An interview with Virginia Guitzel, one of the authors of Transgender Marxism, about the situation of trans people in Brazil and the need for Marxism in the queer liberation movement.
What is the significance of Transgender Marxism?
Transgender Marxism is the first publication of its type, giving visibility to trans people who study and write about Marxism. It is unprecedented, and I think it is an expression of the moment we live in and of the search for a theory capable of deeply analyzing the social problems that were exposed by the pandemic and the emergence of trans struggle around the world. Marxism is the only theory that can offer a historical analysis of the struggle for sexual and gender emancipation and prepare us for its full accomplishment.
If we look at the world today, we cannot deny that LGBTQ+ realities have been transformed in an unprecedented way compared to heterosexual lives. LGBTQ+ identities were born and developed as a result of the possibilities opened by capitalism, as John D’Emilio explains in his article “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” through free-trade labor, the separation of families from feudal production, material conditions to build communities of women and men outside traditional gender and sexual roles. Members of these identities found, within a few years, huge limits on their ability to effectively concretize this possibility.
This is because, despite the possibilities enabled by the profound social transformations, the church has never stopped considering us sinners, and the capitalist states have used laws and medicine to determine which identities and sexualities are “normal” and which are “deviant.” Despite this, we have achieved, through decades of struggles, including the Stonewall uprising, and the subsequent LGBTQ+ Pride parades around the world, an unprecedented visibility. We appear in movies, TV shows, discographies, and even in top positions in governments and financial institutions; homophobia and transphobia themselves have been acknowledged in many countries, and laws to guarantee rights for LGBTQ+ community have been promised.
This process, which has been underway very recently, could lead to an idea that capitalism is “settling accounts” with the non-realization of the possibilities suggested by its birth. But civil rights for LGBTQ+ and our increasing representation and have not occurred without contradictions or by coexisting peacefully with marginality and repression of non-heterosexual sexualities and non-cisgender genders. More than 70 countries still criminalize love between two people of the same gender and/or trans identities, for example. Nor do these reforms offer a real response to our emancipatory demands: many of the laws approved did not mean equality in life, and neoliberalism took advantage of the conquests we won through mobilization and confrontation against the state to develop a queer industry. This kind of “McDonald’s of Pleasures” sought to frame sex and desire in a consumer market, imprisoning them under capitalism and looking to promote a new social consensus — one of progressive multiculturalism, which accompanies a decadent neoliberalism that attacks the masses, especially the working class, which has become increasingly female, Latin American, LGBTQ+, and Black.
This is why Marxism is so necessary today, because sexual and gender liberation requires organizing for pleasure. This process occurred in the middle of one of the most dramatic moments for the LGBTQ+ community, the AIDS epidemic, which was used politically to impose limits on queer aspirations and reshape the movement for sexual and gender liberation that was underway, turning all energies to simple survival, since it took more than 10 years to establish the first international plan to fight the disease.
These changes in our lives, which come from decades of struggles for sexual and trans liberation, also result from an interrupted process of demanding major social transformations. Nowadays, with the crisis of neoliberalism from the Lehman Brothers’ collapse in 2008 to the coronavirus pandemic, which aggravated it even more, these questions about trans identities present themselves as a symptom of the international organic crisis. Antonio Gramsci says that an organic crisis produces new ways of thinking left and right and allows for the appearance of aberrant phenomena, as Peter Drucker discusses in an interview with La Izquierda Diario, expressing a spirit of the epoch that questions dominant ideas in the middle of an unprecedented fragmentation of our identities and our political organizations.
This has also given new space for political action for LGBTQ+ people, different from the space of activists in the 1960s and 1970s, which was deeply marked by the rise of the international class struggle and the possibilities of a profound change in all spheres of life. This new space is also different from the politics of the activists of the 1980s and 1990s, which was largely restricted to NGOs, institutions for medical treatment, access to housing, and welfare issues. There is a new sector that questions the power of the state to regulate our rights but lacks the importance of preparing for the confrontations that are already occurring as a result of social polarization, in which financial organizations and the Far Right point out the LGBTQ+ community as a scapegoat for their conspiracy theories.
Transgender Marxism appears, then, as an expression of these questions and their debates within the Left. It is the first collection of its type, daring to use Marxism to think about the problems of trans liberation — even with a variety of interpretations of its legacy.
This leads to sectors of academia and the social movements begin questioning the limits of postmodernism, which has proliferated in this new space of visibility but collides brutally with the austerity plans of financial capital, which inevitably impose social polarizations and make the Far Right resurface with greater virulence, as we saw with Trump to Bolsonaro and the reactionary coups in Bolivia and Myanmar.
At the same time that a cell phone can capture the demonstrations from Colombia to Myanmar, travestis[[In South America, the term travesty — typically used to refer to transgender women — has been positively redefined and considered as a specific gender identity that is particularly politicized. Travestis have an important history of struggle, often linked to social protests and struggle against dictatorships and repression. For a history of the travesti identity, see the book Cuerpos desobedientes by Josefina Fernández or the article in English “I, Monster: Embodying Trans and Travesti Resistance in Latin America,” by Joseph Pierce.]] are on the front lines of the class struggle and form part of a generation of young people that is rising up in these countries, as well as in Chile and the United States, and is beginning to question the basic problems of capitalist society in the midst of the economic and health crisis.
This book also allows us to question the limits of the international Left — which has been divided into two poles: those who refuse to take up the struggle for sexual liberation as a result of the Stalinist legacy, and those who dilute themselves within the social movements, contributing to limiting the horizons of our emancipation to only civil rights, which are subject to cuts, in the midst of the capitalist crisis. This publication can serve to recognize these problems and to aim at the reconstruction of a powerful alliance between the only scientific theory for our emancipation and the emerging movements that have aspirations for a new world.
Your essay in the book, “Notes from Brazil,” discusses the situation of trans and queer people in you country. How has that changed since 2019, when the draft was written?
The last few years in Brazil have been marked by the institutional coup d’état in 2016, which was instrumentalized by the Lava Jato and U.S. imperialism to accelerate an agenda of attacks that former president Dilma Rousseff of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party) was already implementing. In my chapter, I try to explain how we got to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, to demonstrate that this process did not come out of nowhere. It resulted from a series of defeats amid struggles that were not organized by the unions or the students’ movement. Rather, they were mostly led by the PT itself and the PCdoB (Communist Party of Brazil). Without a path of class struggle to organize the outrage and revolts, there was a demoralization and apathy that favored unloading the economic crisis on the working class. The coup d’état regime sought to put Brazil even more under the thumb of foreign capital and impose a lowering of living conditions for the working class, as well as an attack to democratic rights as universal suffrage through impeachment and arbitrary imprisonment to Lula da Silva. Many allegedly democratic institutions organized the coup d’état and led Bolsonaro to power, promoting those powers with no vote, as Catholic and evangelical churches, the military, and the militias gained even more weight in the country’s policies.
With the coronavirus pandemic, the decadence of this system, which prioritizes profits over lives, was exposed, and all those inequalities that already existed in Brazil became evident, hitting Black people even more cruelly. Data shows that in Brazil, Black people are 1.5 times as likely to die from Covid-19 as white people. The situation for trans people has become even more alarming. Brazil already was the country with the most deaths of trans people in the world, and our life expectancy fell from 35 to 30 years in the middle of the pandemic. Quarantine was not even a choice for a great majority of workers, who are “Uberized” and experience significant labor precarity. What about the trans people trapped in prostitution — which is the majority of trans people in Brazil?
Brazil has turned into one of the most reactionary poles in the world, with a transformation of the political regime through an institutional coup d’état and with Bolsonaro as an imperialist servant to deepen our subordination, making fun of people dying from oxygen shortages, and saying that coronavirus was just a minor flu. In his discourse, Bolsonaro has launched a crusade against trans people, in the form of a fight against “gender ideology.” His narrative was that Brazil is being threatened by a communist attempt to end family and traditional values. With regard to the other Brazilian institutions, especially the Supreme Court, which were responsible for this advance of the Far Right banning thousands of votes from the northeastern area and imprisoning Lula, they have positioned themselves as an alternative to “extremism” and presented themselves as multiculturalist and progressive on LGBTQ+ rights. They passed unprecedented legislation that had been denied for years. The Globo TV network streamed a show with a transgender character on prime time; meanwhile, it openly campaigned for all austerity measures and for education funds to be cut, together with Bolsonaro, the National Congress, and the Supreme Court.
These two Bonapartist tendencies — Bolsonaro’s Far Right, on the one hand, and the coup institutions, on the other — have their own projects for an authoritarian country, under foreign finance capital. These seem to clash over LGTBQ+ rights, but in fact they are auxiliary lines that feed each other and look for profits by the lobby with our proud identities. Meanwhile, they push us into unemployment, hunger, lack of access to education — less than 1 percent of the trans population has access to higher education — and limited health care. Brazil has become the emblem of two international trends that block the path to our true emancipation: one openly reactionary and conservative that undertook economic attacks combined with attacks on democratic rights, and another that uses some legal guarantees to cover up the economic policies of the institutional coup. These two trends occur amid cultural transformations imposed by decades of international struggles, which for the first time allowed us elect trans representatives and pass laws that criminalize homophobia and transphobia in a country that is still marked by transfemicide.
In the past few years, there has been an advance in the legal rights for trans people in Brazil, while there has also been a surge in violence against them. Can you talk about this contradiction?
Yes. As I mentioned before, there were significant legal advances in Brazil in the last five years, a period also marked by the institutional coup. To mention some of the legal advances: the recognition of same-sex couples, equating homophobia and transphobia with the status of racist crimes, the ability for trans people to change their name on IDs, jurisprudence that allowed incarcerated trans people to be in cells that correspond with their gender identity, and a recent decision that ends prohibition of donating blood for LGBTQ+ people. These are important but contradictory steps.
They are contradictory because it was under the PT government that the right wing started to gain space to defend its ideas, such as the “Gay Cure,” commanded by a member of the Partido Social Cristão (Social Christian Party), Marcos Feliciano, who was in charge of the Human Rights Commission in 2013. Feliciano proposed that psychologists be allowed to treat LGBTQ+ people. This case, along with the “Letter to God’s People,” signed for Lula and reaffirmed by Rousseff, that opposed to abortion legalization, showed that the PT’s project — one of class-conciliation — laughed at oppressed people’s demands.
It is even more remarkable, while an institutional coup was taking place, to think we could have conquered the state’s recognition of our identities, without this representing any essential basis to face homophobia and transphobia. On the contrary, these legal rights have demonstrated their partial character, in the first place, because of their agents, who sought to offer some alternatives to LGBTQ+ people from within the regime. But also because of the many people excluded from these advances. For example, changing legal names, something elementary for the respect of trans identities, was legally facilitated but remained expensive, which excludes the large majority of trans people who survive on prostitution.
Then we see the neoliberal trap in which our emancipation would be limited to the progressive conquest of perennial rights in the capitalist framework. When, in fact, the legal rights that even we of Pão e Rosas Brazil were in the front lines to fight for, were ways to peacefully coexist with the withdrawal of rights as the labor and social security reforms and the strengthening of the Far Right, instead of being points of support to strengthen our struggle to transform the whole structure that imprisons our desire.
Some on the Left argue that Marxism is fundamentally limited by the fact that it was developed by a white, straight, European man. This book represents a significant statement against that perspective. Why do you feel it is important for oppressed groups like queer people to turn to Marxism?
Well, that point of view seems to be the one of someone who has never read Marx and has fallen into an artificial construction that was historically created to separate the oppressed from the only theory that proposes a global response to the problem of exploitation and oppression. Yes, I think that this book could make a contribution in this sense, to counterattack this stereotype and also the Stalinist heritage — which represented the opposite of Marxism. This has a significant value for the new generations that have been on the front lines in recent class struggle, with a disruptive character since they did not grew up, as my generation did, with the idea of a “real socialism,” which was in reality the regime of a bureaucracy in the workers’ states that was preparing the capitalist restoration in their countries.
Rescuing the threads of continuity with Marx and the scientific socialists is fundamental to understanding how things began, their origins, roots, the sources for our exploration to build a strategy to eliminate its essence. And for not remaining trapped in the appearances, which makes us repeat the same mistakes. For example, the enormous contributions by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, by tracing the emergence of patriarchy along with private property, helps us determine the “historical defeat of the female sex,” with monogamy as the only effective way to guarantee a hereditary bloodline for passing on private property. Another example of this historical importance is Marx’s observation that “white-skinned labor cannot be emancipated when black-skinned labor is branded with iron.”
Philosophically, we could think of Marx as a great revolutionary, one who elaborated primordial writings as a preparatory task — as if he were building a tower that would allow our generations to see the historical tasks of the class struggle for our emancipation. His method was to draw lessons from each process of working-class struggles, since defeats are also sources of lessons for strategy. Marx gave us not only a method to analyze reality but also a program and a strategy to think about how to move forward, even after taking power, when we will have to put all the available energies into promoting the conditions to confront centuries of oppression and of bourgeois ideology, which has appropriated and instrumentalized patriarchy. This is fabulous to shake the old conservative consciousness, which accepted the domestication of our desires, and to establish the material conditions for true liberation.
Studying Marx also helps us know the falsifications that were unintentionally attributed to him. Today, we must understand the role of Soviet bureaucracy in the rollback of pioneering rights for women and sexual emancipation, as they prepared the capitalist restoration. We are trying to refute the idea of a “real socialism” alien to diversity, when in fact the rollback of rights was a development not of revolution, but of a bureaucratic counterrevolution. This counterrevolution not only recriminalized homosexuality in 1934, reprohibited abortion, and eliminated the measures of socialization of domestic work; it also campaigned for women to have more children and return home, as historian Wendy Goldman documents in her book The Woman, the State and the Revolution. This bureaucracy also blocked its international organizations from establishing any relationship with the groups for sexual liberation, as denounced by the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action in France.
From this struggle to “liberate the alive from the weight of the dead,” as Daniel Bensaïd put it, comes the argument that a true Marxism can settle the accounts with postmodernity, which opposes “real socialism” with a progressive multiculturalism that has a perspective of individual emancipation. This has programmatic and strategic implications for what we fight for and how we attempt to do so. I think that understanding sexual repression and trans identities as a structural mechanism to exploitate our work, to regulate our desire and shape our identities to be “legitimate,” “permitted,” possible … is key to understanding what we are fighting. It is against all the rules and impositions that try to transform our diversity and sexual potential into a justification of labor exploitation that steals all our energy and possibilities. To liberate our creativity, not to exist as it is today — imprisoned by the obligation of individual happiness, personal realization, romantic love, and inclusion in the capitalist system. So Marxism, as a scientific method to be applied to think the particular problem of our trans identities, or in a broader sense the increasing rejection of normative gender that fits in stereotypical and cisnormative patterns, can help us understand and recover the best of the history of liberation struggle and today’s challenges.
You have been a Trotskyist for many years. What is the significance of Trotsky’s ideas, such as permanent revolution, to the struggle for trans liberation?
One of the arguments that was pitched into the LGBTQ+ movement was that the capitalist state could put an end to oppression. This created the illusion that capitalist democracies can transform, in some way, the class content of the state. Trotsky, one of the main leaders of Russian Revolution, has a fundamental contribution to think about trans liberation. It is very interesting how questions of the state’s role are a big concern for millions of young people in the world who do not trust police reform, but who also demand that their gender be recognized and regulated by the state; or the concern of whether we have guarantees that socialism liberate us.
Trotsky was not naive and did not think it was easy to confront centuries of patriarchal ideology only with the defeat of the capitalist state and the emergence of a workers’ state. But even though he didn’t think it was easy, he dedicated himself to leaning on Marx, Engels, Lenin and the revolutionary tradition to advance these reflections in a little book called Problems of Everyday Life. He thought it was impossible to separate the fight against all forms of oppression from the fight against all forms of exploitation, because — although they are different phenomena — capitalism, patriarchy, and sexual repression are interconnected. In this sense, these struggles are not separated into different stages — first, the struggle for the seizure of power, and then the struggle for life transformations. They are not independent of the other, but were instead linked together in the fundamental struggle of capitalism and communism.
A subject I talked about at the launch of Transgender Marxism was the relationship between one of the laws of the theory of permanent revolution — developed by Trotsky after the experiences of international revolution and counterrevolution — which talks about how the class struggle does not end with the conquest of power, but becomes more acute, and how revolution has a permanent character in its quest to construct a new form of society, not just nationally but worldwide.
This idea is key to return to, and it can be a subject of a deeper study among the trans community, since it concentrates our dreams of emancipation around concrete experiences. Marxism, as I said before, is a theory based on international class struggle, a theory that sought to fuse the best of the tradition of struggle for our emancipation with the creativity, passion, and energy of the new generations. This is useful to look at us, at our own movement for sexual liberation and its internal transformations, and where we want to go from here.
The theory of permanent revolution opposes the idea that semicolonial countries, like Brazil, should wait for the revolution to come in more developed countries. It opposes the idea that there are countries that are prepared or unprepared for socialism, and it is uncompromising in its internationalism. How can we think about emancipation from capitalist exploitation without also talking about trans and sexual emancipation?
There is a final idea that I would like to mention in this interview about one of the laws of this theory, which states that the working class is, in the imperialist epoch, the only class in society capable of transforming all this capitalist rot. In this struggle, revolutionaries must fight so that our class, of which we LGBTQ+ people are a large portion, can take our demands into its own hands and act to guarantee the basic conditions for our autonomy. This battle for the working class to become a subject that can lead the other social classes needs to confront the capitalist state, which presents itself as capable of arbitrating our rights. We know this is not true — in fact, it is directly responsible for structuring a society that is based on inequality, oppression, and exploitation as a mechanism that serves capitalist profits.