In a series of blog posts, I’m going to look at Transgender Rights over the last fifty years and the influence of Marxism, Identity Politics and Queer Theory. The cast list will include Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Judith Butler, Leslie Feinberg and many others. In this first post, I’ll examine today’s rising violence against trans people and whether in ancient history, trans people enjoyed more liberation than today.
Fifty years ago, the idea of women’s and LGBT struggles for liberation being part of a wider movement for societal change led by the working class was already being undermined as organised labour came under sustained attack and the Marxist-influenced Left saw its influence diminish.
Unity is strength was replaced by identity politics. Oppressed groups could fight their own battles and win reforms from within the system. The ‘meta-narratives’ of Marxism about the social and economic causes of exploitation were junked along with the assumption that capitalism needed to be overthrown. The proletariat was no longer seen as being at the forefront of human liberation.
As the trade union movement retreated, so did the idea that change was best achieved through or in alliance with the organisations of the working class. Separatism came into vogue. Women would fight for their rights on their own terms. Ditto the LGBT ‘community’. Though the “L” and the “G” often regarded the “T” as an afterthought – pushing trans people to the back of the liberation queue.
That was despite trans activists playing a key role in every landmark event in the post-war history of LGBT politics from the 1969 Stonewall Riots to the formation of the New York based Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries by Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in 1970 – and beyond. Yet in 1993, a high-profile Pride March on Washington DC was titled for “Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation”. Trans people asked – did you forget us? (Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel, 24 April 1993).
Today, trans people have more visibility than ever. But the acrimonious debates about trans rights display the shortcomings of identity politics and the limitations of Queer Theory. The two political movements that claimed they could supplant Marxism. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that feminist and LGBT politics today are in crisis. Great advances have been made but there is a growing awareness that our rights are under concerted attack and our movements are bitterly divided.
Liberation is still a long way off. More worrying still is clear evidence that as society moves into a time of uncertainty and upheaval globally, violence against certain groups is on the rise. Transgender people find themselves confronting danger on the streets and their very existence under attack through discriminatory and humiliating legislation.
Violence against transgender people on the rise
2021 saw an alarming rise in the number of violent deaths of transgender people in the United States. Black trans women have been disproportionately impacted. In fact, since 2013, this section of society has accounted for 66% of recorded murders. A toxic mix of transphobia, racism and poverty combined with a demonisation of trans people in the media and by politicians has undoubtedly helped to fuel this dire situation.
As one expert put it: “The culture war has landed on trans communities, and that violence is specifically brutal and very corporal.”
It’s essential to put names to these statistics. Tyianna Alexander was a 28-year-old black trans woman shot to death in Chicago. She was initially misgendered in early reporting. Samuel Edmund Damián Valentín was killed in Puerto Rico, a transgender man. While in February 2021, 45-year-old transgender woman Alexus Braxton was murdered in Miami. In the first two days of 2022, two black trans women were slain in separate incidents.
Transgender is an umbrella term that can cover transsexuals, cross-dressers, genderqueer youth, and many other ways that people identify their gender. Two-thirds of those murdered died at the hands of an acquaintance, friend, family member or intimate partner, according to the Human Rights Campaign. And the mental health impact of this silent slaughter on transgender people is something poorly quantified. But research indicates that the violence contributes to suicide and substance abuse.
But there’s little sympathy from certain constituencies on social media railing against “gender ideology”. While in state legislatures across the United States, an estimated 280 proposed laws have been introduced targeting transgender people – much of it obsessed with who can enter locker rooms and toilets or play on sports teams.
In Texas, parents of transgender adolescents are now being investigated for child abuse. The state’s Department of Family and Protective Services will interview parents who have provided transgender teens with puberty-suppressing drugs. In effect, medical treatments for gender dysphoric teens are being criminalised. Ironically, one of the first parents to be targeted was an employee of the protective services department.
Far right and conservative groups have been predictable cheerleaders for these legal moves against transgender people and their families. But they’ve picked up allies among anti-trans feminists as well as some lesbian, gay and bisexual people who oppose trans rights. Those on the conservative right who have never been supporters of LGBT equality can scarcely believe their luck. They recognise a golden opportunity to split the ‘T’ off from LGBT. Divide and conquer by cosying up to gays and lesbians – for now.
Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Transgender Rights
It can be stated with 100% confidence that neither Karl Marx nor Friedrich Engels wrote a single word or commentary about transgender people. What they – especially Engels – did was to provide an analysis of the oppression of women that challenged the idea of patriarchy being timeless, normal, and divinely sanctioned. This analysis has been broadened by Marxist-influenced thinkers today to cover transgender people.
In his 1884 work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels argued that for millennia, human societies hadn’t created an economic surplus, existing in a state of ‘Primitive Communism’ with no social class divisions nor the perceived need for one sex to oppress another.
Science made huge strides in the 19th century while religion retreated. But while Marx and Engels were huge fans of Charles Darwin and other great scientific minds of their time, they recognised that science was just as capable of doing the dirty work of the ruling class as religion. Divisions and oppression that had once been accounted for by scripture would now be claimed to be natural. Hence some very dodgy theories on race, disability, gender, and sexual orientation giving rise to some very bad science that in the mid-20th century legitimised widespread discrimination and the Nazi Holocaust.
The idea of inequality being the natural state of things persists today. As does the idea that gender roles are set in stone and biological sex does not allow for any variance or grey zone. But Marxism rejects the idea of sex-based oppression being eternal. By rooting it in the development of society, the forces of production and emergence of a ruling class – it suggests that this state-of-affairs can be changed. In fact, it must be changed for women and LGBT people to achieve complete liberation.
That, as we will see, is not an analysis generally accepted by the identity-politics-based movements and Queer Theory that grew in recent decades as the influence of Marxism ebbed in the 1970s. But we’re at a fascinating juncture now where identity politics has both advanced and curtailed the forward march of transgender people. LGBT activists push for more trans rights while some feminists have become implacable foes of transgender people for reasons that I’ll explain in more depth later. While Queer Theory has certainly raised awareness of transgender people but has gradually been absorbed by the very power structures it claims to oppose.
So, to understand what Marxists claim to offer transgender liberation politics, let’s journey back to the sweep of human history between 200,000BCE to around ten thousand years ago. The period Engels refers to as Primitive Communism.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – the architects of Marxism – believed that early human history was essentially subsistence based and therefore no economic surplus was generated that could be owned – or robbed – by an exploiting class. Private property has been, in their view, a relatively recent invention. But one that has skewed all our relationships – including family, sex, and gender.
Engels was influenced by the work of an American social theorist and lawyer Henry Lewis Morgan (1818-1881) who had close ties with the Iroquois nation and studied their culture and societal structure. His writings still exert an influence in modern anthropology and ethnography although some of his conclusions have inevitably been questioned. By studying other native American tribes, Morgan concluded that family relationships had evolved alongside the development of property ownership and new technologies – changing significantly at different stages of history.
“The basic unit of what Morgan named savage society was a maternal clan composed of a community of mothers, their brothers, and the children of the mothers…He then outlined the development of gender relations through free sexuality and social organisation of tracing kinship links through the maternal line.”
This was all music to Engels’ ears. In his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels developed the idea that in early human history there had been a state of ‘primitive communism’ where there were no class distinctions; no surplus value accumulated; no oppressive state and most critically to this blog post – no patriarchy.
There was a sexual division of labour, but this didn’t mean that men ruled over women. Their tasks were differentiated but one was not superior to the other. Indeed, women could be chiefs of their societies and figured prominently as goddesses. Why or how men achieved dominance once property and class relations arose is not entirely clear. Maybe because men undertook the task of bearing arms – weapons – their position became more important as social inequality took root and society slid into increased violence.
But then along came the domestication of animals, the accumulation of wealth and new exploitative social relations. Women began to be exchanged as baby-makers and other people were reduced to slavery. But critically, and this is described in dramatic terms by Engels, women were de-throned. This happened at some point in our ancient history, and he describes it thus:
“The overthrow of mother right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex. The man seized the reins in the house also, the women was degraded, enthralled, the slave of the man’s lust, a mere instrument for breeding children.”
Marx described the family in similarly withering terms saying that it represented all society’s antagonisms in miniature. Engels points out that the word ‘family’ only referred to slaves in ancient Rome. The ‘famulus’ was a household slave while the ‘family’ was the “totality of slaves belonging to one individual”.
“The expression was invented by the Romans to describe a new social organism, the head of which had under him wife and children and a number of slaves, under Roman paternal power, with power of life and death over them all.”
In her book, Transgender Warriors, the trans Marxist author Leslie Feinberg (1949-2014) analysed how Roman society not only saw men rise decisively into positions of control in the economy, state, and household but also a clamping down on what we would now call transgender, genderqueer, intersex, and effeminate behaviour. This had previously been tolerated and indulged in by the ruling class, but one can observe plenty of examples of the curtain coming down. For example, the brutal assassination of the cross-dressing emperor Elagabalus in 222CE.
The Roman Empire converted to Christianity in the fourth century bringing its very patriarchal theology backed by the one true God into the field of legislation. The late Roman Emperors Valentinian, Arcadius, and Theodosius issued this blood-curdling declaration to the city of Rome condemning ancient cults and the all too prevalent gender fluid behaviour that offended the Christian God:
“We cannot tolerate the city of Rome, mother of all virtues, being stained any longer by the contamination of male effeminacy…Your laudable experience will therefore punish among revenging flames…all those who have given themselves to the infamy of condemning the manly body, transformed into a feminine one, to bear practices reserved for the other sex, which have nothing different from women…and that he who basely abandons his own sex cannot aspire to that of another without undergoing the supreme punishment (death by fire).”
Trans people and behaviours are very evident in ancient cultures reflecting humanity’s past state. Feinberg cites the Egyptian ruler Queen Hatshepsut bearded on her statues. The myth of Achilles living as a woman at the court of Lycomedes. Male priests dressed as women at the temple of Aphrodite in Cyprus and the revered cross-dressing shamans described by the Greeks among the Scythian people. When the shutters started to come down for women – trans people also became victims of the new dominant patriarchy.
Over the millennia, the family developed with the man as the boss. In capitalist society, this social unit was essential to creating acceptance of hierarchy, passing private property down to child and reproducing class inequality from one generation to the next. Marxists see the monogamous family with its gender roles and patriarchy as an instrument of oppression. In a communist society – in which private property and the state have fully disappeared – the family as presently constituted will no longer need to exist.
Just as an aside, it’s worth noting that Karl Marx’s anarchist nemesis Mikhail Bakunin despite all his revolutionary fervour didn’t think the family would disappear in his future utopia. But Marx and Engels were adamant it would. If anything, Marx’s position on abolishing the family hardened during his life. He famously wrote that “the bourgeoisie has torn away from the family relationship its sentimental veil and has reduced it to a mere money relationship”. To Marx, the family was not by any means a sacred institution.
This view was welcomed by radical feminists at the time like Clara Zetkin who in 1895 declared that Engels’ book was “of the most fundamental importance for the struggle for liberation of the entire female sex”. Though it fell short on describing gay, lesbian and trans oppression but we could arguably cut some slack to these two Victorian gentlemen who inspired a century of revolution.
However, it’s worth noting as a little aside, that on 13 January 1898 (three years after the death of Engels), the German socialist leader August Bebel delivered a speech in the Germany Reichstag (parliament) calling for the repeal of the country’s ‘sodomy’ laws. The main thrust of his argument was that there were so many gays in Berlin that the police would have their hands full forever trying to round them all up!
Marx, Marxists and Transgender Rights
So, to summarise, early human societies recognised the difference between men and women in terms of the roles they performed – including childbirth – without that becoming a source of social oppression. Until societies began to generate an economic surplus leading to the development of new social relations based on a dominant class that controlled that surplus. That class – for a variety of reasons – was male.
Patriarchy and class marched in lockstep trampling the rights of women and LGBT people – whose sexuality needed to be erased in a society based increasingly around a rigid family structure. To move on from this state-of-affairs and return to a society where women and LGBT people can exercise their full rights necessitates removing the social and economic cause of this oppression: capitalism.
That means the struggles of transgender people for liberation are bound up with that of the working class to take control of society. Which explains why Marxists emphasise to trans people and the wider LGBT community the importance of working with trade unions and the Left. Trying to achieve parity with heterosexuals under capitalism is not enough – or even achievable – or desirable. Capitalism has to be removed as it underscores trans oppression.
Critics of Marxism would argue that LGBT people have achieved significant advances within capitalism; that families are not evil social constructs to indoctrinate children and that many households today are no longer Victorian or 1950s style nuclear families. They come in many shapes and sizes and include LGBT couples legally married and posing no obvious threat to the future of capitalism. That same argument has been used by Marxist critics of identity politics and Queer Theory to show that capitalism can absorb some of their demands but will always leave LGBT people from working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds short-changed.
More awkwardly, there are feminists today who claim to stand in the Marxist tradition who assert that the transgender identity is a neo-liberal invention and that the growing trend for helping gender dysphoric children to transition is part of a money-making ruse by capitalist Big Pharma. I’m paraphrasing and we will break this down into further instalments of this blog series. These arguments are a by-product of the identity politics that became triumphant in the 1970s and 1980s leading to fears that different groups are trying to ‘erase’ each other.
As we’ll see, there’s also a divide among today’s Marxists on whether to reject the very influential Queer Theory movement as a going-nowhere post-modern exercise in academic gobbledygook or to embrace it and make up for Marxism’s past unwillingness to address LGBT and specifically transgender issues. Mixed in with this is a highly fraught bust-up over the nature of biological sex and its relationship to gender identity which again has divided people who might otherwise call themselves ‘Marxist’.
Before we delve into all that, I’m inclined to think that if Marx and Engels were alive today, they would not be anti-trans. Both foresaw a future where the traditional family would collapse. They were short on details about what would replace it but it’s safe to assume that the socially conditioned roles of men and women and the belief that they have different kinds of brains and aptitudes would largely disappear. With the removal of the binary distinction between men and women, trans people could then regain the acceptance and even reverence that they enjoyed in primitive communism.
In the next instalment of this blog post series on Transgender Rights and Marxism – how did some feminists end up at war with trans people and what can we say now about fifty years of LGBT identity politics?