Marxism beyond the binaries

Issue: 169

Paul Simpson

A review of Laura Miles, Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the Fight for Trans Liberation, Bookmarks (2020), £10.

It is rare indeed to get an extended, detailed account of the challenges that are faced by a highly marginalised social group across various societies and regions. It is rarer still today for such an account to be linked to socialism. The central argument of Transgender Resistance is that trans liberation is dependent on radical social, economic and political transformation. It makes the case that although huge challenges lie ahead, trans and non-binary individuals, their organisations and their allies have agency and the power to fight oppression.1

Transgender Resistance is well researched, well evidenced and well argued. It is highly engaging, clearly written and skilfully structured. The book proceeds from an analysis of the varying fortunes of trans people (or those thought to represent non-normative genders) over time (chapters 1-5); and, thereafter, it focuses on trans people in different places and cultures (chapters 6–9). It will be accessible to politically engaged readers and those prepared to extend their thinking and vocabulary, though a glossary of key terms is also helpfully provided. This is a book that writes to persuade, through evidence, argumentation and analysis. As befits its title, chapters 10 and 11 are devoted to political strategy. They develop an agenda for action, grounded in everyday material existence, that can move us beyond transphobia and the socio-economic inequalities that produce it.

Although the author claims that the countries and regions reviewed within the book are but a “snapshot”, readers are nonetheless given an interesting analysis of the various factors that make transphobia endemic—both in liberal democracies and more clearly authoritarian societies. We gain insight into how the global drive for economic exploitation (including neo-imperialist military intervention), buttressed by state legislation and conservative forces within organised religion, breed violence and hostility. In turn, these conditions restrict opportunities for transitioning and access to healthcare, as well as equal citizenship and social participation.

Chapter 6 draws attention to the oppressive effects of the medicalisation of trans people. Medicalisation contributes towards pathologisation of trans people as abnormal, ignoring the social provenance of oppression. Despite equalities legislation since 2010, transphobia remains endemic in Britain’s (partially) socialised health system. The author discusses issues that have been made controversial such as the ability of trans people to self-declare as the gender they feel describes them rather than having to depend on the decision of medical experts. Also discussed are children seeking help with gender identity, trans women and women-only spaces, and who counts as a woman. These concerns are usefully clarified and analysed in chapter 9. This chapter also deftly dismantles some of the most contradictory and egregious anti-trans views, and shows how they are premised on an ideology that both marginalises trans people and naturalises elite rule by the capitalist class.

It is no wonder that in many countries and regions, where authoritarian populist governments are in power, where socialised healthcare is lacking and where “alt-right” ideology and anti-LGBT+ vigilante groups are legitimised, that trans women are effectively forced into sex-work to survive or to support their transitioning process. Transitioning is sometimes highly restricted by either law or economic obstacles in countries such as the United States and South Korea. It is outlawed in countries such as Gambia, Malaysia, Nigeria and Uganda. Even where trans people are afforded some limited legal protection, they can be subject to widespread, and sometimes murderous, public hostility in countries such as Bangladesh, Brazil, Columbia, India, Pakistan and South Africa. Such public hostility and violence is also a part of the oppression that faces trans people in Britain, Europe and the US.

Transgender Resistance is a timely work. Trans and non-binary people face attacks from the left, right and centre of the political spectrum, including from some of those who describe themselves as “radical” or “socialist feminists”. Indeed, anti-trans prejudice has forged an unholy alliance between religious conservatives, the secular right and radical feminists. Their attacks are based on an essentialism that assumes that what we understand as gender is hard-wired. Some have questioned whether trans women are “real” women or a pathological category that risks erasing lesbians.2 Others have wondered whether they are, in reality, male sexual predators seeking access to women’s bodies in public toilets and other single-sex spaces.3 Whatever the accusations, as Miles argues in chapter 2, we have witnessed a backlash against trans people’s autonomy and their right to transition to the gender that is right for them.

Miles’s book is valuable for its critical examination of the many instances of biologically reductionist and transphobic rhetoric, myths and bogus claims. The author calmly rebuts these with clear, rational and well-supported arguments, especially in chapters 3 and 7. Miles also clarifies the complexities of biology as they affect gender. Proponents of transphobia miss these complexities due to their commitment to a simplistic biological determinism, in which biological sex is thought to determine who counts as a “real” man or woman and how we are expected to behave.

Miles also delivers a much needed challenge to two opposing groups of theories of gender. The first group argues that one’s gender is innate and solely a result of biology. The second claims that gender is a totally social or cultural construction—a human invention, informed by our understanding of “types” of people, that we have internalised. Miles argues that a Marxist position transcends this biology/social construction binary, and that each group of theories is inadequate by itself. These polarised, binary positions are at best unhelpful to our understandings of gender, and at worst both can legitimate oppression of trans people. Miles believes that biological science—itself not completely fixed because of ongoing advances in medical technologies—partially provides a material basis for gender. However, she argues that these factors need to be understood alongside an analysis of the social relations of production, and that social constructionist theories can provide an explanation of the historicity of gender—the way that it varies across time, place and culture. Social constructionist theory, as Miles indicates, began with Marxism and its theorising of historical variability. It provides insight into how the gender binary is much less natural than is claimed by the dominant ideology. That ideology stresses the centrality of the heteronormative family, which places constraints on women and excludes trans women. Moving beyond the biology/social construction dichotomy points towards a dialectical relationship between the material forces of biology and production relations on the one hand and the effects of culture and ideas on the other hand. This can also be conceptualised as the relationship between the material, economic basis of society and its political and cultural superstructure.

It is refreshing to engage with a book that recognises the fluidity of gender constructions in relation to trans and non-binary people and yet does not locate these constructions in free-floating ideas or “discourses”. Instead, Miles roots them firmly within a historical materialist analysis. This sort of approach has been sadly lacking over the past 30 years in academic studies and other professional forms of writing on gender and sexuality. By drawing attention to the different ways that trans people have been regarded across time, the book underlines the explanatory power of historical materialism. Miles’s work reminds us of the value of Marxist theory for dismantling the bourgeois explanation of history and the myth that societal development is set on a linear path towards ever-unfolding progress.

In fact we learn from Miles that hostility towards and oppression of sexually variant and gender-variant people has intensified under capitalism.4 That said, the book recognises that this oppression also increased under the totalitarian homophobia of the Stalinist Soviet Union, with its intolerance of “perversions”. Chapter 4 illustrates a range of class-based experiences of being trans that are uniquely contemporary, as well as forms of trans resistance that only students of history would encounter.

As an academic sociologist attracted to the discipline in the 1980s by the socialist critiques it offered of capitalism and LGBT+ oppression, I have been disappointed to witness the almost total dominance of neo-idealist, post-structuralist theories of gender and sexuality. These theories have been used especially to explain trans and non-binary experiences. Post-structuralist theorists tend to see the internalisation of ideology or “discourse” as animating subconscious behaviour but deny the effects of social structures and hierarchies that constrain expressions of gender and sexuality such as the class system.5 Although post-structuralism is very supportive of trans people, the only strategy it offers is endless self-referential transgression of gender, and it lacks a credible agenda for change. Miles presents a well argued alternative to such ways of thinking and could contribute to the reassertion of the value of structuralist, socialist analysis in studies of gender and sexuality.

Importantly, Miles uses the tools of Marxist analysis to understand trans and non-binary oppression as linked to political economy, class and race. This allows her to draw connections between trans liberation and other struggles such as those against austerity and the global rise of populism amid the failure of a centrist politics that has abandoned working-class communities. Because it makes links between trans oppression and these broader issues of socio-economic organisation, Miles’s analysis could help take discussions of gender, sexuality and trans and non-binary people out of their current intellectual ghetto. With its arcane, exclusionary language, this is a ghetto that post-structuralism has had a big hand in creating.

The last two chapters are particularly enlightening. They argue that an adequate theory of oppression is a necessary starting point for practical socialist politics. Chapter 10 provides a very thoughtful critique of various theories that suggest a path to a more egalitarian society that values difference. Miles analytically works through the false promises and failures of identity politics, post-modernist thought, queer theory, privilege theory and intersectional theory. Clearly explaining all of these theories, Miles stresses that although such ideas are supportive of trans people, they tend to de-emphasise the centrality of class in producing oppression and lack a theory of social and political transformation and a corresponding praxis. For instance, post-modernism has much to say about the transgressive character of trans and its capacity to trouble or de-naturalise the gender binary. However, it can also tend to erase the everyday brutalities that trans people have to face, from hostility and violence to lack of access to services. It is thus questionable how useful such thinking is to working-class people who are struggling to navigate a complex health system in order to begin the process of transitioning, with all the surveillance and intrusion by state agencies that this involves. As Miles argues, theories that overlook the material conditions of existence and relations of production can only provide ideas for action based on localised, individualistic forms of resistance that cannot deliver collective emancipation.

I have only one minor criticism of the book. Miles could have employed the Marxist analysis elaborated by the Italian revolutionary and theorist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci maintained that the ruling elite needs to constantly manufacture the consent of subordinated classes in order to rule. Gramsci referred to this ideological domination as “hegemony”. Hegemony is secured through constant persuasion that there is no alternative to capitalism and through the masking of exploitative relations of production and marginalisation of oppressed people. Gramsci’s analysis could have been deployed to explain how capitalist social organisation perpetuates and normalises transphobia through elite ownership and control of the media and culture industries. It might also have helped to explain why, despite a few attempts at positive representation, cultural institutions tend to neglect the issue of trans and non-binary people, thus failing to confront ignorance and hostility.

In summary, this is an engaging and thought-provoking book that reasserts the value of structuralist analysis of gender and sexuality. It sees that social organisation produces oppression and draws a radical implication from this: that social reorganisation could end oppression. It provides a thorough historical materialist analysis of the variable fortunes of those thought to represent non-normative genders and sexualities across time and place. The book will be an invaluable resource for trans people and anyone wishing to support them through work, activism or friendship. It is a tool for those who want to rebut transphobic hostility. Chapters 8–10 offer a resource for political activists to think with, even if they do not identify as socialists. Miles extends and deepens our knowledge of transphobia and trans resistance, and she expands Marxist theory to a realm that it has largely overlooked.

Paul Simpson is a former university lecturer in the sociology of health who publishes mainly in the field of sexuality and gender in later life, with an emphasis on social class influences. Using analysis informed by socialism, he has also published on the health ideas and practices of working-class men.


1 The term “trans” itself is used to denote a spectrum of gender expressions ranging from self-declaration in a non-given gender to those who have undergone full reassignment. “Non-binary” refers to people who describe themselves neither as cisgender (in line with given gender) nor as trans but of another kind. There are various expressions of this. Some people may describe themselves as “agender”—a category through which they resist being reduced to a social “type” according to their reproductive potential.

2 The transgender feminist Julia Serano has responded to these arguments—see Serano, 2007.

3 For an account of these accusations, see Earles, 2019.

4 See also McIntosh, 1981.

5 See Fraser, 1997.


Earles, Jennifer, 2019, “The ‘Penis Police’: Lesbian and Feminist Spaces, Trans Women, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System”, Journal of Lesbian Studies, volume 23, issue 2.

Fraser, Nancy, 1997, “Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler”, Social Text, issues 52-53.

McIntosh, Mary, 1981, “The Homosexual Role”, in Ken Plummer (ed), The Making of the Modern (Hutchinson).

Serano, Julia, 2007, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Seal Press).