It's spooky season! Drawing on Frankenstein and his Monster, a comrade reflects on Silvia Federici's Beyond the Periphery of the Skin from a trans- perspective.
Many people in the capitalist West, even those who identify as politically left-wing, fall into the trap of heterosexism and see people falling outside of the strict gender binary as simply a result of bourgeois decadence. This is not only wrong, but dangerous. Red Fightback believes that as Marxist-Leninists, it is our duty to combat all heterosexism and transphobia, because ultimately, we strive for a better world for all of us – not only those who are part of the acceptable majority.
Why capitalist reformism is not the answer to inequality
Eurocentrism and white supremacy, as guiding ideologies of imperialist capitalism, have put much of the so-called imperial core (i.e. the imperialist nations and their allies) in a position where we are led to believe that Western culture is the pinnacle of human existence, and that all other nations across the globe should aspire to be in the same position. Countries like the US, Britain, and those in Western Europe are often seen not only as the vanguards of technology, culture, big finance, and generally a force for the good of humanity, but also as the overseers of the correct morals and values (freedom, human rights etc). The irony is that these countries, which were all built on the blood and bones of people in the global South, have the audacity to be the ones dictating what human rights are, when they simultaneously do not grant these same human rights to oppressed people within their own violently-protected borders. In Britain's case, for example, not only does it denigrate the lack of LGBT+ rights in countries where it historically imposed homophobic laws during the colonial era, but it continues to deny thousands of LGBT+ refugees many from those very countries the right to asylum. This shows how performative this concern for human rights can be, and shows how states within the imperial core cherry-pick when to care about oppressed groups.
Ultimately, any rights earned for oppressed people in the West have come as a result of intense struggle, and the strides taken have acted a small, slow chipping away at the established societal order. Any reforms that have been made have been an attempt to pacify those with the nerve to speak up and fight, as a way to restore order. Capitalism does not grant reforms out of selflessness or compassion, it is the people who win their rights through struggle. However, capitalism, with its contradictions, will occasionally give into the demands of the oppressed, restore order, and then co-opt these new ideas as a way to make them part of the dominant culture and thus, defang any revolutionary fervour. The best way to get people to stop fighting against the violent nature of the bourgeois state is to pretend to care about them for the moment, because it ends up as something mutually beneficial: the bourgeois state will gain a complicit group of people, who feel like they are seen and heard, and can find opportunities for liberation within the bourgeois state, and the revolutionary movement will fizzle out, because this minor reform has happened. This is simply a way to keep the peace while retaining the overall structure of capitalist society and encourage assimilation over revolutionary change.
There is also, undoubtedly, the issue of imperialism and how that further complicates global LGBT+ movements, especially for trans people in the global South. Much of the anti-LGBT hegemonic ideology exported from the capitalist West came not only in the form of colonialism in the last few centuries, but is also reinforced by religions and laws that were forcibly imported into these countries as weapons of control of the local population. (You can read more about this phenomenon in the following article from last year, "Misogyny is not caused by biological 'sex'".) But this still does not mean that Western countries are farther along when it comes to social progress for trans people. On the contrary, there are several notable countries in the global South, namely those in the process of building socialism, that get several things right when it comes to winning the battle against heterosexism and transphobia.
Capitalist identity politics and the hegemonic ideology
One of the major differences between the capitalist approach to identity politics and the Marxist materialist paradigm regarding gender inequality is where the root of the issue lies according to each method of analysis. Capitalists view non-normative identities as abominations, either by using religion or pseudoscientific biological claims (which are often presented as unbiased true science because the capitalist medical industry has a vested interested in promoting the gender binary) as the basis of their arguments. Of course, this is not to say that some Marxists do not fall into the pitfalls of the latter argument (but in different ways and often using different logic, despite still masquerading this as materialist analysis as an attempt to seem rational). However, this pseudoscientific argument coming from Marxists who have been exposed to the dominant ideology (as we all have) is something that is not new or surprising; there is no such thing as truly free thought under capitalism, and it is impossible to completely detach oneself from the hegemonic ideology, as culture, media, and common public thought all influence how people think. As socialism is a process, it means that we must all go through this process of unlearning the dominant ideology and all of its contradictions and bigotry, which puts us constantly in a battle of wits with others and ourselves.
The capitalist conception of identity politics views divisions based on gender, race and other factors as functioning only on an individual basis, masking what these divisions really are, i.e. ways to justify and consolidate intensified exploitation and, for example, naturalise the reproductive labour (e.g. housework) disproportionately performed by women. This superficial, bourgeois conception of identity politics is further used to create market segmentation to increase profits. This is where the "pink tax," or the idea that women pay more for the same products than men, comes from; the same can be said for things like natural hair products for Black people. Market segmentation allows for marginalised societal groups to feel like they are being catered to, because the products they need are available – but the prices are generally higher than they would be for standard products targeted at the dominant majority. Identity politics in the capitalist sense means representation not only in the commodity market, but also in the public culture and media.
Oppressed groups are seen as ways to make money because of the conception of social progress as a selling point. Especially today, where bourgeois liberalism has appropriated a conception of progressive values that is removed from material conditions, yet understands that being socially aware and diverse is seen as what appeals to the masses, this is a way for the ruling classes in the imperial core to essentially monetise people's marginalised status and maintain their false progressive image. This does nothing to materially uplift these segments of the population who have been historically oppressed. Media and cultural creators who control representations of, for example, the LGBT+ community, are still predominantly from the dominant cisgender/heterosexual white male social stratum, and this is where wealth continues to concentrate. Similarly, white supremacy often dictates who ends up owning the intellectual and cultural production of Black people; for example, Disney uses Marvel movies to draft in actors of colour to appeal to the liberal tendency to associate representation with social progress. At the same time, these same actors are involved in storylines that advocate for imperialism and propagate pro-imperialist ideology. Because capitalism, and in turn fascism, is obsessed with aesthetics and visuals rather than substance, the appearance of progress through this representation of minority groups is seen as the pinnacle of what should be aspired to. Material conditions of marginalised groups matter much less, because the cause of that inequality is not seen as a political economic one, but an individual one; the idea is that if oppressed people simply acted more like the dominant classes, assimilating into the hegemonic culture, and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, they would not be in the position they are in.
There is also the recently popularized idea of visibility of LGBT+ people, most recently for trans people, in which they are encouraged to be open with their gender, which is seen as a mark of progress in a society. While it is of course a liberating idea to be able to be open without fear of consequences for that openness, this is not a reality for most people. Even in allegedly "socially forward" and "accepting" areas in the West like Britain and the US, the rate of hate crimes against trans people (especially trans women) who may be "visibly" trans makes for worrying statistics. According to the US-based National Institute for Transgender Equality (NCTE)'s Trans Experience survey from 2015, where over 27,000 people were surveyed in the largest anonymous survey on trans experience ever conducted, almost half (47%) of overall respondents and 53% of black respondents reported that they have experienced instances of sexual assault throughout their lifetime; one in ten have been physically assaulted and 46% reported experiencing verbal abuse. Finally, 65% of all those surveyed stated that they had experienced homelessness as a result of their gender. Similar figures in the British government's 2018 report on trans people in Britain posits that 41% of responders to a Stonewall survey have experienced instances of a hate crime or incident, and 25% have experienced homelessness at some point.
This also raises the question of what "visibility" even means, as this is constructed upon a patriarchal belief system – or, that there is a specific "way" that a woman or man should look, which encourages the idea of trans people "passing", or looking in the way that the dominant social class would consider a man or woman at this point in time in Western countries. Gender roles and what it means to look masculine and feminine have changed historically and by location and culture, and are fluid; there is no fixed idea of what a man or woman are meant to look like, there are only preconceptions that we learn as part of being indoctrinated into the dominant ideological framework under capitalism. It is also through this ideological framework that violence against trans people persists – because the idea of falling outside of this narrow binary (even if that binary has expanded in some ways) makes trans people targets for violence because they are seen as an upset to what is considered the natural order.
As a result, the Marxist materialist conception attacks the issue of marginalisation and inequality based on gender at the root. Major problems like transphobic violence, homelessness, and general lack of acceptance or even vitriol toward trans people that runs rampant in many countries, especially in the imperial core, are all problems rooted in economic inequality, which in turn is structurally exacerbated by capitalism and the various oppressive structures that exist in intersection with it. Racism, transphobia/heterosexism, and ableism (structural discrimination against the disabled) will often lead people who are affected by these issues to be pushed into poverty, which leads to violence and criminalisation and thus, creates a feedback loop where a majority of people falling outside the norm are disproportionately affected by the ills of capitalism and vice versa. The communist solution to this issue is, naturally, not only to educate the people to reject discrimination and marginalisation based on identity, but to ensure those who are marginalised are supported financially, medically, psychologically, and sociopolitically, and that the structures that exploit them are abolished. This encourages not only a material but an ideological shift in perception and encourages acceptance. Representation in media and the market does nothing for those who are marginalised if that media and those markets perpetuate and profit from stereotypes and does not do anything materially to support and uplift marginalised people. While in some cases representation can be affirming, this affirmation is wrought with contradictions and still not as useful as material and political emancipation.
It can of course be helpful in changing hearts and minds, but this is only half of a solution. In the end, it is through the socialist political-economic model and progressive policies that countries building socialism work to eradicate inequality among oppressed groups.
The case for Cuba
"We must remember so that it will never happen again." – Mariela Castro, Director of the Cuban Center for Sex Education (CENESEX)
It would be intellectually dishonest to pretend that Cuba was always a socially progressive society – in the early days after the Revolution, in a time when many other countries were dealing with typical homophobic and transphobic ideas, and later, poorly thought-out attempts at containing the AIDS crisis (the US government mired in homophobia refused to even acknowledge the existence of the virus until over 10,000 had died; while in Britain under Thatcher hostile police raided gay clubs), the island nation was not an exception to this rule of backwardness in social issues. However, this is also a fact that Cuban people and the Cuban government acknowledge as a fault and something that the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) has fought hard to overcome. In the past, Fidel Castro made a public apology for the poor treatment of LGBT+ people in the country's history. It is rare to see a leader take full personal responsibility for a wrong committed against its people, and even rarer to hear a promise to do better; but the PCC is fully committed to LGBT+ rights and to improving the situation of some of its most marginalized citizens, and their past wrongs are always present in the contemporary dialogue.
This sort of attitude toward promoting social progress is almost nonexistent among governments and officials in many countries across the globe. Amnesia to history comes up often as a response to the complaints of the oppressed. Those with legitimate political demands are expected to sit down and remain silent, as they lack the ability to hold their governments accountable. However, this is not the case in Cuba, where the push for change is done not because there were too many complaints and too much noise and thus the state wanted to restore order; change comes because not only is it the right thing to do, but because the success of the revolution depends on the support of all people – which includes the most marginalised who live on the frontlines of that revolution every day.
Part of what Cuba does to ensure the success of its revolution is for officials to meet its citizens in their own environment and to see the issues that are important to them so that they can begin to work on solving them, especially for the most marginalised. This can be seen in the many photos of Fidel playing sports with average Cuban people and going out to generally interact with them regularly – not simply for a photo op, but because the only way to effectively lead is to know about the concerns of the people. The same can be said of Mariela Castro, Director of CENESEX and a member of Cuba's Parliament, who has spent a great deal of time getting to know members of the LGBT+ community in Cuba and championing their needs through not only legal channels, but material ones, as well. This has manifested in increased protections for LGBT+ Cuban people in labor laws and the Constitution. Simultaneously, this has also helped to change popular perceptions of LGBT+, and especially trans, Cuban people for the better. Coupled with the push against machismo and gender inequality, along with racism, Cuba attacks bigotry on all fronts. There is even a Gala Against Homophobia and Transphobia that is held yearly on the eponymous day as a recognition for the need to improve material conditions for LGBT+ Cubans. While an event such as this may seem performative, it is part of a larger push to end inequality and marginalisation that can persist both materially and ideologically.
Ultimately, though, what Cuba does for trans people goes beyond legal protections and changing hearts and minds. It attacks the issue of inequality at the root – through material support. This of course can become complicated due to lack of supplies and resources as a result of the suffocating blockade placed on Cuba by the US, which makes trade very limited, even with countries that Cuba should be allowed to trade with happily. But that does not stop Cuba from ensuring all citizens regardless of background have somewhere to live with public, state-subsidised utilities, food and water, access to education up to postgraduate level (nearly 100% of Cubans are literate), and high-quality universal public healthcare with some of the best doctors in the world. To put it in capitalist jargon, Cuba invests in its human capital – it creates conditions favorable to social and political development of its people so that they are educated, skilled, and have their basic needs taken care of.
For trans people in Cuba, however, this means that gender confirmation surgeries (GCS) [more commonly known as sex reassignment surgeries (SRS)] are available for trans Cuban people who desire it, free of charge, as of 2008, making it the first Latin American country to do so. GCS includes not only what is known as bottom surgeries (vagino- or phalloplasty, among others) but also top surgeries (mastectomy or augmentation mammoplasty, among others) and numerous other surgeries that allow trans people to feel more like themselves. These procedures can be life-saving for many trans people, and Cuba recognizes this as a material way to help this marginalised group of people live more dignified lives. This comes, in turn, not only as a result of the efforts of the Communist Party to ensure its people have the best medical care possible, but also through a fundamental understanding of what is required to make the revolution successful.
Transphobia is an issue that all countries struggle with. While some view representation and reform as the way forward, it is clear that this approach does not help in the long run. There must be a concerted effort from the people and from the vanguard Party to implement the required changes to move the popular ideology to a place of not only acceptance, but support and solidarity towards emancipation and liberation. Cuba is an example of this process in action, and an image of what is necessary to ensure that all people, especially those most oppressed by capitalism and its vestiges, can live to their full potential.
Red Fightback has published its first book, Marxism and Transgender Liberation: Confronting Transphobia in the British Left. It is available for purchase here. We have also organised a book reading and Q&A today, Thursday, 2 April, in collaboration with Bury Your Gays – a QTIBPOC-centred collective in Britain.