The Transition Problem

A Review of Transgender Marxism

October 27, 2022

Transgender Marxism, a collection of essays edited by Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke, comes at a critical time in the living history of sex-gender relations. In the US, for instance, around half of all adults say they personally know someone who uses a gendered pronoun different from the one assigned to them at birth, while acceptance of trans identities is statistically normative among adults in their twenties, and quickly rising among parents asked how they would respond to their own children coming out as trans.1Rachel Minkin and Anna Brown, “Rising Shares of US Adults Know Someone who is Transgender or Goes by Gender-neutral Pronouns,” Pew Research Center, July 27, 2021.

The fact that there were enough contributors to fill an anthology is in itself significant: the collection emerged from an online ferment of (mostly) young people radicalizing over the last decade or so—as communists, socialists, anarchists, and Marxists, but also simultaneously as self-conscious queers and especially as transgender people and transexuals. The audience for the book has been equally significant.

Transgender Marxism has been widely reviewed, quickly sold out its initial small press run, and has since sold over five thousand copies, a more than respectable number for a volume of theoretical writing, composed and edited by largely unknown writers. The collection thus marks a moment in which growing numbers of us are not only imagining, but initiating, dramatic transformations of ourselves and our immediate social worlds, and linking those (inter)personal transformations to a broader vision of fundamental social change.

The book challenges us to consider that “sex” itself has yet to be fully taken up as an object of Marxist analysis.

The book, if it can be said to stake a single claim to Marxism as a tradition, challenges us to consider that “sex” itself has yet to be fully taken up as an object of Marxist analysis, in the fullest historical materialist, political economic sense. In the few years since this collection was being written, that task has only grown more politically urgent. The growing movement for trans recognition, if not liberation, over the past decade has been accompanied by growing efforts to repress and demonize trans people.

Indeed, the campaign against “gender ideology” (and related bogeymen going by other names) has become an obsession of reactionaries and conspiracists the world over. “Gender ideology” is a nebulous concept, an “empty and adaptable signifier,” that attaches to a range of policies and ideological labels, but in practice serves to “construct unusual analogies between feminism, queer theory and communism” as the common enemy that coalitions must be built to fight.2Sonia Corrêa, “Gender Ideology: Tracking Its Origins and Meanings in Current Gender Politics,” Engenderings, LSE Department of Gender Studies, Dec 11, 2017.  Nevertheless, its rhetorical power lies in its appeal to straightforward “common sense” about the necessity and naturalness of binary biological sex—and of the heterosexual relations that are said to proceed ineluctably from that binary.

This insistence on the overriding, all-determining reality of “sex” has made strange bedfellows recently; to use one oft-cited metaphor, resistance to “gender” serves as the “symbolic glue” that holds together coalitions of disparate, and even otherwise conflicting, elements across local, national, and global scales.3For “gender ideology” as symbolic glue, see Weronika Grzebalska, Eszter Kováts, and Andrea Petö, “Gender as Symbolic Glue: How ‘Gender’ Became an Umbrella Term for the Rejection of the (Neo)liberal Order,” Political Critique, January 13, 2017.  Nor have soi-disant leftists been immune to the lure of anti-genderist common sense about the reality of sex, whether in the name of a profoundly bourgeois radical feminism, a deeply ahistorical “historical materialism,” or a spectacularly self-defeating strategy of appealing to a putatively “normal,” that is, straight and queerphobic, working class.

The institutional straight left (broadly defined) has generally come to realize that rhetorical defense of trans rights is urgent and necessary, if only out of reflexive solidarity with targets of the far right. Whether such rhetoric translates to practical defense is a different matter, however, particularly when hostility against trans people is treated as a minor issue, a misdirection from what really counts.

So far, the straight left has given little serious consideration to the theoretical and strategic implications of this conjuncture, perhaps because trans life is wrongly seen as a novel development or a niche concern. Based on this misconception, hostility towards trans people can be misconstrued as an inevitable backlash of tradition against progress; and trans people can thus seem to be the convenient, but in some sense arbitrary, targets of a culture war that is waged merely as a distraction from other, more meaningful struggles. In the worst cases, the increasing social weight of trans people, in itself, is imagined to cause right-wing resurgence by means of a backlash—a misconception that inadvertently, and in some cases intentionally, makes trans/queerphobia a channel for recruitment from left to right.

Some thinkers, Marxist and otherwise, have argued that the “anti-gender” movement is not caused by the gains or visibility of targeted groups, but rather an effect of “the vanishing of social services under neoliberalism [that] has put pressure on the traditional family to provide care work.”4Judith Butler, “Why is the Idea of ‘Gender’ Provoking Backlash the World Over?” The Guardian, October 23, 2021.  This situation, which has made individuals more dependent on family support even as it renders family bonds more fragile and more fraught, sets the stage for a politics of reactionary nostalgia that must imagine sex-gender as a pre-social fact, with heterosexuality (as an overarching social system for ordering intimate life and regulating labor of all kinds) as its necessary consequence.

Yet, however obvious, and useful this understanding of anti-gender ideology may be, it misses the fact that the heterosexual sex-gender system, rooted in a bedrock ideological commitment to the supposedly natural complementarity of the (exactly two) sexes, is no more “traditional” than capitalism itself. Melinda Cooper’s Family Values, which draws a line from Elizabethan poor laws to neoliberal privatization, is just one of the most recent and most compelling works to suggest that the politics of reactionary nostalgia and gendered respectability have been linked with capitalist exploitation since at least the age of the enclosures.5Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (Princeton: Zone Books, 2017).  Seen in light of this deeper history, the reactionary emphasis on sex–race–nation is anything but arbitrary: the normalcy it claims to defend is central to the functioning of capital itself and has been, in some sense, since both capitalism and heterosexuality came into coincident being.

When the straight left engages in this “debate” over gender ideology without questioning its terms, what we often get is “The Transsexual Question.” I use the phrase, by obvious analogy with “The Jewish Question” (a persistent front in European, and eventually global, political, and intellectual conflicts since at least the eighteenth century), to describe the prevailing discourses that treat trans people as an aberration requiring an explanation and a problem requiring a solution.6This is not to suggest that the Jewish Question and the Transsexual Question are fully distinct, however, not least of all because antisemites have and continue to see the existence of “(trans)sexual deviance” as the result of a Jewish plot. See, for instance, J.A. Cohen, “The Eradication of ‘Talmudic Abstractions’: Antisemitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project,” Invert Journal 1, and the editorial team’s introduction.

Like the Jewish Question, the Transsexual Question, is an artifact of projection and prejudice, motivated by the bad faith, opportunism, and outright chauvinism of a few ringleaders, and legitimized by a broader public sense of profound confusion, moral panic, and irrational disgust. Anti-genderism, like antisemitism, is a socialism of fools—both intellectually (as a critique that depends on fundamental misunderstanding of reality) and politically (as a project that cannot deliver the relief it promises). It depicts real people who belong to a marginalized social minority as living embodiments of dissension and disorder, and into objects of a debate in which their meaningful participation is impossible because their testimony is inherently suspect: by definition a trans person is never what they claim to be, so why entertain their claims at all?

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The solution to The Transsexual Question, posed as such, is ultimately, always, that trans people cannot, do not, should not exist. Certainly not so many of them, so visibly. And you can see this in how the Trans Question plays out legislatively, politically. At stake, in the immediate sense is the ability of gender-nonconforming people to participate in civic and public life—to carry workable, legal identity documents, to piss in some kind of peace, to obtain services that facilitate trans self-realization.

But what starts as a denial of opportunities for social participation—except at the expense of sex-gender self-determination—quickly devolves into the preventative and the reparative. It is not enough, for instance, to prevent children from accessing resources that might affirm their transness; they must be kept from ever knowing that trans and queer people exist.

Understood as contagious (for instance, through the pseudoscientific concept of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria”), trans identity becomes a disease in need of not just individual cure, but eradication from the population. Most alarmingly, trans and queer people are increasingly, once again openly, charged with sexual predation, tarred as “groomers” and “pedophiles”—the kind of people who, in our cultural imagination, deserve any and every kind of violence in pursuit of their eradication.

These are the circumstances that Virgínia Guitzel describes in her contribution to Transgender Marxism, “Notes from Brazil.” While conditions in Brazil in late 2019 are not wholly generalizable, her analysis aptly conveys the context and the stakes of the book as a whole: a situation of escalating economic and political crises; of an ascendent reactionary nationalism with queers among its primary targets; of a center-left offering only to “administer neoliberalism capitalism in its decline,” even as liberal democratic institutions collapse around them; of queer and other social movements facing the “reversal of even [the] modest breakthrough[s] of previous decades;” a situation that threatens to “evoke despair” even as it demands a rediscovery of the “shared history of working-class struggle and revolution” that is our inheritance and our reason for optimism.

One of the chief virtues of Transgender Marxism is that it records trans and queer people’s reflections on their own conditions.

Given that anti-trans reaction depends on the persistent denial of trans people’s subjectivity, both individually and collectively, one of the chief virtues of Transgender Marxism is that it records trans and queer people’s reflections on their own conditions. The editors emphasize that the perspectives in Transgender Marxism originated in the informal and often “ephemeral” spaces in which trans communists exchange ideas, and several of the contributions are either co-written by multiple authors or otherwise testify to the influence of a murkier collective authorship.

Overall, this is in keeping with a key idea that animates Transgender Marxism, namely that trans communities are repositories of “esoteric” knowledge and knowhow, and that reflecting on trans experience as it is lived gives rise to unique and precious insights. In the words of the book’s editors, transgender Marxism is thus “an account of self-knowledge” that is “generative of its own theoretical conclusions.”

Two overlapping visions of “Transgender Marxism” emerge in the book, both based on that fundamental premise. The first is laid out by Gleeson and O’Rourke in their editors’ introduction. For them, Trans Marxism involves engaging with Marx(ism), in the broadest sense, in order to understand “the actual substance of trans life” as it is experienced by trans people, in pursuit of trans liberation.

As Gleeson and O’Rourke write, Trans- gender Marxism “aims to provide a materialist account of the distinctive conditions of lack in which we find ourselves, and to help us wriggle free through unlikely means.” And while this vision necessarily emphasizes the particularity of trans experience, it is not a separatist one: because trans existence emerges historically through the forces that produce the capitalist household (or one might say, the bourgeois family), trans liberation requires the dismantling of the capitalist household—both by means of, and, implicitly, as a means of, dismantling capitalism itself.

The second vision, articulated with great clarity in Rosa Lee’s contribution, “Judith Butler’s Scientific Revolution: Foundations for a Transsexual Marxism,” emphasizes the urgency of rethinking Marxism through the lens of transgender experience, and again specifically, the experience of transition. For Lee, Judith Butler’s insight on the performative—that is, socially produced—nature of sex-gender serves as the core theoretical exposition of a claim that animates Transgender Marxism as a whole: that “sex” is not real, at least not in the way it claims to be or in the way that many Marxists and Marxist Feminists have thus far presumed, even as Marxist theorists from Engels on have offered among the most sophisticated historical materialist accounts of sex/gender in their own periods of activity.

Insofar as Marxist theory presupposes the reality of essential or binary sex, it is incorrect. To the degree that any Marxist theory fails to account for the historical emergence of sex itself, that theory is incomplete.

What Transgender Marxism aspires to, then, is a rigorous material analysis of the production of psyches, persons, and classes. This project, so defined, is an enormous undertaking—well beyond what a single, highly eclectic, and by some definitions, at times only incidentally “Marxist” anthology could accomplish. Where Transgender Marxism has already succeeded, however, is in providing a staging ground for more, and more cohesive, attempts to take up its task of understanding sex-gender more deeply through a Marxist framework—that is to say, on the basis of a historical materialist analysis of reality, a reality in which trans people manifestly exist both because of and by means of shifts in the forces of re/production over time.

“Transition” is the primary recurring theme across Transgender Marxism. To a certain extent, this may be an effect of the age and life stage of the contributors, for many of whom the process of gender transition may be a fairly new and pressing concern. And of course, since trans oppression rests on the denial of the possibility of transition, careful explication of how transitions occur can serve to counteract anti-trans narratives—as in Noah Zazanis’s “Social Reproduction and Social Cognition: Theorizing (Trans)gender Identity Development in Community Context,” which ably dismantles trans-exclusionary feminist claims about the overriding power of “gendered socialization.”

But beyond giving the lie to the presuppositions of natural sexual difference (or gendered social determinism), a trans analysis of transition can also provide a substantive account of what sexual difference is as a material, historical reality, without resort to thought-terminating clichés about chromosomes and hormones, essence, or upbringing. Trans accounts of transition can help articulate the details of sex-gender as a normative structure; as Gleeson observes, “anxious transsexuals” can be fantastically “astute in noticing, and itemizing, gendered features of everyday presentation.”

However, attending to the subjective experience of trans genders—and especially of gender dysphoria and euphoria—can be just as revealing. As the anonymous pair behind “A Dialogue on Deleuze and Gender Difference” suggest, the visceral, corporeally, and affectively felt nature of gender dysphoria has an extraordinary power to not only “render all these previously invisible forces visible” but also to drive the mind towards “true thinking”—beyond easy answers, staid pieties, dry language games.

Farah Thompson’s contribution, “The Bridge Between Gender and Organizing,” is exemplary in this respect, vividly capturing the omnipresence of race and gender discipline in one person’s life, as well as suggesting the ways transition serves to resist that discipline without necessarily relieving its tortuous consequences. Accounts like Thompson’s suggest the power of trans auto-theory to reveal what it actually takes to live up to manhood or womanhood in heterosexual society, how impossible such a task is, and how we, all of us, are seduced and/or coerced into it anyways. Such analysis is crucial for understanding how sex-gender becomes real, how it becomes the site of such powerful investments that it can serve as the “glue” for coalition building to begin with.

Given the attention to the production of trans genders throughout the book, it should not be surprising that Transgender Marxism as a whole is deeply concerned with the concept of social reproduction. This aligns the Transgender Marxist project with broader efforts to divest social reproduction theory of some limiting assumptions borne of the field’s initial focus on the relationship between women’s oppression “in the home” and capitalist exploitation in the workplace. (Among such assumptions: that social reproductive labor is primarily unpaid, primarily in the home, primarily in the context of familial or intimate relationships.)

The phrase “social reproduction” occurs dozens of times in the book, making an appearance in almost every essay. Sometimes it refers to the process of self-directed re-gendering and refashioning as trans, emphasizing the community contexts that make transitions possible at all. For instance, in “How do Gender Transitions Happen?” Jules Joanne Gleeson considers the variety of “trans circles” in which the “reciprocal recognition” of transition can occur (for example, support groups, activist scenes, and social media groups).

Similarly, J.N. Hoad’s “Encounters in Lancaster” meditates on the immediate intimacy that can sometimes arise when queer strangers encounter each other, the feeling of connecting “not with one fellow queer, human and fulfilling, but with the fulfillment of being queer.” Significantly, Hoad’s work implicitly connects contemporary trans life to the queer and largely working class tradition of building, through our own volition (for example, camp, cruising, gestures, and signs), an ephemeral and semi-secret queer world overlaying the straight one.7A classic discussion of this dynamic is found in George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

Nat Raha’s “A Queer Socialist Feminism: Queer and Trans Social Reproduction,” on the other hand, takes a very broad view of queer social reproduction as encompassing all the forms of physical and emotional caretaking that queer people do to ensure each other’s collective survival, even as capital and the state impose mounting burdens on queer life. Raha’s piece, which ambitiously engages with the broadest range of social reproduction theory literature of all the contributions to Trans-gender Marxism, suggests both the promise and limitations of the collection as a whole: it stresses the need for social reproduction theory to account for the particularities of trans experience, yet it describes trans strategies of survival—for example, the sharing of resources and emotional support within porous, non-familial households—that are hardly limited to the queer/trans segments of the working class.

And while Raha, drawing on elements of Black Feminist thought, suggests that queer survival strategies can be a form of resistance to capitalism, the essay ends on a melancholy note, wondering whether, given that capital both enjoins and profits from queer social reproductive labor, we can:

substantively resist the coercions of capital’s demands that we undertake socially reproductive labor for free, while simultaneously dismantling and ending the capitalist world within which our lives are debased and devalued.

One problem, for Raha’s essay, as for almost all the essays in Transgender Marxism, is its relative disengagement from more familiarly Marxist themes related to both productive (that is, value-producing) labor and proletarian revolution. However, the two contributions that do focus on working life suggest the crucial importance of these themes. M.E. O’Brien’s “Trans Work: Employment Trajectories, Labor Discipline and Gender Freedom” analyzes three case studies of trans women’s employment histories to consider how gender discipline shapes access to employment, experiences on the job, and opportunities for labor organizing for us all.

One of O’Brien’s key observations, that rebellion against gender-based indignities on the job is often the grounds for labor organizing—not an identitarian distraction from it—is further amplified in Kade Doyle Griffiths’s “Queer Workerism Against Work: Strategizing Transgender Laborers, Social Reproduction, and Class Formation.” Griffiths engages with Kim Moody’s work on shifting class structure and organizing strategy to suggest that queer/trans workers represent a “dynamic and specific sliver of the [working] class.”

In particular, Griffiths suggests queer/trans workers may serve not as the vanguard but as a vanguard in the development of militant class consciousness for a number of reasons, including their overrepresentation in certain choke points in the economy (such as, logistics industries and social reproduction); a sharpened class consciousness born of their particular experiences with both workplace exploitation and the burdens of social reproduction; and their capacity to straddle the boundary between labor movement and social movement, helping merge the two. Griffiths’s argument has implications for how we understand recent attacks on queer teachers by both governments and reactionary movements—as not only irrational “hate”-fueled acts against a disempowered minority, but in fact, as preemptive action against a particularly militant and potentially powerful sector of the working class.

Griffiths’s attention to the question of strategy is a welcome contribution to Transgender Marxism because it underscores that, in the end, the purpose of trans Marxism—of all Marxism—is not to understand the world, but to change it, materially, collectively and for the better. What’s more, the reference to Moody—whose past work has grappled with how chauvinism, and especially racism, hampers working class self-organization—reminds us that the broad theoretical and strategic questions posed by the existence of both trans people and transphobia on the Left are neither novel nor unique.

Rather, they are a facet of the central unresolved question of the socialist project: how to unite the working class, as a class in, of, and most crucially for itself, with a solidarity strong enough to overcome all obstacles to its emancipation.

When I consider the stated arguments of those who either seek to limit or downplay the influence of trans people and perspectives on the broader left, I am frankly surprised that they get as much coverage and credence as they do. The depiction of a small, disempowered group as an inherent threat to (cis)women and children and as a source of biological contagion; the lurid preoccupation with trans physicality, the way opponents of trans existence revel in an objectifying and dehumanizing disgust at whatever features they imagine to mark trans bodies; the willingness to ally with reactionaries on the grounds of resistance to “(trans)gender ideology,” what’s more, to justify a shift of allegiance to the Right on the grounds that the Left doesn’t belittle and oppose trans people enough—these are not the features of a good faith, principled disagreement with an ideological tendency or a plan of action.

They are hallmarks of bigotry and should be familiar as such to everyone who has encountered white supremacy, antisemitism, misogyny, and homophobia before; and anti-trans animus, in whatever form it takes, must be opposed in the same way on both moral and practical grounds. This doesn’t mean there are no interesting questions to be asked about trans politics, trans existence, and the political economy of trans life. To the contrary, the surprisingly sudden visibility of queer and trans people socially and politically, in general and within the Left, cries out for critical analysis—a project incompatible with entertaining the grotesque fantasies of bigots or engaging in metaphysical debates about the substance of true wo/manhood.

A transgender Marxism, then, is just plain old Marxism—dialectical, historical, materialist, and communist—that acknowledges that trans people exist, that they are capable of speaking for themselves, that they are equal to any other group of people in moral worth, naturalness, and human dignity, subject to the same historical forces, part of the same totality, capable of being comrades in the same world-historical struggle.

A transgender Marxism, then, is just plain old Marxism—dialectical, historical, materialist, and communist—that acknowledges that trans people exist, that they are capable of speaking for themselves, that they are equal to any other group of people in moral worth, naturalness, and human dignity, subject to the same historical forces, part of the same totality, capable of being comrades in the same world-historical struggle. Like any Marxism, transgender Marxism is based on historical materialism—one which cannot ignore the historicity of sex.

Such a history needs to start in an evolutionary timespan, one that considers development of the human as a species-being: as a being who requires a great deal of care and enculturation not only to survive to maturity, but to persist throughout our lifespans; a being whose key evolutionary advantage is culture, and the flexibility that comes with the ability to transmit knowledge and meaning over time and space; creatures for whom social relationships—alliances, affections, identities, institutions—are inseparable from the material processes of biological survival. So, a transgender Marxism thinks about human (social) reproduction not simply in terms of supposed biological constants like fertilization, gestation, parturition, and lactation, but also in terms of the development of the forces of reproduction over time.

This means attending to the variety of kinship systems which have served to simultaneously organize production and reproduction across human history, looking for diversities and regularities, periods of transformation or acceleration. For Marxists, this will necessarily involve considering the critical centuries from 1500 to 1800, emphasizing the massive upheavals (enclosure, enslavement, colonization, and genocide) that accompanied the emergence of capitalism, wrenching people out of their existing systems of reproduction, separating them from cultural resources that had placed limits on their exploitability in their previous circumstances, and rearranging them under the pressures of a relentless, devouring capital.

Although Transgender Marxism rarely travels further back than the 1950s, Jordy Rosenberg’s afterword, “One Utopia, One Dystopia,” is an exception that attempts to situate the book’s interventions within “a broader historical cycle of colonialism and capitalism.” Crucially, Rosenberg names the family as white and settler colonial as well as bourgeois, reminding us that the labor power produced in the familial household (and other social reproductive institutions from schools to prisons) arrives not in the form of bare living organisms, but rather in diverse socially and historically particular forms that make it available for exploitation by capital in both universal and highly specific ways: with certain capacities, in certain social positionalities (such as sexed, raced, national), both motivated and constrained by certain affective ties.

In attempting to analyze this world as we find it, transgender Marxism can turn to history in a second way, by building on earlier efforts by queer, gender nonconforming, and sexually radical thinkers to understand the interplay between capital and sex-gender—whether from within or outside of a Marxist framework, bearing in mind that a good deal of historical queer socialist thought remains to be excavated. In Transgender Marxism’s pages, Xandra Metcalfe’s “Why Are We Like This? The Primacy of Transsexuality” makes this very move, drawing on ideas from the Italian gay liberationist Mario Mieli, whose 1977 work of “homosexual critique” has recently been published in a new English translation, also by Pluto Press.8Mario Mieli, Towards a Gay Communism: Elements of a Homosexual Critique, trans. David Fernbach and Evan Calder Williams, (London: Pluto, 2018).

Mieli, providing a gay interpretation of the psychoanalysis of their own time, argued that all humans are born in a state of “primordial transsexuality,” a kind of psychic wholeness that is violently constrained, via repression, to create individuals who can pretend, in bad faith, to experience themselves as all man or all woman, as purely monosexual. Metcalfe engages Lacan to criticize Mieli for taking a naïve “prelapsarian” view of primordial transsexuality as “an original One or self-sameness”—a distinction that may seem irrelevant to those of us who, like Mieli, have little use for Lacan.

Ultimately, however, Metcalfe’s conclusion that trans people are united not by identity, but by a fundamental lack of identity within the regime of (hetero)sexual difference is consistent with the foundation of a Mielian gay communism: that the challenge posed by queer existence can never be resolved merely through incorporating trans people as a tolerated minority within a fundamentally straight society, but only through the liberation of the trans potential in us all.

What would that mean, the liberation of the trans potential in us all? Certainly not a mirror-image reversal of the nightmare of compelled hormone regimes and coerced adoption of gender markers that straight society currently imposes—most successfully so on those who examine their genders least. Despite what you may have heard, no one is interested in reassigning your or your kid’s sex/gender.

Transgender Marxism directs our attention not toward any individual person’s particular gender identity, expression, or embodiment, but once again, to the very process of transition itself. To outsiders, transition can seem a superficial thing, a mere change of costume and terminology, relabeling the tin to—depending on your perspective—either better represent or better misrepresent its contents. Of course, that can be part of it, even if the language of “wrong bodies” and “true selves” can serve more as an accommodation of the limited worldview of a straight audience than as an analysis of trans experience.

Transgender Marxism directs our attention not toward any individual person’s particular gender identity, expression, or embodiment, but to the very process of transition itself.

When trans people are talking for and amongst ourselves, however, it is often in terms of doing rather than being, of facing a choice between engaging—with ourselves, others, the material world—or disengaging, sometimes quite literally, from life itself. I couldn’t _____ unless I transitioned, people will say, filling that blank with anything and everything, in ways that are never quite reducible to the catalog of gender stereotypes. (Why, for instance, should so many of us only start to enjoy certain prescribed trappings of our assigned genders once that gender has been left behind?) Many elements of these litanies have to do with relationships: I couldn’t connect with people; I couldn’t show up for others; I couldn’t stand up for myself. What I always hear in these accounts, however singular, is: I couldn’t truly be a person if I had to be a woman (or a man,or either a woman or a man)—so I had to take responsibility for being something else, both to myself and to the world.

This assumption of responsibility for one’s own self-fashioning is, I think, among the most profoundly valuable—and most widely applicable—aspects of the trans experience. As Nathaniel Dickinson argues in “Seizing the Means: Towards a Trans Epistemology,” transition can be understood as a way of “engaging with materialism as a science,” as praxis, one might say:

Transness draws attention to, and estranges, the social relations that produce shared oppression—while simultaneously providing an opportunity for resocialization, and thus a potentially better model for relating to others…That process of resocialization and its implications can help make us better Marxists.

The value of this resocialization process, for Marxism, is both in what it reveals about contemporary conditions and the practical experience it gives us of changing those conditions, however slightly, thereby building our capacity to do so again in other arenas and at other scales. For, as Dickinson astutely observes, (gender) transition “affects all involved,” both those who initiate personal gender transitions and those others who must respond to them. And, it should be noted, that those others can and often do respond with solidarity and recognition—a process that also requires a transition of its own.

The linking of transition as an individual life event with transition as an occasion for a mutually transforming change in relations cannot help but bring to mind that other, more famous Marxist transition problem—the question of how to affect a transition to communism itself. Master technicians of counterhegemonic social reproduction though we may be, no one is suggesting trans people have an answer to that question; nor that trans communities and relationships are utopian prefigurations of full communism. (If only!) That’s something we’ll have to figure out together through the process of struggle.

Whatever else, this process will involve wrestling social relationships apart to reorganize ourselves—individually and collectively—into something new. It will involve persisting in that effort despite its often being difficult, tedious, costly, and dangerous, not to mention requiring cooperation among annoying, embarrassing, and flawed people who nevertheless must become comrades. It will involve reinventing for ourselves what “comrade”—a term with no and every gender—means for this time and place. Transgender Marxism is a resource for thinking through how this process might unfold, but perhaps more valuably, for reminding us to seek out the ways in which it already is unfolding.

  1. Rachel Minkin and Anna Brown, “Rising Shares of US Adults Know Someone who is Transgender or Goes by Gender-neutral Pronouns,” Pew Research Center, July 27, 2021.
  2. Sonia Corrêa, “Gender Ideology: Tracking Its Origins and Meanings in Current Gender Politics,” Engenderings, LSE Department of Gender Studies, Dec 11, 2017.
  3. For “gender ideology” as symbolic glue, see Weronika Grzebalska, Eszter Kováts, and Andrea Petö, “Gender as Symbolic Glue: How ‘Gender’ Became an Umbrella Term for the Rejection of the (Neo)liberal Order,” Political Critique, January 13, 2017.
  4. Judith Butler, “Why is the Idea of ‘Gender’ Provoking Backlash the World Over?” The Guardian, October 23, 2021.
  5. Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (Princeton: Zone Books, 2017).
  6. This is not to suggest that the Jewish Question and the Transsexual Question are fully distinct, however, not least of all because antisemites have and continue to see the existence of “(trans)sexual deviance” as the result of a Jewish plot. See, for instance, J.A. Cohen, “The Eradication of ‘Talmudic Abstractions’: Antisemitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project,” Invert Journal 1, and the editorial team’s introduction.
  7. A classic discussion of this dynamic is found in George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995).
  8. Mario Mieli, Towards a Gay Communism: Elements of a Homosexual Critique, trans. David Fernbach and Evan Calder Williams, (London: Pluto, 2018).
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