We begin with our stance of full support to and respect for transgender people’s fundamental right to self-identify and for the full, unequivocal inclusion of trans people in every aspect of society. Socialist Action has a long history of unequivocal support for trans rights and implacable opposition to any and all forms of discrimination, exclusion, persecution, and violence against trans people. We support trans people’s fight for full rights, including but not limited to, equal access to housing, restrooms, medical care, employment, education, sports, legal justice, body autonomy, dignity, and the full realization of human potential.
Marxists not only see the fight for trans full inclusion and democratic rights as central to the class struggle, but we also recognize the liberatory power of an oppressed group resisting its historic repression and becoming visible on its own terms. Socialists welcome the increasing visibility of gender diversity.
For trans gender, transsexual, and non-binary (gender non-conforming) people, the insistence on authentic identities cannot be dismissed as “identity politics” or mere individualism. It is an assertion of self-determination that challenges the social underpinnings of capitalism itself. Trans women are women. Trans men are men. We reject any assertion that their identity is in any way inauthentic or invalid.
Among the many forms that trans oppression takes in capitalist America, two prominent examples are extremely high rates of brutal violence against trans people and deep economic marginalization. At the time of this writing, at least 22 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been killed this year in the United States. Since 2013, at least 157 transgender and gender non-conforming individuals have been murdered in the U.S., 81% of whom were trans women of color. Four out of 5 victims were misgendered by media or cops. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that from 2010 to 2014, young Black trans women were between 4.5 and 22.6 times more likely to be killed than the rest of the population. In the years since, the number of trans people murdered each year has doubled.
Trans people in the U.S. face unemployment at a rate at least three times the national average and are more than twice as likely to live in poverty. In a recent survey of over 27,000 trans people in all fifty states by the National Center for Transgender Equality, which provides a comprehensive reporting of the lived experiences of trans people in the U.S., 30% had experienced homelessness in their lifetime, and 12% had been homeless in the prior year. As trans people are pushed to the perimeter of the economy, 20% reported having worked in the underground economy.
Sexual violence is also a major threat in the lives of trans people. 47% of those surveyed had been sexually assaulted, and 54% had experienced some form of intimate partner violence.
The many compounding struggles faced by trans people take a horrific toll. An astonishing 40% of those surveyed reported having attempted suicide.
In this resolution, we will address the roots of trans oppression in the economic structures of capitalism, describe how Marxists understand gender as a social construct, and re-affirm Socialist Action’s support for the struggles of trans people in all areas of society.
A Marxist Understanding of Gender
Gender is a Social Construct
Marxists and socialist feminists recognize that gender is a social construct, which is formed by economic, cultural, historical, biological, and class factors. Throughout human history, social groups have defined social roles in relation to the cultural and economic needs and development of their societies. Since societies have changed in dramatic ways over time so, too, has gender. Gender and gender roles have not been static either across time or across cultures.
In some matricentric, pre-class societies, sex and gender were more complex and included genders that we might, today, call “trans.” Roles were not based solely, or even mainly, on biological characteristics but on the total needs of the society – on the constellation of practices that formed the group’s economic organization, kinship systems, and spiritual beliefs. Some of these forms continue in some indigenous peoples, cultures and nations today.
The shift to class society and the accumulation of private property brought changes not only to economic forms but to social relationships and to the roles required of its subjects. Before the rise of class society, social production was organized communally and products shared equally. The material basis for the exploitation of one group by another did not exist. The social status of women and men reflected the indispensable roles each played in the subsistence productive process.
The change in women’s status and the entrenchment of more rigid gender roles developed along with the growing productivity of human labor based on agriculture, the domestication of animals, and stock raising; the rise of new divisions of labor, craftsmanship, and commerce; the private appropriation of an increasing social surplus; and the development of the possibility for some humans to prosper from the exploitation of the labor of others. In these specific socioeconomic conditions, as the exploitation of human beings became profitable for a privileged few, women, because of their role in the generational transmission of wealth, became valuable property. Thus, the origins of women’s oppression are economic and social in character, and the development of women’s oppression is intertwined with the transition from pre-class to class society, and the replacement of practical and egalitarian labor divisions with hierarchy.
Through the lens of social reproduction theory, we can understand how the institutionalization of the nuclear family and women’s role in helping reproduce labor power, both generationally, and on a daily basis, helped prop up the capitalist economic structure. By controlling gender roles and women’s expected behavior within the family structure, the capitalist class could profit from pushing many of the social reproduction needs of society onto women, who were not compensated for their work. The exploitation of women also helped the ruling class maintain a reserve army of labor they could control by pushing women in or out of the workforce as needed.
This institutionalization of gender roles and the nuclear family also contributed to the oppression of trans and non-binary people who didn’t fit neatly into these artificially created categories. We view the movements for trans and worker’s rights as part of one struggle and understand gendered oppression to be fundamental to ruling class efforts to discipline the working class, uphold the ideal of the nuclear family, and maintain a “flexible” surplus population. Socialist Action must advance our perspective to help build the biggest and broadest coalitions to fight against working class divisions, including a trans inclusive women’s movement, to unite workers with different experiences and ultimately build a movement that can overthrow the system of capitalist exploitation itself.
Gender and Identity
In Marxist understanding, a person’s existence is not grounded in an arbitrarily chosen personality but in material—that is, social—conditions. Our selves grow out of what is made available to us by the society in which we live at our moment in history. In a class society conditioned by gendered oppression, genders pre-exist the individuals who come to inhabit them, and gender roles are governed by the needs of the mode of production. Gender identity arises from the way in which individuals experience their society’s array of social and gender roles relative to their own specific experiences and their own unique psyches. Gender is complex.
Because of the variety of personal histories, real-life experiences, and individual attributes, gender identity can span a broad range. Cognitive, biological, social, and personal history all contribute to how people make sense of their self-experience and how they wish to be seen and to be interpreted by others.
In transitioning, many people feel they are not changing so much as affirming their gender; even as if they had previously been “passing” as the wrong gender and were only now properly aligned.
Socialists respect each person’s unique experience of self and their right to self-identify. Socialist Action supports the struggles of trans people for self-identification and for all people to be able to define their gender, without the intervention of physicians or requiring medical procedures. We will discuss this struggle more below.
Capitalist society exerts much pressure in controlling gender roles – along with its regulation of other social relations – to achieve the highest rate of profit and divide workers. Capitalism’s portrayals of race, nationality, religion, age, sex, class, sexual orientation, and gender are all subject to manipulation in order to preserve the economic order.
This is not static, however. Human beings are always in flux as we adapt to and make sense of the world. So, too, is the capitalist system itself ever-changing and adapting to the challenges to it from workers and its own contradictions and periodic crises. It is in this light that changes in gender roles can either be adaptive—that is, they can continue to preserve the capitalist economic status quo – or they can be revolutionary and show the way to greater diversity and human expression.
The resistance of Lesbians, Gay Men and Bisexuals to institutions and belief systems that oppress them illustrates such gains in diversity. Lesbians, Gay Men and Bisexuals have made major challenges to socially constructed gender norms and sex stereotyping to express their authentic experiences. In a world where little girls are bombarded with pink-clad Disney princesses and relegated to traditional women’s roles and monogamous, heterosexual marriages, young lesbians have chosen differently. They have resisted invisibility and become the authors of their own stories. For more on the issue of lesbian erasure see: https://socialistaction.org/2019/02/26/lesbophobia-past-and-present/
Capitalist society is confronted with a similar challenge from trans people who not only don’t fit neatly into gender roles but who, in the act of transitioning, present a challenge to the gender binary and the roles thereby prescribed in production and social reproduction under capitalism.
For socialists, liberation is not only about theory but is also about how people’s lives intersect with the world around them and how their experiences, reactions, and thoughts move them to actions that challenge that world.
Challenges being made by trans and non-binary people have broad implications about the direction in which society can move. However, the actual ability to alter society depends not on individual expression, but on the aims and the strength of the broadest mass movement that can be created.
The Struggle for Full Trans Inclusion Today
Two ground-breaking reports have provided much needed data that reveals the extent of mistreatment, harassment and violence that trans sexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming (non-binary) people suffer in virtually every area of their lives:
- Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011. (“NTDS”)
- The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equity. (“USTS”)
The first reports the findings of a 2008 survey of 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming people from all 50 states. The second builds on the first, with 27,715 respondents from all 50 states, plus US territories and overseas military bases completing surveys in the summer of 2015.
The treatment documented in these reports has given rise to resistance movements. Here we will examine a few areas of struggle in which Socialist Action is actively involved.
Fair Treatment at Work
Trans and gender non-conforming workers have endured profound discrimination and exploitation. Capitalist businesses and institutions exclude or erase these workers through discriminatory hiring practices, harassment, intimidation, misgendering, bullying, denial of access to bathrooms and other facilities, barriers to promotion, and legal action.
The National Transgender Discrimination Survey (“NTDS”, 2011) demonstrated that the experience of workplace abuse is nearly universal among transgender and gender non-conforming respondents:
Ninety percent (90%) of respondents said they had directly experienced harassment or mistreatment at work or felt forced to take protective actions that negatively impacted their careers or their well-being, such as hiding who they were, in order to avoid workplace repercussions. Mistreatment ranged from verbal harassment and breaches of confidentiality to physical and sexual assault, while bias-avoidant behaviors included hiding one’s gender, delaying transition, or staying in a job one would have preferred to leave. Given the broad spectrum of workplace abuse experienced by our study participants, their persistent engagement in the workforce speaks to a determination and resilience that goes largely unheralded in statistics and discourse about transgender and gender nonconforming people in the workplace. (NTDS, p.56)
In a majority of states, there are virtually no legal protections against discrimination except in workplaces covered by union contracts. Trans people are also one of the sectors of the working class most affected by austerity measures. In cut-backs, they are among the first to lose jobs and housing, and to see health, welfare, and other social services disappear.
Trans workers are cast into the margins: they either have precarious work or become part of the reserve labor army. The reserve labor pool is the population of unemployed or under-employed workers that capitalism maintains in order to back-fill its needs in times of high demand or of labor rebellion. They are forced into this status almost by definition and often experience long-term joblessness, poverty, and little support or hope of improvement.
Using the two different surveys, we can tell that the work situation for transgender people has shockingly worsened over the past decade. The initial surveys were completed before the economic crisis hit in October, 2008 while the second set of surveys were completed in the summer of 2015, 7 years later. During this time the unemployment rate for the population at large fell from 7% to 5% but the unemployment rate for transgender and gender non-conforming people went from 14% (double the rate of the population generally) to 15% (TRIPLE the rate of the overall population). Rates for transgender people of color are approximately FOUR TIMES that of the overall US population, which is deplorable and not improving.
In 2008, approximately 16% of respondents reported having to work in the criminalized economy at some point (selling drugs or doing sex work) to survive. By 2015 that number had risen to 20% of survey respondents (9% in the last 12 months prior to completing the survey). When the first survey was taken nearly HALF the respondents (47%) had experienced an “adverse job outcome” (being fired, not being hired, not being promoted) because of their gender identity or expression. By the second survey fully TWO THIRDS (67%) reported an “adverse job outcome” in the past year.
“The obstacles currently facing trans people in regards to employment are the most insidious. Without an income, one has absolutely NO voice, politically, economically or socially. Elimination of employment discrimination, above all else, is the keystone to fundamental transgender equality in America.” (NTDS, p. 56)
This discrimination undermines the position of all workers in relation to all capitalist employers. When rights and services to one sector of the class are denied, the welfare of all working people is diminished.
Access to Health Care
Everyone in the working class struggles with access to healthcare under a system controlled by profit making health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. But transsexuals and those identifying as transgender encounter more barriers and have many more challenges, which include the medical practitioners themselves.
For decades, those who had undergone “gender reassignment surgery” soon discovered that health insurance companies considered any health condition as a preexisting condition of their surgery. Therefore, since they didn’t cover the surgery, they insisted that any health need was pre-existing and not covered by insurance.
Today there are some unions and corporations that have forced health insurance providers to end all discrimination. But this covers only a small number of all workers.
This year the Department of Health and Human Services under President Trump announced plans to remove “Gender Identity” from the anti-discrimination language in the Affordable Care Act. This will again leave patients subject to discrimination in health care as well as health insurance coverage. This will undoubtedly mean that those identifying as transgender will suffer the pain of preventable, treatable physical conditions, as well as the emotional brutality of dealing with a medical system that just will not want to treat them.
The NTDS found that barriers to access health care for transgender and non-conforming individuals included harassment, violence and actual denial of service. Those barriers existed whether they were seeking preventive medicine, routine or emergency care or transgender related services. In addition, racial bias was a risk in every area of the study.
Nineteen percent of survey participants were refused care. Harassment in medical care settings was reported by 28% and 2% were actually victims of violence in a doctor’s office. Fifty percent reported that they had to teach their medical providers about transgender care and 41% reported that they had attempted suicide.
Socialists call for a working class movement that incorporates the needs, rights, and respectful treatment of all workers. Such a movement would not only demand reasonable access to bathrooms, appropriate health care, and workplace safety, but it would prioritize the hiring, promoting, and development of transgender people.
Where there are unions, they should be in the forefront of this work. Contracts must include language that prohibits discrimination, protects the full inclusion of trans people, and assures health care that includes the needs of transgender and transitioning employees.
Many countries in the world continue to deny transgender people their basic right to legal recognition of their gender, but unfortunate problems persist even where that right has been fought for and won. Most governments where gender recognition is possible, including the US, pathologize the state of being transgender, forcing trans people to go through a difficult process that makes their gender a question of medical inquiry. It is dehumanizing to have to get permission from the government to be who you are, yet there are only a few countries in the world where people may legally change gender with a mere statutory self-declaration.
Of the nearly 28,000 people who participated in the 2015 Transgender survey, only 11% reported that their preferred name and gender appear on ALL their documents, while more than two-thirds (68%) reported that NONE of their IDs had the name and gender they preferred. Nearly one third (32%) of respondents had experienced verbal harassment, denial of benefits or service, being asked to leave, or being assaulted when presenting an ID listing a name or gender that did not match their gender presentation (USTS, p.9). Socialist Action stands in solidarity with the current movement for self-identification in the UK, and movements for self-ID everywhere in the world.
It is important to note that trans and other LGTBQ immigrants face multiple layers of oppression, based on both their gender identity and second-class status as in the U.S. as immigrants. A striking example of this is shown in the recent story of a few dozen LGBTQ people who banded together while traveling through Mexico as part of a larger caravan of Central Americans traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border to apply for asylum. Many LGBTQ people face extreme oppression and violence (even murder) in Latin America, forcing them to flee to the U.S. for safety.
However, it was reported by multiple news outlets that LGBTQ members of the caravan felt the need to band together, forming their own “caravan within a caravan” for safety reasons. Many other members of the caravan (mostly males) were constantly harassing, heckling and threatening them. This progressed to the point that human rights workers assigned a special security detail to travel with the group in order to provide protection from the ongoing attacks. It was also reported that the LGBTQ migrants faced additional problems with accessing bathrooms along the route, and were less likely to hitch much-needed rides along the way.
Once in the U.S., however, trans immigrants still face almost insurmountable barriers when seeking asylum. In order to qualify for asylum protection, the burden of proof is on them to prove that they have been a victim of persecution in their home countries because of their transgender identity. Furthermore, these already vulnerable immigrants face continued discrimination once in the United States. The NTDS survey found that “Seven percent (7%) of our sample reported being physically assaulted at work because of being transgender or gender non-conforming. Undocumented noncitizens in our sample reported the highest rates of physical assault at 25%, over three times the rate of the overall sample.” It’s easy to see that trans and other LGBTQ immigrants continue to face multiple barriers as they flee to the U.S. to seek a better life.
From Theory to Action
When an oppressed group asserts its true experience, it refutes the ideology of the ruling class. Instead of reinforcing the version of reality that advances the interests of capitalist production, it expresses the genuine human and material history of our own class. This advances the consciousness of our entire class. Awareness of one’s oppression, however, is not enough to attain liberation.
Understanding theory and the history of social movements and struggles is incredibly important, but as socialists, we also understand the need to engage in concrete action. While Socialist Action supports the right of every person to express their own identity, including their gender identity, freedom of expression does not in itself lead to an analysis and strategy for liberation from the system.
The rejection of gender stereotypes and the radical reframing of discourse are important steps that create the basis of independent consciousness but they will not, by themselves, result in significant material change. For that, we need a movement that can contest capitalist power. Organization, agitation, solidarity, and independent political action are the tools necessary to creating a movement powerful enough to triumph over capitalist oppression.
A Revolutionary Socialist Critique of Identity Politics
Identity politics is a popular theory today that hinges on the basic right of everyone to hold and express their own individual identity however they choose. People are encouraged to use gender pronouns based on personal choice, and respect everyone’s right to live a genuine and authentic life.
While it’s very important to respect everyone’s right to express who they are in the way that makes them feel most comfortable, what identity politics refuses to recognize is that the cause of the oppression is capitalism’s exploitation of the vast majority of us as workers. And while most members of oppressed groups are overwhelmingly working class, it is also important to recognize that just belonging to a particular group or “identity” does not mean everyone in that group shares common interests. There may also be opposed class interests at play.
Solely focusing on identity politics and leaving a working class analysis of class politics to the side can often derail social movements. Instead of focusing on their common exploitation by the capitalist class, this approach can lead to an internal focus, as groups debate who is the “most oppressed” or “privileged.” Identify politics can also lead to a feeling of extreme possessiveness: “this is our issue and only we can talk about it.”
Instead, revolutionary socialists seek to build inclusive united front movements that seek to involve the broadest range of groups possible. Strong movements based on working class solidarity can work together to build effective mass movements that challenge capitalist power in the streets. In such a movement, each member is free to identify and express themselves as who they are. At the same time, they are united with other members not based on individual beliefs, but on a shared agreement to work on a common cause, even if they may disagree with other coalition members on a different issue.
Socialist Action works to build these effective united front-type movements around women’s, trans, and gay and lesbian issues.
No Platforming, Harassment, Threats, and Cyber Bullying
The right of women to meet and discuss the wide variety of issues around sex and gender has been attacked by a sector of the trans movement that uses intimidation to silence those with whom it disagrees. Methods of harassment include cyber bullying, physical assaults, and censorship.
- Rejection of “No Platforming”
The practice called “no platforming” is used to effectively gag those with opposing views. People are prohibited — often by means of violence or threats of violence — from holding meetings and speaking. This has occurred even at events that have nothing to do with trans issues.
Extremists threaten disruptions in universities and libraries where women are planning meetings and discussions. They attempt to get any speakers at the meetings fired from their jobs. When such meetings do take place, extremists disrupt them by blocking entrances, storming the platforms, or calling in bomb threats. In cases where they cannot gain entrance they terrorize participants by screaming at them as they enter and exit. Cyber Bullying on social media includes: “Punch a TERF,” “Lynch a TERF,” “Stab a TERF,” “Rape a TERF.”
This incitement to violence against women has become pervasive and must be condemned. These tactics are all too familiar to women who have suffered trauma and have been victims of violence.
- Gender Critical Positions
Within the women’s movement, some feminists have expressed reservations about the inclusion of trans women. Debates have centered on the inclusion of trans women in women’s spaces and in legislation created to protect women from discrimination, protections that trans women had not previously been allowed to access.
- The Acronym TERF
The term “trans exclusionary radical feminist” was originally used in 2008 to distinguish those radical feminists who wished to exclude trans women from women’s spaces from those who did not. This term is not used by radical feminists to identify themselves nor is it the name of any group.
Since the time of its original coinage, the term, in its shortened form of “TERF,” has come to be used more broadly as an epithet against anyone presumed not to whole-heartedly support trans inclusion. Individuals are branded “TERFs” and vilified in person, in social media, and at public events, regardless of their specific beliefs or whether they are in any way affiliated with radical feminism.
- Opposition to Violence in the Movement
Socialist Action condemns any and all violence in the workers’ movement. We likewise reject the use of “TERF,” a term that clarifies nothing and only serves to divide the movement and to prohibit constructive debate.
While Socialist Action does not agree with the radical feminist position, we support all women’s right to meet, discuss, and exchange ideas – without being no platformed, threatened, harassed and bullied.
Trans Liberation and Women’s Liberation: Same Fight
The traditional binary hierarchy of capitalist gender roles is designed to maintain property relations and a division of labor that benefits the owning class. This structure relegates women to a secondary status, devalues their social role and their labor, and curtails their legal rights and self-agency. In short, the systems of oppression resisted by the Women’s Movement and those fought by the Trans Movement have the same origin.
The struggle of the Women’s Movement has been to free women from this oppressive legacy. In that battle, women have fought for equal representation, recognition, access, compensation, and opportunity. Simultaneously, we have fought for health care, bodily autonomy, freedom of sexual expression and orientation, safety, and social justice. At the Trump inaugural protests, which drew five million into the streets, full affirmation of transgender rights were included in the overall demands for women’s rights. This solidarity marked a great advance in the struggle for equal rights for all.
Cis women have nothing to gain by excluding trans and non-binary women from the women’s movement. Trans women can be oppressed by the same systems that oppress cis gendered women and they can be victims of the same violence. To exclude trans women, in fact, contradicts our aims. It gives credibility the gender hierarchy that we are trying to destroy. Instead, we must join together.
Cis women and trans women face the same oppression and have common cause. They are not only natural allies but their goals overlap. The Women’s Movement is strengthened by our unity.
Capitalist rulers understand the inter-dependence of social forces and eye resistance in one sector as a potential inspiration to other oppressed sectors and as a potential threat to its overall control. Consequently, they foster antagonisms between sectors and discourage solidarity.
We must have the opposite intention, seeking to build solidarity across the barriers of race, sex, gender, sexuality, age, and nationality that have been created by the ruling class to separate and divide us.
“Like racism and all forms of prejudice, bigotry against transgender people is a deadly carcinogen. [As workers] we are pitted against each other in order to keep us from seeing each other as allies. Genuine bonds of solidarity can be forged between people who respect each other’s differences and are willing to fight their enemy together. We are the class that does the work of the world, and can revolutionize it. We can win true liberation.” (Leslie Feinberg, “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come”)
It is revolutionary socialist consciousness and the united participation of all oppressed sectors that will take us from symbolic and fragmented forms of resistance to acts of genuine transformation.
Socialist Action pledges full support to and respect for transgender and non-binary people’s fundamental right to self-identify and for their full, unequivocal inclusion in every aspect of society. We are committed to building the biggest and broadest coalitions to fight against working class divisions, including a trans- inclusive women’s movement, to unite workers with different experiences and build a movement that can overthrow the system of capitalist exploitation itself.