By AUTUMN RAIN and ERWIN FREED
The New York Times reported on Oct. 21 that the Trump administration is “considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a government effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.” This announcement is one in a long line of attempts to take away trans, non-binary, and intersex people’s democratic rights.
The Trump administration has already sought to ban transgender individuals from the military, the country’s largest employer and often the sole option for the poorest workers. It has also rescinded the Obama-era guidelines on transgender access to school restrooms and homeless shelters, and has imposed new policies for the Bureau of Prisons to make “biological sex” the initial determinant in placement in prisons.
The administration has removed mention of “gender” from the Department of Health and Human Services guidelines on sex discrimination, signaling that it would be disinclined to take or investigate complaints against insurance companies, providers, or other federal health programs. It has also lobbied the UN to remove “gender” from human rights documentation.
Imposing rigid definitions of people’s gender is a worldwide phenomenon affecting trans, non-binary, and intersex people across the globe. In the UK the current Gender Recognition Act (GRA) forces trans people to go through a difficult process that makes their gender a question of medical inquiry. Similar rules pathologize being transgender in the U.S., and the Social Security Administration requires documentation from a doctor to change a person’s gender marker. It is dehumanizing to have to get permission from the government to be who you are.
Proposed changes to the GRA would drop the requirement of legal gender change being decided by a state-appointed case-board and instead implement a system of self-identification. Debate around the GRA has opened a pandora’s box of attacks on trans people, especially trans women, within the feminist movement.
The repercussions of a new and more rigid official government definition of gender could be far-ranging. It could lead to even more intense struggles over access to bathrooms, appropriate health care, and legal protections at work. Furthermore, the administration’s sanctioning of anti-transgender bigotry will lead to a wider acceptance of discrimination and abuse far beyond the reading of the law.
Unsurprisingly, the members of the working class who do not fit neatly into ideal and abstract gender categories face a great deal of difficulties. Workplace discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation is not explicitly prohibited in U.S. federal law or in most states, and trans people report their facing discrimination in massive numbers. Transgender people are more likely to face employment discrimination, poverty, housing discrimination, homelessness, and police violence, and are disproportionately victims of homicide—especially trans women of color. And trans people are, rather astonishingly, 25 times more likely to have attempted suicide.
The definition proposed by the Trump administration is arbitrary and unscientific, but reflects an ideologically constructed notion of strict categories in nature that reactionaries uphold. The notion of the gender binary, and the enforcement of gender roles, has been a feature of capitalist development. Though many people are born with sex characteristics that do not fit into rigid categories, the practice of surgically modifying intersex children at birth has been used to force the false notion of binary gender upon human bodies. The idea that biological sex is an immutable category based upon genitals totally erases this practice of non-consensual modifications of bodies, as well as the very real experience of people who develop intersex characteristics during puberty.
A popular “common sense” notion is that genetics are rigidly sex-specific. Men and women are said to only have XY and XX chromosomes respectively. Over the last couple of years the renowned journal Nature has published many articles that put to bed the idea that human bodies exist as either purely male or female at any level.
Not only do people come in all different shapes, sizes, and anatomical make-ups but so do their genes! A person who was assigned female at birth, identifies as a woman, and easily is seen as one may have XY chromosomes in her bladder, or even internal testes. Yet the Trump administration’s new definition would, ridiculously, require genetic testing as the ultimate determiner in disputes!
Political economy of trans identity
What is the basis for trans discrimination? Is it based on the ill will of individuals, or does it have a deeper relationship to capitalism’s profit making core?
The enforcement, and reproduction, of gender roles is quite useful to the profit-system. The abstractions of “man” and “woman” are helpful in establishing the subordinate role of one to the other, just as white supremacist racism is useful in establishing the subordinate role of a group of workers of color.
Capitalism relies upon “surplus” populations: a portion of the workers who are unemployed or precariously employed. The exploitation of the working class demands a section of the class that cannot find paid work easily, and can be moved in and out of employment quickly. Thus the threat of replacement workers helps to keep the cost of employed workers’ wages down, and the presence of a reserve army of labor helps to facilitate the many overturns of workers into and out of employment demanded by a system constantly revolutionizing the means of production. In the U.S., the temporary demand for workers of color and for women workers in World War II stands as a prime example.
Trans people are forced into this reserve army of labor disproportionately and almost as a matter of definition. From discrimination in housing and on the job, frequent loss of family support, and struggles over safe, adequate, and gender-appropriate health care, trans people are forced to endure struggles that render stability nearly impossible. Long-term poverty and joblessness are extremely likely.
Attacks on the reserve army of labor, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, are attacks on the working class as a whole. They include austerity measures like cutting welfare and social spending. Taking rights and services from trans, non-binary, and intersex people reduces the welfare of all working people, and increases the power and prosperity of the bosses and their class.
There is much to be said about the consumptive behaviors demanded by gender roles. Prime examples are the “pink tax,” in which products marketed to women (razors, deodorants, etc.) are more expensive, enforced by social pressure to buy arbitrarily gendered commodities. This is an aspect of capitalism that is, ultimately, secondary to women’s and trans oppression as a whole, and is in the last analysis a product of competition between capitalists. Still, the fact of separate markets for men and women re-enforces social segregation based in the home and the workplace.
Women, trans and cis, are burdened not only with smaller salaries and more precarious labor, but also larger expenses, e.g., make-up, artificially high commodity prices for gender specific products, and for trans women special products to make “passing” as female easier.
The gender roles that the family demands continue to reemerge with every crisis and every new austerity measure that pushes the costs of social reproduction onto the backs of workers themselves. The caricatures of “deadbeat dads” and “welfare queens” are invoked to reinforce the notion that the ruling class has no responsibility to provide care to the people whom it exploits for all its wealth. Similar is the image of the trans woman who is “really” a man who wants free things from the government. There was much rhetoric around this when Trump originally proposed cutting funding for trans specific health care in the military.
Democrats: Road to nowhere for trans rights
In 2006-2007, the Democrats faced a crisis of legitimacy. They had campaigned hard as the “sane” and “progressive” response to the “embarrassing” George W. Bush administration. After co-opting social movements through the threat of what another term with a Republican majority would mean and the promise of a Blue Wave, the Democrats won a majority in the House and the Senate. Even with this majority and literally decades of promising to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity illegal, the Democrats never were seriously going to fight for LGBTQIA rights. Instead, the Obama administration merely offered new trans-friendly guidelines for federal agencies that were just as easily revoked as they were introduced.
The liberal wing of capitalism and their party, the Democrats offer policies that are a dead-end for all but the most wealthy or upwardly mobile queer people (an exceedingly small minority within a minority). The Democrats, who are openly a party of landlords and real estate agents, will never give trans people the right to cheap or free quality public housing. One of the main issues plaguing the community will therefore go unaddressed and reproduce housing discrimination and homelessness that keep trans people as the most vulnerable human material to be ground through the teeth of capital.
Material issues plaguing those groups who are considered “surplus populations”—free gender appropriate health care, employment benefits like a shorter workweek and more time off, funding for education, accessible housing, etc.—are forever on the chopping block through the austerity politics of both ruling parties. Only the construction of independent mass movements and of an independent mass party of workers can address the fundamental issues faced by queer people.
Trans people are a small but substantial section of the working class, and their interests intersect with many other hyper-exploited groups. Fights over bathroom access and ease of changing gender markers are crucial. They are in line along with fights over rights to appropriate health care, housing, employment, and for protections from police as material issues that would threaten the security of capitalist profits, and are therefore off the table for the Democratic Party.
Building the struggle
We have no faith in the twin parties of capitalism to support the liberation of transgender people. Instead, we see trans liberation as an inseparable and fundamental part of class struggle. It is necessary to build mass mobilizations in the street to fight for, and win, demands for trans rights. And that will entail forging bonds of solidarity with other sections of the working class, building united fronts capable of challenging the political domination of capital.
Capitalism is a system of social relations, not personalities. We do not seek to appeal to the moral hearts of the ruling class; we seek to overthrow the class system itself. Revolution is the only way to eliminate the existing systems of domination, like patriarchy and cis-sexism, and to prevent their re-emergence. In place of a society directed toward profit-making for the few, we want to create a system consciously organized for the fulfillment of human needs and desires, predicated on bonds of solidarity.
The movement for women’s liberation, trans and cis, is growing. During and after the hearings for Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, there were demonstrations in hundreds of cities that included hundreds of thousands of people. In New York City, Grand Central Station was occupied by thousands in a sit-in organized by a coalition of socialist and feminist groups. Following these most recent maneuvers by the Trump administration, dozens of unions have reaffirmed their commitment to protecting the rights of trans workers in and out of their bargaining units. In Argentina, factory workers have gone on strike against discrimination towards their trans co-workers.
Fighting for trans liberation means fighting for the rights and power of working people. The struggle is over who decides the priorities and social provisioning in our societies. Socialists must participate in the existing mass mobilizations for women’s rights, trans rights, and the rights of all oppressed groups and work to bring them together on a class-struggle basis. In our unions the role of a revolutionary is to be the tribune of the people, to take that basic organization of class power and use it as an apparatus to fight for democratic and political rights in all spheres. This is the way forward towards working class power and social revolution.