Transgender liberation, class politics & anarchism

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“It is a tragedy, I feel, that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which …. is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life.”

Emma Goldman  (prominent Lithuanian-American anarchist) 1916

Trans (or transgender) is a term for people whose gender identity and gender expression are different from the sex assigned to them at birth. Trans people have a history of receiving bigoted responses from some sections of the left, of the lesbian and gay community and some strands of feminism. One attack on transgender people has been based on the idea that trans people, by “changing gender”, reinforce existing rigid gender roles. Moving across borders of perceived gender does not reinforce existing gender-roles, any more than migration across borders of nation states reinforces the system of nation states. Many trans people are actively involved in fighting current, sexist gender stereotypes.

Anarchists believe that we will not achieve an equal society by ignoring issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia or by pretending that they will automatically be resolved by revolution. We do not tell minorities to wait until after the revolution for their demands to be met. We see class as the central and fundamental form of oppression, but we do not see it as the only form of unacceptable hierarchy and we do not see it as possible to separate class issues from those of gender, sexuality, race or sex. Trans liberation is a class issue. Wealthy trans people can, for example, afford private surgery, use private transport and choose where they live, thus avoiding potentially dangerous situations. We see means and ends as intrinsically linked, and so a revolutionary movement that does not actively oppose transphobia will merely end up replicating the same oppressions that exist under capitalism.

Anarchism is a form of socialism, which believes in individual freedom as well as collective organising. The right of each person to make decisions about what happens to their body and to express their gender in ways that are right for them as an individual are a fundamental part of that freedom. We support the right of oppressed groups of people to organise themselves autonomously for their own liberation and we believe that such groups have the right to ask for and receive solidarity from the rest of the working class. Transphobia, like homophobia, sexism and racism, serve the interests of the ruling class, by dividing us against each other. 

Recently, trans people have made huge progress in fighting for their liberation, and almost all major lesbian and gay organisations have become lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organisations. Trans people’s inclusion in those organisations has not been an easy battle though, despite the fact that transgender people (notably Sylvia Rivera) have been prominent in fighting for queer liberation, including in the Stonewall riots. One reason LGB organisations were reluctant to accept trans people was that they saw them as an obstacle to gaining respectability and becoming assimilated into mainstream capitalist society. Trans people are sometimes more visibly queer than lesbian and gay men, and in modern gay male culture, especially, there is an emphasis on gaining acceptance from straight people by being as traditionally masculine as possible.

Transgender people still face serious discrimination in jobs and housing. Trans people’s actual (chosen) gender is not recognised legally in Ireland, while 17 European countries demand forcible sterilisation of transgender people before granting legal recognition. Those trans people who do choose gender-realignment surgery are unable to access it in Ireland and have to travel to the UK. However not all trans people choose to undergo surgery and this does not make their gender identification any less legitimate. It is important to avoid reducing gender to a question of what genitals a person has. Persecution of minorities tends to increase in economic downturns and 539 trans people were murdered in Europe between 2008 and 2010. Transphobia must be fought wherever and in whatever form it appears. As anarchists, who do not practice electoralism, we are able to take a principled stand on unpopular issues, without worrying about it losing votes, and, as a result, we have a particular responsibility to take those stands.


This article is from Workers Solidarity 126, March 2012

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