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A Marxist Take on the Attack on Trans Rights

Our sister site in France, Révolution Permanente, interviewed Left Voice member Enid Brain about the attack on trans rights in the United States. Enid covers how the crisis of neoliberalism drives the attacks, the role of the Democratic Party, the need for a class independent approach and organization to fight the attacks, and more.

Sybil Davis

June 30, 2023
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Over the last few months, we’ve witnessed a growing number of major anti-trans pushes in the United States. What are they, and how are they linked to the crisis opened up by the Trump presidency?

This is a really key discussion, I think. There’s often this idea that reactionary notions just kind of arise at random or purely as the result of social phenomena. You see this logic put forward a lot by the liberal sectors of the anti-trans movement, that this anti-trans backlash is happening because there are more trans people now or that we are more prominent and visible. And, of course, social phenomena are a factor — and the growth and visibility of trans identity has certainly been a factor on why there is more public interest among the masses in trans identity — but there is a really key political component here.

The U.S. is in crisis — a crisis of hegemony internationally, a developing economic crisis, a crisis of social reproduction, and a political crisis where institutions of the regime are at all-time low approval ratings among the masses. This crisis opened in 2008 and was deepened by Trump’s ascendency. The attacks on trans rights and other democratic rights have to be understood in this context of crisis.

On the one hand, we can understand these attacks on trans rights as part of a project of building political unity post-Trump. Trump sent the Republican Party and the whole political establishment into crisis, running and winning as an opponent of the establishment, some elements of the regime, and certain elements of neoliberalism. These factors, in addition to Trump’s quite distinct foreign policy as compared to other presidents, really put the Republican Party in a difficult situation after 2020. Trump is the most dominant figure of the Republican Party, and he is very much the leader of the base. Trump united many disparate sectors of the conservative movement into “Trumpism,” and keeping these sectors within the Republican Party is key for the Republicans to retake power in the next election. The contradiction of this, however, is that the establishment of the Republican Party, sectors of capital, and much of the regime are deeply opposed to Trump and elements of Trumpism. So what emerged to resolve that contradiction (or at least to try to) is what we have called “Trumpism without Trump,” where the idea is to pick up certain elements of Trumpism and merge them with more mainstream Republican politics in order to move the party past Trump.

A key element of “Trumpism without Trump” is a reliance on social issues — what we’ve called “the New Culture Wars” — which allow the Republicans to run against “the establishment” (broadly defined) and elements of what Nancy Fraser calls “progressive neoliberalism” — the process where neoliberalism brought sectors of the oppressed into the mainstream and gave some limited concessions. Rather than have to argue about the deep internal political differences around the economy and international politics, the Republicans can unite their entire base and keep the Trumpist base in the party by running primarily on a question of social issues, which they can use as a mirage to pretend to speak to wider discontent about neoliberalism.

Florida governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Ron DeSantis is a useful example here, as he has made his entire political profile almost exclusively based around social issues, with trans rights taking a huge prominence. DeSantis has coined the phrase “the war on woke” to describe his political project, and he presents himself as a figure who can restore American “values” in the wake of progressive neoliberalism and has unleashed some of the country’s worst attacks on trans people, immigrants, workers, and many others. This social-issue politics serves to hide the huge gaps in the rest of DeSantis’s program. As two examples: after Silicon Valley Bank collapsed, DeSantis’s response was to say that the bank failed because it was too focused on “wokeness,” completely obscuring both the economic reasons the bank failed and the potential consequences of the bank failing. By leaning on social issues, DeSantis was able to speak to wider discontent about banks and corporations without actually putting forward anything that would address the economic crisis. As another example, after he announced his presidential campaign, DeSantis was asked by a reporter for his stance on the war in Ukraine — an issue the Republican Party is deeply divided on. DeSantis answered that the first task was to get “gender ideology” out of the military. Once again, we can see how the “war on woke” politics serves to hide the lack of (even incomplete and insufficient) solutions from this sector of the Republican Party.

The effectiveness of this strategy is an open question. Poll after poll shows that these attacks are unpopular and that the majority of the country doesn’t feel like these are the central concerns. But these attacks are still advancing because they can mobilize a base that, in the hyperpolarized world of American politics, is what is needed to win elections. There is an open question about how effective nationalizing this politics will be. DeSantis currently tails Trump in polls pretty significantly, and he is struggling to make his “war on woke” as effective as Trumpism. But the impact of the rise of this politics is that it has pushed the overall political situation to the right. Trump is taking up a more hardline stance on social issues to attempt to flank his opponents from the Right, and Biden and the Democrats are walking away from support for the trans community in hopes of dialoguing with a sector of the center who are being moved by this politics.

The question of the center is also incredibly important. There is a sector of voters — white middle-class women mainly located in the suburbs — who are among the only group that is “up for grabs” in any given election, given how polarized the overall voting population is. This center is being catered to by both the Republicans and Democrats by putting forward a specific politics around schools, children, families, and any number of other “kitchen table issues.” The specter of trans identity is used to tell these parents that they are losing control of their children, that the schools are “cultural Marxist indoctrination centers,” and that trans rights have “gone too far” and now present a danger to women and children. This is, of course, all based on lies, misinformation, and reactionary scare tactics. But the political logic is to take the discontent this sector feels due to their worsening living conditions, the crisis of social reproduction, and instability more generally and shift it away from an ideological break with neoliberalism and toward a belief that the issue is that sectors of the oppressed have won concessions.

Theses pushes started during the Trump era but are continuing and deepening with Biden. Can you elaborate on the Democrat’s role in the ongoing institutional wave of transphobia?

The Democrats are responding to the same crises that the Republicans are responding to and they’re trying to court many of the same voters. But the Democrats have to walk a more precarious line of always seeming like the lesser evil so that they can use that to push people to the polls and co-opt social movements. So they can’t court these swing voters by being explicitly anti-trans because that would cause fallout from sectors of their base. So, rather, they are basically — at the national level — not talking about the attacks on trans rights other than in the vaguest possible terms. For example, in his yearly State of the Union speech to Congress, Biden spent only nine seconds on trans rights — simply saying that trans children deserve “safety and dignity,” but not offering any programmatic promises or commitments to how to ensure that. The midterm elections in 2022 featured barely any mention of the spreading anti-trans politics from the Democrats, and they haven’t made it any sort of legislative priority in the current Congress.

Rather, at the national level, key figures, including Barack Obama, have been trying to distance the Democratic Party from “excess wokeness.” This is in keeping with the political conclusions of sectors of the Democratic Party establishment after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, which was an overfocus on “boutique” issues like trans rights. Now, the idea that Clinton was overly focused on trans issues and that’s why she lost — that is laughable, but that logic has become popular with the Democratic Party, and they are trying to move themselves away from social issues that are more controversial — most notably trans rights.

This is the exact same arc as we saw in the Democrats’ response to BLM. They began by offering a lot of “support” — even as they oversaw repression across the country — and then made themselves the party of BLM in order to win the election and then blamed every subsequent electoral setback on being overly focused on BLM and have now made themselves into the party that fights for more police funding. Once they co-opt and demobilize the movement, they abandon the performative support and drop the concessions they offered in exchange for support. Because the Democratic Party’s support for the specially oppressed is based on political gain and expediency rather than any actual commitment.

So, in this sense, the role of the Democrats is to allow these attacks and to help shift the situation to the right. By arguing against “excess wokeness” (whatever that means), they are giving space to the feelings that trans rights have “gone too far.” By not taking this up at the national level, they are effectively leading the acceptance of a country where trans rights vary greatly state by state. So the choice that is being offered to trans people is the choice between a country where trans rights are illegal federally (which the Republicans offer) or one where they are just illegal in half the country (what the Democrats offer). This is a common logic for the U.S. — after all, the country was founded on an agreement where rights varied state by state to the greatest level — and one that the Democrats hope to use to paint themselves as saviors of the trans community.

In the midst of anti-trans and anti-gay attacks, we’ve seen reproductive rights put into question and recede in a number of red states. How can this joint attack be explained in the current political landscape?

In addition to the political elements I described above, I think an important piece of context to understanding these attacks in the crisis of social reproduction. Neoliberalism has sent the U.S. into a major crisis of social reproduction as workers have to work more and for longer hours, social services have been privatized or eliminated, and increased stress on workers has caused a growth in social crises like drug addiction, suicide, and school shootings. This crisis is acute and can be seen in many areas. From the ongoing shortage of healthcare and education workers to the low marriage rate to the low birth rate to the previously mentioned social crises, this overall crisis of social reproduction has developed into a meaningful challenge for capitalism — especially in the U.S., where a key strategic discussion is about how to orient toward competition with China.

A key impact of this crisis is that it has placed a great deal of strain on the nuclear family — which is a vital institution of capitalist social reproduction. Through the ravages of neoliberalism, people are getting married less and later, having fewer children, and struggling to be present for those children as parents were able to be in an era when only one parent had to work or parents worked shorter hours. These attacks on both abortion and trans rights are, in my view, an attempt to address this problem — in addition to the political calculus I discussed in a previous question. The logic is that through more state intervention, the nuclear family can be recentered as the primary place of capitalist reproduction — including ideological reproduction. The family and the schools are historically where the ideology of capitalism is instilled in young people, but, due to the weakening of these institutions and the growth of the internet — giving young people unprecedented access to information — they have become less central in actually, for lack of a better word, indoctrinating young people into the ideology of this system. So we are seeing more and more young people discover their identities, radicalize (to both the left and right) around political questions, and put forward a greater questioning of capitalism. These are concerning trends for the regime and capitalism, as they show that the ideological hegemony of capitalism in general and neoliberalism specifically is weakening, particularly among the youth — who we’ve seen at the vanguard of both social movements and labor struggles. So the attempt is to recenter the nuclear family and give parents more control of their children and also to restructure school curriculum to more effectively serve the ideological needs of capitalism.

To connect this to abortion, we can see that the attacks on abortion are part of a generalized attack on bodily autonomy, an attack that recenters the state as a key actor in deciding what we can and cannot do with our bodies. This is a deeper intervention of the state into private life, which is necessary — from a capitalist perspective — to begin to resolve the ongoing crisis of social reproduction, given that the state and capital can give fewer concessions in the current moment due to the crisis of accumulation. Fully funding social programs, reducing working hours, and any number of other potential ways to address the crisis of social reproduction aren’t really on the table for capital at the current moment. So a greater intervention of the state in an authoritarian way is needed to reestablish and recentralize these vital capitalist relationships.

On a wider scale, we’re observing that a part of the Right is joining forces with more reactionary forces of the American Far Right, for instance with the gender critical protest where Nazi salutes were witnessed.

This is a really interesting question, one I am still trying to study. The strange unity between sectors of so-called radical feminism with the Far Right (including the explicitly fascist Far Right) is an international phenomena that demands a deeper analysis than I have right now. But I think this is the logical conclusion of the key theoretical problems that Marxists have been raising with radical feminism for years. Radical feminism obscures the state and ignores class to only focus on gender relations, which they understand in a hyperbinary way. They don’t recognize or acknowledge the role that the state and capitalism play in maintaining and enforcing patriarchy and instead see patriarchy as a social contagion that lives somewhat independently in the hearts and minds of individuals. Because of this, they can deeply misunderstand trans identity as being an accommodation to the patriarchy and, somehow, an attack on womanhood, which must be defended. This bizarre conclusion leads them to take up increasingly reactionary positions on the trans question.

These reactionary positions lead them into the arms of the Far Right and into the state. Rather than looking at patriarchy as empowered and protected by capitalism — as the oppression of women and other gender minorities is central and foundational to the capitalist system — and then institutionalized and enforced by the state, they view the fight against patriarchy as a struggle between men and women. So, given this framework, they view people transitioning from one gender (a fixed point within their framework) to another as either an attempt to infiltrate womanhood or an attempt to escape it. This is why these sectors frame feminine people as “predators” and trans masculine people as “victims.”

In this framework, given the conclusions about the supposed insidiousness of trans identity, it makes absolute sense that radical feminism would look to the state to protect women as they don’t see how the state is itself an instrument of women’s oppression. This turn toward the state to “protect” against trans identity puts them in total alliance with the Far Right, which seeks to use the state to repress minorities of all stripes and use state power to enforce a warped understanding of “morality.” These sectors, of course, don’t stand for the liberation of women at all, but these sectors of the so-called gender critical movement are being profoundly opportunist and attempting to build a broader alliance against trans people in order to implement their reactionary agenda. The fact that these sectors have the audacity to call themselves feminists — and some sectors of gender criticism, like Posie Parker, have begun to walk away from this self-characterization — shows the need for a socialist-feminist wing of feminism to emerge and really clash with these reactionary false feminisms and establish that trans people are not the enemy in the fight against gender oppression. Rather, trans people, like people of all genders in a capitalist society, are victims of institutionalized patriarchy that limits and represses our genders, sexualities, self-expression, and bodily autonomy in order to keep us within what is useful, profitable, and productive for capital.

Each Pride month, we are used to seeing capitalists adorning the Rainbow flag. This year, a few of them didn’t choose to pinkwash, and some even took back their products from their shelves, as Target did. What is your analysis on this?

This is an interesting question that, to me, reveals what those of us on the Left have been saying for years: that the shift toward rainbow capitalism was purely opportunistic and that they would abandon it as soon as it wasn’t profitable. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing. These corporations who drape themselves with rainbows when it can distract from their terrible labor practices and sell Pride merch when it’s profitable are beginning to cut and run when there’s even a little pushback from the Right. It shows us that these corporations are never our allies and are only interested in supporting the queer community when it’s profitable for them. Rather, our allies are the workers at these corporations. A perfect example for me was when Disney — a major capitalist agent in Florida — basically refused to take a stand against DeSantis until after their workers staged a walkout to force the corporation to take a stronger stance. These workers are the true allies of the queer movement, not the corporations that market to us in order to take our money and hide their mistreatment of their workers.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of a new political generation in the youth and in the working class, with the important strikes in Amazon warehouses, that led to the theorization of Gen U. From LV’s perspective, what place should this generation have in the struggle against state transphobia?

I’m so glad you asked this, because joining the new union movement with the trans rights movement is central. Gen U, as we’ve termed this new phenomena of young workers reinvigorating the union movement, shows that the age-old lie of the working class as just being straight white cis men in hardhats is a lie. The working class is diverse, multiracial, multigendered, and queer. And Gen U represents that, we’ve seen a lot of union drives (at Starbucks and elsewhere) being led by queer workers who are fighting, in part, for better conditions for queer and trans workers. This new generation is very conscious of the larger political climate and is beginning to realize that attacks on democratic rights and the struggle for better working conditions and wages aren’t disconnected. Rather, they are part of the same struggle against the system that both exploits and oppresses us. While these conclusions are still nascent, the role of the Left in the current moment is to fight for these new unionists to join the labor movement with the social movements in an organization of our own that can fight the entire capitalist system. These Gen U workers can demonstrate this to the rest of the union movement by using their unions to fight the attacks on trans rights through workplace actions, standing in solidarity, and even striking to break these laws.

LV and its feminist group, Bread and Roses, joined forces with NYC trans youth during the Trans Visibility March on March 31. Why did you think this alliance was important?

NYC Youth for Trans Rights was a new organization that sprang organically out of the murder of Brianna Ghey, and these young people got together online and with their friends and decided that they couldn’t let this murder stand. So they walked out of school and held a protest. And we — as LV and Bread and Roses — went to their first action, which was really small, and built a relationship with the organizers that we developed as we went to their future actions. As Trans Day of Visibility approached, both us and NYCY4TR felt it was very important to not let the day pass, in the current moment, without a mobilization. So we organized a pretty sizable march — the only one in NYC — to demonstrate that we can and must build a movement for trans rights independent of the Democrats and the NGOs.

It was important for us to join with the queer youth vanguard because they have really been at the forefront of defending against these attacks. They’ve been walking out of schools around the country, staging protests, and agitating around the defense of these attacks to a much greater degree than basically any other sector of the queer movement — which, in the current moment, is really dormant because it became so bound up in the NGOs and Democratic Party, which are actively working to disorganize resistance to these attacks in favor of just pushing everyone to the polls and political fundraising. These queer youth are showing the first signs of a way forward to defend against these attacks, and we wanted to really engage in that experience with them.

The logic of self-organization against these attacks is the same logic we used when we built a “labor and the left for trans rights” contingent for the NYC Queer Liberation March. We brought together a broad sector of the Left and many unions to stand together to show that we believe that we need self-organization and a united front to really defend against these right-wing attacks. As Left Voice, however, we are trying to go a step further in our argument for this queer vanguard. We think we need to build our own organization — a working-class party that fights for socialism — so that we can unite our struggles and organize not just defense but also offense against the system that allows these attacks to emerge. We are attending the NYC Queer Liberation March at the head of the left and labor contingent with banners that call for us to organize a party of our own, as that is the only way we can truly defend trans rights and go further and win queer liberation.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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