1 June 2022
Photo: Weiyi Zhang
The following are lightly edited versions of two talks given at an online forum on trans politics and the working class, run by Queer Endurance / Defiance in Wellington, New Zealand, on 12 May 2022. Audio of the full meeting has been published by Pride NZ.
Twenty percent of trans people experience homelessness in New Zealand. In many cases, this is a result of being kicked out of home by family because of being trans. Trans people in New Zealand face sexual violence at more than twice the rate of the general population. Trans men earn less on average than cis men, and trans women earn even less on average than cis women. Trans people experience discrimination in healthcare access and in interactions with the police. Trans kids report bullying in schools at four times the rate of the general population. These things result in high statistics of social disconnection, poverty, poor health outcomes and poor mental health.
This is to say that in New Zealand society, trans people are oppressed. Over and above the problems that most people, and particularly workers, have in this world, trans people have special kinds of problems put on us by society.
The immediate cause of this, the reason why a parent would throw their child out of home for being trans or why someone would assault someone else for being trans, is transphobic ideas: ideas that trans people are worth less than other people, or are shameful, or are transgressing against some important standard; ideas that trans people are a danger to society, and should be punished.
These ideas can be conscious or unconscious, or somewhere in between. Often they are justified by religion: “trans people are an affront to God.” Or they are justified by traditional family values: “the trans movement is an attack on the stability of the family.” And, increasingly these days, transphobic political movements seek to justify their activity from a feminist angle: “patriarchal violence forces women into transition and life as men as an escape,” “men transition and live as women to appropriate women’s social gains against sexism and commit more violence.” Conservative politicians now are not just “concerned with maintaining strong and healthy families”; they are worried about “the danger to women of male predators in women’s spaces,” and “the pressure on vulnerable girls to permanently alter their bodies through transition.”
To the more honest forms of bigotry we can just say “bullshit, we have rights.” But to these appeals to justify trans oppression as the protection of womens’ rights, more work is necessary to show what’s going on. It is possible to not know much about trans issues, hear these arguments and accept in good faith that trans rights genuinely are dangerous to women. So I will take some time to go into these arguments.
First of all, is it true that there is pressure on youth, and particularly girls, to transition?
We have good data that trans youth face high rates of discrimination and prejudice, both at home and at school—including hostility from family, bullying from peers and resistance from school systems to accept social transition. Neither schools nor families, then, are the source of an institutional pressure to transition. Meanwhile, access to transition-related healthcare poses difficulties for all trans people, but far more so for youth. Access to puberty blockers, for example, is heavily restricted in most countries, including New Zealand, despite extensive research showing this treatment is safe and improves outcomes for trans youth. So, the medical system does not apply “pressure to transition.” And it is unlikely, looking at the oppression trans men face in society and the background transphobia present in most social circles, that girls should see transition as an escape from the experience of sexism—when transition more often results in an intensification of the experience of sexism in a new form.
Anti-trans arguments often highlight the phenomenon of detransitioners, particularly trans men who detransition. This is a real phenomenon. Some studies show as many as 8 percent of trans people detransitioning at some point in their lives. But the reasons reported for detransition are, overwhelmingly, not regret about having transitioned—but rather, feeling unable to live as a trans person in oppressive social circumstances. Only 5 percent of detransitioners report regretting having transitioned. If we take the 8 percent estimate for total detransition numbers, this gives us 0.4 percent, or 1 in 200 trans people, detransitioning because they regret having transitioned in the first place. This is not a high number. Using the same statistics, it compares to 7.6 percent of trans people, about 1in 13, feeling forced or pressured to detransition by hostile circumstances. In terms of medical care, we know that almost 1 in 5 trans people in new Zealand want hormones or puberty blockers, but have either been unable to access them or have not accessed them because of fears of discrimination.
It is true that in recent years, far more youth than previously have been taught in schools or in homes that trans people exist. This is the result of increasing social awareness of trans people. To say that this amounts to pressure on children to transition is to say that it is not safe for children to know that trans people exist. There are people who have said that for a long time about gays and lesbians. But we do not see those people now as champions of the oppressed.
So is it true that the social acceptance of trans women as women hurts the fight for cis women’s rights?
We have to begin by saying that trans women have been accepted as women for a long time—so long as they pass as cis. The gains for women’s rights of the last century have been won not just for cis women, but for a section of trans women too.
But it’s true that the modern trans rights movement is pushing for securing and legally protecting trans women’s social position as women. So, what does this practically mean? Anti-trans arguments run that this means bringing into the social group of women a great mass of privileged, potentially violent people. But according to most studies, trans women make up no more than 1 percent of all women, probably less—a 1 percent who, according to the statistics we have, are not visibly more violent than other women, but who on average suffer more violence than other women, including more sexual violence, and who are paid less and employed at lower rates than other women. Trans social acceptance means giving more of this particularly vulnerable 1 percent access to women’s refuges, forcing fewer of them as children into boy’s schools, forcing fewer of them into men’s prisons and including them in more statistics. Mostly, trans social acceptance means striking against the system of ideas which justifies violence and discrimination against all trans people.
We can see that increases in social acceptance for trans people, including self ID laws, do not correlate with increased violence against women, or worse outcomes for women. Further, the movements which achieve social acceptance for trans people are often also involved in the fight for women’s rights. For example, in Argentina trans groups were heavily involved in the recent victory for the right to abortion. In New Zealand, many of the groups working for reproductive rights are also working for trans rights, and vice versa. By contrast, anti-trans feminist activists in New Zealand have refused to take part in recent campaigns for reproductive rights and against sexist violence, specifically because of these campaigns’ links to the movement for trans rights. In the US, the same conservative religious forces currently working to overturn Roe vs. Wade are campaigning against trans healthcare and trans social acceptance [see “State Sponsored Transphobia”]. In Britain, the nerve center of the anti-trans feminist movement, feminist anti-trans groups have allied with conservatives in the attempt to overturn the legal principle of Gillick Competence, which under British law allows minors to consent to the prescription of puberty blockers—and which also allows minors to consent to abortion.
There is a basic premise of transphobic thought, which is common between religious conservatives, fascists and anti-trans feminists. This premise is that the sex binary we see in society is stable, and people’s position in it, the position we are given when we are born, cannot be altered. By different views, the social sex binary may be rooted in biology, or in patriarchy, or in Divine law. But by all of these views, the fact that a person’s sex may change across their life—that someone may go from life as a woman, to life as a man or as a nonbinary person, or vice versa—can be understood only as something wrong, as a mistake or a pretence of some kind.
One argument against this idea is simply that trans people exist. Social sex does change over people’s lifetimes, and the only problems this seems to cause come from people thinking it should not. Nonbinary people exist, including people who do not fit at all into either side of the social sex binary. Again, the only problems associated with this spring from transphobia. And, intersex people exist. Most current science suggests that even excluding all social elements of sex, the sex binary is more about common forms, with a lot of variation, than a rigid opposition.
Another argument we have against the idea of a rigid sex binary is to point to the range of extra-binary sexes that have existed across the world throughout history. One argument transphobes make in the modern day is that trans people are a recent and aberrant phenomenon, produced by the particular twistedness of modern society. To an extent we can say, yes: sexism has conditioned the whole modern sex system. Cis sex expressions are deeply bound up with it. So are trans sex expressions.
But what the transphobes mean is that the sex binary was untroubled by deviations before the modern day. And that is just not true. There is extensive evidence for social forms diverging from a sex binary, not just in the modern day or in capitalist societies, but throughout human history and across the world. The Christian European colonists of the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries tended to share this view of the modern anti-trans advocates that the sex binary was stable and without exceptions—or at least should be. They were shocked to find across Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific, respected and accepted people within many different societies who were neither women nor men.
This is not to say these extra-binary sexes existed in all societies. Rather, they existed within some societies in all regions of the world: for example, the hijrah or khwaja sira of the Indian subcontinent; the Waria of Indonesia; the many different third sex traditions of the North American peoples, such as the Cree napêhkân and iskwêhkân and the Inuit sipiniq; the Incan quariwarmi; the mudoko daka of the Langi in Uganda and the chibados of the Ngongo; in the Pacific, the mahu of Hawai’i and of Tahiti, the vaka sa lewa lewa of Fiji, the fa'afafine and fa'afatama of Samoa. All these, among many others, were and in many cases are still socially accepted sexes outside the binary. The imposition of European colonial rule often involved the forcible suppression of these sexes—just like the church in Europe suppressed peasant traditions of sex variance.
These extra-binary sex forms are certainly not equivalent to modern transness. Many of them are associated with a religious function, or are otherwise held in some social esteem. Only some of them include institutions of body modification. In some, it is hard to make out the line between stable sex forms and customs of sex performance which are purely situational.
But we can conclusively say that humans, as well as showing a tendency toward forming at least a loose social sex binary over the last several thousand years, have also over this whole span shown a tendency toward forming social sex forms outside a binary. Trans people then are just the latest manifestation of this tendency—specifically, the manifestation of this tendency in the circumstance of the mass forcible suppression of its traditional expressions.
We need to do more than just argue against transphobic ideas in our own circles. We need to fight transphobia politically as a movement. That is the only way we’ve attained social recognition and the rights that we have, and it is the only way we are going to defend and extend these rights. For that, we need strategy on the basis of sound analysis. We need to understand not just what transphobia looks like and what immediate forms it takes but where it comes from and why it is reproduced. We need to understand what transphobia is, not just in an ideological sense but socially.
The function of transphobia in society is, visibly, to justify and maintain the social structure of a rigid sex binary in which women are oppressed and controlled, against the actual fact of sexes outside and contravening this binary. This has a logic to it. There is nothing about trans people that sets us personally against the basic social order of capitalism. We want to assimilate. We see in the modern day that great strides can be made toward our re-integration in society, without any damage to ruling class property, or real change in how society works. But, by existing, we damage the ideology of the binary sex system which legitimises the oppression of women. To control reproduction is a key prerogative of any class which gets its living off a labour force. This prerogative is being acted out in the United States as we speak. We see it around the world. We can see signs of it through history continuously since the time of the early agricultural societies, where women’s social inferiority was born.
So, what we are fighting has material roots that go very deep. This raises important questions for our strategy. There are gains for trans rights we can achieve within the current social system, which we must struggle for. But, transphobia is deeply involved with our social system. That means, equality for trans people requires something more than just a movement against transphobia.
What is the connection between trans liberation and the struggles of the working class?
To answer this question, we need to talk about the relationship between queerness and class society, as well as the relationship of those things with the capitalist state.
Queer liberation struggles have in recent decades made strides against oppression within the framework of the capitalist state. But, as we can see from recent anti-queer reactions in places like the US and Britain, these gains are fragile and reversible.
It is interesting to note the crossover between reactions against queer people and against women’s liberation. Most anti-trans groups are also anti-abortion, for instance. Anti-trans campaigners in the US openly link their campaign to the fight against reproductive rights. TERFs are sneakier about it, but they are happy to throw women under the bus to get at trans people. This confluence of anti-trans and anti-women politics points to these oppressions having the same root.
What is this root? Marxism locates the basis of social oppression in material causes. So what material need does trans oppression serve? It is the maintenance of the nuclear family. The Marxist view of the family under capitalism is that it is a vehicle for producing the next generation of workers, a structure in which property is passed down the generations, an incubator of bourgeois ideology, a system that subjugates women to unpaid domestic labour. The family is the main social institution of women’s oppression, the social superiority of man over woman [see “Marxism, Feminism & Women’s Liberation”].
Baked into the family is the division of humanity into man and woman on grounds of their (perceived) role in human reproduction, and the subjection of both men and women to the need to reproduce: to ensure the generational transmission of private property and the production of new generations of workers and consumers to keep the system going. Individual autonomy must be subordinated to this socio-economic need.
Hence the oppression of queer people, whose lives and needs require alternatives to this system [see “Capitalism & Homophobia”]. Trans people, who both represent an alternative to the family and threaten the binary division of humanity on reproductive lines, are doubly oppressed.
The nuclear family did not always exist. It was pushed on the workers of Europe, and imposed on the colonised world at gunpoint, because it is the most favourable relationship structure for capitalism’s needs. Historically, the trans struggle has been against forces seeking to trap people within these confines. Right-wing obsession with trans men’s fertility is a good example. Anti-trans violence is cruelty for its own sake, but it is also meant to discourage others from taking the same road.
There are those who look to the existing capitalist state to protect trans people from this violence, to uplift their material conditions and guarantee equal rights. And some countries, usually forced by collective action, have improved the conditions of trans people. The question is, can these reforms be carried through to a place where trans people are actually free, equal and safe from persecution under the capitalist state?
To answer that, we should consider what the state is and whose interests it serves. Marxists regard the state as an instrument of class rule: the mechanism through which a ruling class formalises and maintains power over one or more subject classes.
Under capitalism, the ruling class is the capitalist class (or bourgeoisie). Capitalists own the productive forces of society, or “means of production”, as their private property. The capitalist state is a tool to oppress and exploit the working class; workers own no productive forces and must work for the capitalists or starve.
The state passes laws which guarantee capitalist rights to own private property, and uses armed force—the police, but also the army, prison guards and so forth—to keep the working class from appropriating property or power for themselves. Capitalists need to exploit workers to make a profit, but because workers’ material needs are opposed to capitalists’ best interests, they need the state to keep workers in line, often through violence.
The capitalist class uses the state to shape society in its own interests, including fostering the family model, so that workers keep reproducing and creating more workers to exploit. Social progress in bourgeois society usually comes from mass movements of the working class, oppressed minorities or both pressuring the state to pass reforms which go against capitalists’ wishes.
Such reforms are good things, and Marxists should defend them. But every one of them is a balance between the opposed interests of the capitalists who control society and the people who forced them to make the change. Thus they approach equality but never reach it, because a truly equal society is incompatible with the private ownership of the means of production by a privileged few.
Queer acceptance is one such reform, and like all reforms it is unfortunately only partial. It represents an uneasy truce between the rights of queer people and the needs of capitalists—queer people can exist openly, so long as they can be exploited like everyone else, conform to bourgeois norms and don’t challenge bourgeois social structures, including the family. The more we exist outside those confines, the fewer rights and protections we have.
The gains we make under capitalism will thus never be complete. But this isn’t the only problem. Last week, the news broke that Roe vs. Wade, and thus the American right to an abortion—long thought a settled argument by many liberals—will likely be overturned soon.
We should take from this impending disaster that concessions granted under the pressure of mass political mobilisations are always subject to reversal when a different configuration of social forces arises. The struggle against sexism, like the battle against transphobia, racism and other forms of social oppression, can never be finally victorious under capitalism, because the maintenance of privilege and inequality is an inevitable corollary to private monopoly of the means of production.
This is not to say meaningful reforms under capitalism aren’t possible, only that they aren’t sustainable. Reforms represent inefficiencies in the capitalist system, in that they make society less profitable for the capitalists. But the high productive base of technology in capitalism leaves room for some inefficiency. However, when the profitability of that system is in crisis—and between the war in Ukraine, Covid and climate change, there are major crises looming—those reforms start to look like dead weight.
But capitalism has means of resolving this problem. Crisis periods breed fascism, the mass mobilisation of the petty bourgeoisie and disaffected, backward sections of the working class to stabilise capitalism by violently stamping out any rogue elements that exist in contradiction with capitalism’s basic needs [see “No Platform for Fascists”].
The various fascisms of the last century had many differences, but they were united by a commitment to rigid enforcement of capitalist norms against perceived moral and social decay—including the strict embrace of the family, weaponised against the independence of women and the existence of queer people. Modern fascists share this drive too.
The existing capitalist state is not only incapable of stopping fascism in the long term, it is unwilling. Everywhere fascists have historically come to power, they have done so with the connivance of the capitalist class which controls the state. This class sees fascism as a means of solving its difficulties and forcing order on a restive populace in the grip of social crisis.
No matter what reforms we win from it, the capitalist state will always be more compatible with social forces that want trans people gone. Queer oppression is bred in the bone of capitalism. Since the capitalist state ultimately exists to defend capitalism, it can never be relied on to defend our rights. It cannot be permanently reformed into a configuration that will protect us from fascism: in the long run, it must be smashed.
But who will do the smashing? The only force to ever halt the fascist advance is the organised working class. In 1930s France and Britain, mass movements of workers beat the fascists before they could take power, while in Russia, the Bolsheviks crushed an attempted fascist coup on the path to the October Revolution, the overthrow of capitalist state power by the working class.
The establishment of workers’ power in Russia dealt a terrible blow to the family, granting at a stroke the legal emancipation of women. Soviet Russia was the first state in Europe to decriminalise abortion, while the revolutionary government worked hard at freeing women from the kitchen and laundry by socialising childcare and domestic labour. But it was also the first state to decriminalise homosexuality, making the workers’ state the most advanced state in the world for queer rights. For a time, many gay people lived open lives in Soviet Russia. Doctors studied trans people scientifically and were optimistic about a future in which medical sex change was possible, though the techniques were beyond them at the time. It was by no means a utopia, and there was a lot of controversy about it, but for the time it was extraordinarily progressive.
The Bolsheviks ultimately did not spark a world revolution that would have overthrown class society altogether, which was their objective. The workers took power, but they could not keep it; while they overthrew capitalism, Russia was too isolated and economically underdeveloped to build the material basis for an equal society, which hollowed out Soviet democracy and eventually brought Stalin to power. As the working class lost control of political power under Stalinist counterrevolution, many of these gains were reversed, including queer rights.
Nevertheless, the fact that the early Bolshevik assault on the family came with attempts toward gay and trans liberation far earlier than in the West demonstrates the link between socialist struggle against family strictures and the liberation of queer people. Freeing the Soviet workers from the grip of forced reproduction directly opened the road to struggle against compulsory heterosexuality and cis-ness: when Stalin re-instated the family’s central place in Soviet society, he placed those shackles back on the working class.
The task of revolutionaries in the modern day is to finish the job the Bolsheviks started, to build a world workers’ party with a revolutionary programme that can ignite global revolution and smash capitalism for good. The destruction of capitalist power and the seizure of economic control by the working class will create the conditions for a democratically planned global economy that will give all humans an equal share of prosperity, and thereby eliminate class division in human society.
The oppression of trans people is as old as class society itself. Only through the struggle to overturn class society will trans people realise their own emancipation. But the fight to eradicate class society is the fight to eradicate the material basis of class society—the system of private property and all its revolting extrusions, including the family and the norms and mores that enslave us to domestic servitude and the need to reproduce. And so, the fight for trans liberation is inextricable from the fight for socialism.
The aim of a revolutionary society is ultimately the full autonomy and development of the individual, free of social coercion and control. We cannot know what concepts like sex, gender or sexuality will look like under communism, as our understanding of those concepts is limited by the material conditions of our society. We therefore can’t know what trans or cis people in the future will look like. Our task is to fight for the world in which they’re free to define that for themselves. Ultimately, this can only be a revolutionary struggle.
State Sponsored Transphobia (1917 No.46)
Birth Certificates & Bullies (1917 No.45)
Marxism, Feminism & Women’s Liberation (1917 No.19)
Capitalism & Homophobia (1917 No.15)
‘All Gains are Fragile’: Thirty Years of Homosexual Law Reform (1917 No.39)