Transition and Abolition: Notes on Marxism and Trans Politics

Das ewig Weib­liche II by Han­nah Höch

The con­di­tion of trans women in soci­ety is entire­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry, yet in exist­ing Marx­ist gen­der the­o­ry we are large­ly absent.

At present, trans women live against much of the weight placed by soci­ety. Trans women still serve as a punch­line by our very men­tion in pop­u­lar cul­ture. Yet “Trans women are women” is no longer a mere slo­gan, but a lived truth: accep­tance has been found by trans women as friends, com­rades, col­leagues, lovers. 

This process has been unsteady. In many cas­es, trans women are oblig­ed to live a life with vary­ing terms of address and choice of attire and per­sona from cir­cle to cir­cle. One woman might live out her cho­sen gen­der around friends but not their fam­i­ly, or be ful­ly “out” to both friends and fam­i­ly but remain (to best appear­ances) a man at her work­place. Some women are known to be a trans­gen­der by almost no one around them, includ­ing close friends and all work col­leagues; with the rel­a­tive degree of safe­ty this affords con­tin­gent on con­tin­u­al secre­cy, and tac­it omis­sion. Oth­ers describe them­selves as some­thing oth­er than women to con­fi­dants, but sim­pli­fy metic­u­lous­ly when in pub­lic (any devi­a­tion from a tidy dyad being wide­ly seen as inscrutable, dele­git­imiz­ing). Inevitably, even the tidi­est of adult tran­si­tions require a split between an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in active use, and one only remem­bered. Overt tran­si­tion can fol­low months or years of one’s inti­mate friends know­ing bet­ter than one’s work­place, and fam­i­ly.

While equiv­a­lent to the “clos­et” as pre­vi­ous­ly well-cov­ered in writ­ings around gay cul­ture (a state which can be lived in, sti­fling­ly, or exit­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly), this shift­ing of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion can cause even more dis­so­nance. Once the ques­tion of legal iden­ti­ty is intro­duced things get yet more com­pli­cat­ed: con­flict­ing bureau­crat­ic stan­dards across the British state mean that a trans woman with a “female” marked pass­port and bank account might be impris­oned in a male jail for lack­ing a “gen­der recog­ni­tion cer­tifi­cate” (a process requir­ing hir­ing a lawyer to make the case for one’s authen­tic wom­an­hood in front of a com­mit­tee, among oth­er expens­es and degra­da­tions).

This con­flict­ed state can not be mean­ing­ful­ly denied, and serves as an ambigu­ous social­i­ty which trans women are oblig­ed to nego­ti­ate dai­ly. Efforts to fab­ri­cate a new activist “com­mon sense” will always reach their lim­its in the face of wide­spread denial of trans women’s claims to wom­an­hood. Nei­ther a legal­is­tic nor reform mind­ed approach can achieve full trans eman­ci­pa­tion. The intense suf­fer­ing faced by trans women does not find its ori­gins in civic dis­em­pow­er­ment or social “illeg­i­bil­i­ty” alone, but also their very exis­tence in the face of pow­er­ful con­ven­tion­al under­stand­ings of sexed bod­ies. From the crud­est play­ground taunts to the most con­vo­lut­ed break­throughs in Evo­lu­tion­ary Psy­chol­o­gy, a firm foun­da­tion of ide­o­log­i­cal rejec­tion stands between trans women and mun­dane accep­tance of us as women. Our exis­tence alone is unset­tling for many, and this is a fact to be grasped, and worked with. It leaves us on the out­side.

Sys­temic exclu­sion from hous­ing and work, the threat of sex­u­al vio­lence, and phys­i­cal aggres­sion in house­hold and on the street, will all con­tin­ue to con­fine and cut short the lives of trans women. These con­di­tions demand a con­cert­ed polit­i­cal response from com­mu­nists.

Marxism’s unique poten­tial for appre­ci­at­ing, and improv­ing, the place of trans women’s posi­tion in soci­ety is its readi­ness to ana­lyze con­tra­dic­tions. Trans women have often not been includ­ed in Marx­ist gen­der the­o­riza­tion and fem­i­nist mate­ri­al­ism. But the mutu­al ben­e­fit seems clear: with­out under­stand­ing our par­tic­u­lar plight, only a blunt­ed and par­tial view of gen­der is pos­si­ble. And with­out a sys­temic view of gen­der, polit­i­cal solu­tions to that plight will be equal­ly lim­it­ed.

Only through Marx­ism, and com­mu­nist pol­i­tics, can our cur­rent con­di­tions be not only lament­ed, or “cri­tiqued,” but abol­ished. This essay will exam­ine why the so-called “Trans­gen­der Moment” occurred at all, crit­i­cal­ly con­sid­er the devel­op­ments in con­scious­ness, and ges­ture towards what com­mu­nist the­o­ry – and only com­mu­nist the­o­ry – can offer those com­mit­ted to rev­o­lu­tion­ary gen­der pol­i­tics.

I. The “Moment,” and its Lim­its

This decade has already seen a dizzy­ing series of shifts for trans women, with a strik­ing increase of both wide­spread accep­tance, and mur­der­ous back­lash.

The much-vaunt­ed “trans­gen­der moment” is a sig­nif­i­cant cul­tur­al break­through, by any mea­sure. Trans women are enjoy­ing a new­found pop­u­lar­i­ty, able to speak in our own voice like nev­er before. Two of the high­est pro­file trans peo­ple in the Unit­ed States Lav­erne Cox and Janet Mock are black women who have spo­ken and writ­ten cogent­ly about their expe­ri­ences tran­si­tion­ing and pol­i­tics of sol­i­dar­i­ty. Each are in high demand for talk shows, think piece quotes, pan­el dis­cus­sions with pop­u­lar thinkers, offi­cial open­ings, and the rest. Yet an onward march of trans accep­tance can not be assumed safe­ly: black and trans women of col­or in the US are being mur­dered in increas­ing num­bers.

Vio­lence of this kind hap­pens across the US, and is most­ly ad hoc: often tar­get­ing street work­ers, or tak­ing place with­in inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships. Evi­dence from coun­tries where tran­si­tion has become more pop­u­lar­ly known is not encour­ag­ing. Each year the names read out at inter­na­tion­al “Trans Day of Remem­brance” events are dom­i­nat­ed by Brazil­ian women, with 144 killed through­out 2016. (As with cis­gen­dered women, sex work­ers are espe­cial­ly at risk.) This March, espe­cial­ly shock­ing footage of a 42 year old trans woman’s tor­ture and mur­der was uploaded and wide­ly viewed on social media.1 Much the same holds true out­side the Amer­i­c­as. As trans pol­i­tics has flour­ished around the world, vio­lent reprisals have often been fol­lowed. Less than a year after Aus­tri­an gen­derqueer per­former Con­chi­ta Wurst’s Euro­vi­sion vic­to­ry, a trans­gen­der refugee was found mur­dered in Vien­na. (I moved to the city a few months lat­er).2 Last August, a Turk­ish trans woman who had famous­ly been involved resist­ing the police efforts to dis­rupt Istan­bul Pride, Hande Kad­er, was found dead and burnt in a for­est.

Raewyn Con­nell, one of the first trans women to enjoy a suc­cess­ful career in acad­e­mia, has referred to a soci­ety as his­tor­i­cal­ly estab­lish­ing a “gen­der order.” Increas­ing trans con­scious­ness has already thor­ough­ly unset­tled this order, with often mur­der­ous respons­es from those invest­ed in it.

While those already fac­ing down pover­ty, racism, and dis­abil­i­ties are at great­est risk from these gen­der reprisals, all trans women live endan­gered lives, and have a shared con­di­tion of oppres­sion. None of us have lived lives free from fear of imme­di­ate harm from the men they encounter, not to men­tion depri­va­tion and incom­pre­hen­sion from soci­ety as a whole. Tran­si­tions any­where in the world accom­pa­nied with high rates of severe men­tal health issues, co-mor­bid with risk­ing rejec­tion by fam­i­ly and peers, loss of work, and iso­la­tion. Sui­cide is a com­mon­place for trans women through­out the world.Trans women are 49 times more like­ly to con­tract HIV than the US gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, while spe­cif­ic sup­port or pre­ven­tion for trans women remains rare.3 In short, trans women world­wide faced a shared stig­ma which we do not always sur­vive.

While per­haps shock­ing in some lights, these grim devel­op­ments have been recit­ed many times over for those famil­iar with the polit­i­cal ten­den­cy known as “trans activism.” Rep­e­ti­tion of these dire con­di­tions is rarely accom­pa­nied by any pro­posed solu­tion. As such, both our prospects for eman­ci­pa­tion, and the means such a move­ment would require, remain quite unclear.

The right, by con­trast, have a clear view and strat­e­gy of how to keep hatred of trans women at its cur­rent inten­si­ty. In recent years, to these on-going acts of dis­ci­pli­nary vio­lence, and steady grind of “struc­tur­al” nega­tion and psy­cho­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion (which nor­mal­ly plays out pri­vate­ly), right-wing polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion against the eman­ci­pa­tion of trans women has become an earnest focus.

In the Unit­ed States, the right wing of cap­i­tal, rep­re­sent­ed by the Repub­li­can Par­ty, and a range of “pro-fam­i­ly” NGOs, have turned their focus towards trans women, now that their pri­or hopes of out­law­ing gay mar­riage state by state were void­ed by the Supreme Court’s 2015 deci­sion con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly pro­tect­ing it. In the process of the crim­i­nal­iza­tion itself, media cam­paigns cast trans women as sex­u­al preda­tors, draw­ing on a wealth of relat­ed cul­tur­al tropes. In the Unit­ed States, “Bath­room Bills” out­law­ing trans­gen­der indi­vid­u­als using pub­lic toi­lets of the appro­pri­ate gen­der are spread­ing state-by-state, so far enact­ed in North Car­oli­na. (The offend­ing bill, HBII, also restrict­ed munic­i­pal­i­ties from intro­duc­ing reg­u­la­tions such as min­i­mum wages or child labor restric­tions, mak­ing it some­thing of a reac­tionar­ies’ bonan­za.) Last year, a pro­posed mea­sure in Ten­nessee was defeat­ed after a let­ter from exec­u­tives was sent to leg­is­la­tors warn­ing the mea­sure would be “bad for our employ­ees and bad for busi­ness.”4 Telling­ly, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence tac­it­ly framed the “bath­room bills” as a mat­ter of states rights. Mean­while, across Europe, tra­di­tion­al­ist groups are orga­niz­ing var­ied efforts under the pre­text of oppo­si­tion to “gen­der ide­ol­o­gy.”5 Oppo­si­tion to “gen­der ide­ol­o­gy” includes efforts to keep gay mar­riage out­lawed (as in the failed Slo­va­kian 2015 con­sti­tu­tion­al ref­er­en­dum, or the large protests orga­nized by French neo-fas­cist group Généra­tion Iden­ti­taire), while also pur­su­ing the dele­git­imiza­tion of trans peo­ple.

II. Trans Women’s Com­mu­ni­ties & Social Repro­duc­tion

And yet, despite the vio­lence, more and more trans women are find­ing accep­tance and recog­ni­tion by those around them. How has this hap­pened, in the face of wide­spread dis­par­age­ment and oppres­sion? While appar­ent­ly spon­ta­neous to those out­side trans com­mu­ni­ties, a pro­lif­er­a­tion of ded­i­cat­ed orga­ni­za­tion and labor has gone into trans women’s spo­radic suc­cess in liv­ing and sur­viv­ing open­ly.

Beneath the “moment” there is a churn of activ­i­ty, large­ly invis­i­ble to those it not does serve, but active­ly con­tribut­ing to and pro­gres­sive­ly nur­tur­ing trans con­scious­ness.

Trans women have been encour­aged to live their wom­an­hood open­ly through net­works of mutu­al sup­port and sol­i­dar­i­ty, which have expand­ed and strength­ened sig­nif­i­cant­ly in recent years. Such net­works have been con­sti­tut­ed both online and IRL. These devel­op­ments form the basis for the cur­rent surge of “vis­i­bil­i­ty,” but reach their lim­it in that they serve only to sup­plant the work usu­al­ly done by the het­ero­sex­u­al fam­i­ly, and not to replace it. The suc­cess­ful oper­a­tion of these large­ly unac­knowl­edged net­works is the basis for an untold num­ber of trans women reach­ing the nec­es­sary state of edu­ca­tion, con­fi­dence and con­scious­ness to live open­ly. This increas­ing­ly com­mon­place devel­op­ment (a tra­jec­to­ry of con­fu­sion lead­ing through to clar­i­ty, and then action) has as its sec­ondary con­se­quence the star­tling lev­els of vio­lence in back­lash against it. 

Tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments have con­tributed to these shifts as well. Much of the hor­mon­al treat­ments now avail­able to trans women, have been used by cis women for decades as fer­til­i­ty con­trol. Arti­fi­cial estro­gen is used in both arti­fi­cial birth con­trol, and so-called “Male to Female” (MtF) tran­si­tion. Prog­es­terone, used in con­tra­cep­tives for its mim­ic­k­ing of the preg­nant state, is also used by trans women for its desir­able impact on fat dis­tri­b­u­tion, pre­vent­ing hair loss, and skin soft­ness. Of course, the rela­tion­ship of bio­log­i­cal research to eman­ci­pa­to­ry goals is nev­er auto­mat­ic. Sci­en­tif­ic devel­op­ments alone will not pro­duce a polit­i­cal break­through. While some move­ment towards trans eman­ci­pa­tion is clear­ly under­way, it is on the basis of active efforts by trans women to sub­jec­tive­ly advan­tage them­selves via objec­tive break­throughs, from endocrine the­o­ry to the inter­net.

It’s not with­out a tinge of irony that the same nat­ur­al sci­en­tif­ic foun­da­tion wide­ly attrib­uted to defin­ing Sec­ond Wave Fem­i­nism should be under­stood as one of the under­ly­ing foun­da­tions for con­tem­po­rary trans fem­i­nism (although, of course, many indi­vid­ual trans women may not have access to hor­mone treat­ment, or opt against it for what­ev­er rea­son). Most oppo­nents of women using birth con­trol are equal­ly hos­tile to trans women treat­ing them­selves with estro­gen (or, indeed, exist­ing at all). The dis­cov­ery of the endocrine sys­tem (and prac­tices fol­low­ing from it) implic­it­ly threat­ened the nat­u­ral­iza­tion of sex, in a way which reac­tionar­ies see as demand­ing a polit­i­cal response: con­tain­ment or rever­sal.

Recent devel­op­ments in the prospects and “vis­i­bil­i­ty” of trans women have occurred through work cir­cu­lat­ing and devel­op­ing the exist­ing resources and knowl­edge con­cern­ing the trans­gen­der con­di­tion. These were built up across decades through arrange­ments rang­ing from LGBT social cen­ters to the ball scene’s Hous­es, net­works of trans sex work­ers (both man­i­fold infor­mal group­ings and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions such as New York City’s Street Trans­ves­tite Action Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies), youth groups, sup­port groups, and the “queen hotels” of Ten­der­loin, San Fran­cis­co.6

In oth­er words, orga­ni­za­tion of var­i­ous kinds has been required for mutu­al sup­port and pro­tec­tion by trans peo­ple intent on sur­vival. This activ­i­ty formed the basis of sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of trans peo­ple (once more like­ly to call them­selves trans­ves­tites or drag queens, now increas­ing­ly although not exclu­sive­ly trans women), who have now become the cul­tur­al focus of the so-called “trans­gen­der moment”. 

Just as the work of these ear­li­er groups is nec­es­sary for under­stand­ing the con­text around his­toric events like the anti-police Comp­ton Cafe­te­ria Riot of 1966 and Stonewall Riot of 1969, the seem­ing­ly spon­ta­neous resur­gence of trans pol­i­tics in the 2010s fol­lows from the cease­less social repro­duc­tive work trans women have com­mit­ted to estab­lish­ing their own new gen­der order. Trans women, like drag queens and trans­ves­tites before them, have not come from nowhere. Indeed, an enor­mous amount of labor is required to bring each of us into being, and to keep us alive. Appre­ci­at­ing this on-going work is vital for both under­stand­ing the source of the cur­rent his­toric shifts under­way, and grasp­ing their poten­tial. Trans social repro­duc­tion is not rev­o­lu­tion­ary in itself, but it ensures there are those alive who owe this to net­works of sol­i­dar­i­ty and sup­port, rather than the con­ven­tion­al gen­der order. It is for this rea­son that trans women have always, and will con­tin­ue to, play such a promi­nent role in the lead­er­ship of LGBT strug­gles. What­ev­er the lim­its implic­it in the pol­i­tics of sur­vival, sur­vival itself is a pred­i­cate of rev­o­lu­tion­ary action.

Mass access to inter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tion has rapid­ly advanced the prospects for trans women, end­ing a pri­or iso­la­tion which had denied many access to the infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ties they need­ed to safe­ly tran­si­tion. These autonomous group­ings of trans peo­ple have devel­oped rapid­ly in recent years, devel­op­ing a con­sid­er­able body of in-jokes. 

This is just one expres­sion of the increas­ing­ly artic­u­lat­ed scene of trans cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, where research, fic­tion, and games have been added to auto­bi­og­ra­phy as ful­ly elab­o­rat­ed medi­ums for cul­tur­al expres­sion and mutu­al devel­op­ment on the part of trans women. Take for instance Cristin Williams’ revi­sion­ist account of the women’s move­ment for the TransAd­vo­cate (empha­sis­ing the role trans women played through­out “Sec­ond Wave” fem­i­nism), or Mor­gan M. Page’s “One From the Vaults” pod­cast, which explores the his­tor­i­cal evi­dence of North Amer­i­can (and New Zealand) trans lives across the 20th cen­tu­ry. Autonomous left media with a queer focus such as Novara Media has offered the­o­ry plat­forms to many trans women. The NYC Trans Oral His­to­ry Project cur­rent­ly run by trans activist Michelle O’Brien seeks to retrieve and present the his­to­ry of that sto­ried city. 

In fic­tion writ­ing, this DIY ethos has flour­ished par­tic­u­lar­ly in the face of a per­ceived con­tin­ued fail­ure for even bet­ter known trans-themed media (Trans­par­ent, The Dan­ish Girl, I’m Cait­lyn, et al) to pro­vide much of inter­est or rel­e­vance to trans women. Lit­er­a­ture writ­ten by and for trans women is becom­ing a thriv­ing field, and seems like­ly to con­tin­ue. Top­side Press, a small pub­lish­ing house ori­ent­ed towards pub­lish­ing trans­gen­der writ­ers of all iden­ti­fi­ca­tions, held its first Trans Women Writ­ing Work­shop last year. Crowd­fund­ing web­sites are allow­ing time-inten­sive video pro­duc­tion such as the Gen­der Analy­sis series to be pro­duced with­out insti­tu­tion­al sup­port. YouTube stars such as Kat Blaque share both prac­ti­cal advice and devel­oped polit­i­cal per­spec­tives to sub­scribers (and an untold num­ber of less­er known vlog­gers share tran­si­tion progress reports). Cul­tur­al expres­sion and col­lec­tive mem­o­ry through his­to­ry seem like­ly to con­tin­ue this rapid expan­sion in the com­ing peri­od.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, a “boy” or a “man” expe­ri­enc­ing unac­count­able impuls­es towards fem­i­nin­i­ty might have had to trav­el to anoth­er city, or at least muster the courage to attend her first like­ly club night or sup­port group ses­sion, to be told explic­it­ly: “You are not alone.” No longer.

The City, Trans Health, and Oth­er Research Projects

Trans women often need sup­port effect­ing depar­ture from regions where wide­spread hos­til­i­ty towards tran­si­tion is preva­lent, and “offline” com­mu­ni­ties remain weak. The eman­ci­pa­tion of trans women seems focused around a hand­ful of met­ro­pol­i­tan areas, with lit­tle hope of any more gen­er­al­ized eman­ci­pa­tion imag­ined. This divide between the provinces and metro­pole does not allow for any straight­for­ward pol­i­tics of flight, how­ev­er: iso­la­tion and inse­cu­ri­ty around employ­ment and hous­ing is a com­mon­place even for many trans women liv­ing in the largest cities of the world. Impris­on­ment in male pris­ons and police vio­lence are a risk for trans women wher­ev­er we live.7

Health­care is a field of espe­cial­ly great impor­tance, here. Where­as wide­spread igno­rance and dif­fer­ing arbi­trary stan­dards with­in the med­ical indus­try leave doc­tors hold­ing vary­ing posi­tions from place to place, online access is now avail­able to a wide range of expe­ri­ences, and the lat­est research. Online com­mu­ni­ties enable every­thing from refer­rals for reli­able pro­fes­sion­als, to advice con­cern­ing options for hor­mon­al treat­ments and pre­cise bureau­crat­ic nav­i­ga­tions. While of course still pri­mar­i­ly accessed through the med­ical pro­fes­sion, increas­ing­ly hor­mones are both obtained and researched out­side of its lim­its, by trans women our­selves. Men­tal health is an espe­cial­ly fraught con­cern for trans women, who have been forced to nav­i­gate sus­pi­cion and often out­right hos­til­i­ty and mis­treat­ment from both psy­chi­atric and psy­cho­log­i­cal estab­lish­ments. This has proven to be work that no one else (includ­ing NGOs and the “car­ing” face of the state) could be con­sis­tent­ly relied upon to do. Sup­port­ing oth­er trans women psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly is a com­mon­place for active mem­bers of trans com­mu­ni­ties, from estab­lish­ing sup­port net­works for new­com­ers to for­eign cities, to emer­gency sui­cide watch­es arranged ad hoc between friends.

Much as a sub­stan­tial body of research on HIV dur­ing the ear­ly years of the AIDS cri­sis was per­formed by activists involved in ACT-UP and the Treat­ment Action Group, trans women have often been forced to devise their own prac­ti­cal knowl­edge on the sci­en­tif­ic and social issues affect­ing them direct­ly.8 Exten­sive repos­i­to­ries col­lect­ing rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion from hor­mone research papers, to advice on break­ing news to part­ners and fam­i­ly, to facial surgery intro­duc­tions, are freely avail­able online. Such tuto­ri­als have been in use since at least the 19th cen­tu­ry, but today have pro­lif­er­at­ed in a new­ly acces­si­ble form.

As the mate­r­i­al com­mu­ni­ties sup­port­ing trans peo­ple con­tin­ue to strength­en, more and more trans women will be able to assert them­selves open­ly as women. These net­works resem­ble those sup­port­ing women seek­ing abor­tions in Ire­land and oth­er coun­tries which out­law the pro­ce­dure: both infor­ma­tion and resources are shared to those often in need of covert sup­port.

The devel­op­ment under­ly­ing the cul­tur­al shift towards “trans accept­abil­i­ty” will pro­ceed large­ly unno­ticed, despite increas­ing­ly tak­ing place on pub­licly or semi-pub­licly acces­si­ble inter­net sites. A fail­ure to under­stand these orga­ni­za­tions will lead to a one-sided per­spec­tive on his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment around gen­der issues (which observes reac­tion with­out appre­ci­a­tion for the progress inspir­ing it). 

This almost entire­ly unpaid enter­prise, the everyday/life-saving social work which occu­pies count­less trans com­mu­ni­ties, will sup­port the real­iza­tion of trans wom­an­hood over the com­ing gen­er­a­tions. In fact this activ­i­ty seems sure to involve increas­ing num­bers. Dis­tri­b­u­tion of infor­ma­tion and sup­port of this kind could be seen as a polit­i­cal enter­prise (the “pol­i­tics of sur­vival” com­mon­ly referred to by con­tem­po­rary fem­i­nist activists), but per­haps is bet­ter seen as an ersatz source of social repro­duc­tion. In many cas­es, unable to real­ize them­selves as women through their fam­i­lies and con­ven­tion­al peer groups, trans women have adopt­ed oth­er means to teach them­selves every­thing from nec­es­sary med­ical infor­ma­tion to gen­dered cul­tur­al affects such as cos­met­ics, expect­ed man­ner­isms, into­na­tion, idi­olect, and so on.

Togeth­er, this col­lec­tive­ly accu­mu­lat­ed body of knowl­edge can save lives, or make them feel worth liv­ing for the first time.The suc­cess trans women are increas­ing­ly enjoy­ing is based on a bedrock of sol­i­dar­i­ty and sup­port which few not in need of it would ever real­ize, but which works tire­less­ly (if imper­fect­ly) to keep those exist­ing against the grain of pre­vail­ing cul­ture alive, and if pos­si­ble thriv­ing.

How­ev­er, this social repro­duc­tion of trans women can­not always co-exist com­fort­ably along­side the more con­ven­tion­al vari­ety offered by the fam­i­ly. Rejec­tion by the fam­i­lies of trans women has been report­ed from all class posi­tions, lev­els of edu­ca­tion, and reli­gious affil­i­a­tions. The increas­ing num­ber of informed and embold­ened women will, accord­ing­ly, pro­duce more rejec­tion from trans­pho­bic fam­i­lies and peer groups. In many cas­es, fundrais­er cash pro­vid­ed focus­es on escap­ing vio­lent rel­a­tives. Many are faced with a choice between their “cho­sen fam­i­ly” of oth­er trans women and queers, and their con­ven­tion­al one. There is no indi­ca­tion that this will cease across time by mere ambi­ent “progress” alone, or that devel­op­ments will prove in any way lin­ear, as recent rear­guard polit­i­cal efforts by state gov­ern­ments demon­strate. Moral appeals towards par­ents to ful­fill their cul­tur­al­ly man­dat­ed oblig­a­tions prop­er­ly or for employ­ers to dis­crim­i­nate less against employ­ees or poten­tial hires will only ever achieve change by incre­ments with­in the exist­ing sys­tem of lop­sided pow­er and eco­nom­ic exploita­tion.

In this way, a “pos­i­tive” solu­tion to the dam­age con­tin­u­al­ly inflict­ed on trans peo­ple attempt­ing to real­ize their lives as befits their gen­der can­not exist alone. Sup­port for those suf­fer­ing under their exist­ing con­di­tions must include the undo­ing of gen­der as a coer­cive dis­tri­b­u­tion of vio­lence. Trans women in par­tic­u­lar raise the neces­si­ty of this polit­i­cal strat­e­gy to the fore, as we live through our gen­ders as a more overt­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry state than most would ever care to.

III. Trans Ori­gins, Ser­a­no, and Trans Psy­chol­o­gism

A pre­con­di­tion to for­mu­lat­ing a strat­e­gy appro­pri­ate for trans lib­er­a­tion in our era will be a sober assess­ment of the cur­rent course of trans pol­i­tics. This ground clear­ing work can help us grasp the impass­es that run through­out con­tem­po­rary trans fem­i­nist the­o­ry, and demon­strate the poten­tial for a Marx­ist res­o­lu­tion.

While trans activism has proven polit­i­cal­ly diverse, and found rep­re­sen­ta­tion in a range of dif­fer­ing left ten­den­cies, one thinker in par­tic­u­lar appears to have sig­nif­i­cant­ly shaped its lan­guage and con­tours among trans­gen­der activists. Julia Serano’s thought rarely receives atten­tion out­side of activist cir­cles, and remains large­ly unheard with­in Marx­ist the­o­riza­tion. Yet Serano’s influ­ence on con­tem­po­rary gen­der activism, and espe­cial­ly that relat­ing to trans women, should not be under­es­ti­mat­ed.9 Trained as a biol­o­gist, Ser­a­no belongs to nei­ther acad­e­mia nor the estab­lished left. But this has not inhib­it­ed her suc­cess as a thinker, or activist. 

Whip­ping Girl: A Trans­sex­u­al Woman on Fem­i­nism and the Scape­goat­ing of Fem­i­nin­i­ty, pub­lished in 2007, intend­ed to account for both the greater inten­si­ty of prej­u­dice against trans women, and the fail­ure of com­mu­ni­ties set up for gen­der deviants to accom­mo­date them. Towards this end, Ser­a­no devised the term “trans­misog­y­ny” to iden­ti­fy a form of trans­pho­bia spe­cif­ic to trans women.10 Trans­misog­y­ny amounts to a min­gling of both what Ser­a­no cat­e­gories as “tra­di­tion­al sex­ism” – the valu­ing of the male over the female – and “oppo­si­tion­al sex­ism” – defin­ing males and females against each oth­er into rigid­ly dis­crete cat­e­gories). In appar­ent­ly abdi­cat­ing their poten­tial as men, trans women are at once dis­com­fort­ing in their bound­ary-breach­ing con­duct, seem­ing­ly degen­er­ate.

While progress from this point has been uneven, the decade since Whip­ping Girl’s pub­li­ca­tion has been event­ful, and its ideas seem to have played an influ­en­tial role in trans women over­com­ing our iso­la­tion, and assert­ing our­selves.

And yet the account of trans (and cis) wom­an­hood giv­en in the book still pro­vides an obsta­cle for sys­temic under­stand­ings of gen­dered oppres­sion, due to its stance on the ori­gins of trans­gen­der iden­ti­ties. By Serano’s account, sex iden­ti­fi­ca­tion forms one bedrock lay­er of innate self:

Sub­con­scious sex, gen­der expres­sion, and sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion rep­re­sent sep­a­rate gen­der incli­na­tions that are deter­mined large­ly inde­pen­dent of one another.…These gen­der incli­na­tions are, to some extent, intrin­sic to our per­sons… and gen­er­al­ly remain intact despite soci­etal influ­ences and con­scious attempts by indi­vid­u­als to purge, repress, or ignore them.

Ser­a­no pro­pos­es a soci­o­log­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fi­able vari­a­tion: “each of these incli­na­tions rough­ly cor­re­lates with phys­i­cal set, result­ing in a bimodal dis­tri­b­u­tion pat­tern (i.e., two over­lap­ping bell curves) sim­i­lar to that seen for oth­er gen­der dif­fer­ences, such as height.” One might pos­sess a body expect­ed from a man in a range of ways, with­out in fact pos­sess­ing the innate dis­po­si­tion for iden­ti­fy­ing as such. Trans embod­i­ment can be seen as women occu­py­ing atyp­i­cal forms, rather than onto­log­i­cal­ly dis­tinct “trans women” dis­tin­guished from “natal women.”

Ser­a­no there­fore asserts a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between a “core sex” and gen­der as expressed, adding these to sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion (already wide­ly accept­ed as unre­spon­sive to “con­ver­sion ther­a­pies” and oth­er con­scious meth­ods of alter­ation). For Ser­a­no, each of these dis­crete fields remains invari­ant: one might be a butch les­bian woman who is liv­ing out denial through pre­sent­ing as an effem­i­nate het­ero­sex­u­al man, but only at the expense of a series of repres­sive mech­a­nisms and dis­avowals of one’s core self.

Impor­tant­ly, Ser­a­no at this stage expos­es her reliance on a psy­cho­log­i­cal account of gen­der expe­ri­ence. Much work is done in this mod­el by the con­cepts of “repres­sion” and “denial,” a weight­ing which has sure­ly proven very help­ful in its broad estab­lish­ment as an activist “com­mon sense.” As con­tem­po­rary thought bends towards reflex­ive vul­gar Freudi­an­ism, both trans activists and those they speak with find this account sat­is­fy­ing. (Of course, a reliance on Freud was also not absent from dis­course of 1970s gen­der abo­li­tion­ists.)

Ser­a­no attempts to place her­self as a medi­a­tion between social con­struc­tion­ism and gen­der essen­tial­ism.11 Con­trast­ing her­self to the lat­ter, she writes:

Among gen­der essen­tial­ists, it’s gen­er­al­ly assumed that genet­ic (and sub­se­quent anatom­i­cal and hor­mon­al) dif­fer­ences between females and males are the ulti­mate source for these behav­ioral dif­fer­ences. Despite their insis­tence, such direct links between spe­cif­ic genes and spe­cif­ic gen­dered behav­iors in humans con­tin­ue to remain elu­sive.12

Although agnos­tic on this front, Whip­ping Girl is clear­ly com­mit­ted to some core trans iden­ti­fi­ca­tion stand­ing as an immutable fea­ture. For Ser­a­no, the pro­cliv­i­ty of par­tic­u­lar chil­dren towards gen­der vari­ant behav­iors dis­proves what she sees as the claims of social con­struc­tion­ism:

…a strict social con­struc­tion­ist mod­el does not eas­i­ly account for excep­tion­al gen­der expres­sion either. Many girls who are mas­cu­line and boys who are fem­i­nine show signs of such behav­ior at a very ear­ly age (often before such chil­dren have been ful­ly social­ized with regard to gen­der norms), and gen­er­al­ly con­tin­ue to express such behav­ior into adult­hood (despite the extreme amount of soci­etal pres­sure that we place on indi­vid­u­als to repro­duce gen­der expres­sion appro­pri­ate for their assigned sex). This strong­ly sug­gests that cer­tain expres­sions of fem­i­nin­i­ty and mas­culin­i­ty rep­re­sent deep, sub­con­scious incli­na­tions in a man­ner sim­i­lar to those of sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion and sub­con­scious sex. (I use the word “incli­na­tion” here as a catchall phrase to describe any per­sis­tent desire, affin­i­ty, or urge that pre­dis­pos­es us toward par­tic­u­lar gen­der and sex­u­al expres­sions and expe­ri­ences.)13

Through this appeal to both biol­o­gy and psy­chol­o­gy, Ser­a­no attempts to extend core gen­der iden­ti­fi­ca­tion into the realm of “phys­i­cal facts.” The upshot is that core gen­der iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is effec­tive­ly depoliti­cized. It exists as an innate truth which soci­eties either suc­cess­ful­ly make cul­tur­al space for real­iz­ing as a mean­ing­ful sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, or else fail to. The res­o­lu­tion Serano’s analy­sis points towards is a sim­ple enough sound­ing mat­ter of recog­ni­tion. Trans­pho­bia here exists as a social defect, espe­cial­ly preva­lent in soci­eties which lack an orga­niz­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al “third” gen­der cat­e­go­ry. The plight of trans women in the West is to live in soci­eties where their efforts remain polit­i­cal­ly con­test­ed, and cul­tur­al­ly dis­par­aged.

From this posi­tion, the prej­u­dices faced by trans women can be sim­ply cast as mere sex­ism: trans women’s oppres­sion is ulti­mate­ly indis­tinct in ori­gins to that faced by any oth­er women. While cer­tain­ly sub­ver­sive, this argu­ment pro­motes a dis­missal of abo­li­tion­ist approach­es to gen­der.

From this per­spec­tive, the abo­li­tion of gen­der is an aim which can be con­sid­ered equiv­a­lent to the abo­li­tion of freck­les. Gen­der aris­es as an innate vari­a­tion which each soci­ety must ensure it accom­mo­dates. The vio­lence trans women face has its appro­pri­ate end through com­bat­ing prej­u­dices against them, and estab­lish­ing a secure iden­ti­ty of trans wom­an­hood. This vision has proven com­pelling for a con­sid­er­able num­ber of trans activists, and has come to form a bedrock “com­mon sense” with a suc­cess quite remark­able giv­en her book is less than a decade old.

Ser­a­no Against But­ler

Serano’s oppo­si­tion to social con­struc­tion strays into an ill-con­ceived attack on one of the thesis’s more famous pro­po­nents, Judith But­ler. Ser­a­no explic­it­ly advances her bio­log­i­cal­ly informed account with a view towards dis­cred­it­ing the per­spec­tive of But­ler, who she mis­char­ac­ter­izes as believ­ing gen­der to be sim­ply “per­for­mance.”

As this inter­view with But­ler makes clear, the stakes in dis­cus­sion of gen­der as per­for­ma­tive are quite dis­tinct from gen­der expres­sion as mere per­for­mance:

It is impor­tant to dis­tin­guish per­for­mance from per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty: the for­mer pre­sumes a sub­ject, but the lat­ter con­tests the very notion of the subject…I begin with the Fou­cauldian premise that pow­er works in part through dis­course and it works in part to pro­duce and desta­bilise sub­jects. But then, when one starts to think care­ful­ly about how dis­course might be said to pro­duce a sub­ject, it’s clear that one’s already talk­ing about a cer­tain fig­ure or trope of pro­duc­tion. It is at this point that it’s use­ful to turn to the notion of per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty, and per­for­ma­tive speech acts in par­tic­u­lar – under­stood as those speech acts that bring into being that which they name.14

Rather than assert­ing gen­der iden­ti­ty as a fixed con­struct, Butler’s inter­est is con­struc­tion: the nar­ra­tive and declar­a­tive process which any sub­ject uses to gen­der them­selves.

Ser­a­no alone can­not bear the blame for a mis­un­der­stand­ing relat­ing to this noto­ri­ous­ly unhelp­ful­ly word­ed pas­sage of But­ler. Inevitably, any­one invest­ed in gen­der pol­i­tics across the past three decades has encoun­tered activists describ­ing them­selves as pro­po­nents of But­ler who have per­pet­u­at­ed this mis­un­der­stand­ing.15 How­ev­er, once this is resolved, there is lit­tle in Serano’s account that does much to dam­age Butler’s posi­tion of gen­der as per­for­ma­tive. Indeed those inspired by Serano’s efforts to out­line trans iden­ti­ty as an under­ly­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly fixed ur-truth are noth­ing if not exam­ples of per­for­ma­tive for­ma­tion of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty.

Neva­da, a 2013 nov­el writ­ten by vet­er­an trans activist Imo­gen Bin­nie, which has enjoyed cult suc­cess with­in trans cul­ture, describes its sar­don­ic protagonist’s expe­ri­ences with a work­place tran­si­tion. Recount­ing her time as an employ­ee at a New York book­shop, Bin­nie writes of her pro­tag­o­nist:

Then when she had been work­ing there a year or two, she had this kind of intense and scary real­iza­tion that for a real­ly long time, as bor­ing and clichéd as this is, but for as long as she could remem­ber, she had felt all fucked up. 

So she wrote about it. She laid it out and con­nect­ed all these dots: the some­times I want to wear dress­es dot, the I am addict­ed to mas­tur­ba­tion dot, the I feel like I have been punched in the stom­ach when I see an un-self-con­scious pret­ty girl dot, the I cried a lot when I was lit­tle and don’t think I’ve cried at all since puber­ty dot. Lots of oth­er dots. A con­stel­la­tion of dots. The oh man do I get more fucked up than I mean to, every time I start drink­ing dot. The I might hate sex dot. So she fig­ured out that she was trans, told peo­ple she was chang­ing her name, got on hor­mones, it was very dif­fi­cult and reward­ing and painful.

What­ev­er. It was a Very Spe­cial Episode.

Binnie’s point­ed sar­casm indi­cates how com­mon­place this process of “auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal recon­struc­tion” has become for trans women. Author Casey Platt has described the phe­nom­e­non as the “gen­der nov­el,” which reduces trans char­ac­ters to their gen­der con­di­tion.16 Plett argues that a per­va­sive pres­sure to account for trans­gen­der iden­ti­ty (to set­tle what is cur­rent­ly unset­tling) both ham­strings the fic­tion of cis­gen­der authors, and increas­ing­ly oblig­es trans writ­ers to “tell their sto­ry,” with­out ever being heed­ed.

While trans authors have increas­ing­ly chafed at the lim­its of this imper­a­tive towards the con­fes­sion­al style, it seems unlike­ly to sub­side. Increas­ing­ly, this predica­ment is being con­front­ed through for­mal­ly imag­i­na­tive means. Writer and poet Mer­ritt K’s Inter­net Mur­der Revenge Fan­ta­sy presents a phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal tableau of var­ied styles, with a dif­fer­ent artist pro­duc­ing each page. The result­ing com­ic rest­less­ly depicts the alien­ation, iso­la­tion, and heavy inter­net use com­mon­place for many trans­gen­der teenag­er. K’s pro­tag­o­nist oscil­lates between repres­sion and poly­mor­phous per­ver­si­ty, inces­sant­ly adopt­ing an abstrac­tive array of ther­a­peu­tic guis­es and per­son­ae. K’s graph­ic teenage mem­oir nei­ther cel­e­brates the bygone cyber cul­ture of the ‘00s, nor elides its poten­tial. The com­ic con­cludes with an exu­ber­ant­ly vin­dic­tive screed towards 4Chan trolls rem­i­nis­cent of the caps lock rants, much more com­mon­place in an ear­li­er inter­net still unmoored from the social media era’s coer­cive respectabil­i­ty.17

In each of these accounts, denied wom­an­hood real­ized in adult­hood serves as a per­son­al rev­e­la­tion through which years of pri­or con­fu­sion can be made sense of, both grad­u­al­ly and dra­mat­i­cal­ly. From the new­ly real­ized posi­tion of trans wom­an­hood (explic­it­ly and frankly out­lined by Bin­nie, implic­it­ly allud­ed to by K), pri­or life can be reassessed often painful­ly, but some­times amus­ing­ly. A post fac­to reap­pre­ci­a­tion of one’s life pri­or to tran­si­tion occu­pies the minds of many trans women. This can con­tin­ue for many years after tran­si­tion begins, as is often the case for those over­com­ing any major episode of denial. Allow­ing for a new kind of per­for­ma­tive re-imag­in­ing of one’s ear­li­er life (you were always a girl, you just weren’t yet aware) is part­ly respon­si­ble for Serano’s remark­able pop­u­lar­i­ty among trans women, and trans peo­ple more gen­er­al­ly. There is no dam­age done to the “legit­i­ma­cy” of trans wom­an­hood by accept­ing gender’s sta­tus as per­for­ma­tive, and Ser­a­no has not achieved the refu­ta­tion of But­ler she believes she has.

The Hard Lim­its of Insti­tu­tion­al Reformism

Despite her out­stand­ing achieve­ment as an influ­en­tial thinker, Serano’s polit­i­cal pri­or­i­ties are set with hard lim­its which direct­ly fol­low from her social analy­sis. Serano’s activism, while high­ly suc­cess­ful in its own terms, demon­strates of her ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ments to reform of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, and its exist­ing insti­tu­tions.

Ser­a­no has made a tire­less effort to dele­git­imize the trans­pho­bic analy­sis of sex­ol­o­gists Ray Blan­chard and Michael Bai­ley, more recent­ly advanced by pop­u­lar sci­ence writer Alice Dreger.18 Her blog fea­tures a pro­lif­er­a­tion of arti­cles writ­ten per­son­al­ly, and a con­tin­u­al cat­a­logu­ing of research done from an informed view­point on trans women. For years she has par­tic­u­lar­ly tar­get­ed the fore­most prac­ti­tion­er of “repar­a­tive” (con­ver­sion) ther­a­py, Cana­di­an psy­chol­o­gist Ken­neth Zuck­er. Zucker’s “repar­a­tive” approach was a holdover from open­ly homo­pho­bic ther­a­pies of the past, pio­neered by Joseph Nicolosi (founder of NARTH). Nicolosi’s tech­niques were used unsuc­cess­ful­ly by psy­chi­a­trists in an effort to repress homo­sex­u­al desire in adult men, while Zuck­er encour­aged par­ents to refuse their chil­dren affec­tion on the grounds of “inap­pro­pri­ate” gen­dered behav­ior. Under­stand­ably, end­ing the use of “repar­a­tive” prac­tices on trans­gen­der chil­dren has been a con­sis­tent focus for activism by trans women, some­times sup­port­ed by oth­er LGBT activists. 

Between Serano’s writ­ings and the efforts of local activists across many years, con­ver­sion prac­tices were out­lawed in Toron­to in 2015, and Zucker’s Child Youth and Fam­i­ly Gen­der Iden­ti­ty Clin­ic was closed in Decem­ber of the same year. This can only be seen as a vic­to­ry for Ser­a­no, as well as a clear sign of progress in reduc­ing the harm done to gen­der vari­ant chil­dren by the med­ical pro­fes­sion. Tri­umphs of this kind should of course be cel­e­brat­ed, on the rare occa­sions they do occur. But an end­ing reg­u­la­to­ry vio­lence enact­ed from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion would require a rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment.

Serano’s activism polit­i­cal activ­i­ty hinges on agi­tat­ing for reform. This aim of dis­cred­it­ing active­ly destruc­tive prac­tices is not to be dis­missed out of hand. Tar­get­ing the med­ical estab­lish­ment has a long his­to­ry in LGBT activism, from the direct action cam­paigns which saw homo­sex­u­al­i­ty declas­si­fied as a men­tal ill­ness to the (on-going) efforts by ACT UP to con­front phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny prof­i­teer­ing from STI med­ica­tions, and slow ped­dling of HIV research. 

The focus of Ser­a­no and oth­er trans activists on improv­ing the prospects of chil­dren pass­ing through the care of med­ical insti­tu­tions is rem­i­nis­cent of inter­sex activism, with sim­i­lar predica­ments. Inter­sex activism remains focused pri­mar­i­ly on the goal of end­ing the com­mon­place “cor­rec­tive” surgery per­formed arbi­trar­i­ly on infants and chil­dren born with “ambigu­ous” gen­i­tals. (Today termed Inter­sex Gen­i­tal Muti­la­tion.)19 On an inter­na­tion­al lev­el, inter­sex activists have achieved remark­able break­throughs in ensur­ing the EU and UN clas­si­fy Inter­sex Gen­i­tal Muti­la­tion as tor­ture, and a vio­la­tion of “basic rights,” yet these med­ical prac­tices remain wide­spread across the world (out­lawed alto­geth­er only in Mal­ta).20 It’s also unclear how effec­tive any ban would be at actu­al­ly pre­vent­ing IGM surg­eries. A wor­ry­ing point of com­par­i­son is Indone­sia, where leg­is­la­tion against Female Gen­i­tal Muti­la­tion (installed in the face of inter­na­tion­al pres­sure) did very lit­tle to end the wide­spread prac­tice of child­hood cli­toral cut­ting. (Today the major­i­ty of these surg­eries are per­formed by trained med­ical pro­fes­sion­als, as with male cir­cum­ci­sions).21 Whether or not the leg­is­la­tion out­law­ing the prac­tice is for­mal­ly repealed, in Indone­sia it has already become de fac­to void. Clear­ly state pow­er and NGO com­plex­es are unre­li­able allies, at best. 

The “decen­tral­ized” nature of this med­ical­ized vio­lence demon­strates the per­va­sive nature of gen­der demar­ca­tion, and how undo­ing its harm extends well beyond defeat­ing the state, pass­ing the cor­rect laws, or reform­ing the pro­fes­sions. For as long as gen­dered vio­lence is per­formed through pro­fes­sion­al bod­ies and med­ical insti­tu­tions, dis­put­ing their legit­i­ma­cy (not sim­ply draw­ing on it) will remain a prac­ti­cal pri­or­i­ty.

Even in the case of offi­cial bod­ies rad­i­cal­ly trans­form­ing their approach­es towards trans­gen­der and inter­sex chil­dren, inter­gen­er­a­tional abuse will remain wide­spread. The bulk of gen­der-based neglect and vio­lence dur­ing par­ent­ing will nev­er be over­seen by a med­ical pro­fes­sion­al. If the med­ical estab­lish­ment halts con­ver­sion efforts, pri­vate “camps” run by ama­teur gen­der enforcers will remain avail­able through­out the US for par­ents intent on curb­ing their children’s “deviant” behav­ior. Abuse aris­es not only from the instruc­tion of the remain­ing psy­chi­atric con­ver­sion­ists, but from the insti­tu­tion of the fam­i­ly itself. Gen­der sub­stan­ti­at­ing vio­lence is often per­formed by moth­ers ful­fill­ing their unpaid oblig­a­tions as the fore­most repro­duc­ers of soci­ety across gen­er­a­tions.22

Het­ero­sex­u­al fam­i­lies are prone to try­ing to recre­ate them­selves in their own image. While Zuck­er doubt­less encour­aged some par­ents who oth­er­wise would have proven more tol­er­ant to mis­treat their chil­dren through deny­ing them affec­tion, pri­mar­i­ly his patients were intro­duced to him by par­ents hop­ing that their progeny’s sup­pos­ed­ly deviant behav­ior could be made to desist. “Repar­a­tive” ther­a­py cer­tain­ly for­mal­ized and encour­aged parental behav­ior which occurs irre­spec­tive of inter­ven­tion from the med­ical pro­fes­sion. Even the most rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of for­mal­ly con­sti­tut­ed insti­tu­tions will serve a lim­it­ed role in end­ing gen­der oppres­sion, since much for­ma­tive-devel­op­men­tal vio­lence occurs through infor­mal or “loose” orga­ni­za­tions: fam­i­lies, peer groups, roman­tic rela­tion­ships, and oth­er social envi­ron­ments which make up the every­day; and inevitably also work­places.

In oth­er words, reform­ing pub­lic bod­ies will not shift the harm done to trans girls and women through pri­vate house­holds, which are cur­rent­ly tasked with most upbring­ings. With­out the end of the fam­i­ly and wage labor, des­ti­tu­tion will remain the fate of many trans women and chil­dren. If there is to be eman­ci­pa­tion for trans women, it will not come through a long march through the insti­tu­tions.

IV. Con­clu­sion

Nat Raha has described a drift with­in some sec­tions of LGBT activism towards “trans lib­er­al­ism” which she jux­ta­pos­es with a rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics defined by “the under­stand­ing that anoth­er world is nec­es­sary and is already being cre­at­ed in which trans lives may flour­ish.”23 It’s not sim­ply a lack of will which pro­duces this ten­den­cy: while many trans women share the rad­i­cal con­vic­tions of the recent­ly released Chelsea Man­ning, many lack the appar­ent strate­gic oppor­tu­ni­ty she brave­ly took advan­tage of. Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the mesh of state ser­vices and des­ic­cat­ing NGO bod­ies can prove hard to avoid.

“Trans lib­er­al­ism” is an inevitable fea­ture of the objec­tive shifts under­way with­in soci­ety: undoubt­ed­ly the stigma­ti­za­tion, unfa­mil­iar­i­ty and igno­rance trans women face in much of the world has began to dimin­ish. Many will still hope to style them­selves as respectable sub­jects, with all the tac­it­ly reac­tionary com­mit­ments this entails. But the very pauci­ty of what the con­ven­tion­al polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment has to offer to most trans women is strik­ing. It seems like­ly a rel­a­tive­ly high pro­por­tion of trans women will be involved in eman­ci­pa­to­ry polit­i­cal activism of one kind or anoth­er. Many trans women have found our way to rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics not because we are vir­tu­ous, but because we are reg­u­lar­ly exposed to the worst in the world. The con­di­tions of trans women should be addressed as a con­crete lived predica­ment, which will ulti­mate­ly find polit­i­cal redress through rev­o­lu­tion­ary action.

For our part, trans women can learn from com­mu­nist the­o­ry to reject the cur­rent false debate offered by the var­i­ous wings of var­i­ous cap­i­tal­ist states, and firms keen to remain abreast of the lat­est means of demon­strat­ing “Cor­po­rate Social Respon­si­bil­i­ty.” The pro­tec­tions on offer to trans peo­ple via state lib­er­al­ism and cor­po­rate spon­sors are so many emp­ty promis­es and piece­meal mea­sures. Much of the worst vio­lence trans peo­ple live with is done dur­ing child­hood, by par­ents and oth­er legal­ly man­dat­ed guardians. Much more is done by prison sys­tems, police and oth­er arms of the state which reformists and lib­er­als have no answer to, and tac­it­ly wish to leave in place. That dis­cus­sion aris­es at all between cap­i­tal­ist par­ties demon­strates the con­fu­sion elicit­ed by those out­side of the norms and pro­ce­dures of the het­ero­sex­u­al fam­i­ly: trans­gen­der iden­ti­ties pro­vide a fault­line in the expect­ed repro­duc­tion of soci­ety across gen­er­a­tions. Our role as com­mu­nists is not to pro­vide cov­er to this fis­sure, but to ask: what weak­ness­es are pre­sent­ed by this breach we are forced to live along? Our the­o­ry acknowl­edges and draws from the exist­ing activ­i­ty which makes of sub­sis­tence and social repro­duc­tion and embraces the impli­ca­tions of a soci­ety where this could pro­ceed with­out con­tin­u­al coer­cion towards exploita­tion.

To say that trans women live their wom­an­hood as a con­tra­dic­to­ry con­di­tion is to describe our plight, but also to point towards a ten­sion which has devel­oped for his­tor­i­cal rea­sons, as well as a polit­i­cal res­o­lu­tion. All com­mu­nists should offer their sup­port to those in these con­di­tions, with cam­paigns around strug­gles with­in the work­place and beyond it.

The the­o­ret­i­cal project which Marx­ists can best con­tribute to is the denat­u­ral­iz­ing of the pop­u­lar­ly assumed, expos­ing false dif­fer­ences and col­laps­ing arbi­trary dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. This work has been ongo­ing, tak­en up through a diverse array of trans activism projects. Com­mu­nist the­o­ry has lagged for decades in con­tribut­ing to this under­tak­ing (the same can­not be said for anar­chism), and the dam­age done to it by such neglect will take years to cor­rect. All the same, Marxism’s abil­i­ty to grasp con­tra­dic­tion presents a fruit­ful alter­na­tive to the shal­low assump­tion of trans­pho­bia as a cor­rup­tion of soci­ety, rather than one of its foun­da­tions.

Trans lib­er­a­tion through com­mu­nism is sug­gest­ed by the already exist­ing activ­i­ty of trans women who have fash­ioned some kind of life for so many of our­selves, even in the face of trans­misog­y­ny and exploita­tion. Com­mu­nist the­o­ry should con­tribute to the abo­li­tion of these fea­tures of soci­ety, oppos­ing their (cur­rent­ly ubiq­ui­tous) ide­o­log­i­cal nat­u­ral­iza­tion.

The hope offered to trans women by com­mu­nism is that our plight can­not only be described, then explained, but also end­ed.


  1. Dom Phillips, “Tor­ture and Killing of Trans­gen­der Woman Stun Brazil,” New York Times, March 8, 2017. 

  2. ‘Hande Öncü, “Turk­ish trans­gen­der asy­lum seek­er liv­ing in Vien­na mur­dered,” Trans­gen­der Europe, Jan­u­ary 30, 2015. 

  3. Oth­er Balms, Oth­er Gileads,” by the late Bryn Kel­ly, pub­lished in the rad­i­cal AIDS jour­nal We Who Feel Dif­fer­ent­ly in 2014, relates her life as an HIV trans woman. For the on-going uncer­tain­ty around trans women’s use of PrEP see Raquel Willis, “Why Aren’t More Trans Women on PrEP?,” Rewire, July 14, 2017. 

  4. Trudy Ring, “Ten­nessee Flush­es ‘Bath­room Bill’ Away Again,” The Advo­cate, April 18, 2016. The bill was final­ly defeat­ed this year. 

  5. This term was orig­i­nal­ly used by Pol­ish Catholic bish­ops in a 2014 Pas­toral let­ter, but is now wide­spread among reac­tionary activist orga­ni­za­tions on both sides of the Atlantic. 

  6. On the Compton’s Cafe­te­ria Riots and their con­text of ear­ly activism in the Ten­der­loin, see Neal Brover­man, “We Can Still Hear the ‘Scream­ing Queens’ of the Compton’s Cafe­te­ria Riot,” The Advo­cate, August 8. 2016; Nicole Pasul­ka, “Ladies In The Streets: Before Stonewall, Trans­gen­der Upris­ing Changed Lives,” NPR Code Switch, May 5, 2015; and Susan Stryk­er, “Trans­gen­der Lib­er­a­tion: The Compton’s Cafe­te­ria Riot of 1966.” 

  7. To pro­vide three recent exam­ples: “Trans Woman Eyric­ka King Attacked & Denied Med­ical Treat­ment in New York Prison” (New York City); “Trans­gen­der woman ‘raped 2,000 times’ in all-male prison” (Bris­bane); “Trans woman receives police pay­out after being forced to strip naked and sprayed with mace” (Som­er­set, UK). 

  8. Much of this work is done oral­ly or through IMs, although the autonomous pro­duc­tion of extend­ed doc­u­ments is also com­mon. There are innu­mer­able exam­ples pos­si­ble to cite here, so I will sim­ply include the most recent of these texts I’ve encoun­tered, avail­able here. Anoth­er wide­ly dis­trib­uted exam­ple, pro­duced at the Church Street Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­tre, can be found here

  9. See: Mered­ith Talu­san, “The Last­ing Trans­gen­der Lega­cy of Julia Serano’s Whip­ping Girl,” Buz­zFeed News, March 6, 2016. 

  10. Ser­a­no has returned to this term innu­mer­able times across her career, but the most suc­cinct intro­duc­tion is a page-long, pur­pose writ­ten “Trans-misog­y­ny primer.” 

  11. Serano’s fol­low-up book Exclud­ed: Mak­ing Fem­i­nist and Queer Move­ments More Inclu­sive is exclu­sive­ly ded­i­cat­ed to this theme, coin­ing the phrase “gen­der arti­fac­tu­al­ism” to dis­tin­guish vari­a­tions on social con­struc­tivism. Ser­a­no is more amenable to argu­ments from those which refer to gen­der as “just a con­struct.” I will pri­mar­i­ly reply to the eti­o­log­i­cal argu­ments made in Whip­ping Girl rather than this lat­er work, since they have clear­ly found greater trac­tion, and because I agree with Ser­a­no that both fem­i­nist and queer cir­cles have often proven exclu­sion­ary towards trans women. My inten­tion here is cer­tain­ly not to negate Serano’s intro­duc­tion and devel­op­ment of trans misog­y­ny. Exclud­ed’s trac­ing of the sim­i­lar treat­ment giv­en to trans women and bisex­u­als of what­ev­er gen­der is espe­cial­ly astute. See Julia Ser­a­no, “What is Gen­der Arti­fac­tu­al­ism,” Whip­ping Girl, Novem­ber 4, 2013; and the excerpt from Exclud­ed pub­lished in The Advo­cate, Novem­ber 7, 2013. 

  12. Ser­a­no, Whip­ping Girl, 189 

  13. Ser­a­no, Whip­ping Girl, 190 

  14. Gen­der as Per­for­mance: An inter­view with Judith But­ler,” Rad­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy 67 (Sum­mer 1994). 

  15. Indeed, Binnie’s protagonist’s treat­ment in Neva­da sug­gests Ser­a­no, in turn, has received sim­i­lar treat­ment of sub­sump­tion into ortho­doxy: “Her name is Julia Ser­a­no and like most fig­ure­heads, she’s very smart and sweet and right-on and almost entire­ly unprob­lem­at­ic, but her acolytes total­ly get obnox­ious, tak­ing her writ­ings as doc­trine.” 

  16. Cf. Casey Plett, “The Rise of the Gen­der Nov­el,” The Wal­rus, Novem­ber 18, 2015; and on pres­sured towards self-lim­i­ta­tion, sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and reduc­tion on the part of trans authors, see Plett’s short piece on the CBC web­site, “More fear, more love, more hon­esty: A call for inti­ma­cy in works from mar­gin­al­ized writ­ers,” May 4, 2016. 

  17. Mer­ritt K, Inter­net Mur­der Revenge Fan­ta­sy (2015). See also the inter­view with Vice Moth­er­board, March 3, 2016. 

  18. The “auto­g­y­nephil­ia” the­sis attempts to tax­on­o­mize trans women between “homo­sex­u­als” (i.e. trans women inter­est­ed in men) and tran­ves­tite fetishists. This exer­cise does not war­rant any detailed cri­tique here, it will suf­fice to say that is a clear con­tin­u­a­tion of ear­li­er efforts to cast all trans peo­ple as patho­log­i­cal­ly dam­aged “para­phil­i­acs.” That such schema are even pre­sent­ed for dis­cus­sion reflects most­ly on the dis­as­trous state of “sex­ol­o­gy” as a research field. 

  19. Out­law­ing and abol­ish­ing IGM is a demand sup­port­ed with near unan­i­mous con­sen­sus among inter­sex activists. The most effec­tive group oper­at­ing at inter­na­tion­al NGO/transnational state lob­by­ing present­ly is OII Europe. 

  20. See: UN Free & Equal: Inter­sex Aware­ness; the Euro­pean Union Agency for Fun­da­men­tal Rights, “The Fun­da­men­tal Rights Sit­u­a­tion of Inter­sex Peo­ple”; Nao­mi Lars­son, “Is the World Final­ly Wak­ing Up to Inser­sex Rights?,” The Guardian, Feb­ru­ary 10, 2016; Azeen Gho­rayshi, “Inter­sex Surg­eries Are A Human Rights Vio­la­tion, Says U.N. Group,” Buz­zFeed News, Sep­tem­ber 19, 2015; and The Office of the Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Human Rights (OHCHR), “A step for­ward for inter­sex vis­i­bil­i­ty and human rights,” Sep­tem­ber 25, 2015. 

  21. In Indone­sia, 53.2% of FGM was per­formed by med­ical pro­fes­sion­als by this 2013 sur­vey, six years after the prac­tice was sup­pos­ed­ly out­lawed. 

  22. Mario Mieli’s 1977 work, Towards A Gay Com­mu­nism: Ele­ments of a Homo­sex­u­al Cri­tique, indeed con­tains an analy­sis of mutu­al dam­age between homo­sex­u­als and women which would urge against any straight­for­ward pro-women iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics mis­lead­ing us into sid­ing with homo­pho­bic moth­ers against their “sons”: “For cen­turies, the sys­tem has exploit­ed the work of homo­sex­u­als to sub­ju­gate women, just as it has made abun­dant use of women to oppress gays (any gay man need only recall his moth­er).” Mieli’s book was recent­ly retrans­lat­ed and repub­lished by Plu­to Press.  

  23. Nat Raha, “The Lim­its of Trans Lib­er­al­ism,”Ver­so Blog, Sep­tem­ber 21, 2015 

Author of the article

is an academic worker, comparative gender historian, queer phenomenologist, Hegelian Marxist, and Londoner. She's currently based in Vienna, and researching the normative exclusion of eunuchs from early Mount Athos. She enjoys long walks and late '90s R&B.