Alex Burnett reviews Transgender Marxism, a book which exposes the false narrative of opposition between the transgender community and the working class
CW: Transphobia, racism, disablism
On 21 March, less than two weeks after Republican legislators introduced the 82nd US anti-trans bill of 2021, University of California professor Catherine Liu tweeted disparagingly about pronoun introductions to her predominantly left-leaning followers. Pitting working-class socialism and trans justice against each other, Liu described hearing that “service union workers” had left a meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organisation in the US, after being asked to introduce themselves with their pronouns.
Transgender Marxism, edited by Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke, boldly challenges this notion that trans people have no place in working-class life or Marxist politics. Featuring 16 original essays written by trans writers from around the globe, Transgender Marxism reveals poor and working-class trans people have made – and are still making – transformational contributions to revolutionary struggles and Marxist theorising. Primarily centered around the UK and US, Transgender Marxism demonstrates trans politics’ emancipatory potential, the shallowness of trans-antagonistic socialism and the emptiness of liberal transgender politics exclusively working towards legal equality under racial capitalism.
Liu’s Twitter comments about pronoun introductions falsely portrayed trans inclusivity as an elitist fad championed by wealthy, out-of-touch culture warriors, rather than mostly poor and working-class trans activists. Though it has been reported that in the US, trans people overwhelmingly work low-wage service sector jobs, Liu implied pronoun introductions maliciously exclude (presumably cisgender) service union workers from socialist politics. Ironically, anti-trans bigots celebrated Liu, for ‘authentically’ representing working-class attitudes regarding transness. On one online forum dedicated to “gender critical feminism”– an anti-trans hate movement reliant on white supremacist ideologies and neo-Nazi support – users defended Liu by portraying trans people as uniformly rich, delusional and hindering working-class struggle. As one poster wrote, using both disablist and transphobic language, “Most working-class people think this trans thing is insanity, and extremely stupid to attack people for being so stupid to think female=woman and male=man.”
In an ambitious introduction to Transgender Marxism, Gleeson persuasively argues that trans Marxism has long existed in “esoteric and fleeting outlets” – from trans communist Leslie Feinberg’s writings about transgender history, to zines circulating among queer organisers. Instead of presenting herself as trans Marxism’s authoritative and singular inventor, Gleeson positions herself as a sympathetic curator of “gender deviant Marxist thought”. As such, Gleeson welcomes a wide range of perspectives across the Marxist tradition, privileging rigorous debate grounded in historical materialism over dogmatic orthodoxy. Through “thinking with Marx” regarding “sinister” for-profit gender clinics, trans workers’ differentially racialised and criminalised labour and trans children’s mass expulsion from heterosexual families, Gleeson previews some of the urgent topics Transgender Marxism explores.
The book hits its stride when discussing reproductive labour, which University of California professor Evelyn Nakano Glenn defines as the “array of activities involved in maintaining people both on a daily basis and intergenerationally” – whether unpaid childcare performed by parents or paid service work undertaken by nurses and nannies.
In Transgender Marxism’s second essay, US-based Marxist feminist Noah Zazanis extends Marxist feminist theories of reproductive labour with the goal of understanding “how trans identities are formed”. After noting cisgender Marxist feminists often portray “gender […] as a structure imposed onto its subjects”, Zazanis convincingly argues trans people exert “individual and collective agency” over our gender identities. Applying insights from social cognition theory, Zazanis contends “trans people assist other trans people in the development of our identities” via providing reproductive labour for each other—emotional support, transition advice, housing and so on. Crucially, Zazanis recognises that this trans reproductive labour “looks different across race and class lines, due to the historical and ongoing segregation of trans circles”. Citing US-based Black and brown trans women-led organisations, like No Justice No Pride and GLITS Inc., which provide various kinds of financial and legal support for their members, Zazanis portrays trans reproductive labour as a resistant means of surviving a hostile world.
Several chapters later, Edinburgh-based poet Nat Raha presents trans reproductive labour in more ambivalent terms. Although Raha agrees that trans people caring for each other constitutes resistance, especially for “feminised people of colour” facing “murderous” state violence, she persuasively argues such care work is also “unpaid labour,” which disproportionately falls upon “femme/feminized, trans, poor, disabled, sex worker, and/or (of) colour people” within queer communities. This contradiction – between reproductive labour’s liberating and exploitative potential – guides Raha’s insightful reading of Wages Due Lesbians, an affiliate of the Wages For Housework Movement and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a trans liberation group that provided housing for mostly Latinx and Black homeless transfeminine youth. Both organisations demanded guaranteed universal services – “free education, healthcare, clothing, food, transportation, and housing for transvestites […] gay street youth and all oppressed people”, as STAR put it. Politicians slashed redistributive public programmes and linked life sustaining benefits, such as access to private healthcare, to the heterosexual nuclear family. Contrastingly, as US-based writer Zoe Belinsky reveals five chapters later, STAR fought for something far different – a society that unconditionally cares for poor, Black and brown transfeminine sex workers: the people most likely to give care without receiving enough in return.
Transgender Marxism’s anti-austerity arguments feel urgent after reading the collection’s excellent autoethnographic pieces. In the book’s third essay, US-based psychoanalyst Michelle O’Brien calls for more writing about “trans people’s experiences of work” – a call UK-based writer JN Hoad fulfills in their chapter about working “pitilessly paid” service jobs in Lancaster specifically. Describing their transition as “a series of encounters” between hostile strangers and their rapidly changing body, Hoad presents gendered street harassment and public-facing service work as inextricably linked. “Navigating social worlds of alienation, enforced heterosexuality, and class division,” whether on public transport or a shop floor, requires “laborious care” and constant self-monitoring. Such emotional work, US-based writer Nathaniel Dickinson claims three chapters later, includes childcare, as Dickinson recalls fighting intensely for his trans child’s medical needs amidst poverty and crushing student debt.
While Hoad and Dickinson mostly focus on wage and familial labour, Farah Thompson centralises social movement labour in her insightful account of her transition and radicalisation. After detailing her struggles “matching an ever-shifting ideal” of how a Black trans woman “should” behave, Thompson describes joining anti-war, Occupy and sex worker movements, where she “saw in real time how socialist organizing gave people frameworks to care for others and advance their interests in a common struggle”.
However, Thompson convincingly argues that leftists and liberals often turn Black trans women into one-dimensional symbols of militant radicalism, who “service some purpose which is not our own”. Instead of ignoring Black trans women’s material needs, obsessively policing their behaviour, or fetishising their bodies, Thompson argues those who consider themselves her co-conspirators should understand “love” as “a verb”, which requires concrete interpersonal action and a political commitment to seizing power in the face of escalating fascist violence.
As Thompson’s essay suggests, Transgender Marxism productively critiques liberal queer and trans politics, led by white and wealthy professionals, which imagines inclusion in the military, multinational corporations and marriage will magically end anti-trans oppression. San-Francisco based communist Anja Heisler Weiser Flower’s chapter on proletariat trans women most explicitly challenges trans liberalism, arguing “the flight path to transgender liberation can only be the path to communism”. Indicting nonprofits, the “cis-dominated gay and lesbian movement” and universities for de-radicalising trans liberation movements and leaving working-class trans women without adequate political alternatives to bourgeoise reformism, Flower charts “speculative” ways “trans and cis proletarians can overcome their mutual estrangement and form a global revolutionary class.” By building an independent proletariat organisation that understands transness “as a mediation of class”, Flower claims trans communists can avoid “false solutions”, like rainbow capitalism, in their quest for communist gender liberation.
While Flower expresses suspicion towards nonprofits and legalistic tactics, describing them as “the left wing of capitalist politics” that emphasize “service provision, repressive population management, and ideological control” over the proletariat, Virginia Guitzel offers a more sympathetic view of electoral tactics in her analysis of Brazilian trans politics. After critiquing a capitalist trans political agenda that “points to consumption as the only viable ‘solution’”, Guitzel argues trans communists should organise “a revolutionary party rooted in the working class with a strategy that brings together the tactical struggles in parliament, in trade unions and social movements to strengthen the power of the working class”.
That Gleeson and O’Rourke would bring in such strikingly divergent takes on electoral strategy as Guitzel’s, highlights Transgender Marxism’s commitment to tactical disagreement within trans communism. Instead of presenting trans communism as a monolithic entity without internal struggles, Transgender Marxism emphasises the unresolved debates between trans communists about how to engage with the state.
Transgender Marxism will not satisfy all readers, as Gleeson warns in her introduction. Though Gleeson and O’Rourke “aimed to include a global range of perspectives”, the vast majority of Transgender Marxism’s authors hail from – and focus their analysis on – the UK and US. Readers interested in “gender variant Marxist thought” from the African continent or – the connections between migration, global capitalism and gender transition – will have to look elsewhere.
Members of the mostly US-based “dirtbag left” of self-proclaimed anti-capitalists who portray gender and racial justice as divisive distractions from working-class struggle, will likely find Transgender Marxism frustrating. In their essay on socialist strategy, lecturer Kate Doyle Griffiths launches an extended critique of dirtbag leftists’ “class-first” political vision, arguing “for the strategic necessity of organizing queer and trans workers” as part of a “deeper, more thoroughgoing, universalist politics”. Though Griffiths reframes trans workers as valuable contributors to socialist workplace and community campaigns, I imagine many dirtbag leftists would not meaningfully engage with Griffiths’ arguments, considering movement leaders’ well documented hostility to trans people.
Even though Transgender Marxism will not please everyone, that doesn’t make it less of a monumental intellectual achievement. Alongside Jules Gill-Peterson’s compelling essay about communist internet aesthetics and white trans women’s sexualised racism, Transgender Marxism emerges as one of the most sophisticated analyses of trans people’s relationship with Marxism published in 2021.