Summary: As gender liberation is an indispensable part of the greater struggle for liberation, the lives of trans and other gender expansive folks must be taken seriously and defended unequivocally – Editors
Authors: Damian Algabre, Rehmah Sufi, Heather A. Brown
Trans people are under immediate threat worldwide. The reactionary social climate in recent years, helmed by fascistic politics, has made the relatively new level of transgender visibility a heavy burden as trans folks bear legal and social attacks on their public and private lives. For example, in the US in 2022, there were attempts in Alabama and Texas to criminalize gender-affirming care for large swathes throughout those entire states. In the UK, (prior to Liz Truss becoming Prime Minister and the issue of outlawing conversion therapy being put off altogether) Parliament discussed instituting a ban on conversion therapy that would cover sexuality, but would pointedly exclude gender identity, reflecting a deeply transphobic rhetoric. Meanwhile, leaders like the Philippines’ Duterte, who callously pardoned a US Marine for brutally murdering a Filipina trans woman, and Brazil’s Bolsonaro, who regularly decries “gender ideology,” encouraged the flippant dismissal and dehumanization of trans life. 2020’s “Polish Stonewall” was incited by attempts to arrest Margot, a nonbinary activist, who became a key figure. Recent changes in governance in the UK, the Philippines and Brazil are not likely to change deep-seated anti-trans rhetoric and oppression.
However, trans people have never been satisfied to relegate themselves to victimhood. Trans people have historically taken part in, if not have been at the forefront of, many revolutionary struggles.
The International Marxist-Humanist Organization stands against oppression and structural violence against transgender, non-binary, and other gender expansive peoples throughout the world. We recognize the transgender struggle as part of the broader struggle against patriarchy and misogyny, harmful gender norms, and gender-based violence. As we support the self-determination of LGBTQIA+ folks, we also recognize that free transgender people are an integral force towards greater gender and/or human liberation.
It is a longstanding fact that queer youth have long comprised one of the biggest populations of unhoused youth in the US (up to 40%), a statistic that is often compounded with race, making young, queer People of Color (POC) one of the largest and most vulnerable unhoused populations in the US. That is to say, as a disproportionately unhoused population, young POC are already among the most visible yet most broadly ignored groups in the US, and a population that cannot opt out of a public existence simply because they are unhoused. There is no “getting rid” of a public LGBT presence without the visceral, physical reality of getting rid of LGBT people.
2022 was by far the worst year for abortion rights in the US in half a century, building off of 2021, which held that record prior. But it’s also been the worst year for LGBTQ Rights in the US due to the amount of anti-LGBTQ bills filed (mostly targeting trans folks), a statistic that beats yet another record “worst year” from 2021. These laws, especially the plethora of bills meant to exclude trans women and girls from sports, bathrooms, and other public spaces have been broadly conceptualized as efforts to protect girls from predatory “men” (i.e., trans women), but in practice have ironically made life harder for both trans youth and cis women.
This anti-trans scrutiny in sports has also been a recurring theme on the international stage, with cis female Olympic competitors from South Africa and China facing accusations of being males infiltrating women’s sports. (The accusations here also take on a racialized overtone: Black and East Asian women have historically been both hypersexualized and seen as not womanly enough through the lens of a largely White European beauty standard.) The case of Caster Semenya (a cisgender and intersex woman), the South African Olympic runner, is a clear example of this. After public speculation that she may have male sex organs/chromosomes, the international track and field governing body World Athletic prompted Semenya to test and lower her natural testosterone levels in order to compete. When compared to the case of Michael Phelps, a cis male swimmer whose body is very unusually suited to his sport, Semenya’s biology is being punished as unnatural while Phelps’s is generally embraced as miraculous, which smacks of old-fashioned misogyny and sexism.
Just as the attempt to police transgender people has resulted in increased policing and surveillance of cisgender women’s bodies, attempts to control cis women’s bodies also spell danger for trans folks’ autonomy over their own bodies. In the US, Roe v Wade, the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution protects the right to abortions, has been overturned due to the drastic shift in the composition of the Court under Trump. The ruling in the case that overturned Roe v Wade, Dobbs v Jackson, was finally decided on June 24, 2022. While the annulment of national abortion protections has been largely covered as an issue of women’s rights, the overturning of the Roe v Wade decision also drastically changes the legal landscape for queer folks as a whole. In a straightforward way, the Dobbs decision also affects non-women with functional female reproductive anatomy by exacerbating 2 dangers that the trans/gender-non-conforming community already faces—high rates of enduring physical, including sexual, violence and high rates of being denied access to crucial medical services (including but certainly not limited to gender-affirming medical interventions). However, just 4 days after the overturning of Roe v Wade, Alabama’s attorney general urged a federal court to allow Alabama to ban all gender-affirming care in the state since gender-affirming care, much like abortion, is not a right “deeply rooted” in the nation’s history and tradition—one of the arguments used to overturn Roe v Wade.
Other rights that many expect to be targeted based on the Dobbs decision include the rights to same-sex marriage, marriage equality, access to contraceptives, and privacy; this threatens to destabilize the safety, financial security, and families of women and queer folk. It’s become increasingly clear that these tactical offensives against trans folks are woven into a broader pattern of anti-woman and other anti-queer policies.
Queerness as Illness
Being trans is, and has long been, treated as a chronic condition to be medically managed. Framing transness as parallel to disease is fundamentally wrong. Treating transness as a disease also means that the ideal treatment of trans folks within the medical framework would allow their transness to be invisibilized—to become a non-issue in their life that allows them to acclimate to a terribly binary society. When and if their dysphoria is medically controlled, their social lives can become “un-transed” even as their material wellbeing is tied fast to the exacting control of medical and welfare systems.
In reality, this sort of social integration is not nearly as clear cut, accessible, or desired by some trans people as the medical model would like it to be. Nonetheless, trans folks are commonly made to jump through hoops to access the medical care they need to attain a decent standard of life. (This is not limited to trans-affirming hormones and surgeries, but also impacts queer folks’ access to equitable, standard healthcare due to bigotry and policies that support such bigotry.) Today, specialists are easier to find and some clinics even initiate medical treatment in adults under an informed consent model, which strikes the need for psychiatric gatekeeping altogether. However, access to these resources is still largely rooted in metropolitan centers and in states with greater acceptance and legal protections for trans people. Therefore, the question of access to gender affirming care (just as with so many other issues of healthcare access) remains solidly tied to class and geography.
Moreover, this flawed medical system is strongly tied to the state’s acknowledgement of trans folks’ gender. Often, medical transition precedes the ability of trans folks to change their name and gender on legal documents (if such a document change is possible to them in their area). In many places in the US (9 states and 4 outlying territories), name changes are still publicly announced in local newspapers, bringing an uncomfortable and often unsafe layer of publicity to a person’s transition. Sterilization has been a longstanding standard requirement (which the European Court of Human Rights deemed a “[breach of] trans people’s right to bodily integrity” in 2017) for trans folks to start changing their documents— a standard that has only began changing in the last few years and remains the standard in places like Latvia and Japan. Most recently, Scotland introduced a gender recognition bill meant to remove often prohibitive and difficult to meet medical prerequisites from the process of applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate.” Like medical interventions, however, changing one’s gender/sex and name on legal documents is often a tricky, expensive, and long endeavor. This means that there are large swathes of time where trans folks legal documents don’t match, creating inconsistencies that complicate their lives when applying for jobs, loans, housing, and other vital resources. At the same time, not embarking on the document-changing endeavor at all leaves trans folks vulnerable to discrimination based on the mismatch of their gender presentation and the gender/sex and name on their documentation.
The variable pressure (based on social location/class) to maintain the medical “validity” of transgender existence in order to access gatekept care has resulted in a divide between trans folks and medical practitioners who stand behind a strict interpretation of gender dysphoria and trans folks/medical practitioners who view gender identity as a matter of self-determination. As part of this ideological battleground, the lives of people who have detransitioned have also become deeply politicized and dramatized by anti-trans activists. Their stories are used to prove the dangers of “transition regret”, even though most people who do detransition either don’t regret trying transition treatments or retransition at a later point in their lives when their circumstances allow them to do so in a more favorable way. Trans scholar Kinnon MacKinnon’s research shows that people who detransition (either with or without regret) require just as much assistance as trans folks in navigating social, legal, and medical decisions, a problem that isn’t addressed when their stories are wielded as a misleading warning against transitioning.
In the US, trans folks’ access to healthcare is spotty and, even when within reach, still entirely at the mercy of their providers’ discretion. The depathologization of homosexuality is relatively recent: In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-3), released in 1980, both homosexuality and transgender behavior were listed as “psychosexual disorders.” The DSM legitimized treatment (i.e., conversion therapy) for homosexuality up until 1987 and it was only with the publication of DSM-5 in 2013 that any iteration of homosexuality was stricken from the DSM. At the same time, DSM-5 softened “gender identity disorder” with the less pathologizing term, “Gender Dysphoria.”
Ultimately, dropping the T from LGBT is very dangerous not just because trans people are a uniquely vulnerable part of the acronym, but because the moral panic commonly associated with LGB has been transposed and foisted upon the trans community. Trans folks, especially trans women, are still seen as predatory and mentally ill, corrosive to family values and healthy gender norms. If efforts against trans folks become fully accepted and their threat is “contained,” there is little to stop this moral panic from informing the same puritanical offensive against LGB folks, whose very existence has also historically been painted as a public threat that must be erased from society.
The Colonization of Gender
Although the above issues paint a picture of transgender existence as a relatively recent phenomenon that clashes with a society deeply designed around a binary understanding of gender, it is crucial to recognize the imposition of binary gender ideology as longstanding and ongoing colonial violence.
The gender binary was greatly impacted and strengthened by the development of Western industrial capitalism that by its totalizing nature leaves out those who do not neatly fit into that binary. Modern Western capitalism and its tendency to homogenize/flatten the depth and complexity of human experience thoroughly undermined non-binary sexual expression found in many pre capitalist societies and continues to do so today. Many precapitalist Indigenous societies had more fluid notions of gender. For example, there were transgender roles in the Indigenous Hausa religion in Nigeria; the sangomas (“rain queens”) in Southern Africa; the Ashanti of Ghana and Zimbabwe saw women who had sex with women as having a “heavy soul” or a masculine soul; and in Indonesia, there were transgendered shamans before the spread of Islam. In India, historically and today, there are the hijras, and in Pakistan the khwajasira—both groups with individuals who may be considered transgender, intersex and non-binary in Western colonial categorical language.
Those who live in colonial contexts today have a particularly difficult time having their voices heard as there is often a unique nexus of oppression coming from the politics of language. Those that use Indigenous terms for their identity face the power of a colonial language that privileges Western understandings of gender at the expense of local cultural understandings, while at the same time, right-wing forces in their own societies seek to label them as deviants who wish to legitimize their behavior by adopting permissive Western conceptions of gender. Neither of these positions offers a path forward for transgender and non-gender conforming individuals since neither offers a path for recognition of the transgender individual in society as equals. In this way, and in many others, the trans struggle is an anti-colonial struggle and the anti-colonial struggle is a struggle for trans rights.
In recent years, it has become decidedly clear that, despite the fun and excitement of queer media representation and the ever-present signage of rainbow capitalism, neo-conservatives have doubled down on what their ideal society looks like. With proto-fascist leaders imbuing these conservative ideals with anger and encouraging violent action, anti-queer structural and direct violence has been more obvious than it’s been in a long time. It is also clear that “gender ideology” is the first thread to pick in a tapestry of LGBTQ+ rights both because of its proximity and parallels to women’s rights and because of trans folks’ novelty in the fight for mainstream acceptance.
The task for the LGBTQ+ peoples today is to insist upon becoming a community in the face of such a pernicious and stubborn threat to our existence. Doing that requires a deep acknowledgment, also, of the ways these struggles intersect with issues of race, gender, sexuality, class—to acknowledge the different ways that we are all dehumanized under capitalism. For cisgender-heterosexual comrades, this acknowledgement and willingness to deeply investigate these connections is vital. Of course, there are short-term, pragmatic and urgent battles in the fight to defend trans lives that are not directly revolutionary; the need to defend legal rights that the queer community takes for granted while also fostering solidarity and organizing for liberation that goes beyond representational politics, legal protection, and cultural acceptance.
When asked about the issue of Gay Liberation, Raya Dunayevskaya replied:
You can’t make your right to your own kind of love-making as if that is the answer for everyone. People want to have a conclusion on the question of love—what is love, whether it’s physical, whether it’s emotional, whether it’s total, and all that sort of thing. But I don’t think it’s correct for us to try and solve it for others. I think what we have to do is to create the conditions for everyone to be able to experiment with choices, we’ll really have those choices, in love, in the family – and I don’t think we’ll really have those choices until we get rid of capitalism.
Dunayevskaya is articulating a central concept of Marx’s humanism, articulated in the sixth of his Theses on Feuerbach: “The essence of the human being is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.” Who we are, what we become, and how we define ourselves is not reducible to biology, since we are social beings with the capacity for conscious, purposeful creation. Any effort to prevent trans people from exercising that capacity violates the Marxist-Humanist understanding of what it means to be human.
The current litany of attacks against transgender and gender expansive lives is another facet of aggression interwoven with a colonial legacy, with patriarchal domination, with state control, and, finally, with the cruelty of capitalism. Trans rights are, ultimately, human rights. We are witnessing, worldwide, injustices against the very people who defy so many gendered power dynamics just by existing and whose material circumstances are tethered to capitalism in ways that both are enlighteningly specific and shed greater light on other intersectional struggles. As gender liberation is an indispensable part of the greater struggle for liberation, the lives of trans and other gender expansive folks must be taken seriously and defended unequivocally.
— Approved on February 21, 2023 by a majority vote as a Statement of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization
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 Raya Dunayevskaya, Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution. (Humanities Press, 1985), p. 180.