Interview: Transphobia and resistance

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Trans icons Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson

Trans activist Laura Miles spoke to Socialist Review about her new book, Transgender Resistance, and the fight for liberation today.

What drove you to write this book now?
There were several reasons. Partly it was to offer a brief history of trans oppression and the roots of that oppression in class societies, in particular capitalism, from an explicitly socialist, historical materialist perspective. There is quite a lot of material around on sexual orientation and homophobia in class societies, for example by Jeffrey Weeks, and a good deal on Marxism and women’s liberation, such as Judith Orr’s book from 2015, but there’s very little to date that seeks to apply a Marxist analysis to trans lives and experiences. Books by trans people, with a few exceptions, tend to be either autobiographies or are written from non-Marxist perspectives so I wanted to address the issues very differently.

I also wanted to present a picture of trans lives and experiences not just in Britain but internationally. That picture is varied but allows us to appreciate the high levels of transphobia that trans people have to contend with, but also the many ways in which they organise to resist and fight back.

I particularly wanted to engage with the current situation around updating the Gender Recognition Act. Since I began writing the book several years ago this has become a much more prominent issue in the press and on social media, in trade unions and political parties. There has been an enormous and often vitriolic backlash to some very modest proposals to update the Act, proposals such as self-declaration to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate which have been implemented in various other countries with no ill effects. The backlash has led the UK and Scottish governments to delay the changes. People should realise that the cost of this is being paid for in trans people’s health, lives and wellbeing.

I have particularly addressed the “clash of women’s and trans rights” narrative being deployed by some radical feminist and socialist opponents of the proposed reforms. Because I believe the starting point for any socialist should be unconditional support for oppressed people it’s very disappointing that a few people on the left and some radical feminists are using biological essentialist arguments to oppose the amendments.

They claim that science is on their side but they’re wrong. There was a very good article in The Lancet recently by Katrina Karkazis (“The misuses of ‘biological sex’”, 23 November 2019), unfortunately published too late to be referenced in my book. The author shows how rigidly using discrete biological criteria to determine sex is misused for socio-political purposes, to include or exclude certain people from social categories that can access (or not) rights, services and so on. It is clear to me that the aim of the transphobes and trans critics, on the basis of scaremongering with little or no evidence, is to exclude trans people, particularly trans women, from single-sex spaces such as public toilets and to deny equal rights to an oppressed minority.

I have engaged with these “gender-critical” or “trans-critical” arguments in the book to demonstrate how regressive, damaging and poorly thought through they are. What we need is unity in action, not division, involving women, trans people and others to resist the austerity hitting women and trans people. We will need it more than ever as the nightmare reality of Johnson’s Tory government unfolds, especially with the threat of another economic recession down the road.

Could you say something about your own history and experience of transitioning?
There were few, if any, role models for gender variant people when I was younger and the general social atmosphere towards LGBT+ people was hostile, salacious and dangerously misinformed. Hats off to those brave people who fought back against huge odds. Not until Stonewall in 1969 did a movement emerge that asserted pride in being LGBT+ and demanded rights and respect. We need that sort of gutsiness and public protest again!

I first came out publicly at a NATFHE union conference in the early noughties speaking in a debate on gay and trans rights. I felt I needed to be honest about myself if I was to argue for unity of LGBT+ people.

Things progressed quite quickly after that. I became active in trade union equality forums and a few years later was elected as an LGBT rep on the University and College Union’s national executive committee, a positon I held until 2015. I think I was the first openly trans person elected to the executive of a British trade union

In 2010 I decided to transition to living full time as Laura. I was luckier than many trans people in that I was able to do this while keeping my lecturing job at Bradford College. I will always be thankful for the support of my partner, Sheila, my family, my union, and my comrades in the Socialist Workers Party and beyond. Apart from one or two negative instances colleagues at work and my students were brilliantly supportive. Often curious, but brilliantly supportive!

You cover a lot of history in the book. Why is this important to you?
Partly it was to demonstrate that transgender people have been around for very long time in every society and that different, non-binary gender expression is a natural part of humanity just as different sexualities are. Some societies have not only tolerated gender variant individuals but have celebrated them, in stark contrast to modern capitalist societies where transphobia has at times been absolutely deadly and is currently being ramped up by the alt-right and far-right.

I wanted to show that just as the rise of class societies and the exploitation and expropriation at the heart of these led to the systematic oppression and dispossession of women, as Engels described in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the oppression of women rooted in the family also led to the oppression of alternative sexualities and gender expressions.

There is also a long history of resistance to these oppressions, including resistance to transphobia. The most far-reaching was the Stonewall Riot, a rebellion involving gays, lesbians and many trans people such as Sylvia Rivera and her friend Marsha P Johnson, in 1969. Unfortunately trans people were increasingly relegated to the back of the bus when it came to the subsequent fight for better rights and were even excluded from some Pride marches. We have had to fight hard over the decades since then to be heard.

I was also very keen to explore the links between socialist individuals and organisations and the fight for LGBT+ rights. Prior to the Great War these links were explicit, the best example being the Bolshevik Party in Russia, which quickly decriminalised gay sex after the 1917 revolution, among many other progressive social measures. That link was broken by the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the concentration camps, and Stalinism in Russia.

The history of the left and the history of the struggle for LGBT+ rights are intimately linked. Periods of greatest advances for LGBT+ rights have generally been associated with periods of major advance for the working class, internationally and in particular nation states. The Russian Revolution is the prime example of this.

Conversely, periods of retreat and mortal danger for LGBT+ people have been those times when the working class and the left have suffered their greatest defeats. The 1930s and the rise of the Nazis is the most obvious example. There are huge lessons for us to learn in this.

Much of the international left after the Second World War, influenced by Stalinism, retained a view of homosexuality and gender variance as “bourgeois deviations” and any fight against LGBT+phobia and oppression was seen as a diversion from the class struggle.

In the 1970s elements of the New Left challenged this regressive orthodoxy, including the Socialist Workers Party, some of whose activists were prominent in the fight for gay rights in unions and workplaces. It took a great deal of agitation to ensure that the trade union movement in Britain took LGBT+ rights seriously but today most unions actively campaign for these and, not incidentally, support amendments to the GRA.

There are substantial sections on gender and gender identity. How much does having a clear understanding of these issues help us to build effective resistance to transphobia?
I think it’s essential. Since the late 1970s, at least, Marxist explanations of oppression were eclipsed by postmodern approaches which downplayed class and class struggle. This was a reflection of the general decline in levels of class struggle, the rise of neoliberalism and the dominance of identity politics which sees individual differences and categories of oppression as more fundamental than social class and class struggle.

I’d suggest that today most young LGBT+ activists are influenced by intersectionality and privilege theory. I have spent some time in the book examining the origins, strengths and weaknesses of these approaches. I wanted to make the point that when it comes to fighting oppression we can and should be fighting shoulder to shoulder, but obviously the theoretical views that a person holds are going to influence who they think is the main enemy, how we should fight back, and whether that can be alongside others in united fronts or autonomously.

In some ways thinking intersectionally about oppression is a step forward from previous identity theories in that it recognises particular oppressions cannot be dealt with in isolation. Most anti-racists, feminists and LGBT+ activists who look to intersectional theory in practice embrace trans rights and are not exclusionary towards trans people.

Where I think the approach is fundamentally weak, however, is that it doesn’t recognise that the roots of oppression lie in the exploitative nature of capitalism. Marxists argue that class is much more than an “also ran” form of domination: it is fundamental to the social relations of production and reproduction in capitalism. Consequently we have to look to class struggle at the point of production, where the system’s profits and lifeblood can be squeezed, as well as struggles against oppression per se, as the means to win our liberation.

What did you learn in the process of researching and writing this book?
I found it a hugely educative experience. I was left with the most enormous respect and admiration for the generations of LGBT+ activists, especially trans activists, who have fought to be able to express their gender identity and sexuality often in the most difficult and dire circumstances, and to organise collectively. Many paid with their lives and liberty, and of course they still do in many countries.

Being LGB or trans remains illegal in many countries, but even in Western countries with more liberal social legislation levels of transphobia remain high and are being ramped up. The recent Tory victory bodes ill for all sorts of marginalised and vulnerable groups including trans people unless we can build much greater resistance in our communities, on the streets and in our workplaces.

Who do you hope will read it?
I didn’t set out to write an academic book but on the other hand I knew that for maximum clarity of politics and purpose it needed to address some of the theoretical arguments. I wrote it for trans people themselves, especially trans activists, about our history and struggles, but also for socialists in general and all those who have questions about trans lives and gender identity. It’s therefore also intended for the many cisgender or non-trans people who support and want to fight alongside trans people in their struggle for transgender liberation. I hope that trans people and other readers will agree that liberation for trans people and all the oppressed will require revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism and create socialist societies.

Laura Miles is the author of Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the Fight for Trans Liberation, published this month by Bookmarks, £10. Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
She was a lecturer at Bradford College and a leading member of the lecturers’ unions Natfhe and UCU.