Transgender oppression and resistance

Issue: 141

Laura Miles

In July 2013 Bradley Manning, the American soldier who passed thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks in protest at US military operations in the Middle East, was sentenced to 35 years in Fort Leavenworth military prison.1 The day after sentencing Manning caused a media sensation by announcing that she had had gender identity issues since childhood and from now on was to be known as Chelsea Manning and that she intended to pursue gender transition.2 She now faces many difficult years in a US military prison and a long struggle to access medical support from an institution which is under no obligation to provide her with the medical care that a transgender person may need.3

Early in 2013 transgender schoolteacher Lucy Meadows, who was undergoing gender transition, killed herself after being ridiculed in a Daily Mail column by Richard Littlejohn, who repeatedly referred to her as “he” and argued that she was “not only in the wrong body…but in the wrong job”.4 The coroner at her inquest singled out the adverse media attention as a contributory factor to the intolerable pressures she had experienced.

On 24 August 2013 20 year old Australian transgender activist and revolutionary socialist Amber Maxwell took her own life after years of transphobic oppression,5 finding it impossible to get permanent employment or stable housing. Australian surveys of LGBTI people (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) have found suicide rates between 3.5 and 14 times higher than their heterosexual counterparts.6 A study in the US by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 41 percent of 6,450 trans people surveyed in 2010 had attempted suicide compared to 1.6 percent of the general US population.7

The situation is just as bad in the UK. A Press for Change survey in 2007 for the Equalities Review found that 73 percent of trans people surveyed had experienced public harassment including violence: 19 percent had experienced GPs refusing to help or being unwilling to access gender reassignment services, 29 percent had been refused treatment by doctors or nurses who objected to their trans status, and a staggering 35 percent had attempted suicide at least once.8 This is twice the rate reported for a similarly vulnerable group of people who had suffered childhood abuse and trauma. A 2012 survey by the Scottish Transgender Alliance and Sheffield Hallam University found that 84 percent of trans people surveyed had thought of suicide, 27 percent thought of it during the week prior to the survey, one in three had attempted suicide, one in four more than once.9

These studies and examples illustrate the high levels of institutional and societal transphobia that transgender people commonly face. Despite capitalism’s ability to accommodate certain limited formal and legal rights in respect of transgender people the extent of such rights falls well short of what socialists mean by liberation and, like all such measures, they exist on sufferance as far as the ruling class are concerned.

How socialists approach the question of fighting oppressions like transphobia is not an abstract matter. It goes to the heart of how we work with oppressed groups and individuals such as trans people and how we persuade them to become part of building a mass united working class movement to overthrow capitalism and create a socialist society.


Many people, including many on the left, will be unfamiliar with transgender terminology and may find gender variant drives or desires hard to comprehend. Many may also be unsure how to address a trans person to avoid giving offence. There are certainly terms which should be understood as deeply offensive—examples include “she-male” or “he-male”, “tranny”, “gender bender”. More acceptable terms, such as “trans” and “transgender” should, however, only be used as adjectives, not nouns—a person is a trans person, not “a trans” or “a transgender”. In general a trans person should be addressed by whichever pronoun, “he” or “she”, is applicable to their gender presentation, and by their chosen name, never a former name if you happen to know it. It is also deeply offensive to refer to a trans person by their former gender pronoun (he, she), although most trans people will understand the difficulties and slip ups that this may sometimes lead to if someone may have known them in their former gender. If there is doubt about the gender of a person or about how they might want to be addressed, asking them sensitively how they want to be addressed stands a good chance of resolving the matter.

Most trade unions now have model trans rights at work policies which will give all sorts of guidance about trans issues, providing representation for a trans person and so on. The TUC publishes guidance from The Gender Trust online10 and various organisations such as Press for Change11 have very useful glossaries of terms, information and advice.

Transgender terminology can be problematic because, like language in general, it continually evolves. New terms emerge and others shift their meaning. For example, in addition to the term transgender, “cisgender” or “cis” has more recently come into use to refer to those people whose gender identity is consistent with their assigned birth gender. Cis is seen as the antonym of trans. Some trans people may still use the term straight rather than cisgender, or may more commonly use “gender normative.”

The term “transsexual” was originally a medical term of diagnosis coined in the post Second World War period which came to be applied to a person who had “Gender Identity Disorder” (GID) as defined within the psychiatrist’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association, and it tends to retain this medical sense more so than the term “transgender”. The latest edition of the DSM (DSM-_5_, published in May 2013) has signalled a change of thinking about gender identity in that the outmoded diagnosis of GID has been replaced with “Gender Dysphoria” defined as a mismatch between a person’s inner sense of gender identity and their biological sex.12 A gender dysphoria diagnosis is still required as a condition of access to NHS support for gender affirmation—what used to be called “sex change” surgery.

The terms “transgender” or “trans” are fairly broad and include anyone who expresses aspects of gender variant or gender diverse behaviour or desires and who may or may not wish to pursue gender transition. Such people might include drag queens and kings, crossdressers, genderqueer people and others. Those who do transition may be “MTF” (male-to-female) or “FTM” (female-to-male).

However, some trans people may not want to describe themselves by such binary terms and might describe themselves as “genderqueer”13 or gender diverse or just as queer instead. On the other hand, some other trans people are wary of using the term queer because of its associations with homophobia in the past and because they recognise that you don’t change thinking and ideas by changing words. Most trade unions do not include queer in the title of their equality organisations.

When discussing gender transition the media often use terms like “sex change” or “sex swap” but these are inaccurate and sensationalist. Trans people used to use the term “gender reassignment” but most now prefer the term “gender affirmation”.

The extent of gender variance

In recent years increasing numbers of trans people have sought support. The number of children and young people doing so has increased very significantly. In 2012 there were about 600 such referrals in the UK, more than double previous years.

According to a survey by the Gender Identity Research and Education Society in 2009 there are around 1,500 to 1,600 new referrals to gender identity clinics in the UK each year and the figures are increasing by about 15 percent per annum.14 Several thousand trans people (not all of whom have had gender affirmation surgery) have taken advantage of the Gender Recognition Act (2004) which granted transsexual people certain basic legal rights and the opportunity to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (on fulfilment of certain criteria) which is intended to confer complete confidentiality about a person’s gender history as well as the right to a new birth certificate.

While there are clearly fewer trans people than there are lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) people there are nevertheless many millions worldwide and in recent decades more and more have sought to live outside the closet. GIRES estimates that there are around 500,000 trans people in the UK if one assumes equal numbers of male-assigned and female-assigned people in the trans population, and if one uses a broad definition to include transsexual people, regular and occasional crossdressers, various gender variant people, drag queens and drag kings. This suggests around 600 people per 100,000 of the population—a small proportion but a large absolute number.

Contrary to popular mythology by no means all trans people want medical support for transition. For many trans people, altering their body is not part of their gender expression. Some may want hormone treatment but not surgery.

Space does not permit a detailed examination of the causes, or etiology, of some people’s gender variant desires and behaviour. Suffice to say that a smorgasbord of causation has been suggested from various quarters such as insensitivity or hyper-sensitivity to pre-natal hormones, various genetic anomalies, having the “wrong” brain, incomplete parental bonding, the failure to resolve unconscious parent/child conflicts (a perennial Freudian favourite), the effects of pesticides, or for those with religious or millenarian tendencies, a consequence of the spread of moral debauchery and even a sign of the imminence of the coming apocalypse. Assuming that the apocalypse is not about to intervene, this article will concentrate on the politics of trans oppression.

Transgender, intersex conditions and sexual orientation

At birth, in practice, doctors and nurses ascribe gender on the basis of what an infant’s genitals look like rather than checking the child’s chromosomes to see whether they are XX (female), XY (male) or something else. There are, however, anomalies and exceptions throughout the natural world, including humankind, to the biological binary that occur more frequently than may generally be appreciated.15 People may in fact be born with a variety of intersex conditions. In the past these have sometimes been described by the inaccurate, offensive and outmoded term “hermaphrodite”. Such medical conditions may arise from insensitivity to the male hormone androgen, chromosomal or genetic inconsistencies with one’s apparent physical sex, or a number of other biological conditions.

The medical profession in capitalist society, however, has generally been unwilling to accept such variation. Medical practitioners traditionally have sought to use the technological sophistication available to them to surgically and/or hormonally intervene to ensure that such people will best fit one gender category or the other, almost exclusively without allowing the person concerned to exercise any choice in the matter. This means carrying out procedures on infants that are difficult or impossible to reverse. Many intersex people and organisations regard this as unwarranted and intrusive at best and a form of genital mutilation at worst.16

Being trans, however, is not the same as having an intersex condition. A trans person is extremely unlikely to have any biological manifestations such as chromosomal or endocrinal inconsistencies. Some researchers in recent years have claimed that structural brain differences have been found in male to female transsexuals.17 It is claimed that tiny areas of the hypothalamus or other structures in the brains of trans women have been found to have similarities to the brains of genetic women. Many trans people find this possibility very attractive. However, the evidence for such male/female differences is weak and contested.

Some studies that claim to have found differences have used post-mortem brain samples of transsexuals. What can be overlooked when these studies are promoted by neuropundits is that the numbers of subjects are small and often they (MTF usually) will have been on significant oestrogen medication for many years. Not the least of the criticisms of these brain-fishing expeditions using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron emission tomography) scans is that our behaviour, personality and desires cannot be read off from claimed physical differences in localised areas of the brain. Correlation between various stimulants and activity in areas of the brain is not the same as causation. What we do know about the brain is that it is highly complex, integrated and continually adapting and changing.18

Gender identity and sexual orientation

It is essential to distinguish between sexual orientation (whom we may be sexually attracted to) and our gender identity. They are conceptually and practically distinct. In the past many sexologists, campaigners and doctors were keen to conflate gender identity and sexual orientation. Think of the slurs that implied that gay men must be effeminate, or lesbians must have masculine tendencies. Trans people may, of course, be gay, straight, bisexual, asexual or pansexual.19 Conversely, homosexuality or bisexuality does not connote any incongruence between a person’s biological sex and their gender identity. Most gay people seem to be as secure in their gender identity as most straight people are.

Nevertheless, sexual orientation and gender identity are intertwined. First, some trans people will also be gay or bisexual and these issues of sexual orientation, and the associated homophobia, will interact with the person’s gender identity and associated transphobia.

Secondly, a trans person’s sexual orientation will be regarded differently if they transition from one gender to another, assuming their sexuality does not change in the process (which it usually does not). Someone who was a pre-transition gay man becomes, in society’s eyes, a straight woman. A formerly straight (in terms of sexual orientation) transgender genetic woman, who remains attracted to men, becomes a gay man on transition. In this sense sexuality and gender, while conceptually distinct, cannot be neatly and separately packaged in terms of societal perceptions and reactions.

Homophobia and transphobia are thus co-related. The growing recognition of this co-relation is one of the factors which justified the development of collective campaigning and organising since the 1990s under the acronym LGBT—lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.20

Medical issues

Having to deal with the medical establishment has been and remains a source of great stress and difficulty for many trans people. In the UK, for a trans person to have any chance of accessing NHS support, she or he must convince psychiatrists and the relevant gender identity clinic (of which there are very few) that they have a medical condition called “gender dysphoria”. Hormones and genital surgery are nominally available on the NHS but to access them requires a minimum of two years while the person is required to undergo the “real life test” and live in role, that is, to dress and live publicly in their desired gender. This can prove to be hugely difficult for the continuity of any employment, housing and personal relationships. Genital surgery, hormones, cosmetic procedures and electrolysis to remove unwanted hair such as beard growth for genetic males are accessible privately if the trans person has money. But access is very much a class issue. Many countries still have few or no facilities for trans people, and few provide treatment as part of state funded healthcare.

Thus trans people who wish to transition must overcome many hurdles and face numerous gatekeepers. The impact of funding cuts for waiting times, helplines, homelessness organisations, LGBT support groups, reduced access to education through Education Maintenance Allowance cuts and tuition fee rises, cuts to housing benefit, etc mean that life for many trans people could get even harder.

Nevertheless, there have been improvements. For around a hundred years until the last quarter of the 20th century in the West the medical establishment generally and wrongly regarded gender variance as an aspect of homosexuality,21 which itself was characterised, even on the left, as something genetic, even as evidence of a third sex.

One of the predictable downsides of this was that many doctors and psychiatrists regarded evidence of trans desires or behaviour as pathological symptoms of a mental illness worthy of incarceration in mental institutions and the application of aversion therapy through the use of electric shocks or nausea-inducing drugs. This continued up to the 1960s and 1970s. Most trans people had no choice but to stay in the closet and try to suppress their gender variance. It is heartbreaking to read some of the desperate letters that trans people wrote to doctors and scientists throughout much of the 20th century asking for help and advice and access to gender surgery which just did not exist in most countries at the time.22

Susan Stryker describes this period as one in which the first gay rights (and women’s rights) movements became stalled and both homosexuality and gender variance became increasingly medicalised, pathologised and legally proscribed.23

In the US laws had been passed in some states such as California and New York in the mid-19th century to enforce gender specific dress codes and even hair length. These were often strengthened in the first half of the 20th century, aimed not only at men but also in response to first wave feminism and the conflation of women wearing trousers with demands for female emancipation and women’s rights. Much of the hostility was directed at men failing to be “masculine” enough, but there was also deep suspicion directed at women who transgressed such gender codes. There are many examples of biological women who as adults lived their lives in stealth as men (“passing women”) and who were not discovered to be biologically female until after their death. Many of these penal codes persisted until quite recently and were used to criminalise, in particular, crossdressing men. Wearing less than three items of gender-appropriate attire meant a person could be subject to arrest. Such codes were used to harass gender variant people such as crossdressers and drag queens and were one of the causes of the pent-up frustrations and anger that triggered the watershed Stonewall rebellion and other acts of resistance in the 1960s.

The social construction of gender

It is tempting to suggest that sex and gender are only simple if you are an earthworm. People, however, are about as different from earthworms as you can get.

Many trans people have tended to take a highly essentialist view of gender identity, which treats gender as somehow natural and given—”a man’s mind in a woman’s body”, “a woman’s mind in a man’s body”. A glance at a selection of trans people’s autobiographies will confirm this.24 Transgender is also often presented in the media in this over-simplified way.

In this view a transgender person’s problem is that somehow the wrong switch got thrown at some point early in life and they now need to find ways to get back to the gender they were really supposed to have been. Since this could have happened to anyone and is beyond the individual’s control the trans person should not be penalised and should be enabled to live life in the gender of their choosing. “Gender dysphoria” should therefore open the door to appropriate treatment which might include hormones, genital and cosmetic surgery, counselling and so on, to enable the person to live in their gender of choice.

Socialists, of course, defend the right of trans people to live freely in their chosen gender but there are serious problems inherent in such an essentialist approach to gender identity. An alternative view starts by recognising that our biological, chromosomal sex can be thought of as analogous to other physical characteristics that we inherit—skin colour, eye colour, and so on. Most people’s gender identity (their deeply rooted sense of being male or female) will be in accordance with this. However, for trans people there is a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity.

For everyone, though, trans and gender-straight (or cisgendered people), our gender is socially constructed in a dialectical relationship with our material circumstances and is to some extent fluid. People’s self-identification and self-description (including trans people’s) can change and develop over time. There is a certain fluidity because our identities are structured within given material, historical and cultural frameworks such as the class relations dominant within a given mode of production like capitalism.

It is the material circumstances in which we are required to live under the capitalist system which distort and limit everyone’s gender role and gender identity by seeking to constrain us within a binary gender straitjacket in a system dominated by the ideology of the nuclear family. As a result we are all alienated,25 to a greater or lesser extent, from each other, from ourselves and from our true humanity.

Trans people are highly motivated to resist that gender straitjacket, which suggests that, while gender identity may not be fixed and unchanging, it is deeply rooted in us; otherwise trans people could presumably be socialised out of our gender variant behaviour and identity. Everyone, after all, is showered in cot-loads of gender conformative reinforcement from the moment of birth. Conversely, this also suggests that in a saner and freer world many different gender expressions and arrangements for living together could be possible outside the nuclear family structure and the gender binary.

The nuclear family is crucial to capitalism for the continued accumulation of profit, as will be discussed later. One of the greatest cruelties of capitalism for all oppressed people is that it possesses the practical and material potential for our liberation from oppression. Yet by its pursuit of profit maximisation the ruling class is driven to deny the possibility of such fulfilment to the vast majority of the world’s population.

It follows from this approach that for Marxists “the trans person” is as much a social construction as “the homosexual”, traceable to a particular (but not the same) historical period, mode of production, and material conditions. One of the problems with essentialist views is that they ignore such changing material circumstances and tend to regard the ideas of a given period as having always been just so, ie they are both idealist and ahistorical. On the contrary, Marx argued that ideas in society emerge from the material circumstances of the production of goods and necessities and from the reproduction of labour power itself. As material conditions change, so will the prevailing ideas.

The existence of considerable gender variant desires and behaviour in very many societies, from pre-history to the present, is well documented.26 Based on this evidence we can claim with some confidence that transphobia has not always existed. It was the development from hunter-gatherer clan societies to patrilinear class societies, and more recently the emergence of capitalism and the nuclear family, which led to the increasing oppression of women, gays and transgender people.

Transgender communities

Communities of trans people have existed for centuries in some societies, such as the numerous katoey of Thailand—who are often referred to as “ladyboys” and who often exist through entertaining tourists and the sex industry. Another community are the hijra in India,27 who have a very long history but who now generally live a marginal communal existence surviving through begging and sex work. In reality such groups are tolerated rather than accepted or celebrated. Their very marginal existence, excluded from mainstream employment, housing and families, typifies the situation of more isolated trans people in other societies. At least where there are trans communities there can be company and practical support.

Thus many trans people’s employment options are extremely limited and they may be effectively forced into hustling, prostitution and the sex industry.28 There are particular niche markets which trans people may find in prostitution and pornography. Certainly there are many men who desire trans women but identify as straight, perhaps another illustration of the limitations of binary definitions of gender or sexuality.

Only very recently have openly trans people in Thailand, for instance, sought successfully to enter other types of work. In January 2011 a new Thai airline hired three katoey as “third sex” cabin staff.29 The fact that this was so newsworthy illustrates its rarity.


Transgender people constitute a small, increasingly visible, but highly stigmatised and oppressed group in capitalist society. Transphobia can range from unwanted attention, verbal harassment and ridicule, discrimination in employment, access to healthcare, education and other services, up to physical attack, sexual assault and murder.30 There are many murders of trans people worldwide each year.

Nevertheless, despite high levels of transphobia in society, trans people are not simply victims and objects of history. There is also an inspiring history of individual and collective trans resistance which can inform our understanding of the struggle against transphobia today.

In some countries, including the UK, there have been a number of significant recent advances in terms of legal protections and equal rights at work for trans and other LGBT people. In general social attitudes, particularly among young people, have become more favourable. But this is far less so for attitudes to trans people than to gay, lesbian and bisexual people.31 As a result of campaigning by trans and LGBT organisations, trade unions and others since the 1990s there have been significant legislative advances from which trans people have benefitted, such as the Gender Recognition Act (GRA, 2004), the Equality Act (2010), and now the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act (2013). Despite such advances, trans people still face significant hostile incomprehension from bigoted individuals and institutions.

Examples are not hard to find. In late 2012 the Observer carried a column by Julie Burchill that attacked trans people from a radical feminist perspective using the kind of foul transphobic language generally associated with the views of right wing bigots.32

Protests by trans groups and others were quickly organised.33 Twenty thousand signed a petition criticising Burchill, and the Guardian/Observer offices were picketed. The Observer’s editor had to apologise and Burchill’s column was dropped when she refused to withdraw the comments. In the case of Lucy Meadows referred to earlier, thousands signed a petition calling for Littlejohn’s sacking, motions supporting her were passed at trade union conferences and National Union of Teachers members, including SWP members, organised a solidarity demonstration in her home town.

Being outed can cost trans people their lives. In the case of Brandon Teena (a young transman murdered in the US in 1993) he was beaten to death after the local police outed him.34 There are problems collating figures for such hate crimes. The UK police did not start monitoring hate crimes against trans people until 2007. However, many attacks which are regarded as gay bashing may be more accurately described as “gender bashing”. Attackers have picked up on gender cues (the “masculine” woman or the man or boy who is not “masculine” enough”) as indicators of “queerness”. Michael Kimmel writes:

To the “that’s so gay” chorus, homosexuality is about gender nonconformity, not being a “real man,” and so anti-gay sentiments become a shorthand method of gender policing. One survey found that most American boys would rather be punched in the face than called gay. Tell a guy that what he is doing or wearing is “gay”, and the gender police have just written him a ticket.35

There is a disturbing pattern of police and judicial transphobia: perfunctory investigations, the perpetrator’s violence being justified by defence lawyers on the grounds of the “bizarre lifestyles” of the victims and so on. Indeed, the legal defence of “trans panic”, where someone accused of killing a trans person claims they went into an uncontrollable panic upon discovery that their victim was trans, has on occasion been upheld by US courts. It is strongly opposed by LGBT organisations and since August 2013 also by the American Bar Association.

Studies by Schools Out show that, like homophobia, transphobia remains widespread in schools and indeed throughout the education system.36 Perhaps this is partly explained as one of the damaging legacies of the Tories’ infamous Section 28 legislation, an opportunist piece of homophobic bigotry that forbade any discussion of gay sexuality in schools. It was repealed in 2002 but has echoes today in the reluctance of many teachers and teacher educators to deal with issues of sexuality and gender identity in schools.

A 2009 report by the Equality Challenge Unit of UK Higher Education institutions showed that reported transphobia aimed at staff and students in British universities was even more prevalent than homophobia.37

Early trans role models

Christine Jorgensen, an ex-US marine, wrote about her trailblazing search for help for gender transition in the early 1950s.38 Jorgensen became a household name on the basis of claims that she was the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery. In fact she was not: several such surgeries had taken place in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s, before it was closed and destroyed by the Nazis, at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin.39 Jorgensen was, however, a crucial role model for many, being the first American to do so and the first to combine the surgery with hormone therapy.

In the post Second World War period a few pioneering supportive medical professionals began to emerge, notably Harry Benjamin in the US, who set out formal standards for how to deal sympathetically and supportively with trans people in a profession where the dominant attitude at the time was at best dismissive but much more likely to be extremely hostile.40

The economic background to these developments is important. The long economic boom, fuelled by arms competition, demanded a huge expansion of labour in conditions of virtual full employment. Large numbers of women were drawn into paid employment, having been mobilised in the war economies of 1939-45, and ever higher numbers of young people entered higher education, again involving large increases in the proportion of women. In a period of rapid expansion capitalism could incorporate some of the growing demands for greater equality in terms of race, gender and sexuality coming from the mass movements which developed during the 1960s and 1970s.

The best of the analysis of that period has recognised that women have become a permanent part of the capitalist workforce, that they constitute a majority of workers in a range of industries and services, and that they are now at least as likely to join trade unions and socialist organisations and take part in industrial action as men.41 For example, a majority of those taking part in the great public sector pensions strike in the UK on 30 November 2011 were women.

Underlying this situation is the fact that there are very few, if any, roles in capitalism, apart from the direct reproduction of the next generation of labour, which are necessarily gender specific. But the nuclear family’s role in capitalism remains crucial. The privatised reproduction and care of the next generation of labour in the nuclear family constitute an enormous saving for the capitalist class. Nevertheless, the changing economic activity of women just described has had consequences in that ideas about women and gender roles have changed considerably in the last 50 years as struggles and mass movements have taken up issues like reproductive rights, equal pay and sexism.

Women’s oppression (in terms of exclusion, domestic violence, lack of abortion rights, sexism and so on) clearly remains a major element of the capitalist system because the system requires it economically, and battles may have to be re-fought as many of the gains of the past 40 years come under renewed threat in an age of austerity.42 Nevertheless, in the last half century capitalism has undoubtedly been able to accommodate some of the demands of the women’s movement, as it has with LGBT demands.

Paradoxically, that room to manoeuvre tended to encourage a variety of reformist theories and strategies among many anti-oppression activists. This is at odds with the original aims of many of the campaigners for sexual freedom, women’s rights and gay rights in the early 20th century, as well as of many in the early WLM (Women’s Liberation Movement) and the GLF (Gay Liberation Front) in the late 1960s and early 1970s who were strongly influenced by socialist ideas and identified capitalism as the enemy.

Before we return to this more recent trans history and consider how these factors have impacted on trans activism and the fight against transphobia in recent times we must consider the roots of trans oppression.

Marxism and oppression

For Lenin and the Bolsheviks, opposition to oppression was central to their revolutionary strategy. In 1905, in the midst of a revolution later regarded as the great dress rehearsal for the successful 1917 Revolution, Lenin wrote: “Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other times are the masses of people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution”.43 In order to win unity inside the working class, and win the mass of the oppressed to play an active role in the struggle for socialism, revolutionary socialists must at all times, he insisted, be “tribunes of the oppressed”.

Socialists oppose oppression whatever the social class of those it affects. It is not OK to turn a blind eye to transphobia when directed at someone who is not working class, for example. Marxists offer a historical materialist explanation44 of the roots of oppression and a class struggle perspective—that is, as Marx argued in drafting the Rules of the First International, that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” in order to achieve human liberation and end oppression.45

Marxists argue that while any progressive collective struggle—the Poll Tax campaign for example, or the anti-capitalist movement, or the Stop the War Campaign—deserves support and solidarity (and of course these can win), particular oppressions are not best fought in isolation from the fundamental causes of those oppressions. Since the fundamental cause is the drive by the capitalist system to maximise profits through exploiting workers’ labour power, it follows that the key arena for struggle is the workplace and the labour movement.

Struggles outside the workplace are still important not least because they can feed back into and help generate strikes and walkouts. But the workplace is what brings together men and women, gay, straight and trans, black and white on a daily basis in the common experience of our exploitation and oppression. This makes possible the use of our collective ability to block the lifeblood of capitalism, the extraction of surplus value, and to formulate demands which link economic issues like pay to political issues of oppression. Examples include campaigns backed by strikes for equal pay, for example, or against racist discrimination, or against a homophobic/transphobic attack. That is why one strike is worth a thousand resolutions.

Thus Marxists focus on workplace struggle because when such struggles break out they inherently pose the potential for the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system by the exploited and oppressed, and therefore the potential, through such “festivals of the oppressed”, for the creation of a socialist society free of oppression.

We see this inspiring potential in all the recent revolts and upheavals—the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square, Gezi Park, Brazil, the Greek general strikes. The experience of such struggle—democratic decision making, the demonstrations and meetings, standing together on picket lines—strips away the ideological masks of the system exposing the ugly inhumanity just below the surface. It can change people’s consciousness and their confidence in their own powers and abilities to be the collective agents of fundamental change. Each strike, big or small, that creates and strengthens the networks of activists makes our side stronger and more united and their side weaker.

Forms of oppression vary historically and culturally but their effect is to bolster so-called common sense differences that mask the fundamental class divisions upon which exploitation—the extraction of surplus value—rests. In Russia at the time of Lenin’s comments the Bolsheviks particularly had in mind the struggle against anti-Semitism, various national oppressions, and women’s oppression.

In each of these cases the Bolsheviks demonstrated in practice before, during and after the 1917 Revolution how socialists can challenge and overcome divisions inside the working class based on oppression. It is a complete myth that Marxism is economically reductionist, only interested in economic struggle. It is also a myth that Marxism is homophobic or transphobic. Unfortunately in some cases the attitudes of some of the “old left” Stalinist parties fed such distorted views of Marxism. Despite the liberationist Marxist tradition on oppression, however, even today many LGBT activists seem completely unaware of the fact that immediately after the 1917 Revolution the Bolshevik government passed a range of measures on divorce, women’s rights and national self-determination, proscribed anti-Semitism and decriminalised homosexuality.46 Such measures were unprecedented anywhere in the world.

Key tasks for revolutionary socialists today, therefore, are both to fight against transphobia and homophobia in the here and now,47 and to recover and reassert the links that have existed at high points of working class struggle between socialist analysis and organisation and the struggle for liberation against all forms of oppression, including the right of LGBT people to express their sexual orientation and gender identity freely.

The roots of trans oppression

There is very little literature on trans oppression from a Marxist perspective. A landmark exception to this is work by the American transgender activist and Marxist Leslie Feinberg.48 In her groundbreaking book Transgender Warriors Feinberg argues that echoes of ancient gender variant traditions survive in the crossdressing common in folk ceremonies and festivals around the world and in historical forms of rebellion and protest. Rebecca and her Daughters, for example, were crossdressed men protesting violently from 1839 against the imposition of turnpikes in Wales.49 Similar crossdressed protesters were the Abbots of Unreason in England and the Lords of Misrule in Scotland in the 16th century.

To explain the roots of trans oppression Feinberg argues that the subordination of women also resulted in greater rigidity of gender roles and stricter policing of gender boundaries. She refers to Frederick Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.50 Drawing on the then recent work of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, Engels identified the emergence of the family and class societies as the key to understanding women’s historical subordination and oppression.51

Prior to the emergence of class societies, although there may have been role differentiation due to biological differences (pregnancy, childbirth, breast feeding), these differentiations were not necessarily imbued with social status and power. The family structure, however, which increasingly replaced earlier matrilinear and matrifocal clan societies, imposed female monogamy so that the inheritance of wealth, property and titles could be assured.

Prohibitions and strictures against crossdressing and other crossgender behaviour which relate to this period of social and economic transition can be found in the Bible, for example in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These strictures are less about the word of god and rather more about examples of law setting by ruling groups seeking to consolidate their power to further accumulate wealth and power.

This process happened over quite long periods of time in parts of the ancient world from the 11th to the 7th century BCE as significant surpluses began to be accumulated through trade and conquest. As a consequence, the sexual activity of women became tightly regulated in the drive to control procreation within forms of marriage. It is at this time that gender variant behaviour also became more proscribed as part of the efforts more strictly to enforce defined and sharply differentiated gender roles.

Interestingly, what seems to be implicit in the process of prohibition against, for example, men wearing their hair long and in “feminine” styles, or either gender adopting the clothing or the roles of the other, Feinberg argues, is that this behaviour seems likely to have been fairly common practice in earlier forms of human society and to have been previously relatively tolerated. Feinberg presents a range of evidence that this was so.52 The consolidation of the power of these emergent ruling classes and the associated social/legal codes was uneven, took a long time and generated resistance to the various forms of oppression it required. The roots of trans oppression therefore have similar material roots to the oppression of women and that of lesbians and gays.53

Some of the sharpest clashes between the old ways of what Engels called “primitive communist societies” and Morgan called “barbarism” and the emergence of expansionist class societies and empires can be found in chronicles of European colonialism of the Americas from the Middle Ages onwards.54 The Catholic church’s and the Spanish and Portuguese states’ approach to native cultures was that these societies needed to be subjugated and sometimes enslaved for their own good and in the interests of the primitive accumulation of capital for their spreading empires and the growing class of mercantile capitalists. The ideological justification for this brutality and genocide often came from an enthusiastic Christianity.

A few examples will suffice. In 1530 the Spanish conquistador Nuño de Guzmán reported that the last person he captured in a battle, who “fought most courageously, was a man in the habit of a woman, for which I caused him to be burned”.55 One of Feinberg’s illustrations in Transgender Warriors is a 1594 engraving by Theodore de Bry of Balboa’s Panama expedition56 which shows him using dogs to murder “Two-Spirit” (trans) native people in the Americas. To Balboa these trans people were examples of diabolical and primitive debauchery. When the Spanish invaded the Antilles and Louisiana, “they found men dressed as women who were respected by their societies. Thinking they were hermaphrodites or homosexuals, they slew them”.57

Yet despite the genocide and oppression directed at Native Americans (or First Nation people) over the past 500 years of colonialism, the acceptance and enhanced status of “Two-Spirit” people have persisted in many communities. Some writers have referred to the existence of “berdaches” among First Nation peoples. The term “berdache” has been used to denote genetic males among the original Americans who dressed as women, did women’s work and had sex with non-berdache men. However, as Pat Califia points out the term does not derive from any Native American language.58 It may well be originally Persian, then via Arabic and Spanish to French. It was used to refer to the “passive” partner in gay male intercourse and Califia suggests it is a misapplied term, an example of native gender variant people being viewed through Western homophobic lenses.

In fact the original Native American terms used, such as the Lakota “winkte”, the Cheyenne “he man he”, and the Crow “bade” all have meanings like “not man/not woman” or “half man/half woman”; in other words they focus on gender rather than sexuality. The Gay American Indian History Project published a list of more than 130 Native American tribes who had such roles for men, and many of them had similar gender variant roles for women.59 Many considered that there were not two but three, four or more genders and they seemed to tolerate both gender variant and homosexual relationships.

Such gender variant individuals performed crucial roles and were highly respected as counsellors, story-tellers, teachers, healers and sometimes female-born hunters and warriors. Having a Two-Spirit wife was often seen as increasing the resources for the family group or the tribe. Thus in such pre-class social formations gender variant individuals were often perceived as a benefit and a material resource to the community.

Nonetheless, it would be mistaken to take a romantic or uncritical view of gender variance in Native American societies. Califia points out that some Western gay and trans historians have been naive about the extent to which such gender variant or same-sex behaviour was universally accepted. She suggests that it varied quite a lot. She does, however, also point to a serious problem for trans history—the way that it has frequently been subsumed within the history of varieties of sexual orientation. She argues that some gay writers have misappropriated gender variant roles and behaviour as being only about sexual orientation. She accuses Jonathan Katz of doing this in his Gay American History.60

Stryker has also argued that the history of trans people and of trans rebels has been largely either hidden altogether or buried within lesbian and gay history.61 Some researchers, including transgender Native Americans, have recently been working to reconnect with that history.62

The impact of colonialism was corrosive and genocidal in the Americas. But it was not just the Portuguese or Spanish empires that tried to stamp out any acceptance and respect in many societies for variant sexualities and crossgender expression. The history of the British Empire’s relationship with less advanced societies is also instructive. The imposition of Western, Christian legal codes on colonial possessions such as India and various African countries by Britain and other imperialist countries clearly included the intent to criminalise and eradicate both sexually and gender transgressive behaviour.63

Capitalism and the nuclear family

Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England,64 described how industrial capitalism, with mass migration to the cities, extreme poverty and privation, was destroying the working class family. It is a major internal contradiction, pointed out by writers such as Jeffrey Weeks65 and John D’Emilio66 for example, that while the developing capitalist mode of production was creating the conditions for the emergence of freer and more varied sexual relationships and gender roles among working class people, including the potential for homosexual relationships, it was also undermining the family as a social unit which could provide relatively cheaply for the reproduction of the working class. On the other hand, capitalism needs men and women in families at least long enough to reproduce the next generation of workers. The ideological pre-eminence of the family guarantees that a capitalist society will reproduce not just children, but heterosexism and homophobia (and transphobia). In the most profound sense, D’Emilio argues, capitalism is the problem.

The drive towards the destruction of the working class family in early capitalism through rapid urbanisation and the factory system horrified many in the bourgeoisie and led bourgeois reformers to look for the means to ensure its survival in the longer-term interests of capitalism. Legislation to control child labour and to create the “family wage” (intended to exclude women from industrial occupations) helped to encourage the material conditions for the privatised reproduction of labour through the promotion of the working class nuclear family, modelled on the bourgeois family. Such material and legislative changes had to be underpinned with an ideological drive towards notions of fidelity (at least for women) and strict regulation of sexual behaviour.

Increasingly, as Weeks, Dee, Stryker and others have shown, homosexual (and other “deviant” sexual and gender behaviour) became more heavily proscribed and enforced from the latter half of the 19th century.67 The trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 was a watershed in this process. A crucial outcome of this social and legislative proscription was the creation of the category of “homosexual person”. Homosexuality became an identity, a type of person rather than a type of activity. Around the turn of the 20th century it was from this emerging identification of a category of person that the resistance to the oppression of homosexual people began to coalesce around early campaigners like Havelock Ellis in the UK (a friend of Eleanor Marx), socialist pioneer Edward Carpenter, and Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany.

Distinguishing sexuality and gender identity

In the eyes of most of the sexologists, doctors and campaigners of this period up until the mid-20th century gender variant behaviour remained essentially undifferentiated from homosexuality. Someone who expressed the desire to “change sex” was generally regarded as a homosexual unable to face up to their homosexuality—a “self-denying homosexual”. Many Freudians persisted in that view for decades after the notion of the transsexual became differentiated from the homosexual. The term transsexual did not really emerge as a medical or social category, or a self-identification in more general use, until after the publication of Harry Benjamin’s book, The Transsexual Phenomenon, in 1966.68

Benjamin had become convinced of the validity of distinguishing between transsexuals and transvestites on the one hand and homosexuals on the other after the sexologist Alfred Kinsey published his reports on human sexuality, including data on trans people, from 1948.69

Transgender resistance

Transgender resistance has a long history. There were riots against police raids on Molly houses in London, which were popular venues for transgender men (ie biological males) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Getting caught crossdressed in such a place could result in public hanging.70

Later the first wave of struggle against homosexual oppression in the late 19th and early 20th century was fairly inclusive of gender outlaws who campaigned for the rights of homosexuals and other oppressed people. Key activists such as Edward Carpenter had strong links with socialist organisations in Britain. Similar links existed for American and European, especially German, socialists, sexologists and sexual radicals.71 These links were almost completely lost during the assaults of Nazism and the Stalinisation of Communist and left organisations from the 1930s onwards. Tens of thousands of LGBT people perished in Nazi concentration camps.

It was the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York that marked the re-emergence of a radical, revolutionary current in the fight for sexual and gender liberation. The political temperature had been rising throughout the 1960s. New radical anti-war, anti-racist and left wing political organisations emerged independent of the old Stalinised left. Many of the young gay and trans activists explicitly saw themselves as revolutionaries such as Sylvia Rivera, a young Puerto Rican drag queen at the time she fought back against the police at Stonewall. In an interview with Leslie Feinberg in 1998, a few years before her death, she said:

We were not taking any more of this shit. We had done so much for other movements. It was time… All of us were working for so many movements at that time.72 Everyone was involved with the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement. We were all radicals. I believe that’s what brought it around… I was a radical, a revolutionist. I am still a revolutionist… If I had lost that moment, I would have been kind of hurt because that’s when I saw the world change for me and my people. Of course, we still got a long way ahead of us.73

In the political ferment of the period after the Stonewall rebellion in 1969 the 1970 manifesto of the GLF explicitly described itself as a revolutionary movement formed to fight for gay liberation against an oppressive capitalist system, alongside other oppressed groups.

Despite trans people being heavily involved in the four nights of the Stonewall revolt the event later became more synonymous only with a gay and lesbian revolt. Trans people’s role was largely forgotten despite trans people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Hunt.74

Sylvia’s role, and the role of other trans people in the riots, was later recognised by Martin Duberman in his classic book about the events, Stonewall (1993). Sylvia was one of the six leading activists of that period whose recollections form the core of Duberman’s book75 but she left the gay liberation movement in 1973 after an argument about whether she, as a trans person, could speak at the Gay Pride march that year. The argument was symptomatic of the growing marginalisation of trans people in the GLF.

The spirit of rebellion had been growing among young trans people well before Stonewall erupted. In the US there had already been militant local campaigns against exclusion from social venues. As early as 1959 there was a campaign by trans people, who tended to self-identify as queens at that time, against exclusion from Coopers Bar in South Side Los Angeles.76 Stryker describes other examples. In 1965 in Philadelphia Dewey’s lunch bar refused to serve young trans people. Three trans people who refused to leave were arrested. Gay and trans people set up a week-long picket until the owners backed down.

There was often a very natural overlap between gay and trans activism in working class areas. Their circumstances forced them to support one another and organise collectively to fight back. In just trying to live their lives, in trying to keep body and soul together through sex or domestic work, they risked arrest, strip searches, being forced into oral sex with corrupt cops, humiliation in (male) cells and having their heads forcibly shaved.

In 1966 the Compton’s Café riot took place in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. The story, popularised by Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman in their Emmy award-winning documentary film Screaming Queens, shows that the riot erupted, much like the later riot at Stonewall, as a result of heavy-handed policing.77 Transsexual women, gay men and prostitutes fought back against the police. It was reported that “drag queens beat the police with heavy purses and kicked them with their high heeled shoes”.78

The social context of the time impacted on the shared tactics used in these struggles, such as those of the Black Power movement. It was natural to offer solidarity to the struggles of other oppressed groups on the basis of “An injury to one is an injury to all”. In the case of the Compton Café riot, they won. It led ultimately in San Francisco to trans people at least formally being entitled to recognition as citizens with rights and with entitlement to access services and legitimate employment opportunities.


As the long economic boom ended in economic and financial crises such as the oil price shock of 1974 ruling class room to manoeuvre was replaced by the first ruling class assaults in what became the neoliberal offensive intended to reboot rates of profit and blunt working class confidence and organisation.79 The radical wave receded as levels of working class struggle declined after the high point of the early 1970s.

Splits quickly emerged in the movement for gay and trans liberation. In its early days it included trans people and trans aspirations. Very quickly, however, these were seen as beyond the pale, an impediment to the achievement of gay rights advances. There were increasingly “safe” LGBT activists and there were those deemed to be unrealistic and too radical. For example, San Francisco’s first Pride in 1972, which celebrated the Compton riot and welcomed drag, ended in fighting between the organisers and a lesbian separatist group. In 1973 there were two Prides, one of which banned trans people and drag.

The notion of “homonormativity” (that gay people’s goal should be acceptance and accommodation within capitalist society) began to dominate among activists. The fight for liberation and the transformation of society that many of the early activists aspired to had become anathema. In the process the trans movement, which had much less potential for incorporation and tended to retain a more radical ideology, quickly lost its alliances with both the gay liberation movement and the emerging women’s movement.

From the early 1970s trans women began to be excluded from the women’s movement by some radical feminists.80 The militant movements of the 1960s and early 1970s fractured. In a perceptive interview in 2004 Joanne Meyerowitz pointed to the sad irony of such exclusion and separation:

Feminists need to remember that we (feminists) did not invent the concept of gender. We were not the first to separate gender and biological sex. In fact, we inherited and reworked a version of gender that was pioneered by scientists who worked on intersexuality and transsexuality. This history should remind us that the concept of gender is not inherently feminist.81

As the retreat from class struggle accelerated in the 1970s the dominant view among gay men became a reformist and assimilationist one, excluding the more radical and socialist elements, especially trans. Among women’s movement activists notions of radical separatism and political lesbianism, and a complete rejection of working with men (and trans women) or of involvement in the class struggle, gained in strength.82

Various reformist ideologies subsequently developed, particularly in academia, which served to justify these retreats, such as postmodernism, patriarchy theory and identity politics. These treated Marxism and any serious orientation on working class struggle with hostility as they were seen as outmoded and economically reductionist. This was all the more tragic given the strong links that had existed between the first homosexual rights movement and socialist organisations.

Identity politics and queer theory

The notion that one’s oppressed identity supersedes class identity—and should be struggled against independently from other “identities”—has invariably had a corrosive impact on the potential for common action and involvement in class struggle. The rise of identity politics in the last quarter of the 20th century took its political toll on LGBT activism.

Getting to grips with identity politics is like arm wrestling an octopus—no sooner do you get one arm pinned down than another pops up and starts waving about. Queer theory and queer politics, deriving from the writings of Michel Foucault83 and later Judith Butler,84 emerged out of a period of defeat in the late 1970s and 1980s for the left and for anti-oppressive movements. The shift from the high levels of often successful industrial struggle and the confidence of the trade union rank and file in the early 1970s to the reversals and decline of the social contract years in the mid-1970s onwards was especially marked in the UK.

Queer theory is a contradictory phenomenon. On the one hand it rejects the rise of individualism, the pink pound and the notion of the “safe gay” but it also continues to express the retreat from class politics and Marxism which resulted from this decline. Queer theorists reject the depoliticisation and commercialisation of the gay movement. They take a social constructivist view of sexual orientation and gender expression, and they demand a return to the activism and radicalism of the early gay rights movement. They make a range of welcome and pertinent criticisms of the current demands for limited LGBT rights, the notion that there is a “gay movement” and a “gay community”, but their claims can also be criticised from the left.

Marxist writers such as Noel Halifax85 and Colin Wilson,86 in developing the constructive critique of queer theory associated with this journal, have pointed out that despite sharing elements with which Marxists can agree, queer theory in practice incorporates the intellectual retreats and fragmentation of post-structuralism and postmodernism. Thus at its heart it represents a continuation of the break from Marxism and any orientation on the centrality of class struggle as the way to change society, or of the working class being the agent of change.


Some have suggested that the notion of “intersectionality” may be of value in dealing with some of the criticisms of identity theory. Intersectionality is not a new concept having first emerged in multiracial feminist theory in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a theory, however, it was first popularised by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.87

Its basic contention is that oppressed people may have multiple intersecting vectors of oppression, such as gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality, etc, and that the lived experience of marginalised people needs to be understood as being based on such multiple identities that contribute to their systematic social inequality. In essence, a person’s “intersectionality experience” will be greater than the sum of its parts (the specific forms of oppression they experience). There are debates among those using the idea of intersectionality about the nature of particular social categories and the relationships between categories, as well as interest in theorising the experiences of people who cross the boundaries of societally constructed categories, such as trans people.

It can be argued that in essence intersectionality does little more than name the reality, ie that many oppressed people and groups are multiply oppressed (the black, lesbian, disabled person for example). On the crucial question of what to do about this, how to best resist those oppressions and fight for liberation, a search of intersectionality theorists produces little other than the notion that we can resist oppression by seeking greater self-awareness to increase self-value and achieve a stable self-definition.

The problem is that such consciousness-raising is also not new and, in its refusal to recognise the fundamental role which class plays in oppression (class is not simply yet another oppression since it is based on the exploitation at the heart of the capitalist mode of production), intersectionality remains unable to escape the tail-chasing identity-chopping at the heart of identity politics.

While those motivated by intersectionality, like those who define themselves as feminists, should be regarded by Marxists as potential allies, it is not a theory which can be approached uncritically. For it to provide a bridge to Marxism in resisting oppression, as some have argued, Marxists need to engage in joint struggles but also to argue for the centrality of class struggle as the crucial way to change the balance of class forces in capitalism and people’s confidence, self-esteem, and self-value. Without this, intersectionality can in fact act as a bridge that leads away from Marxism rather than a bridge into Marxism.

The drive towards greater unity in action

What changed in the 1980s and 1990s to push gay, lesbian and transgender people back towards less sectarian and more combined and unified campaigning? One factor in the UK was the shared opposition to and campaigning against the Tory government’s Section 28, adopted into law in 1988 and repealed in November 2003 in England and Wales during the Labour administration. Section 28 banned any discussion in the state education system of gay relationships being acceptable or normal.

From the early 1970s in the UK gay activists in the unions had begun pushing a number of unions to support equal rights at work and to fight homophobia. It was significant that the links of solidarity forged between striking miners and the LGBT community during the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 helped to undermine homophobia in the National Union of Miners to the extent that the NUM supported calls for LGBT rights at the TUC conference in 1984. In 1985 South Wales miners paraded their banner on the Pride march. In the 1990s trade unions began to play a significant role in campaigning against Section 28 as well. These efforts bore fruit both in terms of pressuring Tony Blair and Labour and also in persuading the TUC to set up an LGBT committee and an annual LGBT conference from the late 1990s.

Meyerowitz suggests this welcome rapprochement was at least partially driven by the impact of more radical trans ideas on thinking about gay liberation.88 The development of queer theory, particularly in academia and student milieus, which incorporated a more inclusive social constructivist approach to gender and gender variance, was, despite its theoretical defects, also a motivator in this respect in its critique of homonormativity and “pink consumerism”.

But these ideological factors flowed from the material circumstances of the time. An important material factor was the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS among LGBT people in the 1980s, particularly in the US and UK. The failure of national administrations, particularly the Reagan administration, to fund research and healthcare to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic condemned many thousands of predominantly gay men and haemophiliacs to death.89 The epidemic has now killed many millions worldwide. The attitude of moral condemnation in the West resulted in a major boost to homophobia and transphobia in the mid-1980s.

The joint political campaigning (for example through ActUp, Queer Nation and so on), which was necessary in the fight for medical help, support and justice, demanded a pooling of resources and energy by all groups affected. Trans people were part of such campaigning. Many people are not aware that trans people have been one of the groups at highest risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Finally, the rapid development of the internet over the past 20 years has meant that resources, communication, online communities and role models are much more visible and available than before. Thus since the late 1980s objective circumstances once again made it practical political sense for gay, lesbian and the growing movements of bisexual and trans people to unite and fight back together. It does so even more today as we face the greatest austerity assault on working class gains since the Second World War. This is an assault which poses for LGBT people and other oppressed groups all the key questions we need to ask about what sort of society we need and how all the oppressed can win liberation.

The greatest gains for LGBT people, as we saw from the examples of the Russian Revolution, the first movement for homosexual reform in Germany, the US and the UK, and the 1960s and post Stonewall rebellion period, have been when we have struggled together alongside other oppressed people and as part of working class and socialist movements.

Trans people have a history of resistance to transphobia and are increasingly organised and visible in struggles today. There is much to uncover and learn about the involvement of trans people in past struggles, a history which recognises the role of trans activists in helping to clarify concepts of gender, sex and sexuality and the necessity for solidarity in the fight against homophobia, transphobia and sexism and which can thus help to arm trans people, other oppressed groups and socialists generally for the urgency of today’s struggle for liberation.

The role of Marxists will be crucial in convincing people that this liberation is unachievable in capitalism, indeed that it requires the overthrow of that system through working class revolt and the building of a socialist society. Leslie Feinberg provides a fitting clarion call to this struggle:

None of us will be free until we have forged an economic system that meets the needs of every working person. As trans people, we will not be free until we fight for and win a society in which no class stands to benefit from fomenting hatred and prejudice, where laws restricting sex and gender and human love will be unthinkable. Look for us—transgender warriors—in the leadership of the struggle to usher in the dawn of liberation.90


1: Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Colin Wilson, Dean Harris, Hannah Dee and Sheila McGregor for their supportive and very helpful suggestions and comments on early drafts of the article. Thanks also to the many comrades who have made thoughtful and often moving and inspiring contributions in meetings at Marxism and in the many branch meetings where I have spoken on trans, LGBT and women’s oppression. I also want to record my thanks to comrades and friends in the SWP and in my union, the UCU, and to family and especially my partner Sheila Hemingway for unfailing support and encouragement during my own gender transition in recent years.

2: Gender transition-the process through which a trans person moves from living as one gender to living as another.

3: Allison and Pidd, 2013.

4: Littlejohn, 2012.

5: Todman, 2013.

6: Suicide Prevention Australia, 2009.

7: National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, 2011;

8: Whittle and others, 2007.

9: McNeil and others, 2012.

10: Go to

11: Press for Change is the predominant trans advocacy group and made submissions to the government in respect of transgender rights prior to the Gender Recognition Act, 2004,

12: American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Some trans people have welcomed this shift away from a diagnosis of a form of mental illness to an emphasis on the stress which may be caused by the mismatch. Others remain uncomfortable that there remains any formal association of trans with mental illness or distress.

13: Nestle, Howell and Wilchins, 2002.

14: Reed and others, 2009. GIRES (gender identity research and education society) is a UK open resource and research organisation on trans issues. Go to

15: See Roughgarden, 2004. Roughgarden’s book, Evolution’s Rainbow, has much useful information on gender diversity in the natural world and will reward a critical read. It also, however, makes some criticisms of Darwinism which many readers of this journal would regard as unfounded.

16: The website of the UK Intersex Association ( urges medical practitioners and family members of an infant with an apparent intersex condition to be cautious and consider the long-term interests of the child. Most conditions do not require urgent medical intervention.

17: For example, see Luders and others, 2009, but also see Fine, 2011, and her very astute and funny book Delusions of Gender in which she debunks what she calls neurosexism; or Burke, 1996; Cameron, 2008; Fausto-Sterling, 1992; or Jordan-Young, 2011.

18: For an excellent discussion of these issues see Satel and Lilienfeld, 2013.

19: Attracted to people of all gender identities.

20: Some may argue that the acronym should be LGBTQI (Q for queer or questioning, I for intersex) but this article uses LGBT as being the most accessible acronym since the 1990s, the one which is most common in the labour movement, and the one which arguably makes fewest concessions to the dangers of separatist and identity politics.

21: Stryker, 2008, is a fascinating examination of transgender history over the last 150 years. The drawback for a UK readership is that it is written very much from a US perspective. It is also written from broadly feminist assumptions rather than a Marxist materialist approach. See also Meyerowitz, 2004.

22: Stryker, 2008, chapter 2.

23: Stryker, 2008, chapter 4.

24: For example, see Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography-Jorgensen, 1967.

25: For an accessible and readable introduction to the concept of alienation see Swain, 2012.

26: Leslie Feinberg reviews a range of historical and anthropological information in her inspiring book, Transgender Warriors, 1996.

27: Feinberg, 1996, catalogues numerous expressions of gender variance in the histories of many societies. There is strong evidence that many pre-capitalist societies included respected roles and a high level of acceptance for gender variant people.

28: Whittle and others, 2007.

29: Sydney Morning Herald, 2011.

30: Many murders are catalogued on the website Remembering Our Dead,; there is an annual International Day of Remembrance on
20 November, instigated after the brutal murder of Rita Hester in the USA in November 1998. is also worth a visit as it records many stories of trans oppression and resistance.

31: See, for example, Norton and Herek, 2012: Also the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, 2010.

32: Burchill, 2013.

33: For example, Protest Transphobia, a Facebook group which has mobilised protests and vigils.

34: The film Boys Don’t Cry, 1999, starring Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, is harrowing.

35: Kimmel, 2011; see also Kimmel, 2009.

36: Go to, an excellent source for advice and materials.

37: Equality Challenge Unit, 2008.

38: In addition to Jorgensen’s autobiography, Meyerowitz, 2004, follows her life story and discusses the medical and social context.

39: Stryker, 2008.

40: Benjamin, 1966.

41: Orr, 2007.

42: McGregor, 2011; 2013; Cliff, 1984.

43: Lenin, 1990.

44: See Harman, 1998.

45: Marx, 1871.

46: This is well discussed in relation to LGBT rights by Wolf, 2009, and Dee, 2010.

47: For example by working with various anti-cuts organisations such as Queers Against the Cuts.

48: Feinberg, 1996; Feinberg, 1998

49: Feinberg, 1996, chapter 10.

50: Engels, 1884.

51: A number of writers on women’s oppression including Lindisfarne and Neale in a recent issue of this journal (summer 2013) have been dismissive or highly critical of Engels on the origin of the family. Brown, 2013, and some other Marxist or socialist feminist writers have sought to distinguish between Engels’s supposed economic determinism and Marx’s dialectical approach to the relationship between humanity and nature in relation to production and reproduction. While the anthropological limitations of Engels’s sources in 1884 should be recognised, his method and conclusions, I would argue, have been vindicated by much subsequent evidence and analysis. See Leacock, 1981, as a keynote work; also Campbell, 2013; Chris Harman’s defence of Engels-Harman, 1995; and Smith, 2013.

52: Feinberg, 1996, chapters 5 and 6; Harman,1999, chapters 2-4 especially.

53: German, 1998, Dee, 2010; Wolf, 2009.

54: Feinberg, 1996, chapters 9-11; Harman, 1999, Parts 3 and 4.

55: Feinberg, 1996, p25.

56: Feinberg, 1996, p29.

57: Feinberg, 1996, p23.

58: Califia, 1997, chapter 4.

59: Go to

60: Katz, 1976.

61: Stryker, 2008.

62: For example Keshema, 2010; Jacobs, Thomas, and Lang, 1997.

63: Feinberg, 1996, Chapter 9.

64: Engels, 2009.

65: Weeks, 2009.

66: D’Emilio, 1993.

67: Weeks, 2009; Weeks, 2007; Dee, 2010; Stryker, 2008.

68: Benjamin, 1966.

69: Kinsey and others, 1948. Even so, many in the medical profession have continued to worry about how to distinguish between the “true” transsexual who may be worthy of medical intervention, from the “pseudo-transsexual” who may be “deluded”, and many in the psychoanalytic tradition have regarded trans people as self-denying homosexuals in any case.

70: Feinberg, 1996, pp87,88.

71: Dee, 2010; Wilson, 2011. Also see Sheila Rowbotham’s 2009 biography of Edward Carpenter.

72: Sylvia was a member of the Puerto Rican Young Lords and a founder along with Marsha P Hunt of STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

73: Feinberg, 1998, p107.

74: It is ironic that the UK organisation Stonewall to this day refuses to advocate for trans people and remains a steadfastly LGB organisation.

75: Duberman, 1993.

76: Stryker, 2008, chapter 3.

77: Stryker and Silverman, 2005.

78: Stryker, 2008, p65.

79: Harman, 1988, especially chapters 4 and 5

80: An early example of this was the exclusion of Beth Elliott, a transsexual lesbian singer and experienced activist, who was accused of being a “violator of women’s space” through her transsexualism and denounced and vilified by separatist lesbians in 1973. Music engineer Beth Stone was another target in 1977. As the US political right stoked up its anti-homosexual campaigning at the time, some radical feminists unfortunately turned on an even more marginalised group.

81: Meyerowitz and Rosario, 2004, pp479-480.

82: See Raymond, 1979. She attacks trans women’s authenticity as women and their right to be part of the women’s movement. Also see Sandy Stone’s response-Stone, 1992. Echoes of this transphobia persist among some radical feminists. The RadFem 2012 conference in London excluded women who were not “women-born women”. This generated a campaign of opposition by trans organisations and feminist allies and the venue cancelled the booking.

83: Foucault, 1981, see also Wilson, 2008.

84: Butler, 1990; Butler, 2004.

85: Halifax, 2011.

86: Wilson, 2011.

87: Crenshaw, 1989.

88: Meyerowitz, 2004.

89: Gill, 2006.

90: Feinberg, 1996, p128.


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