We Suffer as Women, We Struggle as Women

Trans Women and Social Revolution in the 21st Century

In this article I position working class trans women as actors within revolutionary anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggle, beginning by theorizing the specific gender oppression of trans women in the global, neoliberal capitalist economy. In this way, my critique diverges from a radical feminist critique of the origins and operations of gender oppression. Radical feminism calls for a women’s revolution to overthrow patriarchal power but sees womanhood as a biological fact rather than a social relation conditioned by the laws of capitalist exploitation. A Marxist analysis of womanhood takes into account class exploitation, which rests on gendered labour, as the historical basis for the construction of women as a social group completely dependent on men.

This article is focused on the particular position of trans women within the global working class. It recognizes, but does not elaborate the colonial and imperial, accumulative power of the Euro-American gender binary that has been used to attack Indigenous, non-nuclear family and social structures. What this article does do is analyze the gendered work done by working class trans women within today’s global capitalist circuit of production. Hundreds of years ago, the rise of the capitalist mode of production rested on the creation of women as a distinct social group in society, subordinated to men in every aspect of our lives. Capitalist social relations produced a new type of women’s oppression, where the work of being a woman was in the home, reproducing men’s labour power. Women occupied an unwaged, unrecognized position in the capitalist circuit of production that was disciplined by men as a social group, including by the men in our lives, in order to create value within an emergent capitalist economy. This article argues that, similarly, the specific gender oppression of trans women is central to today’s capitalist economy.

Class struggle, alone, will not automatically liberate women from gender power. Historically, some trade unions and socialist parties have organized class struggle in limited ways that preserve men’s power in the home and as class struggle leaders. This article theorizes that working class trans women experience a triple axis of oppression as workers, as women, and as purveyors of queer domesticity where we absorb cis violence and abuse as testimony to our womanhood. With our subjectivities formed in the tensions of this class and gender power, working class trans womanhood is emerging as a revolutionary cross section of gender power and class relations.

Revolutionaries in the 21st century must develop a new revolutionary politics, including strategies that learn from the successes and failures of 20th century anti-capitalist experiments. Working class trans women have an important strategic position in this revolutionary project; our praxis, as a matter of survival and as activists, sews class struggle and gender liberation into an inseparable whole.

Trans women and the abolition of the nuclear family

Radical feminists presume that biological sex is the point of identification that facilitates the creation of womanhood, but capitalism’s gender division of labour does not wait on biology. In our workplace, social lives, and domestic spheres, trans women’s labour is gendered; trans women bear the weight of emotional, sexual, and physical reproductive labour.

Trans women have a special position within the structures of class society – specifically within the nuclear family. The nuclear family is the basic social unit of the capitalist mode of production. It is an ideological relic of patriarchal peasant economies and the feudal order that “naturally” divides labour according to gender in the family and society. In the mid-1500s in England, the patriarchal family was organized around the economic and political degradation of women, and backed up with social degradation.

Marxist feminist Silvia Federici argues that at this time the price of women’s resistance was always extermination. Legal and social restrictions created a sexual division that informed the ideological foundations of gender power in our world today. Womanhood as a concept was forged out of the stone bedrock of the capitalist mode of production in Europe, which was then deployed as a wrecking force against Indigenous families and societies in colonial and imperialist occupations since.

Like the labour of modern womanhood, the labour of trans womanhood is also created and disciplined through social degradation and extermination. In order to protect the patriarchal power supported by the gender binary, the nuclear family, and its division of labour, while all the time forcing gendered labor upon trans women, men and cis people create myths about us: that we are perverts, men pretending to be women, that we are liars or thieves, or that we are diseased or mentally ill. These myths guide the violent suppression of trans women by our own communities and by the police. Many of us are frequently arrested, beaten up, locked in psych wards, raped, or killed. These acts go unnoticed or are seen by cis society as inevitable or even justified.

Economically, trans women tend to be low income because we have trouble accessing employment and housing. Those of us who do manage to get a licit job do so by pretending to be a man or putting up with constant transmisogyny in the workplace. On top of this, anti-discrimination laws are largely rhetorical because in most cases there is no way to prove a trans woman has been denied housing or employment because of her gender. In order to survive we largely depend on welfare, criminalized labour including sex work, or our friends or partners.

Economic dependency of trans women on partners leaves trans women vulnerable to gender violence and abuse, including social manipulation and coercion. Even in our queer communities and relationships, trans women are not treated as equals. Trans women continue to be objects of desire for queers. Within the context of trans antagonistic structures that interrupt our economic independence, when other queers touch and make sexual comments about trans women’s bodies, these fake forms of flattery are actually forms of harassment and tokenism.

Trans women experience a particular form of gender oppression within the nuclear family structure of capitalist society, namely transmisogyny. Transmisogyny as a system of power over trans women is exercised by both trans and cis men. Even cis women, oppressed within the nuclear family, wield their womanhood as gender power over trans women, showing that patriarchal power infects more than just dominant men in society. A revolutionary trans politics begins with an understanding of the particular lack of access to power we have within the nuclear family model as well as the acknowledgment that we are an internationally oppressed social group.

Producing Queer Value: The triple axis of working class trans women’s oppression

Working class cis women suffer a double oppression of gendered class exploitation. They receive lower wages than their male counterparts, face sexual harassment and gender violence in the workplace and at home, and return home often to more sexual harassment and gender violence as well as the gendered double shift where they are expected to carry out reproductive work for their families. Working class trans women experience a triple axis of women’s oppression. On top of experiencing similar oppression to cis women in the workplace and having to perform reproductive labour in our homes and in our communities, trans women experience the added axis of cis-supremacy through a gender binary. In the public sphere, trans women are forced to accommodate men’s power by feigning masculinity or over performing femininity. Either way we are chastised by cis women: on one hand we are regarded as insufficiently oppressed by men to be a woman and on the other hand we are ridiculed for being “too feminine” and reproducing forms of femininity that cater particularly to male desire.

This triple axis of transgendered exploitation follows trade winds. In the Philippines, where 400,000 people work in call centres, trans women are over represented. One transpinay worker interviewed in a recent report says that 75% of the workers in the company she works for are “transgendered women.”   Filipino terms for non-conforming genders and sexualities are bakla or bayot, and transpinay (Filipina woman) and transpinoy (Filipino man). Within the workplace there is a dual exploitation of transpinay workers. The role of transpinay people is to directly produce value for the owners but also to engage in affective, emotional and sexual labour to sustain the productive energy of men in the workplace. According to transpinay and trans women interviewed by scholar Emmanuel David in 2014, as workers, transpinay people and trans women experience a lack of upward mobility in the industry, are segregated in the office and at social gatherings, and are expected to entertain cis-men and transpinoy people.

The Philippines example shows how trans women are additionally exploited in the industrial workforce.  Trans women also experience exploitation in their lives outside of work. Although there are liberal trans women who have assimilated into the nuclear family form and don the crown of a queen in the patriarchal home, there are many trans women who exist outside of the nuclear family model. Our domestic space is the queer community and in our community a queer version of domesticity emerges. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for queer friends who are not trans women to dwell on examples of women’s oppression as forms of validation of trans womanhood. For example, when I “pass” as a woman to the unsuspecting onlooker, straight men and lesbian or queer women, and am approached as an object of desire, queer friends have suggested I ought to feel good, as I’m being “seen.” Yet I do not recall ever hearing about lesbians or feminine-presenting queer cis women being hit on by someone they are not interested in as being part of liberation; in fact the very opposite constitutes the politics of consent developed by the women’s and gay liberation movements. Lesbian and queer cis women are seen as validated in their womanhood by fighting back against incidents of gender violence, but trans women are seen as validated in their womanhood by being submitted to gender violence.

If trans women are supposed to feel validated by submitting to gender power, then our goal in queer domesticity is to fulfill the role of submissive partner inside of queer relationships. As the submissive partner, trans women are responsible for the reproduction of “queer value”– the monetary value produced by queer workers at their wage labour jobs. This takes the form of trans women having to engage in non-waged affective, sexual, and household labour for their working partners who experience homophobia and misogyny in the workplace while stomaching the transmisogyny we experience in the workplace, out in public, and in our relationships. Submission to this form as an articulation of our womanhood rests on the fact that we remain a dependent social group, objects of capital accumulation through cis gender power and queer domesticity.

Revolutionary Resistance to Gender Power

Trans revolutionaries Martha P. Johnson (with the cooler) and Sylvia Rivera (with the banner) march in the 1973 NYC Pride Parade representing Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR)

The category trans is a helpful tool for analyzing how European patriarchal relations are built and what the consequences of that system of power are. It is also a site of empowerment and struggle against male and cis supremacy. But the designation has its limits. Trans women are still only available to define ourselves in opposition to the patriarchal, class, and cis, trans antagonistic power that oppresses us. The struggle to define and recognize ourselves on our own terms is a fundamental aspect of becoming fully human. Women self-define by overthrowing men as a social group with power over women. Trans women self-define by overthrowing men, including trans men who have power over trans women as a social group, as well as by overthrowing cis women as a social group with power over trans women. This does not mean trans women cannot fight alongside cis women. In fact, the negation of the triple axis of working class trans women’s oppression acts as a site of unity between all of us who are oppressed by capital and gender violence by making all class struggle a site of gender liberation.

This principle of promoting the oppressed as leaders, that trans women are best suited to lead the struggle against the triple axis of class/gender power that forms us,  holds for white trans women as well. White trans women must critique our own colonial power. “Trans” comes from a European knowledge base and thus it cannot be used as a universal marker of identity. As the example of the Filipino call-centre shows, the experiences and self-definitions of Indigenous peoples, Black people, and people of colour regarding gender and sexuality may overlap with but also differ from the experiences and definitions of Euro-American trans women. These experiences can and are organized against European hegemony and in these cases must be treated as revolutionary in their own right, rather than as supplementary to a white revolutionary center. Radical articulations of gender and sexuality that locate gender power within imperialist and colonial occupation open up possibilities for revolutionary resistance.

In the straight and cis world we are oppressed as trans and within the queer and trans world we are oppressed as women. Holding true to Lenin’s revolutionary method of developing concrete analysis of concrete situations, we must develop a revolutionary praxis that traces the development of trans women’s oppression through gendered and sexual divisions of labour, and identifies the revolutionary potential of the historical position trans women occupy against capitalist economy and gender power in all its forms. In order to free trans women from queer reflections of the nuclear family form, trans women must be be economically independent. Emancipation for trans women is the full expropriation of all wealth protected in the nuclear family form by the State; freedom for trans women is the dissolution of the nuclear family and the laws of ownership and property that it protects. The 21st century will mark the end of capitalist exploitation and colonial violence if its revolutionaries embrace a militant position against all forms of gender and race oppression. In place of the felled pillars of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy will be a world where gender and racial differences that challenge European knowledge are seen as precious gifts in a classless society organized through Indigenous and socialist economies.

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