Adapted from a talk presented at Marx21’s national branch meeting celebrating Pride month, Clare Lemlich looks at the intertwined origins of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, as well as the past and present struggles for LGBTQ+ liberation.
Pride month can be bittersweet. We get to see the gains our movements have made, and there’s a kind of visibility of queer life that would have been unimaginable at other points in history. But Pride month is also a reminder of how far we still have to go in actually beating back homophobia and transphobia, let alone winning full queer liberation.
Homophobic hate crimes continue to take place all over the world. The Guardian reported that 2021 is already set to be the decade’s deadliest year for trans and gender non-conforming people in the US. At least 28 trans people have been killed so far this year, and most were Black or Latinx trans women.
But we know this oppression runs deeper than individual acts of violence. While we’ve made great strides in formal equality, particularly for gay people, and social attitude have shifted significantly around same gender attraction, there is still gendered and sexual oppression enshrined in a great many number of our laws.
The sharpest version we see of that today are the institutional attacks on trans people, taking the form of transphobic bathroom bills, attacks on trans athletes, and bans on gender-affirming healthcare particularly for children. With 33 states introducing 117 anti-trans bills this year alone, the Human Rights Campaign is calling 2021 the worst year for transphobic legislation since they began tracking it 15 years ago.
A previous study by the Anti-Violence Project found that trans people were 3.7 times more likely to experience police violence than cisgender victims and survivors, and 7 times more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with police. For the second year in a row, the peaceful Reclaim Pride march in New York City was attacked by police during the after-party in Washington Square Park. And in Los Angeles, police focused on attacking the trans-supporting counter- demonstrators, not the far-right demonstrators gathered to harass a trans-friendly spa.
Clearly, there’s never been a more important time for Pride marches and movements to take up this violence and oppression.
Contemporary Pride marches contain tension. On the one hand, there are the mainstream marches complete with corporate sponsorship and rainbow police floats, and on the other, political marches that highlight the battles we still have to win, and that point out who our enemies are — those glittery corporations and rainbow police.
Over the last few years we’ve seen anti-corporate, anti-police, radical reclamations of Pride marches all over the world — from New York to London to Sydney. Rather than seeing gay CEOs as a victory for the movement, these radical Pride alternatives (or blocs in wider pride marches) argue there should be no CEOs at all. They often include demands to end detention of LGBTQ+ migrants, for universal healthcare that include gender affirming medicine, and against Israel’s attempts to use gay-friendly tourism to distract from its ongoing occupation of Palestine.
The reason people call this a “reclamation,” of re-claiming Pride, is because it’s a return to the radical origins of Pride. Originally, Pride marches began as commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riot, the event that really spurred the contemporary gay liberation movement.
The Stonewall was a bar in Greenwich Village in New York that was run by the mafia and the regular site of police bribes and police raids. It was also one of the few places where working class and poor gay and trans people — particularly Black and Latinx queer people and often sex workers — could gather and be themselves in some kind of safety.
One night in June the police raided the bar as they often did and quite spontaneously, the 100+ patrons refused to have their IDs or genitals checked like usual (this is what they did to check if someone was crossdressing, and then jail them for it.) The crowd started throwing coins and then bottles at the cops. Riots continued for several nights and really became a watershed moment, sparking new organizations and a movement for queer liberation — alongside and in conversation with other growing movements at the time against racism, the Vietnam War, and so on.
Marxists have a particular way of understanding how sexism, homophobia, and transphobia emerge and operate. We see these as oppressive ideas and systems that capitalism uses to control our bodies, reproduction, and families in order to keep the system running and profitable.
Most other explanations see these oppressions as ideas in people’s heads: some people are just backward, or they fear what they don’t know, or they’re part of a religion that has strict ideas. But Marxists believe the ideas in our heads are shaped by the way society is organized: the way we feed and house and clothe ourselves — the way we reproduce our society — at different periods in history shapes the way we think about the world and the way we relate to other people.
The historical evidence that anthropologists and archaeologists have been able to gather tell us that for most of human history, we did not have these institutionalized forms of gendered and sexual oppression. There were different roles assigned to men and women based on certain biological attributes, but there wasn’t a clear power differential between people of different genders. The evidence also shows there was a lot of fluidity in gender roles, including many examples of societies with more than two genders and of people moving between different genders.
This started to change when class societies emerged. As farming developed, a small class of men increasingly grew to control agricultural production and wealth, while the need for more children pushed women out of those public spaces and into private child-rearing roles. This is where we start to see the idea of the family unit emerge, and where gender roles start to become more rigid and fixed.
The family functions in different ways at different times. Throughout class society, same-sex relations and differing gender expressions existed alongside various forms of repression.
Starting in the 19th century, the ruling class made a very concerted effort to enforce the “nuclear family”: where dad has the role of the breadwinner and mom the housekeeper, and she does all the free labor to get the kids ready to be workers.
To hold up this idea of the nuclear family as natural and necessary, the ruling class had to police anything that that didn’t fit this model — that meant religious rulings against non-procreative sex and bans on abortion. This is the period when the term “homosexuality” was first used and when homohpobic legislation started to appear, treating same gender attraction as deviant because it was a threat to the family structure. The family is also the first place in our lives that polices our genders, projecting a certain idea of who is a woman and who is a man, and punishing people who don’t fit those roles.
Marxists look at this history of how oppression has emerged, developed, and changed throughout class society not as some academic exercise, but because it helps us understand where oppression comes from. Understanding where homophobia and transphobia come from is the first step towards eradicating them.
This is one of the most inspiring things about Marxism: oppression has a start point, rooted in class society. That means it can have an end point too. In other words, if oppression is created to serve and maintain a particular class arrangement, therefore an end to class society actually creates the possibility for a complete end to oppression too. But there is nothing inevitable about this — ending oppression depends entirely on what we do with Marxist ideas in the here and now.
Unfortunately there’s a small but vocal minority around the left generally (including some in the DSAy in the DSA) that have missed the fight against oppression that is at the heart of Marxism, and who try to reduce questions of oppression down to crude and mechanical economic explanations. Their historical analysis isn’t necessarily wrong: they talk about the way slavery is rooted in profit, immigration controls are rooted in controlling the flow labor, they understand nuclear family polices gender and sexuality.
But these ‘economic determinists’ often come across as dismissing oppression in the here and now. Worse, they say that taking up this or that specific anti-oppression demand or movement is divisive and fractious, and that instead we need universal class demands to unite everyone.
For example, in the DSA chapter I’m a part of, there has been a big debate about racism — one side arguing we need to organize explicitly around Black issues, the other side saying we should organize exclusively around class, poverty, unionization etc, and that will automatically improve the lives of Black people and bring Black activists into the group. As you can imagine, the chapter has been losing Black members who are rightly furious that the group isn’t centering this kind of oppression, especially after a full year of Black Lives Matter in the streets.
This debate about class versus oppression comes up most often around questions of race and racism, but it has wider implications around homophobia and transphobia too. In response to a sense of dismissal of oppression, groups and individuals that organize around specific forms of oppression can be skeptical of people who make these ‘economic determinist’ arguments and of Marxists in general wondering what Marxism offers them as a person experiencing transphobia or anti-Black racism or Islamophobia today.
This is a tragic misunderstanding and misapplication of Marxism. It turns groups of oppressed people away from socialists — and often towards other, more limited theories of oppression and towards either organizing strategies that don’t work, or no strategy at all. And in any case, there simply can’t be a serious fight against capitalism unless it takes up questions of oppression too, explicitly, and not just as an afterthought or as something secondary to “real” class struggle. The truth is, the working class is trans and queer and Black and Muslim and disabled, and so on. We cannot build genuine movements against capitalism, let alone revolution, without a clear politics of solidarity with all oppressed groups.
Transphobia today is driven by the right. They have manufactured a moral panic around medical intervention for trans children and about trans women using public bathrooms or changing rooms. We see these arguments reflected in the vicious legislation Republicans are pursuing at the state level.
Much of this backlash is orchestrated from the top down, and in desperate reaction to growing solidarity with trans struggles. Awareness of trans lives and oppression has grown within the LGBTQ+ movements and beyond, especially in younger people, from Black Lives Matter demonstrations to popular culture.
But unfortunately the anti-trans backlash is not only confined to the right. There is a minority of feminists who are not only anti-trans, but actually believe the movement for trans rights is a threat to the movement against women’s oppression. These people call themselves “gender critical feminists,” but they’re known critically in the wider movement as trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). This is a particularly live discussion in Britain, but is also felt here in the US.
These feminists argue to exclude trans women from women-only spaces on the grounds that they “aren’t really women.” Their argument is, when you drill down, rooted in essentialist and biologically determinist ideas about what constitutes a woman. They say that biology is a material fact (even though we now know that biological sex isn’t a simple binary.) They believe people assigned male at birth can’t experience women’s oppression because they haven’t lived their entire lives as women, and haven’t suffered either the biological or social oppression that comes with being a woman.
This is a pretty weird contention — as if a young trans girl experiences her enforced boyhood just like all other boys and lives as a boy oppression-free until one day she decides to be a girl. The truth is trans women suffer a complicated mix of both sexism and transphobia. If you look at any data on the attacks, it’s impossible to deny that trans people are some of the most oppressed and violently targeted people in our society.
Worse, some of these “gender critical” feminists argue that trans women are simply men in disguise, seeking to access women’s spaces for nefarious and violent reasons — despite there being absolutely no evidence of trans people attacking cis women in public bathrooms.
In fact, the people getting attacked in bathrooms are trans people. There was actually a transphobic hoax recently, in the neighborhood where I work in Los Angeles, where a right wing anti-trans activist manufactured a fake video complaining about a “naked Antifa man” in the sauna traumatizing her children. There have been a number of violent protests led by the far right, religious conservatives, and conspiracy theorists outside the spa because it’s known to support trans rights and trans customers. Although the right is clearly leading the transphobic charge, the feminists who are debating trans existence are contributing to this transphobic environment and helping justify the violence meted out against trans people.
Pride month reminds us how far we’ve come in the fight for LGBTQ rights, but it also reminds us how much more there still is to win. We have our work cut out for us exposing these latest transphobic bills for what they are, as well as taking on some of the limits of the anti-oppression politics both the socialist left and sections of the feminist movement. The memory Stonewall is important here — gay and trans people of color and their supporters knowing who their enemy was and standing shoulder to shoulder to fight for a world without oppression. It’s what we need today.