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Class Struggle Solidarity and the Trans Movement (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Class)

While writers at The New York Times staged a 24-hour walkout on Thursday, some trans people expressed skepticism about showing solidarity for workers at a publication that distributes so much transphobia. A trans socialist explains why queer solidarity with the labor movement is so important, even when workers might not yet be taking up our struggles.

Sybil Davis

December 11, 2022
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New York Times journalists and other staff protest outside the Times' office in New York on December 8 2022.
Image: Julia Nikhinson/AP Photo

On December 8, workers at The New York Times did a one-day work stoppage as part of their on-going contract fight with the publication’s bosses. This action represents yet another sign of the increasing presence of journalism workers within the labor movement. The number of newspapers, magazines, and websites that have unionized in the past few years was the first sign of these workers — who have often been artificially separated from other sectors of the working class due to the specialized nature of their work — beginning to view themselves as part of the larger labor movement. For example, two other papers organized within NewsGuild, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, were already on strike. Now, workers at one of the United States’ flagship newspapers are using the methods of the working class — walking right up to the edge of actually realizing their full power and calling an on-going strike — to help win their demands. This is, of course, an exciting and important development that should be celebrated by all who want to see the labor movement grow and strengthen. 

However, for some, the Times walkout was more complicated than a standard labor action. These complicated feelings sprung from a deep and real contradiction: how can we support the Times workers, when so much of the work they do is politically reactionary and, in many cases, actively harms other people? Specifically, these doubts coalesced around one specific and major political problem with the Times: they are one of the main publishers of mainstream transphobia in the United States. 

One tweet from December 8 asked the question very plainly, saying: “I’m not crossing a picket line but also what support do we owe an ostensibly Anti trans organization.” Another tweet was even more pointed, asking: “Are the people striking at New York Times different from the ones who publish a new transphobic article every 5-7 business days? Are they involved in that in any way?” These are just two examples of a larger question that was posed by many both on and off social media. 

It’s important that we not downplay the very real concerns that many trans people have with the Times’s horrific positions on trans issues. As just one example, in the midst of Transgender Awareness Week this year, the Times chose to publish a long and deeply irresponsible piece about “concerns” surrounding “the long-term consequences” of puberty blockers for trans youth. Setting aside the medical idiocy of this fear mongering, articles like this one (which very frequently find a home in the Times) are falsely legitimizing the slew of right-wing attacks that are currently being unleashed on trans youth across the United States. 

In this sense, for many in the trans community, the Times is viewed as a propaganda arm of the anti-trans campaign. By using its reputation as a home of respected liberal journalists, the Times has mainstreamed deadly myths about the trans community in a moment where getting out accurate information to combat right-wing attacks is vital. In this sense, it is absolutely true that the Times is, in many ways, an “ostensibly anti-trans organization” that is, just like it did during the AIDS crisis, throwing queer people under the bus in its so-called “reporting.”

This is all true and demands a serious response. So, then, what is the answer to the questions posed in those tweets? What does the trans community owe to the Times? Why should we support its workers who are, in some ways, participating in work that makes the lives of trans people more dangerous? 

To begin to answer this question, we must split it into two. First, we have to question the premise: are the workers at the Times synonymous with the editorial line? And the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” The tech worker who maintains the website isn’t writing the articles, the copywriter can’t change the content, the fact checker isn’t allowed to change the thesis of an article, and even more reporters don’t actually have that much say on the editorial line. So, the reactionary positions put forward by the Times don’t reflect the will of the workers at the Times because those workers don’t control their workplace, they don’t set the editorial line.. The bosses at the Times don’t take a vote of the journalists to decide their line, they decide on the line and order the workers to follow it. So the workers at the Times aren’t our enemies because the company they work for is an enemy of the trans movement. Those workers don’t control their workplace and so they cannot be held to the same account as the bosses who do control the workplace. To take this a step further: the union struggle that is currently happening at the Times is an opportunity to fight to give workers more control over their workplace which would put them into a much stronger situation to shut down these attacks before they happen. 

The second part of the question is somewhat more profound: how do we build solidarity between queer people and workers when many workers do hold reactionary beliefs? 

Decades of misleadership within the queer liberation movement have told us that the task of building support for our struggle falls on us individually. The assimilationist wing — which has a fundamentally capitalist content, in that this wing doesn’t challenge the larger system of capitalism — argues that we do this by each trans person being the model trans person, as if we can stealth our way to acceptance by showing cis people that we are just like them, only “born in the wrong body.” This is, obviously, incredibly controversial within the community, as it has the result of segmenting the community into the “good” trans people who don’t make the cissexist patriarchy as uncomfortable on the one hand, and the “bad” trans people who do. This makes the primary responsibility of trans people — in terms of building support with our fight for liberation — being as palatable as possible. 

In resistance to this assimilationist approach, another wing within the trans community has emerged that is more confrontational, although still individualized and without a strategy to win trans liberation. This wing rejects the logic of assimilation and correctly asserts that it is not individual trans people’s jobs to be positive models for their community. However, rather than take this position and use it to build an actual model of growing support for the trans movement, the separatist wing rejects solidarity with “the oppressor” in general. This perspective — which is, ironically, a theoretical descendent of radical feminism — argues that it isn’t trans people’s responsibility to educate cis people about trans issues, rejects the “uncompensated emotional labor” of explaining our struggles to cis people, and generally argues that, insofar as trans people should do anything to build support, our main task is calling out instances of oppression. This is just as individualized as the assimilationist approach because it still isolates the individual trans person to deal with cissexism on their own, additionally placing the responsibility of “separating” from the cis patriarchy on trans people who are often geographically isolated from other members of their community. Issues with this perspective abound, most notably because there is no path toward liberation within it. Rather than fighting oppression and building the movement, this wing separates themselves from the struggle and acts as if they can stand separate from the attacks on our community — typically because the theoretical leaders of this wing live in major cities in states where these attacks aren’t as prevalent. In this sense, while the language and tactics of this wing might be more radical, in actuality, they aren’t actually fighting back the attacks on trans people any more than the assimilationists are. 

The historical and contemporary failure of both of these wings demands a new perspective within the trans movement. We should draw upon the experiences of the past to see that, in fact, solidarity is not only important — it is essential to actually winning victories for the trans movement. But we don’t just need solidarity in the abstract or with anyone who wants to join; specifically, we must build the relationships between the queer movement and the workers movement to call on the workers movement to take up our demands as their own. 

To put this a different way: the vast majority of queer and trans people are workers. We have bosses, wages, workplaces, and unions. In this sense, for most trans people, the workers’ movement is a movement that should stand for our interests as well. Our unions must demand material improvements for the lives of queer and trans people, because we are part of their memberships. We are in the working class, so our demands for health care, human rights, protection from oppression, and the ability to live authentically are working class demands. However, due to the recreation of reactionary ideas within elements of the working class and misleadership from those who want to divide the fight against oppression and the fight against exploitation, the workers’ movement has not always been the best at taking up our fights as their own. To combat this, history has shown us that we must intervene as queer people in the workers movement in order to build the solidarity needed to actually win substantive change. 

To use a concrete example: the queer activist group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) was vital in 1980s Britain at showing the political and material connections between the fight against Thatcher’s neoliberal austerity on miners and the fight against queer oppression. LGSM took up the fight for the striking miners as being part and parcel of their own fight. Through this political struggle, they demonstrated the value and importance of solidarity, and when the time came, the miners showed it back. Members of the miners unions led the 1985 London Pride and fought to include protection of homosexuality in the Labour Party platform. By organizing together, queer activists were able to have conversations with workers and comfort the prejudices of workers. This is a concrete example of how an oppressed group showing up for the exploited can show the deep and material connections between oppression and exploitation and how organizing together can create opportunities for vital conversations between workers and the oppressed. 

Also, it is important to understand the specific value of the workers’ movement in this fight. Workers aren’t just any old identity group that it’d be good to have solidarity with. Rather, workers have immense strategic power within society because we’re the ones who make everything happen. We, to quote the old song, “plowed the prairies, built the cities where they trade, dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid.” The world simply doesn’t run without workers. Given this, if they want to, workers have the collective power to stop the world and grind all production to a halt. This is a power that no one else has, and it is a power that we can use to win our demands. 

As another example, when a trans woman worker at the Madygraf factory in Argentina was being oppressed by her employers, her co-workers went on strike to demand better conditions for her. This strike also built important solidarity among the workforce, solidarity which they went on to use to take over the factory and place it under worker control. This is the power of the working class, and this is the opportunity of class struggle: workers have the power to hit the bosses where it hurts (their pocketbooks), and waging class struggle builds our power and makes it easier to fight the next time. From the Madygraf experience, we can see how important it is for trans people, in our fight against oppression, to unite with our fellow class-mates and get them to fight with us as a class. 

To return us to the discussion of the Times, let’s consider what would happen if we won the workers of the Times over to the side of fighting for trans liberation. Those workers could ensure, without question, that not one word of transphobia was ever published in those pages again. Because they are the ones who write, fact-check, copy edit, format, and print the articles. They could fight back the senior editors and bosses who want to use the Times as a platform for their reactionary views. They could stop the Times dead in its tracks and refuse to support transphobia, imperialism, copaganda, or any of the litany of right-wing positions the Times puts forward. The workers at the Times have that power, and so we must build a fighting solidarity with those workers. In that sense, supporting their work stoppage both shows them that we view our fights as connected and also helps build their power as workers. When the time comes and, hopefully, the Times workers strike for trans lives, we want that strike to be as powerful and combative as possible. Ensuring a successful struggle now helps build a stronger struggle then.

When answering the question of how to build support for trans liberation, solidarity with the working class and oppressed are key. Capitalist ideology strives to teach us that all our struggles are disconnected — seeking to segment us off into smaller and easier to defeat sub-groups — and tries to obscure the natural unity being the exploited and the oppressed. This has held back the movement, leaving it unable to advance and really gain ground. In this new moment of an upswell of labor organizing, we must avoid the mistakes of the past and place fighting for liberation of the oppressed at the center of the workers movement. 

None of us are free until all of us are free, and the same force — capitalism — that oppresses and kills trans people is the same force that refuses to pay Times workers adequate wages. The same force that unleashes racist police murderers onto the streets is the same force that works us for as long as possible for as little as possible. These fights are connected and must be fought together, not separately. So, queer people must show up for the workers movement, and we must demand that the workers movement shows up for us. The era of being divided and conquered must end now. 

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Sybil Davis

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

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