Theorising Transphobia: Trans*Mission’s Reply to rs21

The struggle against transphobia is a priority for revolutionary socialism in the 21st century (rs21) and Anti*Capitalist Resistance (A*CR). Therefore, we in the A*CR working group Trans*Mission (T*M) feel obliged to respond thoughtfully to a valuable contribution made in understanding transphobia by rs21.

 

Skyrocketing hate crime, state-backed torture in the guise of conversion “therapy”, the forced detransition of transgender political prisoners, medical segregation in which gender confirmation services available to cisgender people are denied to trans* people, a lack of civil society representation, horrendous social discrimination and a media-confected moral panic. The struggle for trans* survival, never mind broader fights for rights or the more radical aspiration of liberation, is intensifying in the UK and internationally. 

So when rs21 writes a pamphlet entitled Fighting Transphobia: A Practical and Theoretical Guide, we pay heed. Such work is not only commendable but vital to any socialism that considers marginalised workers an invaluable part of class struggle and seeks a world freed from the prejudices that fester in the social misery, alienation and exploitation we seek to bring to an end. 

Trans* liberation is necessary for the health of a contemporary working-class movement. If and when a marginalised group asserts its right to life, no organisation for freedom can afford to exclude or trivialise it, on pain of losing the soul of the struggle.

Charlotte Powell’s introduction conceives transphobia as ‘the sharpest edge of all LGBT oppression’ (5) and frames the two parts of the pamphlet’s subtitles, theory and practice, as of equal significance. This is non-trivial: recognising that there is more to participation in trans* liberation than merely signing off on the idea. Engagement requires invested activity. 

This preface also actively invites feedback on how the theoretical and practical work could be extended and anything the contributors might have gotten wrong. It is in the comradely spirit of that invitation we write now. We do so with humility, aware of our capacity for error. This is not a review; if you are a socialist concerned with trans* liberation, i.e. a socialist worthy of the name, please order and read the pamphlet. 

The text consists of Powell’s introduction, a piece on the nature of sex and gender and how these relate to trans* liberation by Shanice McBean, a short essay on the social-political basis of anti-trans* politics by Lisa Leak and five case studies drawn from experiences in University and College Union (UCU) Edinburgh, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Living Rent, environmental movements, and within trans* liberation. These are authored by Grant Buttars, Jane Smith, jointly by Úna O’Sullivan and Jamie Lewis, Gus Woody, and Connor Liao, respectively. 

Reimagining Struggle

There is much that is great in this short work. It draws on case studies that recall the significant undertaking of workers’ inquiries. Today, such activities are too rare, although Notes from Below and Angry Workers both prioritise such activities. This also links up well with another undertaking in which rs21 has been central, the Trans Strike Delegations, which mobilises trans* people in support of healthcare worker strikes to forge links of solidarity – building on the 1980s example of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. A*CR is impressed with rs21’s commitment to the socialist principle of learning from workers through struggle.

Liao’s essay on struggles within trans* liberation deserves special praise. Liao notes that the social vulnerability of the trans* struggle is rooted in being geographically dispersed and that this necessitates the need for ‘the entire working class [to see] trans* liberation as their business’. (43) Moreover, the role of class within the trans* ‘community’ is highlighted, and the harms of medical gatekeeping are correctly put in class terms so that ‘psychologists at the GIC [Gender Identity Clinics] are the enemies of trans* liberation: it is their job to pathologise and gatekeep transgender identity and to prevent transition if at all possible.’ (44) 

Finally, Liao rightly frames trans* suicide in the context of the denial of transition healthcare as a form of social murder, expanding an oft-neglected concept developed by Friedrich Engels. The way that violence is enacted against a marginalised group is socially complex, and marxism has within it the tools to illuminate the pertinent facts against the backdrop of ideological obfuscation; the fact that trans* suicide is brought up against trans* liberation is an obscenity this point reveals in its full horror. 

In general, rs21’s collection of writings on transgender liberation is more advanced than many other radical approaches to gender liberation. Importantly, they reject gender abolition as failing to encompass trans* experiences adequately, and while we believe that this aspect of rs21’s contribution is incomplete, it is the approach we have also adopted. 

In radical socialist circles, be they anarchist or marxist, trans* liberation is often confronted with gender criticals on the one hand and pro-trans* gender abolitionists on the other. Most organisations that advocate for another approach, for fully embracing the genders of trans* people, are politically liberal. Both A*CR and rs21 are developing what can only be described as a minority position in a meaningful sense, a project that has enormous value but is relatively neglected elsewhere.

Rs21 correctly links trans* oppression with all gendered oppression, as a necessary outgrowth of how class society is organised. This might seem a trivial point, but while some marxists still subscribe to a deeply flawed two-systems theory (whereby the oppression of a conceptually confused sex class operates ahistorically and outside of class society), the one-system approach, which we think is invaluable, needs frequent restating. 

Nonetheless, despite the merits of a one-system theory, it remains the case that it was developed to correct the two-system theory’s inadequacies in addressing cis women’s oppression, and not with trans* people in mind. It lends itself to trans* liberation but must be expanded from its classic iteration to explicitly incorporate us, which rs21 has done by identifying the premises from which a full marxist account of trans* marginalisation can be built. This is the first and most difficult step in that process, leaving us only to refine the terms. 

Power, Class and Gender

However, despite our foundational agreement, we are sceptical of how rs21 seeks to navigate some details, especially regarding the twin problems of organising liberatory politics and understanding the systems within class society that produce and reproduce marginalisations. In the introduction, we note the dismissive reference to the problem of building power within ‘reformist spaces’, (6) but we do not understand the problem being identified and consider this term broadly unhelpful.

We can only infer that such spaces mean unions, vague left electoral projects with undefined politics and old social democratic parties, but what is being made of these sites of struggle? Reformism is the view that a socialist society is achievable by incremental reforms; many sites of struggle include demands for reforms, including revolutionary organisations, since such demands are not the same as reformism. The reformist believes the state can be trusted to reform itself, whereas the radical knows it cannot—it must be forced. One organises with state institutions, the other against them. Indeed, rs21 is a revolutionary organisation that seeks reforms, and its rejection of the senseless ultraism that would lead it to dismiss the value of any reform is commendable. But that only adds to our confusion on this point. 

If we are correct about what is meant by ‘reformist spaces’, then these spaces are among the easier for marxists to operate within. In a capitalist society, such spaces, the organisations that comprise them, draw together a working-class consciousness in itself; this is not yet a revolutionary class consciousness in and for itself, but a necessary part of the burgeoning of revolutionary consciousness. Many trans* people are therefore drawn by their marginalisation into such ‘reformist spaces’. Marxists are precisely tasked with raising the consciousness of the class that has come into struggle but has not developed a revolutionary self-conceptualisation. 

Just as we are confused by the proposed basis of organising, this confusion is buttressed if also partially explained by rs21’s model of how transphobia socially operates. In Leak’s article, we are shown a wedge that serves as a visual metaphor for ‘the key elements of the “gender-critical” transphobic project’. (17) In this model, state power and bourgeois media are placed at the top, the social conservatives in the middle, and then trans-exclusionary feminists form the wedge itself. We are told that the ‘thick end of the wedge, because it is where the power really comes from, is the state – here meaning the whole nexus of state institutions, the Tory Party, the rest of the political establishment and the bourgeois media.’ (19)

We don’t agree with this analysis. Although there is much useful in Leak’s writing about the connections between reactionaries and state power, this conception of state power is upside down. Transphobia is a social prejudice; its basis is in the class composition of society, the totality of the organisation of productive and socially reproductive forces. For Marxists, power is able to be concentrated in the hands of a few because their social systems are always reinforcing and obscuring its operations, generally in ways unbeknown even to the powerful.

When Marx and Engels’s wrote in The German Ideology (1845) that the ‘ideas of the ruling class are, in any age, the ruling ideas’ they meant that the ruling class constructed society in its own image, and those who lived and worked within that social system organically assumed the thinking and prejudices necessary to their daily life. Workers compete with workers, women and the rest of the marginalised are ruthlessly exploited inside the productive spheres and outside as ‘free’, ‘natural’ socially reproductive labour. (Or, as with many disabled people, are excluded from exploitation and therefore social existence.) These ways of living produce the social prejudices that justify the injustices and dehumanising logics necessary even to the wellbeing of the majority of the exploited. 

Without the organic social prejudice of trans-exclusionary feminists, which overlaps with the organic social prejudice of social conservatives, the elaborate machinery of the state would lack a social basis. GCs and TERFs are not a state-fabricated wedge but the expression of social alienation at the level of anti-trans* reaction and the historic defeat of 1970s feminist emancipatory movements. The state might be how power is organised and becomes most self-aware, but it is also parasitic on the society over which it only falteringly governs.

That is why reactionary prejudices (whether from the lowest to the highest social rung) are spoken with such assuredness; the often obscenely violent hatred of trans* people is natural and obvious to the bigot, as assumed as the air they breathe. It arises not from some generalised ignorance as liberal theorists hopefully imagine, nor a top-down conspiracy engineered by an all-powerful state, but accrues in the logic of everyday life. We therefore need to intervene at the level of the everyday, against what is constructed as normal. 

What are Genders?

Many of the major terms and contentions in the pamphlet are similarly undertheorised. We are told, for instance, ‘We cannot only fight the culture war[…] we have to fight the class war.’ (7) We are not told how, only that we should fight; or in Leak’s stirring words, that we can ‘fight back and win with a progressive, liberatory, gender politics which rejects artificial scarcity and state repression’. (23) But what does this consist in? What is the nature of this gender politics? As the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce excellently formulated in his pragmatic maxim, if we are to ‘ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might result from the truth of that conception’ as ‘the sum of these consequences constitute the entire meaning of the conception.’

Why not draw from the work of the Trans Strike Delegations  here? We are not even told what the line of delineation is between struggles, why culture is not fully included in class. (A*CR does not make that distinction.) Slightly more meaningful is the claim that ‘Trans liberation raises the stakes for Marxist feminists – it goes beyond reform of the gender binary and towards smashing it.’ (9) However, even this could be further elaborated. I would sympathise with a marxist feminist new to trans* struggle scratching their heads in bafflement.

Gender essentialism too narrowly delimits gender to encompass the forms of human flourishing that emerge under the trans* umbrella; on this we are agreed, but what is gender? In their formulation, rs21 is keen to say that it exists both within and beyond oppressive social systems. McBean draws a sharp distinction between ‘bourgeois ideological constructions of gender and how gender is defined, largely, by ordinary embodied people.’ (11) The former fixes gender to biology, and the latter permits gender variance. 

This variance rs21 identifies here is said to operate in ‘the gap between the biology of the body and the social construction of self’. (12) Moreover, the relation between this social construction and sex is complex. Two principles are proposed: that ‘biological features and capacities have a fundamentally social interpretation, meaning and value’ (14) and that sex is ‘a spectrum; not a dichotomy.’ (13) We concur – but still feel shortchanged. 

The closest we have come to a definition of gender is the vague idea of a social construction of selfhood. We do agree, but gender is a specific type of social construction of selfhood. How is it being defined by “ordinary embodied people”? What even is an “ordinary person”? (As a group of sometimes gender variant, sometimes disabled, variously marginalised socialists, we at T*M rarely feel included by an undefined and pregiven ordinariness.)

A*CR comrades are developing a view of gender, drawing on other views, as interacting sets of social rituals whose existence predates class society and symbolically navigate the social construction of gendered and sexed bodies to elaborate solidarity, which in turn enabled complex social arrangements to emerge. Gender is ritualised embodied differences and identifications. There is no neat separation of the social and biological; gender symbolically crisscrosses both facets of human being to help forge complex unique selves within communicable cultural tropes.

This work is incomplete. If gender is ritualised embodied differences and identifications, is it unique? There are acknowledged differences and identifications in the way society categorises disabilities, but are those rituals? Disability is perceived as an error to the ‘natural’ and ‘good’ order of things; likewise, phenotypical differences are seized on to problematise differences arbitrarily. Finally, how does gender relate to sexuality, as it surely must, but so as to still give voice to the lived experiences of agender and asexual people? These questions, which are intersectional but also contained in the question of gender, require careful consideration.

Nonetheless, entailed in our incomplete understanding, we share with rs21 a rejection of positivism and scientism (an anti-science ideology rooted in naive empiricism, manifesting faith in results over method). Positivism is implied in treating sex as a set of non-ideological, free-floating, always apparent facts. It is precisely in this justificatory spiel that anti-trans* feminists have adopted a reactionary logic, whereby they build a Trojan horse out of “sex” to secret some of the most oppressive gender norms into liberatory movements. As Leak aptly puts it:

[C]onstructing the category of ‘women’ in a way that is presented as neutral and factual, but is in fact highly contentious and politically helpful to the right wing

(20)

Therefore rs21 rightly dismisses the “arguments” of anti-trans* so-called gender criticals (GCs), who make common cause with conservative anti-abortionist and anti-queer organisations, but what of more formidable opponents? What of pro-trans* gender abolitionists exemplified, for instance, in the ideas proposed by Roxy Hall’s ‘Ten Theses on the Gender Question’? Hall gives a more worthwhile framework for debate than reactionary transphobes in the various bigoted GC hate organisations. Our own reply to Hall was to note that the proposed abolition of gender contained weak speculations and self-contradictions:

Gender abolition has two contradictory meanings. The first is to fall back on a notion of sex that is alleged to be free from gendered ideology. Hall has done a good job demonstrating the falsity of this position. Sex exists, as gender criticals inanely repeat, but it is always grasped through ideology, through gender. The second meaning is to speculate that freed from gendered oppression, everyone would forgo such identities. That point may or may not be true, but it a. makes no practical difference to trans and women’s liberation (a litmus test for Marx when he frames his project as aiming to change the world, rather than to only understand it) and b. is hard to frame as anything other than an attack on the ‘rebellious’ identities’ Hall rightly wishes to defend, even if some historically contingent space is made for them.

However, our reply was also inadequate; as with rs21’s essay on gender, we lacked a defined conception of what we were defending from abolition. We share rs21’s opposition to the notion that ‘abolishing gender [is] the central focus of feminist struggle.’ We agree that ‘the problem is not that people want to do gender’ but rather with creating ‘a revolutionary restructuring of the material world.’ (16) The issue with rs21’s contribution lies once more in the details. What happens when someone ‘does’ gender? What does revolutionary restructuring change about gender? The position being advanced is not necessarily wrong, but it lacks content.

A definition of gender helps answer such questions, which are crucial to a trans-inclusive theory. When a nonbinary person adopts a bi, demi or fluid gender or organically relates to a third gender or countercultural neo-gender, or a binary person (trans* or cis) relates their gender to some aspects of the rituals of being a “man” or a “woman”, this is a symbolic and therefore social articulation of conscious sexed bodies who are themselves contained in a broader social-historical lifeworld. That lifeworld has both liberatory and oppressive facets. When an agender person opts out of gender, it is those rituals they reject for themselves. 

If such rituals predate class society, as we insist they must and will elaborate in the future, they cannot be limited to the terms of class oppression. If gender is comprised of forms of pre-class social ritual tied into the basis of society, and sex is always accessed through a gendered lens, the GC/radical feminist nonsense of an ahistorical sex class collapses into its own absurdity. It is then that we can ask pro-transgender gender abolitionists precisely what they seek to abolish beyond exploitations and exclusions that are already in opposition to trans* peoples’ and women’s gendered lives. 

T*M and A*CR are grateful to rs21 for forging a path through these questions and would offer future theoretical collaboration. This work remains new, and while our enemies are incoherent, reactionary and frame their projects on philosophically discredited lines (e.g. positivism), they have the advantages of organic social prejudices and established institutional power.

Notes on language

“Trans*” with an asterisk refers to the broadest spectrum of transgender and trans-adjacent people, including nonbinary people, trans people without gender dysphoria and gender nonconforming people comfortable with that inclusion. The point is to recognise a shared social experience, not to erase the meaningful differences between such groups and, ultimately, between all individuals.  

“Cis” and “cisgender” refer to anyone who is not trans*, generally those whose gender aligns with that assigned to them at birth. It is not derogatory. 

“TERF” refers to Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. Little of this movement is extant, as most genuine TERFs are now absorbed into the fascist-adjacent gender critical movement, or at the least serve only as a cover for it. Most GCs have no direct connection to any continuity of feminist theory but are transphobes unpersuasively dressing up their ideas in the garb of feminism – if even that. Many GCs are just cisgender men seeking a respectable pretence for their misogyny.

Photos: Steve Eason


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