A Trans* Guide to Cis Solidarity: Beyond Oppression

Rowan Fortune and Logan O'Hara write a Marxist Humanist open letter to all socialists about the urgency of the struggle for trans* liberation and gender transcendence, not only for trans* humanity but for cis humanity too.

 

On the one hand, atomisation, alienation, and anomie, compounded by the general stresses of social life in an exploitative class society, can cause implosion, regression, and the onset of mental illness. On the other, involvement in activism and struggle can become a journey in solidarity, self-discovery, and self realisation. 

NEIL FAULKNER, MIND FUCK

Dear Cis Comrades,

Justice delayed is justice denied, goes a jurisprudence truism. Solidarity is the justice of the struggle of workers and the oppressed, and solidarity delayed is, in turn, solidarity denied. An untimely act of support offered to one of the weakest constituents of our shared humanity in fact might as well be no support whatsoever.

For those of us who have no choice but to be at the forefront of a struggle, it often appears as though those who support our right to social existence are about half-a-decade behind. That is, to be specific, five years behind on developments of trans-consciousness, the myriad ways in which trans* people have come to conceive of ourselves as a group and our relationship to concepts of gender and sex, but also around five years behind on the scale of the crisis and struggle we are daily facing.

This state of being forever out of sync takes on a greater seriousness over time, as the crisis becomes ever more urgent but the response in terms of solidarity proves forever inadequate to that unfolding situation. Many on the left seem to regard the trans* struggle as a tangential issue, at worst unrelated to other struggles and at best subordinate to them. 

This is in marked contrast with the forces of creeping fascism, that in Hungary, Poland, Britain and now dramatically in the US, with a wave of anti-trans* sentiment spilling into more general anti-LGBTQIA+ feeling, have made the anti-trans* moral panic a centrepiece of the far-right’s realignment and base building. For the Trumpian GOP the war on anyone existing outside traditional gender divisions is neither tangential nor subordinate; it is the focus of nearly 240 individual bills.

That is why this article is written from a place of desperation. Both of us are strong believers in the centrality and significance of optimism. Neither of us can sustain optimism in the current circumstances. Neither of us see a good future without a dramatic shift in the balance of forces. During a time when there are existential threats to our species, in the form of the intersecting ecological catastrophes, it has become impossible for either of us to focus on anything else. What felt like monthly attacks on our community has become weekly and sometimes even hourly.

The British government will announce on one day that they will scrap plans to ban conversion therapy, and within hours that they are “only” scrapping plans to ban it for trans* people. Weeks on, Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, is reported by the Telegraph as hoping to involuntarily out transgender children to their parents. This assures the torture of trans* children, who have only one reason for not telling their parents about their gender identities. Meanwhile, in the US families are investigated for the “crime” of socially affirming their child’s chosen gender identity (that is, using the correct pronouns, securing life-saving puberty blockers in line with best medical practice, etc.).

Given this situation, we wish to write a concise guide to cis solidarity. We avoid the typical listicle format for this type of piece for, among other reasons, the complacency it breeds. A listicle is a finished product, a checklist to be handed to cis comrades for them to execute. In effect, it is a moral administrative framework. Instead, we seek to equip our cis comrades with the understanding necessary to confidently and dynamically engage in trans* solidarity, not as a list of mechanical tasks, but as an evolving project that they are an organic part of. And, moreover, to give them a reason to want to be a part of that project.

We would invite our cis comrades to be accomplices in our crimes against gender, not merely our political secretaries. We have chosen the open letter format precisely because we look forward to receiving responses from our cis comrades, not slavishly enthusiastic nods of agreement.

Protest and Pain

On Sunday, 10 April, in London, over three thousand cis and trans* people, with massive support from the LGB community, protested against the dropping of trans* people from protections against conversion therapy. The event was loud, angry and insisted on our queer humanity. It was a moment of optimism again allowing us to feel that against our solidarity and humanity, their systems of domination and fear meant nothing. For that moment the future was trans. The future was nonbinary. The future was gay and lesbian and bi and ace and intersex. That future was a queer utopia and it lived and breathed!

In Morristown, Vermont, that utopian future was unimaginable. 29-year-old transgender woman, Fern Feather, was brutally stabbed to death. The context for this violence is a state wrecked by a moral panic, not about the men who murder young woman, but about the woman who was murdered for having the temerity to exist at all. 2021 remains the deadliest year on record in the US for trans* people. Burlington, Vermont GOP [Republican Party] chair Christopher-Aaron Felker has been a notable figure in anti-trans* political campaigning, and has referred to queer people and our allies as groomers as a part of a rhetorical strategy to associate transitioning with paedophilia. 

In Norway the health system has ordered the cessation of all gender affirming hormone therapy. If that happens it amounts to forcibly medically detransitioning hundreds if not thousands of people. So-called LGBT-free zones persist in Poland, where politicians flirt with state backed forced detransitioning. Hungary no longer legally recognises transgender people. This attack on trans* humanity is international, and it is terrifying to those of us in its crosshairs. Against all of this, how was one protest able to inspire such hope, even if briefly felt?

At one point a speaker at the London event asked for only cis LGB people to cheer their support for the trans* struggle, and the crowd promptly erupted. This was a fantastic gambit, as it pointed away from a version of solidarity that sits uncomfortably at the sidelines of the oppression experienced by others. Unity, and only unity, can see trans* people through an inhumanity that denies the value of our lives. 

Instead of asking why solidarity with trans* people has proved insufficient to the challenge, we will pose another question. One we believe to be more fruitful. What are the obstacles to such solidarity? We believe that there is an obvious culprit, a kind of awkwardness around the whole subject that seems to prevent cis involvement. This was painfully captured by Juno Dawson in a passage from one of her books on the subject of her lifelong engagements with gender:

The other day, I unwisely clicked on a Facebook post in which someone politely requested protesters didn’t bring ‘PUSSY POWER’ placards to a pro-immigration march for fear of upsetting trans* women. I sighed, because I saw immediately where this was heading: shitstorm time. One girl stood out. She looked about eighteen. She commented ‘LOL – when bae is trying to show how woke AF she is and misses the whole point.’ I had to agree.

JUNO DAWSON, THE GENDER GAMES

What is going on here? The intervention clearly did not come from a place of bad intentions, it did not come from a reactionary, and yet it in no way aligns with trans* concerns to oppose a PUSSY POWER placard. Few trans* women or nonbinary femme people would be annoyed by the slogan. It is emblematic of something not unique to trans* interactions with cis solidarity, but in some form or another appears as an obstacle to all solidarity between a category of the oppressed and those who are on the outside of it.

From Roma to Dreads

To say that trans* people are a centrepiece of creeping fascism is not to minimise other struggles. For some, such as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community in the UK, their ways of life are being systematically rendered impossible by the British government, and the current threat could be said to be even more immediately existential. Black people, Muslims, all migrants and refugees, the disabled and cis women are all in the firing lines in the UK, US and elsewhere in overlapping but qualitatively distinct ways. The reason a hierarchy of oppressions is an irrelevant distraction (at best) is because qualitative differences cannot be placed on a quantitative hierarchy. 

Moreover, there is a great deal to be learned across struggles (not even factoring in those who find themselves at an intersection of oppressions). One lesson that applies directly to the problem of solidarity can be found in an encounter experienced a while ago on the social media website Twitter between a Gypsy man and a self-declared ally from the States. The ally in question, rather than express solidarity, asked him not to use the term gypsy because it is a slur. This is the height of condescending nonsense, one that ignores the diversity of the international GRT community and shows a perspective that suffers from a painfully US-centric focus.

It is especially embarrassing to see someone police a member of the oppressed on the language used around their own identity. But fortunately this type of behaviour is an outlier, a particular if unsavoury example of ignorance overcoming sense. More common, perhaps, is when allies police other allies.

In as essay on the Anarchist Library, Flower Bomb writes polemically about the nature of the problem of “allies”. They are derisive about the idea that Black people are particularly concerned with white dreads, and assert:

I don’t want what liberal social justice warriors and some wack-ass anarchists call “allies”. I want accomplices. I am fine on my own, but I would enjoy the lawless company of those with ideas and strategies that aren’t always my own, and with experiences and histories that differ from mine.

FLOWER BOMB, ‘REALLY THOUGH, NOT ALL “BLACK” PEOPLE GIVE A FUCK ABOUT “WHITE” DREADS’

The point being made is not merely a linguistic one around which labels those acting in solidarity express that relationship, but rather that the entire framework of allyship is misguided and not conducive to a radical solidarity, to any kind of relationship between someone being oppressed and those who wish to make common cause with them. Accomplices functions far better. But so does comrade. Or even friend. Ally is an impoverished substitute, a centring of strategic concerns to cover for a deficit of any real connection.

On the trans-struggle, explicitly with liberal solidarity but also often evident in much of the solidarity of socialists, queerness becomes political in an alienated sense of the word, a debate, a problem, a difficulty for society to resolve that takes place in some other unspecified realm. This is then reflected in the language of “allyship”, and a performative concern for policing accidental misgendering and slip ups in pronoun use. It more fundamentally returns to the only means by which liberalism can ever tackle forms of human diversity that are in conflict with social prejudice: tolerance.

Tolerance is the only avenue to liberalism because it cannot seek to abolish the conditions that give rise to prejudice: class society. The fundamental goal of allyship, whether it is aware of this fact or not, has also become toleration. And in particular tolerance in the gist of John Locke’s famous letter, which in fact is an attempt to delimit the bounds of tolerance (it cannot encompass atheists, Catholics, Muslims, etc.) than to extend those bounds. But such a delimiting is always inherent to toleration, which is an allowance for those who think differently insofar as they do not challenge power, an uncomfortable and ever-precarious space of pitiable accommodation. 

However, the problem does not end with liberal perspectives and their accidental adoption by socialists. The traditional left politics in which the oppressed are cast as the leaders of their own movements, to which allies can be supporters but not participants and certainly not contributors, is rooted in an essentially anti-humanistic standpoint epistemology (i.e. the idea that knowledge is generated from particular social positions, but with no possible universal basis). 

This position holds that the perspectives of the marginalised, by virtue of their marginalisation, provides a superior objectivity and generates insights that are fundamentally non-communicable to the non-marginalised. The role of the non-marginalised, then, is to have faith in the perspective of their marginalised comrades, to simply accept that the non-marginalised will never be able to appreciate the perspective of the marginalised, and follow where they are led. 

A humanistic standpoint epistemology, by contrast, would hold that the perspective of the marginalised grants them superior objectivity, but that the experiences generated by these perspectives are communicable (in-line with much of the best feminist standpoint epistemology). The humanistic conception has faith that the universality of the human experience allows for not simply the adherence to a moral obligation to care for the marginalised, but for the possibility of empathy across perspectives and experiences. This, however, necessarily is an active process in which both parties participate, and therefore necessitates the contributions of the non-marginalised to the struggles of the marginalised. Empathy cannot be built by being lectured to, nor by giving lectures.

Production by an isolated individual outside society – a rare exception which may well occur when a civilized person in whom the social forces are already dynamically present is cast by accident into the wilderness – is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other.

KARL MARX, GRUNDRISSE

As Hegel and then Marx insist, there exists no self that is not a social self. To undermine the social relations of Western patriarchy is to undermine the senses of self-generated by such a society. When transness is seen as a predominantly political phenomenon, separate from that society as a whole, our salvation can only be found in the political. This ignores that a social revolution is a call to reform how we relate to one another, which necessarily is a call to reform how we relate to ourselves too. That is not to blithely suggest every cis person is in fact trans, but that the categories of cis and trans* are both political and any anti-political movement cannot hope to find salvation in the categories of oppression. Instead of a political project of liberal rights or abolition, we need gender transcendence.

None of that is to cast aspersions on the immediate fight in a liberal capitalist context. Neither an ultraism that dismisses the configuration of the current struggle in a love of empty abstraction nor a capitulation to the present state of things will see us through our moment. But to renounce the goal of a shared universality is to renounce everything that makes a possible Marxist contribution to trans* liberation unique.

Universality

Many cis allies are fearful of incurring the wrath of trans* people, and in part this is linked to a subconscious buying into narratives that portray us as vengeful and resentful. However, it is wrong to therefore conclude that our cis allies have been duped by this narrative in the way intended by the reactionaries who spun it; they partake in it differently. For our allies, our wrath is justified. They do not fear our anger the way a conquered people fear their new masters, but as sinful believers fear the judgement of God. The fear they have of us can lead to resentment, but not often to seeing us as the enemy.

This is the problem with moralising the trans* struggle in ways linked to the paradigm of oppression. To incur the ire of a trans* person is not merely evidence of having hurt a friend, but of being complicit in a detestable power structure. The goal of the ally is not to create the conditions for the flourishing of trans* people but to oppose the power structures that hold us down. The latter is implied in the former, but the former is not implied in the latter. 

To return to the religious metaphor, the ally is keen to avoid sin: if he manages to love along the way that is another matter. Just as the Christian misunderstands the teachings of Jesus, the ally misunderstands the alliance she shares with trans* people. Our union is not viewed as a crucial component of a liberating, life-affirming movement in which we are all called to a fuller experience of self and community, it is simply the moral bondage to vigilantly police oneself. Any relationship of love requires respect and responsibility, but its fundamental feature is the drive to see the object of one’s love fulfilled. The ally is not driven by this, and she is not driven by this because of the moral baggage implied in our paradigm.

As Nietzsche once expressed, “There, where the state ends, only there begins the human being who is not superfluous; there begins the song of necessity, the unique and irreplaceable melody.” If not oppression, then, what should be our paradigm? Simple, humanism, in yet another wonderful example of the interplay between universality and particularity in the humanist project. This move is not without precedent. The first cohesive statement of “identity politics” in fact framed the demand of the oppressed in exactly these terms with the claim that recognition of humanity was entirely sufficient for liberation:

This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

THE COMBAHEE RIVER COLLECTIVE STATEMENT

Since liberation is here understood as being more than just the elimination of that which oppresses us, the degree of oppression is no longer the only metric by which to rank the validity of struggle. Therefore we are opened to acknowledge that, for example, trans* people face issues of priority without suggesting it is because trans* struggles are more important or worthwhile. Since liberation becomes a positive, inter-subjective movement, ultimately no issue can be coherently sidelined.

The humanist lens does not start with a set of valid struggles which it then takes as its point of departure, its point of departure is estrangement and then any event where estrangement can be found is taken to be valid. This can help us to understand viewpoints often dismissed by the lens of oppression, such as asexual people whose marginality is complex because their oppressed identity exists at the margins of the margins of sexual orientations, disrupting conventions about what such identities mean. 

Crucially, there is no hierarchy of importance here and no fundamental framework that needs to fit everything neatly into itself. The humanist lens is therefore more open to adapting to incorporate new struggles than any alternative operating on the basis of building movements around static perspectives. 

To be human is to be capable of self-actualization. To regard others as human, then, is to treat them as both capable of and worthy of self-actualization. Dehumanisation denies this, and oppression is dehumanisation institutionalised, a systematised frustration of self-actualization. The dehumanisation of gay people, for example, took many forms, but the most public was the denial of the right to marry. By creating, in public practice, a separation between queer and heterosexual relationships, dehumanization becomes embodied in social reproduction and is therefore made tangible. 

Not everyone is subject to this embodied dehumanisation equally, and it is on this basis that struggles can rightly be considered worthy of prioritisation. Nonetheless, as a byproduct of this embodied dehumanisation, those who are regarded as human have their humanity systematised, which is itself dehumanising. The difference is that oppression is an active frustration of self-actualization, whereas the systematisation of a group of humanity against this is merely a distortion and limitation of it during the course of a struggle. It is a process, albeit a necessarily risky one, aimed at overcoming dehumanisation, which must be undertaken.

Gender transcendence is for cis men as much as it is for trans* people and cis women, but only the latter two can be said to be liberated from oppression per se. Regardless, this perspective allows for an important recognition: that all people benefit from liberation movements in terms of creating the capacity for recognition of the humanity of the other, and therefore of the self. And that all people have something to add to these movements, nobody is entirely external to this process. This perspective, this seeing the overlapping of oppression, is already built into the trans* positionality because it is a form of oppression adjacent and built atop of so many others. And the limit to recognising trans* oppression has always taken the form of a denial of the relationship between these oppressions.

In the gay community the focus on immutability has led to promoting sexual orientation in a way that is completely removed from gender expression. […] In the trans* community, just the opposite is the case. Gender is promoted at the expense of sexual practice. It’s OK for me to say I’m changing my body because of my ‘gender identity.’ But it would considered superficial, even perverse, to say I was doing so because having a more feminine body would turn me on. […] When gay activists began asserting, “We’re just like straights, we just sleep with the same sex,” that “just like” was shorthand for “gender.” It said, “We look and act just like your parents, your friends, or your boss: don’t be uncomfortable with us.” And when feminists began explaining, “We’re not trying to be men,” the phrase “trying to be men” was also shorthand for “gender.” It said, “We’re just like your wives, mothers, daughters: don’t be uncomfortable with us either.” […] It’s fair to say that “transgender” was created by the gay and feminist movements. Its emergence became practically inevitable from the day those movements began moving away from gender.

RIKI WILCHINS, BURN THE BINARY!

Equipped with a coherent unifying theoretical principle, we can see beyond this initial insight that nobody should be external to the struggle. If someone feels dehumanised (even if they are unlikely to use this language), they are most likely correct. A humanist perspective is uniquely equipped to non-arbitrarily assume that suffering is valid, and then to discover the reasons behind these feelings. As per Freud, even the irrational can be rationally comprehended: there is no invalid feeling. It is true that we can misplace blame, but feelings simply are. 

Estrangement

For the humanist, the deeper lens through which to view these struggles is that of estrangement. That is, the psychological inability to relate to one’s self as an unceasing process of self-creation through social relations, which then manifests as a sense of self as a static thing in the world. To put that even more succinctly, we are talking about the reification of the self. This takes the form of feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness and, via resentment, when certain positionalities of power permit, anger, sadism, vengeance. 

As Erich Fromm observed, “Evilness and self-loss are as real as are goodness and aliveness. They are the secondary potentialities of man if he chooses not to realise his primary potentialities.” The blocked-up self, the dissatisfied self as witnessed in the reactionary self that was so much the focus of Marxist studies of fascism, must still be a self in the world even if they are in denial about this fact. Since such a self cannot actualise through forms of creative solidarity and mutuality they turn to violent engagements with the world instead. A Marxist Humanism is not without a sense of the tragic. 

It is true that, ultimately, we are all estranged to some degree, and doomed to estrangement by virtue of our individuality as well as the estranging system of social relations Marx diagnosed in Capital. As Fromm also observed, the only rational solution to estrangement is radical love, as quaint as that sounds. It is for this stance that Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno accused Fromm of liberalism, an accusation that is not merely misguided but backwards. 

Love is not primarily a sentiment, but rather a capacity and art, one which can take on a political expression in certain conditions, and indeed must in a society as deeply reified as ours. One of the ways in which our life experiences take on an existence external to and against ourselves is in that the experience of the sexed self as gender is fetishized and transformed into a static thing applied to all peoples. This is an experience that impacts everyone, and it parallels the differences between how Freud and Fromm approached problems of the human psyche. 

The oppression paradigm, in effect, takes for granted that trans* people have an existence outside of our oppression, whereas, in truth, our very existence itself is a product of our oppression, or rather the creation of us as a category is our oppression. For Freud, psychology was for the mentally ill, whereas for Fromm it was for the full development of all peoples, be they ‘healthy’ or ‘ill’ in mind. The oppression paradigm mistakenly assumes that trans* liberation, gender transcendence, is simply for trans* people, whereas, in reality, “trans* liberation” is the particular political form that the transcendence of gender must take in our particular situation, but nonetheless is universal! 

Cis solidarity must begin from a place that is not external to the struggle and impersonal about trans* people. Fromm’s peculiar Freudianism is invaluable here, and is the central point of our guide. Cis solidarity must be a form of radical love. For cisgender people to recognise their humanity in ours, they must be aware that they too struggle with gender, that our diminishment is theirs, not in the sense of some abstract slogan but in a material way. That they too have their freedom curtailed by the policing of our lives and bodies. They must experience their freedom in ours.

Cis women and men frequently struggle with misgendering as a form of dehumanisation, with having their gender expressions policed, with needing gatekept medical interventions to express even basic autonomy over aspects of their gendered lives. Just because this is not expressed in the same terms as it is for trans* people, does not make our struggle some fundamentally alien one, something that cannot inspire love in Fromm’s sense. Transness is constructed as weird by reactionaries, but insofar as it is, this is a weirdness in which even cis people often must reside.

Trans* liberation, simply put, is for cis people as much as it is for us. Gender transcendence is for everyone. The next step is for us all to become accomplices in the creation of a queer utopia, not allies in pursuit of a set of unsatisfactory compromises. This utopia should be one that is as vital for cisgender and heterosexual humanity as it is for us.

Yours in comradeship, 

Rowan & Logan


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Logan O’Hara is a revolutionary socialist in the United States. They write essays, make videos, and are currently working on a book about the impasse faced by traditional Marxism.

Rowan Fortune is an editor and revolutionary socialist. On their weekly blog, they write on utopian literature and imagination, why grimdark is the dystopian fiction of our time and more. They wrote Writing Nowhere: A Beginner's Guide to Utopia; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the multi-authored System Crash: An activist guide to making revolution.

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