'You are more oppressive than our oppressors': Transphobia and transmisogyny in the British left

It is now more important than ever for the labour and trade union movement alongside the British left, more generally, to take a hard stance against transphobia and transmisogyny.

With the current ‘moral panic’ over trans people (almost exclusively aimed at trans women, trans feminine people and trans youth) effectively delaying legislation, further normalising transphobia in the general populace and causing burnout amongst the trans activist community. It is now more important than ever for the labour and trade union movement alongside the British left, more generally, to take a hard stance against transphobia and transmisogyny.

If we want to deal with this, we have to come to terms with the reality that the current British left is rampantly transphobic and transmisogynist. This is notably more prominent in the historically established groups, who have built themselves up to levels of comfort and outreach amongst a limited, selective, but influential group of the ‘working class’ who avoid some of the most brutal effects of austerity. In order for us to recover from these failures, looking towards materialist and socialist feminisms of the past and present can allow us to establish what is becoming more and more necessary, a feminism that is supportive of all workers, especially trans women fighting hand in hand for both trans liberation and women’s liberation under socialism.

The article will have a stronger focus on trans women, trans feminine people and trans youth, this is in part because the majority of the backlash in the British left is directed more at these groups, as such what would usually be designated as TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) will simply be referred to as transmisogynists. When we talk about transmisogynists, there is a need to be aware of the differences between the outright hateful, usually individual personalities we see from sections of the British left and a much ‘colder’ form of transmisogny. These “cold transmisogynists” are those that enable transmisogynistic talking points to be further normalised by not only refusing to raise awareness of trans women and our struggles, but also ignoring our own voices for more palatable forms of ‘feminist’ discourse. This exists in all sections in the British left, who Bahar Mustafa points out have remained silent towards the hatred received towards trans activists such as Munroe Bergdorf and the ways in which all of this is not enabling the progressive politics on gender and sexuality that are so needed today from all of us.

The Labour Party and Transmisogyny

One of the most recent cases of the British left engaging in such violent behaviour against trans women is the gofundme page set up by transmisogynists in the Labour Party calling for trans women to not be included in all-women’s short lists following comments from Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, Dawn Butler that trans women should be (as in, already are) included on all-women’s short lists. The election of Lily Madigan as a women’s officer for Rochester and Strood CLP and increased visibility of trans women in the Labour Party were a further context for the reactions that created this hate campaign. It might have been hoped that this gofundme would prove nothing especially as it went against not only gofundme’s policies but the Equalities Act, instead it raised tens of thousands of pounds in a few days. This could potentially be wasted money (or, worse, as they say the leftover money will be used to prevent trans women accessing services and being in public spaces) but the numbers alone are horrifying reminders for trans women in the Labour Party, we are actively hated and despised, something further shown by fraudulent donations being made under the names of trans activists such as Travis Alabanza and Shon Faye. Disturbingly, it is evident that there are significant numbers of people with the money and influence in Party circles to promote such levels of funding. Essentially, the gofundme campaign and attendant hatred is trying to remove, silence and bully trans women from the Party and any other forms of political activism. For the Labour Party, the lack of prompt and clear decision making and the confusing and delayed responses from the NEC shows a lack of coordination between the leadership, understood widely, and members as well as significant differences in attitudes and knowledge towards trans women inside and outside the Party. Whilst leaked information (subsequently confirmed by the NEC Equalities committee) has at this moment confirmed that Labour will include self-defining women on all-women shortlists alongside suspending Venice Allen and Jennifer James (the latter who started the gofundme), the start of 2018 has proven to already be another difficult year for trans activists, especially those engaged in Labour. Despite the progress seen in confirmation that trans women are included in all-women’s shortlists, Labour still has a lot to deal with following the drawn out conflicts and hatred spurred by this godfundme campaign. It’s perhaps also worth noting that the suspensions of James and Allen for bullying and harassment do not, in themselves, confirm that the Party is taking all transphobia from members seriously.

As we are approaching almost 10 years of austerity, this hate campaign and hefty donations from members is especially distressing, considering that austerity disproportionately affects women in the poorest parts of the UK. Amidst the growing privatisation of the NHS; the dismantling of domestic violence, care and welfare services; housing crises and the rapid increase of women in incarceration and detention centres, to see money thrown instead towards bigotry and hatred shows just how the extent that these people really care about fighting against oppression in society (Hint: They don’t). Now more than ever do we need unified support and solidarity from the Labour Party, who still could be doing more to deal with these rampant levels of transmisogyny.

Outside of the Labour Party, those in the far-left have also shown their transmisogynist views in the last few months following the ‘moral panic’ in mainstream media. From the continuous hate pieces from the Morning Star that have persisted for years to the transmisogyny at the 2017 London Anarchist Bookfair, who responded by announcing no more bookfairs and defending the acts of violence. The bookfair has especially exposed the true extent of transmisogyny in all circles of the British left siding with the reactionary, right-wing led newspapers campaigns merely on amending the already outdated GRA (the issue being struggled over here is a long way from trans liberation).

Within the trade union movements, the problems are much more noticeable and concerning. At the start of the panic, transphobic remarks by Paul Embery, an executive council member for the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), were not condemned by the union. Other influential trade unionists, including FBU members would continue to endorse even more transphobia, this time taking the route of ultimate cowardice and aiming at trans youth, again paralleling their right-wing counterparts. When Stonewall published their research on LGBTQ+ youth in schools, they found that 46% of trans youth have attempted suicide and only two in five teachers pledge to fight against transphobic bullying. Following these grim findings, the NUT’s vice president and convenor of the Socialist Feminist Network, Kiri Tunks, decided (in her own personal capacity) to take the side of those austerity enforcers who are at the centre of destroying the education system. Despite the calls of solidarity from the LGBT+ section of the NUT, the damage was done and many of those who supported Tunks (including Lucy Masoud, Treasurer and LGBT Secretary of the London FBU branch) would then support the hate campaigns manipulating the truth about incidents of transmisogynist violence. Whilst we can’t expect all cis workers to be on our side and know what is best for us, we should never accept and tolerate these levels of violence against one of the most oppressed and marginalised groups of workers not only in Britain, but globally.

Transphobia, Imperialism and the Labour Aristocracy

The cases of transmisogyny in the British left also continue to showcase white supremacy and imperialist ambitions. The most vocal transmisogynists on the British left, almost all of whom are white, present themselves (and are also presented as such) as authentic, marginalised, working-class voices, ‘saying it like it is’ despite endorsements from mainstream media and national publications, even before the ‘moral panic’.

A recent example of particularly imperialist character of British left transphobia that is especially revealing is transmisogynists on social media like Venice Allen “Dr Rad Fem” (who has since been suspended from Labour for bullying and harassment) proudly proclaiming that British women are the strongest and most powerful women on the planet. In all waves of feminism, white feminists in the British left and trade union movement have a tendency to ignore the problems of white supremacy and especially the consequences of imperialism. Not only this, there is a total failure to even try to understand the history of imperialism in enforcing transphobia, patriarchy and rigid gender and sex binaries. Sara Ahmed’s ‘An Affinity of Hammers’ describes a case study with Suzanne Moore and a series of Twitter rants from January 2013:

British feminist journalist Suzanne Moore published a piece on women’s anger that makes casual reference to the figure of the “Brazilian transsexual” as the “ideal body shape” that most women are angry about because they do not have it. This statement could be understood as a form of casual racism as well as trans misogyny: the other over there is a means by which a subject here is given contour and definition, a “we” takes shape from what we are not.1

Moore’s rants are not only based in casual racism and an ignorance of the extreme rates of violence against travesti and trans women in Brazil, but is also a reminder that aggressive arrogance (taking pride in being deliberately offensive and insensitive) and the white supremacist, imperialist mindsets shape and dominate transmisogynist discourses. The arch-transmisogynist, Janice Raymond relies on casual racism and Islamophobia in her analysis as Stryker notes:

In this way, she claims, eunuchs, too, “can rise in the kingdoms of the Fathers.” Combining Orientalist stereotypes with a thinly veiled Islamophobia, Raymond thus constructs the transsexual as a tool of alien powers bent on the subjugation of progressive Western feminism.2

The imperialist ambitions are further shown as Irish feminists said in response to transmisogynists planning a speaking tour in Dublin:

Do you have any kind of concept of what a feminism in a country shaped by struggle against Empire looks like? Did you take even a second to consider that, in assuming you have the right to come here in any kind of position of feminist authority, you’re behaving with the arrogance of just that imperialism? We have had enough of colonialism in Ireland without needing more of it from you

Scratch a transmisogynist and find an imperialist-endorsing white supremacist.

European colonialism and imperialism played huge roles in the destruction and genocides of gender-variant people across all the world. Considering how rampant the transmisogyny is in the British left, who trail behind the rise of unions fronted by women of colour and migrant workers such as UVW against precarious labour, it is certain that the connections to white supremacy and transmisogyny are also connected to the refusal of historically established and reputable groups to actually engage in a materialist analysis of the realities of the British working class now.

The growing levels of violence, especially intimate violence against trans women also coincides with the growing waves of rape apologism akin to the SWP emerging in historically established far-left wing groups exposing them for their protection of sexual abusers and/or cult-like behaviours from the leadership, which is indeed a further concern for all women and non-binary workers. Allegations of sexual violence and silencing of activists have emerged from the Revolutionary Communist Group, The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Movement for Justice in the past few months, resulting in the dismissal and disregard of survivors of sexual violence in our struggles for survivor-led accountability processes in an already weak and fragmented socialist movement. Whilst trans women were not the only victims of abuse from these groups, the connections between tolerance of sexual violence and transmisogyny are crucial, especially when we see transmisogynists like Germaine Greer support sexual abusers and be against the #MeToo campaign. My own personal experiences with the RCG resulted in being removed for speaking out against rape apologism from the SWP and transphobia from the Morning Star, claiming these were ‘not our positions’ ‘ in the group. If we can’t rely on these groups to protect survivors of violence, how can we expect them to protect trans women?

When seeing all of this, one has to wonder if the ‘moral panic’ is working and working class cis people hate us and have now learnt more about transmisogynist talking points. Or, is it a minority of the historically established left wing in Britain that supposedly represents the working class? Considering the majority of the transmisogyny in the left is from political representatives such as MPs in the Labour Party like Caroline Flint and significant figures in the trade union movement (Embery, Masoud and Tunks), we can assume the latter. The problem is that from the outside, assumptions on the attitudes of the working class from this would make us assume that we are hated unanimously by the working class, despite the majority of trans women being working class. This is further amplified by the silence of many MPs and councillors in the Labour Party towards the backlash and hatred trans women are currently dealing with.

The ways in which transmisogyny sits within and reproduces a set of attitudes and practices suggests it is, to a large extent, part of a sedimented labourism, a labourism whose class basis has in many aspects long past. It is worth being clear here both that on the one hand labourism extends beyond the Labour Party and the trade union movement and encompasses and, in some ways, structures left parties and groups outside Labour and on the other hand, Labour cannot wholly be reduced to labourism. In terms of transmisogyny and labourism, two analyses are deeply suggestive, the first from Hilary Wainwright, the second from Stuart Hall. For Wainwright, the major limit on labourism is its efforts to advance workers interests within existing capitalist purposes and inability to generate alternative values, and within this:

A further limit to Labourism concerns those on whose behalf it bargains or administrates. Traditionally it has seen the worker it represents as first and foremost the British and as the male wage earner and his family. John Golding again, ‘I’m a class politician. I’d prefer to have a straightforward Labour Party without these trendy socialists, always bringing up women and blacks.’ British labourism gained its particular meaning and logic when Britain was still an imperial power. Its overriding commitment to the living standards and conditions of British workers means that at its core is British nationalism.3

Stuart Hall notes how one of labourism’s bedrocks ‘working class unity and labour movement fraternity have often been underpinned by certain versions of masculinity, traditionalism and domestic respectability’, and how the other bedrock, Fabianism, had its ‘consciences shudder’ and ‘nerves rattle’, by ‘women who won’t settle to their familial roles, blacks who assert their own self-identities’. For both Hall and Wainwright, moreover, writing in the 1980s, labourism represented and organised a working class which no longer existed, and a genuinely materialist politics entailed reckoning with the ‘present and modern’, ‘politically and culturally more diverse’ character of the working class.

However there is more to the realities of the working class and the divides that have always existed in the British working class, from those who supported colour bars and racism, to those who banned women from political activism (as we are seeing now) to similar moral panics against LGB people escalated and influenced by labourism. We have always seen similar trends of hatred and misdirection from the British left, especially in its well organised, historically maintained and generally more privileged capacities, with far less at stake during such intense, contentious moments in our history.

Trans Herstory and Left-Wing Solidarity

Reading all this can seem daunting and hopeless, but the trans community has always been fighting against exclusionary politics, directly or indirectly and across many different left wing groups, from lesbian feminist groups to trans women in the Labour Party and trade unions. History can especially help us in learning and engaging with transmisogyny in the British left, both in Britain and elsewhere.

The infamous West Coast Lesbian Conference of 1973 quite possibly started many of the same transmisogynist talking points we see. But what is less known is that two thirds of attendees supported the inclusion of folk singer and trans woman Beth Elliot (who was also a member of the organising committee) at the conference against the violent transmisogyny of Robin Morgan and the Gutter Dykes. Lesbian cis feminists such as Jeanne Córdova would be one of a few at the conference who supported the inclusion of trans women and helped to hold back Morgan and the Gutter Dykes own attacks on Elliot and other trans women in attendance. Reports of the conference at the time in The Lesbian Tide especially highlighted the solidarity from an unnamed blind trans woman with Elliot and other trans women:

McLean reports that while the Gutter Dykes were berating Beth Elliot, a blind woman fought her way onto the stage: “She is furious . . .pounds on the podium, insists on speaking” (McLean, 38). She identifies to the audience as a trans woman and is “so emotional, trembling so bad she can hardly stand up, clutching the mike she cried out these women are crucifying Beth and all transsexuals. ‘Why do they torment her? You are more oppressive than our oppressors’”. She then sits down defiantly in front of the stage and continues shouting over the din of the crowd. This glorious action defeats the Gutter Dykes and they relinquish the microphone.4

Elliot herself had already been well established in lesbian feminist spaces and had gained solidarity from cis lesbian feminists against other transmisogynist incidents. This included the resignation of the entire collective of the San Francisco DOB’s newspaper, Sisters, in solidarity with Elliot after she was outed as trans and expelled from DOB in 1972. Around the same time, we had seen statements of solidarity towards the gay liberation movement from the Black Panther Party as well as the Young Lords Party of which, the co-founder of STAR Sylvia Rivera was a member. An interview with Tommi Avicolli Mecca also highlighted the solidarities between the lesbian separatist DYKETACTICS and Radical Queens in Philadelphia:

There was class consciousness there, too, because most of the women in DYKETACTICS were working class. I had a really good relationship with them, because I knew some of the women. I mean, they were women who had been around and had been in other things. So I knew them and knew how to work with them…They did not trash drag. So there was never that sort of dialogue that happened in New York, that trashing and that kind of animosity between drag queens and lesbian feminists. Never had that happen in Philly. And I think that was because of Radical Queens, and the kinds of coalitions we formed early on. And because we worked to keep those alliances going.5

Members of Transsexual Action Organisation (TAO) such as UK-based Brooklyn Stothard would begin on work on what would become the precursors to heterosexism and queer theory based on developments in the New Left and early second wave feminism. Known as ‘hetsism’, Stothard described in 1974 how:

Hetsist systems of social relations lay down that people should play out gender roles appropriate to their biological sex, as social males or females, and maintain heterosexual relations. … [S]exism, as a term, is inadequate, since it suggests that the oppression of women by men is the sum total of sexist relations.6

Sadly, even all this pioneering work by trans people historically did not stop the ongoing transphobia and transmisogyny in feminist spaces and Elliot herself eventually decided to leave the conference from the pressure from the transmisogynists. That also proved too much for Rivera following similar incidents of transmisogyny at the 1973 New York City’s Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, giving her influential ‘Y’all Better Quiet Down!‘ speech before retreating from politics until the 1990s.

Meanwhile in Britain, the 1980s would see a ‘moral panic’ similar to the current one, only focusing much more on lesbian and gay men and to some extent this would affect trans people (especially those who were also LGB). The responses from the British left and trade union movements were varied, but generally similar to the current trends now:

The IS, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and the Trotskyite Militant Tendency all proved, at best, dilatory and sometimes unreliable allies to the cause of gay rights and, at worst, violent opponents. As late as 1983, for example, members of Militant Tendency kicked and spat upon gay Young Socialists when the latter dared to raise the issue of gay and lesbian rights.7

The backdrop of the HIV/AIDs epidemic and further hate publications from the British mainstream media did not help things and the current ‘moral panic’ seems to have desires to implement similar legislation against trans and gender non-conforming youth. The introduction of Section 28 in 1988 would further clamp down on any potential solidarities being pushed by some local Labour councils or other British left groups. The Bermondsey by-election in 1983 showcased the rampant levels of homophobia against Peter Thatchell and saw the largest by-election swing in British history. For trans people now, these examples are indeed a harrowing reminder of what the current ‘moral panic’ can do and will do to us and our activism. This was a far cry from the revolutionary activism from Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), whose co-founder Mark Ashton, was the general secretary for the Young Communist League. LGSM was a significant example of support and solidarity amongst workers and oppressed people and in turn led to the question of gay and lesbian rights being supported at the Labour Party 1985 annual conference.

The world of labourism and the way in which it underpinned an aggressive backlash against the cultural politics, particularly around gay rights in alliance, as today, with the right-wing press8 of the new urban Labour left, then, suggests a context whereby we can understand the place of today’s transmisogyny. Here we should be able to situate theoretically transmisogyny’s links to imperialism and British chauvinism, its particular ‘labour aristocratic’ form class politics, that is, as with Golding, a class politics that is not for the whole of the working class, particularly in its modern form, its compromises, or worse with existing dominant power, especially in the press, its grounding in and efforts to reproduce the traditional family, and its hostility to the self-assertion of marginalised, excluded sections of the working class. Labourism essentially both advances the interests of the working class in the sense of making a demand for a greater share of the spoils of imperialism, integrating it as (George Padmore) a “Junior Partner in Imperialism Ltd”) and aims to organise the working class internally, maintaining and even strengthening the hierarchies, oppressions and exclusions made by capitalism. In the 1980s, in Hall and Wainwright’s accounts, this internal organising of the working class meant at best indifference, at worst hostility to the self-assertion and needs of the women’s movement, Black struggles and Gay liberation, today, it is no surprise labourist conceptions are a basis for transmisogyny.

Despite this and the influence of labourism, exceptions did exist of trans women who were active in labour and trade union struggles, especially in much more urban New Left circles. As early as October 1974, the newsletter for the National and Local Government Officers Association’s (NALGO) lesbian and gay group called for ‘all homosexuals, bisexuals, transvestites and transsexuals’ to be involved, even if there was no records of trans involvement at the time9. Elsewhere in Italy, the 1980s would see the emergence of the Italian Transsexual Movement (Movimento Italiano Transessuale [MIT]) with support from the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the largest communist party in Western Europe at the time. The PCI not only supported what would become one of the earliest forms of (albeit flawed and very much out-dated now) legal gender recognition, but by the time of the second congress of MIT in January 1982, high ranking PCI members such as senator Giglia Tedesco Tatò would not only voice support towards trans rights, but also explicitly connect them to the women’s liberation movement:

Tatò stressed the potential of the feminist slogan “Woman is beautiful” to include transsexuals and asserted that transsexuals were engaged in a “battle for all women” because “the battle for the emancipation and liberation of women passes through the transsexual battle.10

These remarks and the attendance of PCI members alone are impressive considering the long history of social conservatism from the PCI of pleasing the dominant Catholic populations whilst maintaining the more traditional ideas of gender and sexuality that many historical socialist countries would promote, with only a few notable exceptions (Cuba and East Germany) endorsing LGBTQ+ rights in the same decade. Following the splitting of PCI, one of their successors, the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC) would endorse the first openly trans member of parliament in Europe, Vladimir Luxuria.

Rachael Webb is a more radical example who was not only a councillor in the 80s but would later work on sustaining women’s rights for truck drivers all over Europe. She was briefly involved with the Self Help Association for Transsexuals (SHAFT), who kicked her out for her radicalism. However, her brand of radical feminism was heavily influenced and inspired by Janice Raymond, including Webb’s own belief that trans women ‘perpetuate misogyny when they indulge in a manipulative game of getting others to collude in their fantasy that they are women.’ Her involvement in Militant Tendency was also questionable, due to the levels of homophobic abuse that they pushed throughout the 1980s.

But even then, historical cases of trans women in the trade union movement showcase complexities, especially, as with the LGBTQ+ community in general, trans women are not a homogeneous blob and each of us will bring our own different and unique experiences to feminism and politics. When Anna May Booth was interested in the Lesbians and Gays in the MSF (LAGIM) group in 1989, she herself was not given immediate approval due to the group never having had trans members, nonetheless she came to be accepted and would go on to speak out against discrimination and harassment in 1999, effectively outing herself to the entire male dominated union, showcasing the bravery of trans women even in the labour and trade union movement.11

What does this have to do with trans women now? In recent years, similar cases of solidarity and activism have been brought up by many contemporary left-wing activist groups and trans rights groups. From the trans-inclusive Sister’s Uncut and their direct action against the savage cuts against domestic violence services, focusing especially on the impacts this has on women and non-binary people. To the works of Action for Trans Health and their solidarity with prison abolition and connecting this with the issues of healthcare (or lack thereof) in incarceration.

Instead of challenging its own transmisogyny, the British left has created situations that exclude trans women, sometimes this has been directly in the forms of physical and mental intimidation and countless hate pieces by a small, well-established few in the labour aristocracy and labourist traditions. But more worrying though is the indirect forms of exclusion by the vast majority of the British left which seems to be ignoring and even tolerating various forms of oppressive behaviours that hurt trans women, such as rape apologism and ignoring the new developments in feminism and imperialism which demand consideration of the British left’s own roles in imperialism and anti-feminism which still lingers on today. A socialist transfeminism needs to be adapted by the British left to counter both the tendencies of anti-feminism, but also the growing problems of rape apologism and imperialist/nationalist ambitions of the more populist, labourist varieties of the British left, desperately hoping for working class votes.

Towards a Socialist Transfeminism

What do we mean when we talk about transfeminism? Is it distinct from (cis) feminism? Emi Koyama’s ‘Transfeminist Manifesto‘ describes transfeminism as “primarily a movement by and for trans women who view their liberation to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of all women and beyond.” The radicalism of Koyama shines through in her proposals that trans women should resist not only the medical definitions of gender and biological sex but also resist the narratives of being ‘born in the wrong body’, a tactic that we see consistently in trans rights organisation, charities and almost all mainstream representation, very much in common with the dominant ‘born this way’ rhetoric in mainstream LGB circles now. However, Koyama also rejects a model that trans women have ‘always been’ women by insisting that:

To say that one has a female mind or soul would mean there are male and female minds that are different from each other in some identifiable way, which in turn may be used to justify discrimination against women. Essentializing our gender identity can be just as dangerous as resorting to biological essentialism. Transfeminism believes that we construct our own gender identities based on what feels genuine, comfortable and sincere to us as we live and relate to others within given social and cultural constraint. … Instead of justifying our existence through the reverse essentialism, transfeminism dismantles the essentialist assumption of the normativity of the sex/gender congruence.

Koyama’s own analysis here is very similar to early second wave feminism, especially materialist feminist thought. Within the socialist feminist tradition, very little has existed that has connected trans liberation with socialism together. For many of us, the works of Leslie Feinberg helped provided us with a Marxist analysis of trans oppression in history and historical accounts of socialist, communist and anarchist solidarity with trans, gender non-conforming and gender-variant people throughout history. Feinberg’s works helped many of us understand that we had a history and ze would apply historical materialist analysis to help further incorporate a Marxist politics in trans activism. However, ze did not take fully into account transfeminist demands in hir work and would only help provide the foundations of a socialist transfeminism.

When transmisogynists are burning us out by demanding we justify our existences again only to be humiliated, a socialist transfeminism is strongly needed. For many trans Marxists and transfeminists, there has almost been a return to the early second wave feminists for forms of inspiration and especially to incorporate again a materialist feminism that recognises the notions of gender and biological sex as socially constructed instead of the leftist transmisogynists’ appeals to biological reductionism. Radical feminists such as Evelyn Reed argued a materialist feminist view of women’s oppression that specifically mentioned that biology is not necessarily the destiny of the oppression of women. Other second wave materialist feminists would also play key roles in shaping ideas that can prove useful for transfeminists through a critical lens. One example that will be considered is the work of lesbian materialist feminist, Monique Wittig. Her own theories on the materialist forms of oppression towards women and lesbians would be especially influential on Judith Butler, whose ideas on the performativity of gender and biological sex would pioneer queer theory and still be a huge source of inspiration for many transfeminists now.

Kevin Henderson’s attempts to apply Wittig into a queer-trans-feminism focuses on the man/woman binary in Wittig’s own writings and modifies these theories to take into consideration the growing cis/trans binary we are seeing in transfeminist and transgender studies:

If Wittig called feminists, lesbians, and gay men to be distrustful of the difference between “man” and “woman,” this essay, utilizing Wittig’s critique of language, calls queer-trans-feminist scholars and activists today to be equally distrustful of difference between “cis” and “trans” as a name for natural difference rather than as the product of regulatory power. I worry that the trans/cis binary runs the risk of turning radical trans politics into a kind of interest-group liberalism, one that posits its difference from “cis” as its basis rather than offering a thorough critique of power and a critique of the ability for some authority to determine sex/gender difference.12

These are legitimate worries, as we have seen in what Nat Raha described as trans liberalism becoming the dominant narratives in British trans politics, further instilling notions that trans liberation is merely middle class and academic and against the more ‘traditional’ (i.e. misogynist and white supremacist) ideals of the labour and trade union movements. Whilst trans liberalism can help in certain fields such as legal gender recognition, research and awareness, it still relies primarily on a vision of liberation that is catered towards the dominant white audience, whilst paying lip service to the likes of intersectionality. Essentially it’s trying to create a capitalist approach to trans ‘liberation’, or for those who are worthy of such under capitalism.

The necessity of a socialist transfeminism is made more paramount in pieces such as Anarchasteminist’s ‘Transphobia is a class issue’. The author highlights research that shows that not only are the unemployment levels of trans people higher than the national average, but for trans youth, the reliance on family support is a major deciding factor on life satisfaction and most importantly secure housing. Recent figures from trans liberal charities like Stonewall confirm these disparities with 25% of trans people experiencing homelessness in the past year, and 1 in 8 trans people being physically attacked in the workplace. As workers and carers, trans women under austerity deal with significant difficulties in gaining employment, care and housing due to transmisogynist employers, care services and landlords. Then there are the bureaucratic hurdles that an amended GRA (as is Labour’s official policy, though this position is not without opposition in the Party) could remove as well the unmentioned and unresolved hurdles in the NHS and at the job centre. The majority of trans women not only get paid far less than their cis counterparts, we also have fewer support networks in labour and trade union movements, as well as feminist circles and social and welfare services for women.

Whilst Jennifer James and others may think they are fighting a class war for socialism by excluding trans women from political activism, services and public spaces, they’re merely showcasing that the British left’s transphobia and transmisogyny is more than just bigotry, but a failure to apply not only socialism, but feminism into the conditions of austerity and the rise of trans visibility and activism that goes beyond our own communities. In going beyond our communities of trans liberalism and a diluted socialist feminism, an effective socialist transfeminism must also take into consideration the question of the abolition of the family.

The abolition of the family is crucial yet until now socialist feminism has often ignored this topic and socialist countries would even enforce family units into law, whilst trans liberalism and queer theory have themselves looked upon/emphasised newly formed family units set up by those who have been rejected by their first families. These units have been essential for the survival of many trans women, especially trans women of colour with STAR house (set up by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera) being a significant historical example. Radical queer accounts against assimilationist views in the LGBTQ+ movement have long used these units as a means to survival, but survival can only go so far and for many of us, it is not enough to just survive and as JJ Gleeson and KD Griffiths established in Kinderkommunismus:

Queer rejectionism has not made any concerted effort to imagine what such a systemic shift might look like. Rejectionist accounts of revolutionary change present either the vaguest vision of “queer insurrection” against social norms, or in fact present no vision at all (focusing instead on the politics of “survival”). While our rejectionist comrades have made a decisive case for rejecting liberal-subsumed LGBT NGOs, they do not make any advancement toward the family’s end. Their politics is one of celebrating tension, not collapsing the material foundations of straight identities. Their nostalgic-historiographical poetics have failed to provide an emancipatory path that will destroy the heterosexualizing coercion of the family. They have failed even to speculate clearly as to what such a path might look like.

Gleeson has discussed this in greater detail, especially focusing on the ways in which the family unit under capitalism isolates and normalises queer/trans dispossession.

The family serves as a unique bastion organizing heteronormativity, and through ensuring the inter-generational procession of wealth and access to fixed capital, also anti-blackness. Upbringings and intimacies existing outside of norms which have developed along with capitalism are widely disparaged, and culturally subordinated. For as long as heterosexual parents are relied on for giving queer kids upbringing, widespread dispossession will be the rule. The role of social reproduction parents are tasked with at present can only be relied on to produce alienation, and rejection. For as long as the family remains ‘private’, the actual lives of many queers will feature commonplace threats from regret to physical attack. Only through breaking the current monopoly of families on inter-generational recreation of society can we truly liberate successive generations from the arbitrary brutalization of gender.

Socialist transfeminism must platform the abolition of the family in its programme to ensure that those of us who may or may not have been disowned by family are given the same opportunities and qualities of life as those who do.

Whilst trans liberalism and their groups simply argue for more family support and an insistence on maintaining family units, socialist transfemininsm must take into account the ways in which capitalism enforces the family unit and especially the ways in which these particular units of the capitalist family normalise transphobia, especially in terms of the resources we have access to as well as the impact on our own mental health. Even Stonewall, despite their research on trans lives (which only began in 2015), focuses on and insists on assimilation into (British) society and doesn’t pose a threat to capitalism or the heteronormative family unit. These examples are prime examples of trans liberalism hoping to gain a wider audience that can accept trans people in the current conditions of patriarchal capitalist norms. A subtle example of this is the ways in which trans liberal groups will emphasis that trans people ‘identify as’ instead of saying ‘are’ our own genders with no criticism of the social constructions of biological sex. What does this mean for trans women? Trans liberalism is paradoxical in that it tries to establish that we are our own genders, but at the same time, these subtle linguistic changes help to further promote something of an evolved form of the current gendered divisions of labour under capitalism, which will in some way try and invalidate our genders and our own experiences as women. Our experiences of womanhood and participating in the women’s liberation movement as the women we are is ignored, especially the social reproduction we produce as women and ‘feminised’ labour due to the lack of ‘conventionality’ in this labour (e.g. STAR house) compared to white cishet feminist accounts. This can be further recognised in an Action for Trans Health piece written by Amy Cohn that discusses ‘wages for advocacy’ and briefly touches upon the forms of social reproduction in our advocacy work, without which situations for trans people in healthcare and elsewhere would be far worse:

Wages for Advocacy” is the acknowledgement that our labour is just as – if not more – important than the formal labour of administrators and clinicians to the provision of trans healthcare. Those systems necessitate and demand our labour, and it is those systems – not service users – that should bear the cost of it.

Therefore, it is important to include trans women as women in the political sense against the trans liberal discourses emphasising that simply we ‘identify as’ or are ‘Assigned [Sex] at Birth’. This is especially needed as the latter is becoming more and more the polite form of the transmisogynists spiteful ‘trans-identified males’, always reinforcing what capitalist society wants to perceive us as to invalidate our struggles as women and our own womanhood, with our own unique struggles.

As mentioned, the majority of transmisogynists in the British left are well-established and not in constant danger and risks from deportation, sanctions and incarceration or daily harassment just for existing. Trans liberalism doesn’t provide the solutions to combating either transmisogyny or the wider, disproportionate threats trans women face and, moreover, can even perpetuate the transmisogynist talking point that we’re all just middle class, white academics. The hatred from the well-established, labourist British left creates an atmosphere in the trans community that the cis working class is not there for us and never will be and there are dangers to this:
1. Trans women will not be welcome in the British left and have no choice but to join middle class, assimilationist trans rights groups to just feel safe and be active.
2. It is playing into the idea that bigotry is ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’, despite the countless evidence of solidarity between working class trans people and other activist movements both then and now.

Anarchasteminist shows the ways in which established ‘working class’ transmisogynists show this:

We see a similar process with transphobia, bigotry against trans people is positioned as definitively working class, and thus the existence of working class trans people can be ignored as impossible by definition. A well paid Observer journalist can mock trans people en masse as middle class kids, obsessed with identity politics, because everybody knows that real working class people are white, cishet and hostile to anybody who is not white or cishet. The reality, of course, is that this image of an “ordinary” working class as the default is a fantasy, the working class is a weird, wonderful and diverse class and only a politics that recognises the many and varied ways in which we experience exploitation and oppression can allow us to build a movement to end oppression, end exploitation and ultimately abolish class itself.

By creating the idea that transphobia and transmisogyny is ‘working class’, the same well-paid ‘working class’ journalists reduce and define the working classes they claim to represent as merely a homogeneous blob of bigotry, generated from alienation under neoliberal capitalism.

It is essential for us to look forward towards a socialist transfeminist future that incorporates socialism alongside further continuing its tradition of supporting women’s liberation and introducing components that include support for trans liberation. It is necessary to ensure that reactionary views that serve the patriarchy, such as transmisogyny and upholding the cis/heteronormative family models under capitalism are eliminated. We are up against the successive victories of an anti-materialist and reactionary British left trying to gain relevance following decades of isolation from working class communities. Hope amongst workers and oppressed people for something new under a Corbyn-led government and beyond can only go so far when even in Labour and the wider British left, there are still such dismissive views of trans women (and that these views are often more widely tolerated and allowed to pass unchallenged). Yes, we have seen calls of solidarity from in the British left inside and outside of Labour and the mainstream trade union movement, but we are hurting ourselves by appealing to the calls of these transmisogynists, who constantly demand that trans women justify our existences and constantly repeat the same basic talking points that are easily debunked by Koyama’s manifesto and other pieces both historical and contemporary.

Hope does exist not just from the Labour Party, but Scotland has already begun their own consultations on amending the GRA and in the British left, we are gradually seeing more and more initiatives from newer groups to take on transmisogyny and also continue to develop a socialist feminism that rejects labourist tendencies and can be incorporated alongside the transfeminist ideas we are constantly seeing all over the world. The Women’s Strike here in the UK has emphasised the struggles of trans women and stressed the need for cis feminists to be in solidarity with trans women in fighting against patriarchal violence.

It all might seem daunting at the moment, but as we have seen that even under the bleakest periods for the left in Britain and elsewhere, cases of solidarity can shine through and be an affirming reminder that when we are united in the struggle, we can certainly achieve monumental things.

  1. Sara Ahmed, ‘An Affinity of Hammer’, in eds. Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton, Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2017), pp. 221-234 (p.228). 

  2. Susan Stryker, Transgender History, (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008), p.107. 

  3. Hilary Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), p.80. 

  4. Emma Heaney, The New Woman: Literary Modernism, Queer Theory and the Trans Feminine Allegory, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2017), p.271. 

  5. Susan Stryker, ‘Radical Queens: An Interview with Tommi Avicolli Mecca’, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 3:1-2 (2016), pp. 278-284 (p.283). 

  6. Brooklyn Stothard, ‘Transsexualism and Women’s Liberation’, Mirage, 1:2 (1974), p.24 quoted from Abram J. Lewis, ‘Trans History in a Moment of Danger: Organizing within and Beyond “Visibility” in the 1970s’ in eds. Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton, Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2017), pp. 58-89, p.63. 

  7. Stephen Brooke, Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 225-226. 

  8. Wainwright notes how with Bermondsey the impetus for “the anti-red and gay-baiting press campaign” came from internal Labour campaigning against Tatchell, A Tale of Two Parties, p.89. 

  9. Carola Towle, ‘The Trade Unions’ in ed. Christine Burns, Trans Britain: Our Journey From Beyond the Shadows (London: Unbound, 2018), pp. 262-276 (p.263). 

  10. Stefania Voli, ‘Broadening the Gendered Polis: Italian Feminist and Transsexual Movements, 1979-1982’, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 3:1-2 (2016), pp.235-245 (p.240). 

  11. Towle, ‘The Trade Unions’, p.267. 

  12. Kevin Henderson, ‘Becoming lesbian: Monique Wittig’s queer-trans-feminism,’ Journal of Lesbian Studies, p.16. 


Sylv M (@__Sylv__)

Sylvia M. is a transfeminist writer currently based in Manchester. Her work has been included in publications such as New Socialist and presented for Historical Materialism. Her studies include a masters in gender history at the University of Glasgow.