June 15, 2020 | 14 minutes read

Pride Special: Marxism and Transgender Liberation – a roundtable discussion

The following is a transcript of a conversation various members of the Red Fightback LGBT+ Caucus had regarding the book Marxism and Transgender Liberation, where they explored some of the ideas of the text as well as unpacking some more personal elements of the topic.

Pride Special: Marxism and Transgender Liberation – a roundtable discussion

Please be aware that this includes discussion of transphobic, patriarchal  and racial violence.

Patriarchal violence

CI: Welcome everyone, really excited to be hosting this Roundtable discussion.

Let’s begin with the class origins of gender – I really love that chapter – and the effects of colonialism on primitive-communal societies. On this topic actually, I was just thinking of a very interesting section from that chapter. Towards the end of Class Origins of Gender, Chapter 1, the book begins to discuss male aggression and ritualised masculine warfare. This is page 32. And it’s really interesting to see that in our ancestors there’s no evidence of warfare. It’s such a thoroughly illuminating reveal of how tied war is to economic development, and inter-tribal warfare. The part that made me so sad was this quote:

European incursions in North America and the disruption of existing economic life induced intensive violent warfare between indigenous societies.

And you just realise the destructive effects of colonialism and how it gave rise to such dysfunctional violence. It’s asymmetric in who it’s aimed at; the women in these societies were particularly susceptible to this violence, as well as TLGB people. Wherever colonialism has been established there has been a violent process of supplanting the settler’s ideology onto the colonised subject. They leave legacies, laws, religions to enforce cissexism and heterosexist violence.

AH: One thing that isn’t mentioned so clearly in the book is that these societies were not always at war. Capitalists justify themselves by saying humans are innately competitive; that these societies were always trying to one up each other. In reality, that is completely untrue historically.

CI: Fully agree, there aren’t enough accounts out there that challenge that.

I also want to highlight the part when women partake in modern imperialist wars; for example, the women prison guards who took part in the racially charged sexual torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. That reminds me of the part on p30, where it discusses the evolution of societies; from hunter-gatherer to more settled, semi-sedentary foraging societies. The formations of patriarchy emerge from the distribution of gathered surplus and patrilineal inheritance.

Thus, as Leacock stressed, ‘the significance of women’s childrearing ability is transformed by new social relations when they become producers, not only of people as individuals, but also of what is becoming “abstract”—i.e., exploitable—labour’. Ruling-class women specifically would have supported patrilineality if it meant their family lineage could keep control of the wealth.

I found a connection between those two parts; it indicates the role of middle- and upper-class women in enforcing patriarchy and spreading its terror. Soldiers that go to US client states have military wives at home. Women are stratified amongst class; a feminism that doesn’t recognise that needs to be challenged.

AJ: That ties into something we are trying to establish; the way women can and do reproduce not just class relations but patriarchal relations, and not just as victims. Victims of violent relationships can and do reproduce that violence on other people. Certain categories of women get respite from patriarchy by oppressing other women as a more acceptable target.

CI: Which is an indictment on white feminism; these people are trying to gain the position of white men, instead of deconstructing these structures.

SMO: This reminds me of the witch-hunts that took place in feudal rural Europe. The ruling class enclosed public land and rendered it private and controllable before forcing women into marriages. They alienated women from the means of production by branding midwives, abortionists, herbalists, those who provided contraception as witches. They were killed to cement patriarchal power. This is massively overlooked.

CI: Absolutely. This reminds me of the chapter Class Origins of Gender, where the book talks about sexual assault as a tool and a weapon:

As Nepalese Maoist and ‘communist feminist’ Hisila Yami explains it: ‘Tactically, rape is used as a weapon to send the message to rebellious women that their place belongs inside their homes, and also the message to her family and community that daughters should not be sent in rebellious movements, organisations, parties. Strategically, rape is used to bolster patriarchal values, [and] sexist ideology in order to reinforce machoism in armed forces and to feminise the enemy’.

It’s interesting to see that tactic of patriarchal terror replicated.

LW: To expand on those tools of violence; in Jim Crow times, white women would weaponise claims of sexual assault against Black men to get them literally lynched.

AJ: There are parallels there to the idea, the fantasies of accusations of sexual assault against trans women and how they get weaponised. These accusations lead to the murders of Black trans women more frequently than any other group. This imagined threat of trans women and its subsequent violence on all of us –bathroom access, public spaces, if we’re allowed to read to children. The majority of us are not actually getting killed for it; we need to highlight where the violence of transphobia manifests most violently.

CI: Revolting Prostitutes talks about trans and gender nonconforming people being accused of being duplicitous about their bodies. Trans women are interrogated about their biological status. There’s an obsessive focus on genitalia. This fuels accusations of sexual violence.

AJ: Something particularly egregious of that notion is that it is completely removed from the reality of sexual violence. No one out there who is perpetrating sexual violence feels the need to disguise themselves to do so. It’s the status that comes with being a man that allows you to do that; to be perceived as anything other than a man makes sexual assault harder to get away with.

CI: That’s so true. In cases of Black men, racial marginalisation can reduce the possibility of getting away with sexual violence. But in general, men are inducted into rape culture by ritualised denegration of women they encounter, have relationships with. Celebrities like R Kelly, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby. These men have attacked people, terrorised people, traumatised people and have impunity. Even for those who don’t benefit from being rich, but still commit these crimes, sexual assault is massively underreported. Britain has the lowest prosecution rate for sexual assault in any country in the EU.

SMO: When we talk about rape culture, there’s a history of women being silenced that has been prevalent since feudal times. The word ‘gossip’ now has negative connotations, but it originally meant ‘a close female friend’. Women would face violence at the hands of men, go to women-designated spaces and talk about men. The word got distorted to demonise women; what they were saying had no substance. Women talking about men became punishable by torture. Silvia Federici talks of the torture device called the Scold’s Briddle, a spiked device that would be clipped into the mouth to stop you moving your tongue. The notion of women talking was made literally painful.

AJ: On rape culture and socialisation, to flesh this out a bit; there can be a mistake where people start to talk about male socialisation and female socialisation. This ends up as biological essentialism with a social twist on it, effectively.

Take the ritual abuse and patriarchal degradation that we’re talking about; many of the places that is fomented are gender-segregated spaces. I’m thinking boys locker rooms, for example, where the kids bully each other in a sexually charged manner. It’s the kids that aren’t willing to go along with the bullying that usually end up the victims, or those who face other forms of oppression be them disabled or Black or those who have hit puberty early or late or whatever might single you out in a gendered space.

These people that are singled out become alienated from patriarchy; these are often the people who end up as trans women. They’ve been subject to the violence that women face before they realised that they’re being subjected to it as women. In single gendered spaces there can be a phenomenon where the general social relations are reproduced; without any women, replacements are needed to fill their role as targets of patriarchal violence. They find people to be the women of the space.

TI: This is very my experience at an ‘all-boys school’.

SMO: I went to an all-girls school and it was wild as hell.

LW: Likewise, this reminds me of my school experience too. AJ’s point there is a good counter-response to transphobic lines that trans women and non-binary “amab” people are socialised as men growing up, and all the implications they draw from that. It complicates “privilege politics”: how did patriarchy benefit me when I was facing homophobic bullying? When we understand that gay men are affected by misogyny, it leads to better thinking.

CI: bell hooks, when she’s talking about the patriarchy, talks about feminists who wrongly dismiss patriarchy’s effect on, say, young boys. It socialises all of us; it’s a social system that comes with restrictions on everybody.

On physicality

TI: With regards to the chapter on biology and dialectical materialism, it makes a deeply compelling case on the physical element of the gendered body. Discussing what is the physical body, what is the authentic body and what is the trans body is something that is often weaponised but worth discussing in a liberatory framework.

SMO: The way I see gender is like how human bodies and behaviours are categorised and how that influences the different opportunities they're afforded / and the consequences of that.

TI: I think this question of physicality is particularly compelling in the time of lockdown and COVID-19; there’s a wider question of what it means to be trans in this crisis, but also an interesting notion of physicality and what it means to have form in both these topics. There’s a quote from Zerocapitalism that talks about how the Pandemic has revealed the human labour, the physical human form present in production, through this crisis; what is normally invisible has been revealed in the most painful way possible. There’s more work to be done developing a thesis here, but the parallel of that to being transgender in an oppressive social context is clear.

AJ: I like the focus on physicality of the experience of both gender and coronavirus. Being shut in has changed the way that people relate to gender because they are now no longer being perceived by society, other than people they explicitly choose to reveal themselves to by video call or something. I shaved for the first time in two weeks yesterday – I usually shave every day – but only for the first time yesterday because I felt greasy. It was more coincidence rather than a need to, whilst usually I’m compelled to by people’s perceptions. It’s not about my relationship to my body, which is how dysphoria is usually spoken about; a personal relationship where something is wrong. It’s clear to me that it’s actually a relationship that society has to my body, and that I have to society – and these don’t match. That’s dysphoria, not something wrong internally.

The other thing I want to touch on regarding isolation is the way that, in quarantine, so many people are experiencing what people who are afraid to go outside experience everyday. Suddenly this notion of anyone you come across is a threat, a serious threat to your health, is something a lot of us live with all the time. People are beginning to understand what we live with all the time, as well as our strategies to survive, live through, even do well through that. A lot of us are the experts in how to bounce around in your room for 14 days without losing yourself.

TI: Absolutely, both really excellent points. A separate point, but it’s worth noting when discussing the gendered element of the Pandemic. In Peru, people are allowed out of their house based on gender; one day women, one day men, so on. Obviously for trans and perhaps particularly non-binary people, this is really devastating.

SMO: Are they doing that under the guise of protecting women? Like how in Japan only women can ride the train at certain times?

TI: To my knowledge it’s done as an allegedly arbitrary measure to reduce the rates of people outside. What it’s doing is forcing trans and non-binary people to stay inside; intentionally or not, public space is being managed to actively block the participation of gender non-conforming people. We are seeing public access being policed in a more brazenly patriarchal fashion.

Transphobia and neoliberalism

CI: It would be good to talk about the intersection of transphobia and neoliberalism and being trans in contemporary capitalist society. When analysing neoliberalism and how it foments transphobia, one example is when, the World Bank and IMF were forcing restructuring programmes of neoliberalism. The legacy of colonialism, the austerity, the heterosexist, cissexist societies that get created from them – it’s marginalised groups like LGBT+ people who get hit hardest. The amount of LGBT+ sex workers, particularly trans women, is astronomical. A quarter of London’s homeless population is LGBT+ (almost 70% forced out by their families). The impact of neoliberalism is wildly disproportionate – these precarious avenues of employment have to be pursued to avoid starving, for lack of alternative.

AJ: To go into economic theory when addressing the impact of the restructuring, and the gutting of support services:

As a way of mitigating the crises of overproduction and over accumulation, one of the responsibilities of the state (the welfare state, New Deal), the state expropriates that surplus capital via taxes to spend it and recirculate it back into the economy. So it takes surplus capital from the production process (the ‘third department’ of production) and it uses the excess capital to provide these things that aren’t profitable but have economic use. Like housing, healthcare – workers function better with these.

When neoliberalism gutted these, it had to absorb surplus capital from new sources (albeit differently in different parts of the world). One of the new places it found was the consumer outlet; petty bourgeoisie, labour aristocracy, to stratify the proletariat further. That surplus capital is now being absorbed by a rampant consumerism and a stratification of the working classes. Some are getting paid way more than they deserve, in order to fund that consumerism.

In particular, this relates to service sex-work. These people are being proletarianised, even lumpenised, homeless, no healthcare and doing sex work to survive. On the other hand, you have the people who are absorbing the surplus capital and purchasing the services of these people who have been left with nothing. It’s created this relationship of exploitation meeting from both angles, all below the level of the bourgeoisie.

AH: Linking neoliberalism to increased sex work is an important point. Globalisation matters here too; we have a global sex industry. One element of this is how non-binary identities have been warped in certain countries. The fetishisation of non-binary genders in Thailand or Brazil is exported orientalism.

TI: Meanwhile, doing sex work as a non-binary person from a different positionality can be the opposite, where there is no option to be non-binary; you have to conform to a different, more desirable, less ‘complex’ category. People attach their orientalist fantasies onto non-binary people from, as you say, Brazil or Thailand and so on and erase non-binary people from their own societies. Trans women here are fetishized in a similarly deeply damaging way.

SMO: On the topic of fetishisation of trans women, it reminded me of Bad Bunny, who is a cishet man that recently got highly praised for adopting trans/drag aesthetics in a music video. He was lauded as an icon for smashing toxic masculinity (lol) but like, doesn't do anything materially for trans women - it was purely for monetary and societal gain.

Becoming a communist and being transgender

TI: I’ll try and take this from a different angle than the foreword. For me my gender was always linked to my politics; I started off organising around people who were largely trans and non-binary, and they were deeply influential in both facilitating me to come to terms with a lot of difficulties I had in my own experience of gender, as well as what it means to do so in a supportive and loving environment where that’s the norm. When I came to Red Fightback in those super early days, where everything was so stripped back, it was obvious where the party’s priorities lay; it was that same sense of communal support but paired with revolutionary liberation and better politics. And like, the fact that the Party started off with so many trans and non-binary people is such a reassurance – it’s still something we hear reassures people, that we really mean what we say on this issue.

LW: In about 2014, I came out to myself and slowly some other people. It’s the usual thing of beginning to understand yourself more, how patriarchy has impacted you for better and for worse, and you begin to understand how these systems effect other people. Young anarchists often replicate the ‘fuck you mum and dad’ mentality but in the context of politics and capitalism; I was certainly that for a while, before joining the RCG. I was in many leftist Facebook groups and making friends with overseas Marxist-Leninists who were also trans and/or non-binary. They helped my analysis regarding capitalism and patriarchy, and eventually I came here. It’s humbling to see the people in Red Fightback fighting back against nihilism; yes, the British left is fucked, but here we have people who are fighting back to do something better.

CI: There’s too much nihilism in the British left. We’re in the imperial core; we won’t face the brunt of climate change, or war. But people don’t want to take stances and organise.

SMO: I only realised I was trans, specifically non-binary, when I joined Red Fightback. Even two years ago I wasn’t a Marxist-Leninist, so I’ve done a big 180 on pretty much my entire worldview. Before I came to these realisations, I was aware of how patriarchal society is obsessed with policing the boundaries of womanhood, which I always found dehumanising. But I didn’t really know what that meant before I understood dialectical materialism. I really resonated with where the book said:

There is also a high degree of fluidity and flexibility in identity formation over time…This is supported by the fact that there is ‘an additional twofold increase in myelinization [accelerated information-transmitting nerve impulse activity in the brain] between the first and second decades of life, and an additional 60 percent between the fourth and sixth decades, making plausible the idea that the body can incorporate gender-related experiences throughout life.

So, I guess it makes sense that I’m beginning to enter the next phase of my life with a different understanding of my gender and the world. I don’t think my journey has been hard; I’m still quite feminine-presenting, I’m light skinned not dark skinned, so I don’t have the same struggles as a dark skinned Black trans woman. I’d like to explore more, get a binder and stuff, but I don’t face a lot of the same violence. I can access a level of safety from the way I look, which relates to a dialectical materialist view of what it means to be trans.

TI: For Red Fightback to be a space where people can engage with their gender, to have realisations and come out, is an absolute endorsement of what we’re building and moving beyond words.

SMO: This is why we adopt a Marxist outlook—it's a philosophy of revolutionising both our external world and ourselves as the only means to overcome oppression and exploitation.

AJ: There’s something specific about building a space where trans people can engage with themselves, but specifically trans people that have been alienated by the mainstream trans spaces that have carved a space out comfortably within capitalist hegemony. A lot of trans people, particularly working class trans people, find those spaces difficult; the fact it’s those people we’re bringing into Red Fightback is an even bigger endorsement.

When people realise how alienated they are from the social relationships, the oppressive relationships that make up society, they can undergo a form of proletarianisation by rejecting exploitative relationships they’re expected to be in (even if they’re not in them). It dismantles those relationships, economic and social. Rather than proletarianisation as a gateway to reaction, it’s inspiring to have an approach that pulls people towards a transformative revolutionary approach to strategy.

SMO: I was thinking how I used to be a big Labour supporter because I thought that that was all we had, until I came across Red Fightback and learnt about other revolutionaries. Revolutionaries like Mao who led the Chinese peasants or Black radicals in Harlem who would walk around with copies of his red book, or Sankara who wasn’t even 40 yet fighting for women’s emancipation in Burkina Faso, or Che in Cuba etc etc. My point is when you can see people like you united in the global proletarian struggle, it is so liberating; this is why I felt comfortable coming out in Red Fightback.

CI: Red Fightback has caucuses, and these caucuses, be they for trans people, disabled people, people of colour and so on, are increasingly being considered to be like unions within the party. We’re putting on things like this, we want to have educationals dissecting the gender binary and sex, more articles and texts, that help to combat transphobia.

SMO: Mao said Marxism must be shaped to the requirements of time and place. Practical work, ideas and leadership stem from the masses and movement, not from a theory created in abstract or produced out of other struggles. We’re steps ahead of the other parties in Britain and building something so much bigger.