Why and how trans people exist, work and struggle

Submitted by AWL on 24 October, 2021 - 8:49 Author: Zack Muddle
Trans rights protest

Review of Transgender Marxism by Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke (Pluto Press, 2021).


Marxism offers many tools necessary for any radical fight for trans liberation to succeed — but the theoretical basis for this is rarely fleshed out. Transgender Marxism collects several insightful articles and threads on topics of particular interest for transgender people and activists, using broadly Marxist perspectives. As a collection, it is less a coherent whole, more a sometimes contradictory canapé selection. Yet it is one of the first books attempting to approach this issue from an openly Marxist analytical perspective. I touch on some of the themes below.

Why are there trans people?

In his essay, Noah Zazanis focuses on agency, using “social cognitive theory” (SCT). SCT accounts for psychological, social, and systemic influences on gender. These influences can compete, and gender develops over a whole lifetime, rather than being either innate, as in some theories, or developing predominantly in early childhood, as in others. This allows both more fluidity and greater agency. By this account “processes of gender identity construction rely on a reciprocal relationship between personal, behavioural, and environmental factors.”

The degree of restriction in a given society influences the relative importance of these three factors: in rigidly gendered societies, environmental factors are more important, personal factors less so. But individuals, to varying extents, make choices and play a part in constructing their social environments. SCT sets out three types of “environmental influence”: “modelling” — passive observation of appropriately gendered behaviour via media and the like; “enactive experience” — where individuals engage in gendered behaviour and adjust it according to their perception of others’ reactions; and “direct tuition”— explicit instructions for appropriate gender conduct.

This seems more sophisticated than most alternative theories, allowing room for agency — including agency for cis, as well as trans and non-binary readers: “Early-life punishment for gender nonconformity is often regarded as a characteristically trans experience. In reality, however, not only do cis people share similar enacted experiences, but successful discouragement from gender transgression constitutes much of the cisgender phenomenon.”

Zazanis also delves deeper into the process of transition, when individuals subconsciously or consciously seek groups or communities of trans people, who — via the modes SCT sets out — help to reproduce and model different types of trans identity. Some pro-trans activists may consider this point taboo, as it sounds like anti-trans scare-mongering that transgenderism is “contagious”, or spreading “trans ideology”. But if transgenderism is contagious, that’s fine!

We want a world where individuals are more supported in transitioning, with more happy and diverse trans (and non-binary) people that can be positive and empowering models. Likely, more people would transition, or experiment with transitioning — who may in different societies have embraced cisgender identies. To me, that sounds like a more interesting society, allowing a flowering of individuality, creativity, and personal agency.

Similar themes crop up elsewhere in this volume. In her essay, Anja Heisler Weiser Flower flits from an interesting-but-wrong left-communist exposition of the modern world to spiritual nonsense, from quite extreme identity politics to a transhumanist and cosmological futurism. But hidden under the chaff is a thought-provoking argument that “gender/sex” is a “real abstraction”, analogous to although not a direct parallel to “value”.

“Value” is the socially necessary abstract labour embodied in a commodity, according to a Marxist analysis of capitalism. This is an abstract way of understanding commodities, and their exchange which value (via exchange value and price) mediates. Most people do not consciously think about “value”, and yet, they think and act on the basis of it. You may critique capitalism, but you still need to use money to buy commodities, and will in accordance with their price, and thereby value. Contemplating gender/sex in analogous terms is at least thought provoking.

Work, labour and class struggle

In her chapter, Michelle O’Brien looks at trans people’s experiences and struggles at work. Trans and queer people, O’Brien notes, are disproportionately found in certain types of occupation. This isn’t surprising in a USA where the majority of employers can openly fire someone for being trans. Or indeed in the UK, where one in three employees admitted in 2018 that they would be “less likely” to hire a trans person — despite such discrimination being illegal here!

Trans and queer people thus often find themselves working in sex toy retail; or for LGBTIQ or HIV charities and NGOs. O’Brien documents class struggle within these workplaces, often between trans/queer workers and their trans/queer bosses.

This provides a much-needed antidote to liberal and identitarian fetishisation of LGBT+ “communities”, often portrayed as homogeneous, or at least harmonious. As socialists we should aim, to some extent, to divide communities on class lines, and to demarcate them on political lines — and build radical, working-class campaigns on LGBTIQ issues.

Different class divisions appear among sex workers (who are disproportionately trans). Sex workers who meet clients online tended to be more middle class, and more able to keep themselves safe — compared to sex workers who meet clients in person. There needn’t necessarily be an antagonism here between more and less deprived sections of the working-class (and petty-bourgeois). But the reality O’Brien sketches calls for more nuance than some approach this subject with.

Class backgrounds also impact people’s transitions. Some working-class Black or Latinx trans/queer communities and cultural scenes provide limited forms of protection from or resistance to extreme poverty and state violence. They also “support many young transfeminine people to come out and transition much earlier in life than many of their middle-class and white counterparts.” Conversely, some middle class people fear transitioning as a threat to their middle-class status, where they may become forced into retail, sex work, or other culturally and economically “working-class” jobs.

O’Brien’s contribution helps flesh out the interrelations — in individuals’ experiences at least — between class and trans oppression. It recentres class-struggle, and makes clear that gender regulation at work, as in families, is a major feature of bourgeois class rule.

Kate Doyle Griffiths builds on the writings of Kim Moody, and of Beverly Silver, arguing that waged social reproduction — education and healthcare — are strategically crucial for workplace organising.

Griffiths argues that “the skills to manage trans and queer existence on a social level lend themselves to exploitation as skilled labour in the sphere of social reproduction and hospitality… in which it is more difficult to be comfortably out.” For example, she refers to "code-switching", whereby queer and trans people learn to change their behaviour in reponse to the ancitipated reactions of others, masking and managing our own feelings to do so. She hypothesises “that queer and trans workers [are] vastly over-represented in the work of paid social reproduction”. On the face of this, this is in tension with O’Brien’s view that trans people are generally found in tech, sex work and third sector roles. Griffith’s does not seem to offer statistical evidence for her claims, and I could not find evidence which either supports or undermines it. It’s a hypothesis worth exploring further.

One shortcoming of this book is a failure to put the contributors in dialogue with each other. Inadequately serious commitment by the editors to open debate is exposed, for example, in the introduction. The editors attempt to construct a coherent thread running through all the essays in the book, papering over ways in which they clearly disagree, contradict each other, or use the same terms with completely divergent meanings (such as “trans social reproduction”). This makes for a disorientating introduction and a missed opportunity to clarify perspectives.

More convincingly, Griffiths argues that fights over healthcare access by queer and trans people, far from a distraction from a universalist class politics, adds an empowering dimension and driving force to this fight. Her exposition of the links between LGBTIQ activists and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa is interesting, if not sufficiently emphasising the role of workers’ organising in that struggle.

The most Trotskyist author, Virginia Guitzel, gives an interesting exposition of the fight over trans rights in Brazil. The volume as a whole would do better with wider consideration of trans struggles around the world, beyond the Anglosphere and beyond Christianity-dominated countries and cultures.

Trans experiences

While JN Hoad, Zoe Belinsky, and Nathaniel Dickson all give interesting insights on the trans experience, I found Belinsky’s chapter, ‘Transgender and Disabled Bodies: Between Pain and the Imaginary’, the most thought-provoking.

“Phenomenology” studies structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. It studies the structures of experiences including thought, perception, imagination, memory, desire, emotion, volition, embodied action, bodily awareness, and social activity. Its insights have contributed towards many areas of philosophy and psychology.

One component of these structures is “intentionality”, the way an experience can be “directed” towards things in the world: mental states can be “of”, “about”, or “represent” properties, things, or states of affairs.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a Marxist phenomenologist, building on experimental psychology and developing a phenomenology that emphasises the body and embodiment. For Merleau-Ponty, the body’s relationship with space is intentional, an “I can” rather than an “I think”; so that the body is not “in” space but lives or inhabits it.

Belinsky takes Merleau-Ponty as a starting point for developing a further phenomenology, particularly around labour, and with that phenomenology an understanding of trans and disabled experiences (experiences in which the body clearly plays an importantly different role compared to those of cis and/or able-bodied people).

Belinsky replaces “I can” with “I cannot”: an awareness and experience of the world through our limitations. We are, Berlinksy argues, stimulated to work by pain, or to avoid pain. We use the imagination to work. We create plans in our mind, and realise them concretely through conscious physical labour, and so move from “I cannot” to “I can”. In doing so, we overcome pain, and create the means to alleviate pain in the future.

I feel hungry, so I imagine going to the kitchen, preparing a meal from ingredients there, then eating it; I then act upon that plan. I wish to not feel hungry in the future, so I engage in waged work, earn money, buy food with that money, and restock my kitchen.

Reproducing ourselves, our ability to work, our labour-power — the movement from the “I cannot” to the “I can” — is mediated by the capitalist mode of production. It requires us to sell our labour-power to capitalists, to work using means of production that they own, producing products that they will own, and then giving our wages back to them in exchange for the necessities of existence that our class produced.

Our labour — working under bosses for another’s private profit — is alienated. We feel a disconnect from the experience of using labour, via imagination, to overcome pain. The positive aspects of labour, and the aspects which create the conditions of possibility of experiences, are largely obscured. The theft of our labour-power, and of the means of us recreating it, are also obscured.

[T]he transition to ‘I can’ is actually the product of conscious human labour — it is not a bare fact of life but must be created through physical toil. This labour — creating human beings in a fit condition to enter the market and exchange their labours for money wages — cannot be assumed in advance, but is the work of social reproduction. Clothing, feeding, cleaning, resting. In short, the whole ensemble of relations and actions that go into reproducing ourselves. This is the unwaged labour by which labourers arrive as ready made products on the labour market — with the ‘I can’ in tow. In other words, workers are expected to appear at their workplaces with their capacities fully intact. I contend that a process of capacitation is required before the ‘I can’ is achieved, that this is fundamentally a product of socially reproductive labour. Trans and disabled people, in particular, struggle with this aspect of social reproduction.

As such, the “I cannot” looms larger for trans and disabled people, as society creates “debilitating” conditions for them. Belinsky builds upon “social reproduction theory” and upon a “social theory of disability”.

As states increasingly strip away social welfare programmes, this hits groups such as trans and disabled people hardest.

This stripping process constitutes part of a generalised crisis of care as capital appropriates more and more of workers’ waking hours for surplus-value extraction and incorporates more and more women into the workforce, making them less available to carry out the unwaged labour of social reproduction. This crisis of care makes the reproduction of the proletariat one of contemporary capitalism’s central contradictions. On the one hand, the bourgeoisie needs the proletariat to continue to exist in order for the process of capital accumulation to continue; on the other hand, the bourgeoisie and its representatives in the form of the state are increasingly unconcerned with the reproduction of the working class, the proletariat, to the extent that they undermine the capacities of the proletariat to reproduce itself.

Trans people become “debilitated” through being deprived of a socially recognised identity. They face misgendering, mistreatment, harassment, assault; and firing, exclusion, limited social validation. Trans people’s oppression has direct material as well as ideological and psychological impacts. This has profound impacts on their phenomenological capacities and world, and relationship to labour.

The focus on pain (neglecting pursuit of pleasure) in this chapter is one sided, and Belinksy overstates the revolutionary potential of her insights. Nonetheless, the chapter builds its insights usefully on Merleau-Ponty. As revolutionary socialists, we are primarily concerned with changing the world. Yet understanding our experiences is the starting point for many in working out if and how to do so. A more rigorous phenomenology, centred on empowerment and a Marxist analysis of society, can help.

Transgender Marxism is hit and miss. Some chapters probably aren’t worth reading, others are worth reading and re-reading. It does not build a truly radical and liberating, class-struggle activist and critically theoretical, anti-Stalinist and revolutionary internationalist Marxist approach to trans politics. Such an approach is possible and is needed. But valuable ideas about why and how trans people exist and relate to class-struggle can push us in that direction.

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