Amid a growing assault on trans people, Laura Miles’ new book Transgender Resistance calls for people to take a stand against oppression.
It aims to “fill in the gap in socialist literature on trans oppression”.
It argues that “the fight for liberation from oppression and the task of transforming the capitalist system are in reality the same fight”.
The book comes against the backdrop of growing visibility of trans people in films, music and wider society.
But Laura argues that the “flip side of greater trans visibility has been the development of a disturbing backlash”. “From around the middle of 2016,” she writes, “a significant assault has been mounted on trans people’s rights and aspirations.”
The number of murders and killings of trans people worldwide has risen in the last three years from 295 in 2016 to 369 in 2018.
Surveys in the US and elsewhere have shown that between 25 and 43 percent of trans people have attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
And social attitudes are more hostile than towards LGBT+ people in general.
In Britain the debate over trans oppression has been focused around the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Laura says that “hostile commentators have been lining up to oppose fairly limited proposals to amend” the law that would make it easier for trans people to self-identify.
Chapters in Transgender Resistance go through the debates around the GRA in detail.
But the book’s broader aim is to locate trans oppression in class society and capitalism.
Laura writes that trans people “stimulate a fundamental angst” over “the common sense about gender and sex”.
But people’s ideas about gender are not “immaculately conceived from thin air”. They flow from material conditions—how production is organised, and the social relations between the rulers and ruled in a class society such as capitalism.
This is at the heart of debates around how socialists should respond to the fight for trans rights.
Laura argues against what she calls an “essentialist idea about gender and sexuality”.
“They don’t reflect truths at all but rather ideological claims that serve the interests of the dominant class,” she writes.
An essentialist view thinks that sex is biologically determined in a binary way and that gender follows suit. This comes out in a transphobic argument that biological sex means trans women aren’t really women.
Laura writes that people sometimes look to science to “hunt down ‘fundamental’ genetic or brain structure differences between males and females.
“Those attracted to this myth of an apparently neat, essentialist binary gulf might be disappointed to discover that life really isn’t that simple.”
That’s “even at a biological level, let alone when it comes to sexuality, gender and gender identity”.
A small minority of people are born with intersex conditions. But the medical profession largely has not accepted these variations and tends to advocate surgical or hormonal treatment on young infants.
Many intersex organisations regard that as oppressive. And intersex people are considered to suffer similarly to the way others who face oppression on the basis of sexuality or gender identity. That’s one reason why “I” for intersex is often added to variations of the LGBT+ acronym.
But Laura warns people not to fall into the trap of seeing intersex and transgender as the same thing, citing the example of South African athlete Caster Semenya.
Semenya was subject to a professional association ruling that said she had to take hormone blockers to reduce her testosterone levels to continue competing.
“She does not claim to be transgender and almost certainly has an intersex condition that means her body naturally generates testosterone at relatively high levels,” writes Laura.
“Transgender relates to a person’s gender identity and is not the same as having an intersex condition.
“Intersex relates to a physical condition whereas being transgender relates to a lack of a ‘fit’ between a person’s birth-assigned gender and their sense of gender identity.”
So what is gender identity? Laura argues, “Gender identity is much more than a ‘feeling’ as it is sometimes described rather dismissively in trans-critical and transphobic narratives.
“It is the outcome of interactions of a person’s self-perceived body.
“It’s their biological sex, the social perception of their body in the eyes of others, social factors like gender values and expectations, and finally a person’s development as a sexual being with sexual attractions and sexual needs.”
Laura argues that evidence that gender is hardwired into the brain is weak.
She writes that the way children are nurtured and raised “is flexible and depends on the social order into which they are born.”
This is backed up in the book by substantial sections of history showing how ideas around gender have changed.
Evidence from archaeology and anthropology shows that women’s oppression did not exist in pre-class hunter gatherer or foraging societies. “In such societies,” says Laura “male and female roles might differ due to differentiated biological abilities.
“But this would not necessarily mean significant differences in social status or power between the genders.”
Laura adds that evidence shows a greater variety and fluidity to gender roles. “Being a particular sex could lead to a variety of gender roles and choices of gender as ascribed by particular societies,” she writes.
This changed with the rise of class society. Laura explains, “Men increasingly came to control the forces of production as agriculture was developed and more children were needed to work the land.
“Women’s reproductive and infant nurturing roles largely precluded the possibility of continuous heavy labour in the fields,” she writes.
Men were able to accumulate greater wealth as they controlled and traded the surpluses made possible by agricultural society and women were increasingly restricted to privatised family units.
With the subjugation of women came far more rigid gender roles.
The institution of the family began to regulate sexuality.
Capitalism, based on mass production outside the family unit, pushed women and children into the factories and threatened to break apart the working class family.
Yet capitalists still needed the family to reproduce the next generation of workers.
So in the late 19th century rules were brought in to enforce the idea of a “nuclear family”.
During this period abortion was banned and the term “homosexuality” was first used. Same sex relations were seen to threaten the family and the idea of sex for procreation not pleasure.
The family has undergone many changes under captalism. But it remains resilient.
Some socialists and feminists argue that a Marxist explanation about the rise of class society and origins of oppression means we shouldn’t say trans women are women.
The argument essentially reduces this analysis to the biological differences between male and female bodies.
Laura argues against an approach to the argument that sees it as a choice between a biologically determined view of gender and one that sees it as just a social construct.
She takes on one argument from radical feminists that says trans women have been socialised differently and have not experienced sexism.
She explains that it’s useful to look at how people interact when meeting for the first time. They don’t inspect people’s sex. People will often “read a person they meet as the gender they are presenting”.
“The social perception of a person as a man or a woman is the key determinant in interactions shaped by expectations driven by patterns of oppression in a society,” she writes.
“Gender is not merely the social face of biological sex and is conceptually distinct from a person’s sex.
“The term ‘woman’ should therefore be inclusive and cover trans women and vice versa for the term ‘man’ and trans man.”
One of the things that distinguishes a Marxist approach to oppression is the idea that it has not always existed.
Laura says we can have a society without oppression—but that means overturning the whole system and fighting for human liberation.