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Trans activism isn’t just about pronouns and bathrooms. It’s about class struggle

The new field of ‘trans Marxism’ teaches us that we shouldn’t be fighting for inclusion but for liberation

Misha Falk
24 August 2021, 11.35am
Trans Marxism understands the oppression of trans people as a part of capitalist exploitation
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Jessica Girvan / Alamy Stock Photo

Debates around trans rights have been capturing headlines lately. The mainstream media usually reduces demands made by trans activists to being about what pronouns people should use or whether trans women should be allowed to use women’s bathrooms or participate in women’s sports.

While these are important issues, the focus on them can come at the expense of a more fundamental struggle – not just for trans rights but for trans liberation. In academia and at the grassroots level, the new field of trans Marxism understands the oppression of trans people as not just the result of individual people’s prejudice, but as a part of capitalist exploitation.

The gender police

The reality is that transgender people are far more likely to be part of the working class than their non-trans counterparts. A 2015 study found that in the US, 30% of trans people live in poverty, twice the rate of non-trans people. For Latinx trans people the figure is 43%, and for trans people with disabilities it is closer to 50%. Many transgender people have difficulty accessing or retaining jobs as more than three-quarters experience workplace discrimination in the forms of refusal to hire, sexual violence, or privacy violations (such as a person’s trans identity being ‘outed’ to coworkers which might result in harassment or discrimination).

There are complex reasons for this systemic inequality. To a large extent, it has to do with the construction of gender itself. We might think of the binary gender categories of male and female as given by biology but they have much more to do with social expectations. Marxist feminism – with which trans Marxism has close affinities – teaches us that early capitalism imposed a strict gender binary which helped create the conditions for capital accumulation. According to Marxist theory, under capitalism, it is workers who create the value that capitalists take as profit. This is the source of exploitation. But Marxism feminism asks who it is that raises, feeds and cares for these workers from childhood into adulthood so they can produce this value in the first place? Largely, it is women’s unpaid domestic and care work that underpins capitalist profit-making.

Transgender Marxism understands feminist transphobia as serving a purpose for capitalists

Gender roles and gender inequality therefore serve an indispensable purpose for capitalism. So does the policing of gender through the persecution of people who do not fit neatly into male or female gender categories, including queer and trans people. Disrupting the gender binary can threaten the continuance of gender inequality, which threatens the entire capitalist model. Male and female genders are forced on us from the day we are born – just think of the different haircuts, clothing, toys and even colours that are arbitrarily assigned to boys or girls. Because people have such strong expectations placed on them based on their gender, fear and hatred of those who don’t fit is deeply ingrained and can lead to violence and oppression on a mass scale.

Some radical feminists see trans people as a source of their oppression and have turned their organising efforts to attacking the rights of trans people. This bigotry is contributing to a major wave of anti-trans legislation in the US. Transgender Marxism understands this feminist transphobia as serving a purpose for capitalists by dividing non-transgender feminists and trans people from each other so that both groups are easier to exploit – the classic ‘divide and rule’ strategy.

Our bodies, our health

Feminists and trans activists share many common causes. Because of the discrimination they face, many transgender people find their income through sex work, a line of work in which non-trans women are also greatly overrepresented. Sex work is criminalised in most countries, which means it is harder to organise. As a result, sex workers are at a higher risk of violence and exploitation, which is often overlooked by people who blame sex workers for the stigma they experience.

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The alarming wave of anti-trans activism in the West threatens to undermine rights in less privileged parts of the world

More broadly, both feminists and trans activists have to fight for the right to bodily autonomy. This is seen most clearly in struggles to access safe and affordable healthcare, whether that is access to abortions or access to hormone replacement therapy (HRT). While not all trans people pursue HRT and surgery, these are important parts of many people’s gender transitions, and under health systems that are partly or fully privatised, often come at a huge cost.

Trans people face significant health disparities due to financial and socioeconomic barriers, discrimination and lack of knowledge about trans healthcare by providers. Medical institutions have a long history of pathologizing trans identity by describing trans experience as a mental illness and by refusing treatment to trans people whose experiences don’t fit a narrow definition of what being trans means. The consequences of these systemic barriers and the overwhelming discrimination have real, material effects: a study of trans people in the US found that over half had seriously considered suicide.

The liberation of everyone

Under capitalism, workers will always be subject to the capitalists who control the resources humans need to be able to survive, and who thus determine what will be produced and what will be done with the wealth produced by workers. Politics are often confined to advancing the claims of specific groups instead of the abolition of the forces of exploitation which create the conditions for those groups to be marginalised in the first place.

Trans people have become tokenized as symbols of progress, but this ignores how trans people are actively organising to change the world. The important roles played by trans people in historical struggles have been hidden and are only now coming to light. In the US, it was the leadership of two trans women of colour, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, in the 1969 Stonewall Riots that started the annual Pride Parades. But radical trans activism did not end there. After Stonewall, Marsha and Sylvia founded the organisation STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and the legacy of their activism lives on in organisations such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, queer- and trans-led prison abolition groups, Black Trans Lives Matter, and has inspired protests against attacks on sex worker and transgender rights in Brazil in 2019.

Transgender Marxism refuses to neatly separate trans people’s struggles into an isolated category. Instead, it embraces a politics of solidarity with others who are fighting the same forces of exploitation. Trans people are organizing on the ground as a part of working-class feminist, racial justice, environmental and disability-liberation movements. Trans Marxists know that the liberation of trans people has to go hand in hand with the liberation of everyone.

Empower and protect, don’t prohibit: a better approach to child work

Bans on child labour don’t work because they ignore why children work in the first place. That is why the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour will fail.

If we truly care about working children, we need to start trying to keep them safe in work rather than insisting that they end work entirely. Our panelists, all advocates for child workers, offer us a new way forward.

Join us for this free live event at 5pm UK time on Thursday 28 October.

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