homosexuals had been sitting back and taking whatever the establishment handed out; the queens were having none of that…they scored the points and proved that they were not going to tolerate any more harassment and abuse…their bravery and daring saved many people from being hurt.[15]

Miles helpfully contributes to restoring trans people to this period of Gay Liberation struggle. The front cover of Transgender Resistance is a photograph of Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera – two trans women, and radical leaders in the Stonewall riots and Gay Liberation.

However, as early as 1972, movements were fracturing and lowering their sights from liberation to reforming capitalism. While rights for homosexuals could be argued for on the basis that “what people do in the bedroom is their own business”, gender nonconformity is public and visible. A turn to moderation therefore included disinterest or even hostility to gender presentation that was too confronting – not just transgender people, but any gays who would “flaunt” it too brazenly. At the 1974 Pride parade, Rivera was booed off the stage by rally participants. Trans and gay struggles did not entirely break and drew somewhat closer together in the 1990s when the acronym LGBT was coined. But whereas homosexuality is accepted by the majority of many Western countries, trans is uneasily balanced between being accepted under the same logic, and being rejected as a step too far.

Trans people’s existence pulls at deeply rooted ideas about gender, and both the traditional right and the new far right are determined to safeguard traditional gender roles and the nuclear family. Culture wars against transgender people, and especially transgender youth, are taking place almost everywhere. In chapters 6, 7 and 8, Miles documents these attacks and the situation broadly for transgender people in almost every region in the world, with particular focus on the United States and the United Kingdom. These chapters are a useful resource on the concrete situation, including reforms that have been won through the tireless work of activists. However, the country by country breakdown and detailed legal histories is a little heavy on empirical information and light on analysis. At times, the book feels overloaded with quotes, sources and raw data.

Gender theory

The situation with the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) in Britain earns special attention because of the deplorable role played by feminist organisations like Woman’s Place UK. The GRA was passed in 2004 and allows transgender people to change the sex on their birth certificate. Applicants must have lived for two years in their affirmed gender and a psychiatric diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” is required. In 2017, a proposed amendment to simplify this process sparked vocal opposition from the usual conservative voices, but also from groups of feminists, and even some on the left. A bigoted cartoon published in the Morning Star in February depicted trans people as lecherous crocodiles, demonstrating the reactionary direction in which “trans-criticism” is taking its advocates.[16]

Unlike our conservative opponents, “trans-critical” feminists centre the issue of women’s oppression in their attacks. Their main target is therefore trans women, who they argue are really men. According to Woman’s Place UK, women-only services should exclude trans women, to save numbers for “real” women and to prevent male rapists from invading women’s spaces. This is a bankrupt argument in many ways. Prioritising cis women (women assigned female at birth) simply means accepting the disgraceful state of funding for women’s refuges, health clinics, etc, after a decade of devastating austerity. These are also services that transgender people are in desperate need of. The obvious argument is to demand expanded funding and services for all women – and indeed all people – a stance which encourages solidarity between oppressed communities. But because its exclusionary logic rests on the fact of women’s vulnerability as an oppressed group, trans-critical feminism is undermined if it acknowledges that trans people are victims of oppression – including women’s oppression – and not perpetrators. Throughout her polemic, Miles consistently presses the need to forge unity of the oppressed: trans people and women are oppressed by the same system of capitalism and should fight alongside each other to resist sexism, transphobia and homophobia.

This ostensibly left-wing current has also joined in the moral panic over the “epidemic” of young people identifying as transgender, and in many cases beginning the early stages of medical transition. It is tremendously positive that so many people feel not only free to be themselves, but confident to demand the services that will help them get there. On such an issue, it is difficult to see where the feminist argument differs from the conservative one at all. Radical feminists say that the “trans lobby” has infiltrated schools and convinced tomboyish girls that they are really boys. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison also decries the existence of “gender whisperers” in the classroom. The UK’s Tory Minister for Women and Equalities announced in April 2020 that central to their revisions to the Gender Recognition Act would be “the protection of single-sex spaces” and preventing young people’s access to medical transition.[17] On 14 June, The Sunday Times reported that Boris Johnson’s government had completely scrapped all plans for progressive GRA reform. “Instead they plan to announce a ban on ‘gay-cure’ therapies in an attempt to placate LGBT people. New protections will be offered to safeguard female-only spaces, including refuges and public lavatories, to stop them being used by those with male anatomy.”[18] This is very obviously a setback for gender liberation, the bitter fruit of a right-wing culture war that enjoys the support of a small number of “radical” cheerleaders.

The claim that trans women are male invaders is both offensive to trans women, and actually reinforces women’s oppression more broadly by resting on the idea that women’s oppression stems from somewhere in men’s biology. “The prevalence of the belief that trans women pose a threat reflects a common strand in some feminist ideology – the essentialist myth of the inherent non-violent nature of women and the inherent violence of men.”[19] This strand of feminist hostility to trans people on a biological basis goes back decades. In her 1979 book Transsexual Empire: the making of the she-male, Janice Raymond wrote:

All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artefact, appropriating this body for themselves… Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.

This extreme hostility might be drawn from theories of patriarchy, but it also stinks of run-of-the-mill bourgeois prejudice.

The trans-critical alternative to crude essentialism is the argument that trans women are men and trans men are women because they were socialised from birth into those roles. However, since gender assignment at birth depends on genitalia, the argument that all women share a common socialisation from birth brings us to identical conclusions to biological determinism. Socialisation is of crucial importance to the foundation of our identities, but it is multifaceted and subject to many contingent factors, especially one’s class and nationality. How can the socialisation of a refugee girl and a princess be compared? Broad similarities make women’s oppression a coherent and universal phenomenon, but not a uniform one. Just as importantly, transphobia and the deep distress produced by socialisation at odds with one’s gender identity clearly also affects the experience of “gendering”. Do two boys enjoy the same “privilege” of male socialisation if one is abused by their adult men, bullied at school, and psychologically tormented because of their feminine tendencies?

Helpfully, Miles also argues against adopting too mechanical a view of how socialisation works:

If we take the view that gender identity is entirely caused via social construction, then we should not be surprised if those who advocate transgender ‘cures’ conclude that they can eradicate trans people’s gender behaviour by ‘training’ them…to behave differently.[20]

If individuals were mechanically determined by socialisation, there would be no way to resist gender oppression at all. But homosexuality, trans identity, women resisting sexism, into which no one is socialised, all prove that neither biology nor socialisation can entirely define our behaviour or identity.

I would articulate an approach to these thorny questions in the following way. Humans are naturally various and capitalism is inherently contradictory. Socialisation cannot iron out such complexity from the psyche of its subjects. For various reasons, individuals reject or rebel against aspects of their socialisation, and assert their humanity by making choices to be who they wish to be, in the face of sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Human agency is a factor in the construction of the self that allows us to reflect, feel, and make choices that go against what is permissible for capitalism.

In this complex mix, socialists should approach gender in its contradiction. The nuclear family is a capitalist institution designed to regulate the private lives of workers, acquire invaluable quantities of unpaid labour from women’s domestic labour, invoke labour discipline and ensure a healthy supply of labour for the future of capital accumulation. Gender is the ideological expression of the inequality between men and women reinforced through the cycle of capitalist exploitation and privatised reproduction.

But gender is a central pillar of understanding oneself, a prism through which personality is refracted. Confining people to one or the other gender is a form of oppression whose devastating impact on those who do not conform is obvious. Self-identification does not undo gender, but it does challenge its supposedly natural origins and weakens its ability to discipline us into acting a certain way. If socialisation helps to produce the self, the self nonetheless has the agency to challenge oppressive conditioning. Championing the ability to self-determine one’s gender puts socialists on the side of an oppressed minority, but it also helps to illuminate some of the potential for a society liberated from gender oppression altogether.

Gender strategy

The final section of the book deals with the debates between identity politics and Marxism on the strategies for trans liberation. In this section, I have used different examples from those given by Miles, with the same goal of demonstrating the self-defeating approach of identity politics to oppression and struggle.

The roots of identity politics lie in the postmodern rejection of Marxism that accompanied the decline of working-class struggle in the West in the 1970s. The social movements turned away from class struggle as a leverage of power and looked to new forms of living, changing language and ideas, or reforming the legal and political systems. Postmodernism was an eclectic mix of these impulses, locating the source of power not in the structures of capitalism, but in relations between individuals enmeshed in various interlocking systems of oppression.

Identity politics is predicated on the myriad divisions this produces. Separate struggles must be waged by those who experience each oppression. But trans liberation will be impossible if the struggle is limited to the small minority of trans people. Support from the majority can and must be fought for and won, because of the universal interests of workers that cross the divides of gender, sexuality, race, nationality and so on.

More leftish variants of identity politics, like queer theory and intersectionality, can point out the nuances of interlocking systems of oppression, but they cannot explain why gender oppression actually exists. Queer theory rightly critiques the Pink Dollar – the commercialisation of gay cultural life – and the shift to the neoliberal centre by many gay organisations, but its political strategies are far less clear and far less effective. Laura Miles quotes the poststructuralist Surya Munro, who argues for the “destabilization and subversion of existing categories”:

Drag and cross-dressing [are] queer and challenge heteropatriarchal norms because they expose the ways in which gender is constructed. Thus gender identities are enacted with the aim of destabilising the normalisation of certain types of gender and sexuality, so that we are made aware of how all genders and sexualities are fictitious.[21]

In this approach, fighting gender oppression is something we do as individuals with our behaviour, by not conforming to gender stereotypes, identifying outside the gender binary, or through drag, polyamory (non-monogamy), and so on. Deliberately dressing and acting in nonconforming ways – “genderfucking” – is good fun, but it does not even begin to touch the material structures that make gender such a persistent reality. Wage labour makes the worker propertyless and dependent on stable employment to feed themselves and their children (as well as elderly, sick and disabled relatives). The division of labour within that nuclear family, and in the paid work that sustains it, reinforces daily the division of man and woman. For billions of people, there are no other economically viable arrangements to raise their children except in a nuclear family, and overwhelmingly the burden of private, unpaid labour falls on women. Alternative forms of childrearing and relationships are sadly not an option.

Identity politics fails to appreciate these material foundations of ideas about gender, because it rejects class as the fundamental division of society. Instead, oppressions are a web of crisscrossing power imbalances; analysis does not take us down to the roots, but round and round the surface appearance. Without a systemic critique of capitalism, individuals’ prejudices seem as likely a culprit as any for the oppression trans people face.

“Raising awareness” of the fictitious foundations of gender is only a reformulation of the run-of-the-mill liberal argument that “education is the cure”. Confronting the capitalist class is rejected in favour of changing the words and symbols we use, the ways of thinking or the “discourse” through which we understand gender. The aim is not to convince the working class that oppression undermines their collective strength, but to remonstrate with every less-than-perfect understanding of gender. This can and does lead to a middle-class purism that turns inward to an inner circle of those “in the know”, the formation of ineffectual silos of “wokeness”.

Examples from social movements make this clear. When protesters call restrictions on abortion an attack on women’s rights, some queer activists roundly denounce them for implying that only women can become pregnant – when trans men and nonbinary people are also capable. It does not hurt the movement to mention this, but fighting against the use of “women” as an accurate shorthand for the vast majority affected by attacks on abortion turns the movement into a battle of moral superiority among its participants. It sidelines important questions of strategy and tactics that should guide the movement’s activities, and brings front and centre a marginal issue of language use whose correction will have no tangible effect on the strength or success of the movement. A strong, mass and united movement would win greater abortion rights, improve life for women and trans men, increase the confidence of the oppressed, and open our minds to other questions of gender oppression. But the obsession with ideological purity from the outset sabotages the potential for ideas to develop in struggle, because the struggle is divided between those “in the know” and the unenlightened “normies” who – however hard they try – are part of the problem.

A similar argument emerged following the Women’s March after the inauguration of Donald Trump in January 2017. With four million participants, this was the largest protest in United States history. Many protesters wore pink “pussy” hats in response to Trump’s despicable remarks that he can sexually assault any woman he likes because he is a powerful man. The pussy hats received strident criticism from some queer activists for implying that all women have vulvas, or all those with vulvas are women. A professor of gender studies at a Michigan university attacked the hats as “dangerous for trans people”. “A lot of the reasons [transgender women] are attacked is because they do not possess that piece of anatomy”, professor Cael Keegan said.[22]

The idea that millions of anti-Trump protesters represented a danger to trans people – instead of the hope of struggle that trans people would be empowered by – reflects the elitist thinking of queer theorists. Mass action is threatening because it involves individuals whose views on gender do not perfectly mirror their own. In the case of the Women’s March and the movement for abortion rights, even the most obvious allies of trans people – progressive women and young people – are deemed to ultimately fail the test.

In contrast, trans activists like Elaine Rita Mendus articulate a much more serious and sensible approach to struggle. She “absolutely understands the use of the pussyhat”.

[President Donald Trump] has come out very strongly against reproductive rights and has targeted people with vaginas… Cisgender women especially are targeted and transgender men are obviously caught in the shot as well… There are transgender people being murdered or living in the streets all over this country, constantly, and transgender women and cisgender women need to be together on that front… All people need to work together to try to deal with that rather than worrying about this language policing or making of safe spaces, quite frankly… We need to work on dealing with the problems at hand, not a stupid hat.[23]

For the purists in their insular groups, a “stupid hat” is as great a crime against trans people as the Trump presidency it was fighting, proof that ordinary people cannot be their allies. For fighters like Mendus, the Women’s March showed the potential for trans people, women and other oppressed groups to fight together because Trump attacks them all.

Rejecting fragmentary and navel-gazing politics is crucial now that trans people are beginning to fight back in numbers. The development of protests explicitly about trans oppression has been a positive one. Trans Pride and Trans Day of Visibility marches are growing as trans oppression becomes a more defined battleground in its own right. The internet, growing visibility of trans issues, and the corresponding backlash have helped to forge a more connected, political trans community. The task is to struggle alongside all those fighting against oppression, to convince them that capitalism is the root cause and that it is as workers that people have the social power to overthrow it. Trans people are as capable of being won to this argument as any other, but the dead-end of identity politics – that prides itself on division, purity and self-fulfilling pessimism – must give way to the politics of solidarity and class struggle.

Because trans people face daily harassment and abuse from the public, and often painful rejection from family and friends, it is understandable that winning active support among broad layers of workers can seem unlikely. Forging solidarity between oppressed groups is a dynamic process, not a mechanical marching forward of ideas. Socialists must consciously intervene and argue for principled positions even when these are unpopular.

The Stonewall riots, for example, had a profound effect on the consciousness of the oppressed. The rioters proved to the participants of other social movements that they, too, suffered from injustice, and that they, too, were ready to battle the state. The self-empowerment of the oppressed gives them the confidence to argue with others for their right to be free. They become determined to “take no shit from no one”; ordinary people can no longer ignore the issue and are compelled to pick a side. Stonewall pushed the left and the movements to take a more strident stand on the question of homosexual emancipation, something they might not have done previously. In August of 1970 , Black Panther Party leader Huey P Newtown came out strongly in favour of the gay liberation movements, and pointed out that it was their own struggle that forced him to grapple with the issue.

Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it… We have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppressed people in the society.[24]

Struggles of the oppressed can win the support of workers by courageously showing the way forward. Whatever an individual worker’s initial prejudices, the sight of ordinary people fighting back and facing police repression and media demonisation can resonate with their own experiences. The success of cross-solidarity groups like Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, as depicted in the 2014 movie Pride, is apparent in the fact that the National Union of Mineworkers was instrumental in changing the British Labour Party’s policy on gay and lesbian rights, and still marches at the head of London’s annual Pride parade.

The most powerful engine for transforming ideas is the struggle in the workplace, at the point of production. Strike action demands a united, democratic and determined collective of workers drawing a dividing line between themselves and the boss. At these times, prejudice and oppression can more clearly be seen as an obstacle to that necessary unity. Under the oppressive atmosphere of work under the boss, workers with right-wing ideas feel more comfortable running their mouth. On the picket line, with the boss and the police as direct enemies, that same worker may link arms with a trans workmate out of sheer necessity. This already begins to undermine the divisive foundation of their prejudice. Workers who already support trans rights or see the need for unity can raise their voice and convince others that prejudice has no place in the struggle. Right-wing workers lose their influence, their courage to attack others, and often even their right-wing ideas themselves. Left-wing workers gain influence, arm others with arguments that will help win the struggle, and help create a culture of solidarity.

The example of a strike in Argentina’s biggest printing factory demonstrates this clearly. Years of organising – notably by Trotskyist workers – led to the workforce taking control of the factory in 2014, after management planned to sack 123 of the plant’s 400 workers. One strike in the years preceding the takeover involved the defence of a trans woman workmate. Management refused to allow her to use the women’s bathroom, and forced her to change with the men. The workers’ assembly voted to support their workmate and demand her right to use the women’s bathroom. In an article for Left Voice, Nathaniel Flakin explains how this was possible:

A Trotskyist party, the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS), had been working in Donnelley for many years. They built up an anti-bureaucratic, class struggle tendency in the workforce that won a majority on the workers’ council. They defended the principles of class independence, workers’ democracy and feminism. Thanks to years of discussions with Trotskyists, many Donnelley workers understood that to defend their interests, they needed to fight every kind of oppression.[25]

One strike does not guarantee that workers become champions of this or that oppressed group. It does, however, turn them into a collective more conscious of its united aims, more bitterly opposed to the boss, more determined to defend one another against victimisation and workplace bullying.

Marxism locates the source of gender oppression in class society, the material role that the nuclear family, sexism, homophobia and transphobia play in facilitating capitalist exploitation. The exploited working class has unique social power to bring capitalism to its knees. Their collective resistance in the workplace can cut off the flow of profits and form the basis of a democratic economy and society. But the divisions that capitalism sows among workers must be overcome through argument and through common struggle. The working class must become the champion of all oppressed groups to ensure a victorious revolutionary struggle against capitalism.

Conclusion

Transgender oppression is a hideous reality of capitalist society. The attacks from the right are unlikely to end, and the economic crisis will leave working-class trans people, already deprived of so much, worse off than ever before. Yet there are positive developments that should be pushed further, including the coming out of many more trans people, improvements in social attitudes, some legal reforms for trans rights, and street protests against transphobia.

Miles’ book comes at a critical time and provides a very informative and wide-ranging overview of trans politics, throwing light on the nature of gender identity and trans oppression. As the book addresses so many questions, there remains much to be explored theoretically on any one of them. Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors is an excellent companion with its extensive historical research, but Miles’ contribution to contemporary debates on the left about trans identity and political strategy makes it essential reading. Together these books offer the theory, history and politics to win a liberated world.

References

Callander D, J Wiggins, S Rosenberg, VJ Cornelisse, E Duck-Chong, M Holt, M Pony, E Vlahakis, J MacGibbon, T Cook 2019, “The 2018 Australian Trans and Gender Diverse Sexual Health Survey: Report of Findings”, The Kirby Institute, University of NSW, Sydney.

Carter, David 2004, Stonewall: The riots that sparked the gay revolution, St Martin’s Press.

Ciobanu,Claudia 2020, “A third of Poland declared ‘LGBT-free zone’”, https://balkaninsight.com/2020/02/25/a-third-of-poland-declared-lgbt-free-zone/.

Compton, Julie 2017, “Pink ‘pussyhat’ creator addresses criticism over name”, NBC News, 8 February. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/pink-pussyhat-creator-addresses-criticism-over-name-n717886.

Engels, Frederick 1902 (1884), The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Charles H Kerr & Co. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/index.htm

Feinberg, Leslie 1996, Transgender Warriors: making history from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman, Beacon Press.

Flakin, Nathaniel 2019, “When workers went on strike to defend a trans colleague – and ended up occupying their factory”, Left Voice, 22 June. https://www.leftvoice.org/when-workers-went-on-strike-to-defend-a-trans-colleague-and-ended-up-occupying-their-factory.

Hanrahan, Catherine 2019, “Are there more than two genders? Australia Talks survey reveals split in opinions”, ABC News, 20 November. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-20/gender-diversity-splits-australians-in-australia-talks-survey/11714302.

Holcombe, April 2019, “‘Religious Freedom’ a euphemism for homophobic oppression”, Red Flag, 21 July. https://redflag.org.au/node/6842.

James, Sandy E, Jody L Herman, Susan Rankin, Mara Keisling, Lisa Mottet, Ma’ayan Anaf 2015, “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey”, National Center for Transgender Equality. https://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Full-Report-Dec17.pdf.

Miles, Laura 2020, Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the fight for trans liberation, Bookmarks.

Milton, Josh 2020, “British newspaper apologises for ‘dehumanising’ cartoon portraying trans people as ‘predatory’”, Pink News, 23 February. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/02/23/morning-star-trans-political-cartoon-labour-party-pledge/.

Munro, Surya, 2005, Gender Politics: Citizenship, activism and sexual diversity, Pluto Press.

Newton, Huey P 1970, “Huey Newton on gay, women’s liberation”, transcript of a speech on 15 August 1970, Workers World. https://www.workers.org/2012/us/huey_p_newton_0524/.

Shipman, Tim 2020, “Boris Johnson scraps plan to make gender change easier”, The Sunday Times, 14 June. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/boris-johnson-scraps-plan-to-make-gender-change-easier-zs6lqfls0.

Truss, Liz 2020, “Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss sets out priorities to Women and Equalities Select Committee”, speech transcript, 22 April 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/minister-for-women-and-equalities-liz-truss-sets-out-priorities-to-women-and-equalities-select-committee.

Walker, Shaun 2020, “Hungary prepares to end legal recognition of trans people”, The Guardian, 26 April. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/26/hungary-prepares-to-end-legal-recognition-of-trans-people.

[1] Hanrahan 2019.

[2] Walker 2020.

[3] Ciobanu 2020.

[4] Holcombe 2019.

[5] James et al 2015; Callander et al 2019.

[6] Miles 2020, p23.

[7] Miles 2020, p23.

[8] For a more detailed investigation of early society’s cultural practices around gender, see Feinberg 1996.

[9] Engels 1902 (1884), p220.

[10] Miles 2020, p27.

[11] Miles 2020, p30.

[12] Miles 2020, p28.

[13] Miles 2020, p53.

[14] For a definitive social history of Stonewall and its aftermath, see Carter 2004. Vale to the author who passed away in May 2020.

[15] Quoted in Miles 2020, p98.

[16] Milton 2020.

[17] Truss 2020.

[18] Shipman 2020.

[19] Miles 2020, p200.

[20] Miles 2020, p49.

[21] Munro 2005, quoted in Miles 2020, p216.

[22] Compton 2017.

[23] Compton 2017.

[24] Newton 1970.

[25] Flakin 2019.

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Marxist Left Review will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.