How can we win trans and queer liberation?

December 3, 2018

Isabelle Bartter, a member of the International Socialist Organization in Rochester, New York, spoke at the New York City Marxism Conference last month on Marxism and the struggle for queer and trans liberation. It has been edited and shortened for publication.

IN 2013, a 53-year-old trans woman named Fatima Woods was stabbed in her home in Rochester, New York. She ran down the block to a gas station looking for help, where she collapsed due to blood loss.

Witnesses said that EMTs arrived on the scene quickly, but did not start treating Fatima for close to 45 minutes, despite the protests of onlookers. She died in that parking lot. And we will never know whether the EMTs on scene could have saved her, because they never even tried. Fatima was a wonderful poet and a friend.

Fatima joined Shaun Smith in Brooklyn, Tyra Hunter in Washington, D.C., and countless other LGBTQ siblings who have died due to the negligence and malice of medical professionals.

I start with this story because I want to make perfectly clear what the stakes are when right-wing bigots fight for religious exemptions, which give essentially anyone a license to discriminate against queer and trans people.

Marching for trans liberation on International Women's Day in Los Angeles
Marching for trans liberation on International Women's Day in Los Angeles (Molly Adams | flickr)

This kind of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric is nothing new, but it is becoming more divisive and destructive as our political climate polarizes. Recently, the New York Times reported on a memo that the Trump administration sent to the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year, which stated that sex is determined “prior to or at birth” and that only “reliable DNA evidence” can counteract an original birth certificate.

Whereas in the recent past we have seen arguments around “bathroom bills” and other transphobic policies from the right that sought to ostracize and marginalize trans people, this memo points to the far right’s real goal: the complete erasure of trans people’s existence. This is a new ideological level of repression which should put all of us on high alert.

Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino and his friends at the Center for Religion and Civil Society claim that this memo is meant to combat “radical gender ideology.” In reality, what they are doing nothing less than attacking the well-being and civil rights of 1.5 million transgender Americans.


ALTHOUGH POLICY shifts and executive orders under the Obama administration provided some protection and uniformity of how trans people interacted with the state, and expanded protections for lesbians, gays and bisexuals as well, it’s important to remember that LGBTQ people in the U.S., especially trans people of color, are still disproportionately living at the margins of society.

A National Center for Transgender Equality survey in 2015 found that one-third of trans people in general and 40 percent of trans people of color live in poverty — more than twice the national average. One-third of trans people have been homeless, 12 percent within one year of the survey. One in six lost a job because of being trans. Forty percent of respondents had attempted suicide. One in 10 had been physically attacked, and half had been sexually assaulted. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people also continue to face disproportionate rates of homelessness, especially youth homelessness, unemployment and suicide.

This reality leads us to ask: What is to be done?

Comrades have rightly argued in Socialist Worker and other forums that the fight for marriage equality was a major victory for our side, not just because it extended civil rights to millions of queer people, but also because the massive movement that was created and sustained to push for marriage equality was a demonstration of the power of our side. The National Equality March in 2009, for instance, drew 200,000 people.

What must be learned from the transition from Obama to Trump is that nothing written on paper is set in stone. Without a mass social movement to sustain it, the LGBTQ rights movement, handed over to the Democrats, has either fallen by the wayside or been rolled back.

I want to pull on a particular thread of this backwards motion which has become a hot topic since the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh; that is the courts. I’ll give a couple of examples.

In August 2016, U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox of Detroit ruled that a funeral home was within its rights to fire a transgender employee because its owner had a religious belief that gender transition violated biblical teachings.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Cox’s ruling was a direct expansion of the now infamous 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision which ruled that “closely held” religious businesses are not responsible for providing birth control, or anything else they object to. “Closely held” private businesses employ 52 percent of all workers in the US.

By the end of 2016, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of Texas further expanded the Hobby Lobby decision when he ruled that doctors could discriminate against transgender patients or women who have had abortions. The Christian medical associations and insurance companies behind this lawsuit argued that treating these patients constituted “material cooperation with evil.” O’Connor agreed, and he decided that the law should value these beliefs over certain people’s right to receive medical treatment.

In his majority opinion on the Hobby Lobby case, Justice Samuel Alito assured the court that the ruling would not provide a shield for blanket discrimination. As is often the case, Justice Alito was wrong. These cases are being litigated in minor courts throughout the country right now, with potentially disastrous results.

This is a disturbing trend, and the Democrats have no strategy for how to fight it.


DEMOCRATS WOULD have us vote our way to queer and trans liberation, strategically electing the perfect party line liberals to save us. But I want to ask the most basic question: Does this actually work?

Let’s look at the state of New York as an example. When I came out to my boss in 2012, I was fired and evicted. This taught me two very important lessons: First, never rent an apartment from your boss. And second, trans people have no recourse for discrimination in New York.

I was furious. And I pushed hard in the only direction I knew how: electing Democrats. I worked on a campaign to elect a Democratic state senator in my historically Republican district, thinking if we could just flip the state Senate, we would instantly be transported to the Democratic Republic of Translandia.

I really didn’t know my history.

The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which I was working so tirelessly to get passed, had a long and disappointing past. The Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) included GENDA when it was first introduced in the New York state legislature in 1971. But when SONDA was finally passed in 2002, GENDA was explicitly cut out.

The Democrats had the leverage they needed to get the full SONDA bill passed, but seemingly gave the Republicans GENDA as a political token of appreciation. This started the seemingly endless “bathroom bill” debates which still rage behind closed doors in Albany today.

If any of you are thinking, “But Isabelle, the Democrats just won the state Senate, we’ll surely pass GENDA now!” let me remind you that in 2009 the Democrats had control of the state Senate for the first time in decades, and they could have passed GENDA easily. But in a complete betrayal of their 2002 promise to pass GENDA as soon as possible, they never even sent the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.

GENDA remains in limbo today not because the Democrats could not have passed it, but because they could have passed it and chose not to.

Learning this history, along with seeing how little the Democrats got done when they controlled the national legislature for the first two years of Obama’s presidency, has led me to one of the most important conclusions of my life: As long as our rights are made a matter of signatures or the hand-waving of unelected robed men, we will never be free.

We need a more solid foundation, one that no court or legislature can provide, and no executive action can take away.

Queer and trans people, and everyone fighting for our liberation, need to break from the Democratic Party, which has never thought twice about abandoning us. We need to resist the all-too-common pull that pioneering trans communist Leslie Feinberg describes in Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink and Blue:

When a young social movement breaks down societal closet doors and floods into the streets, its leading activists suddenly begin to get advice from those in power who were never “friendly” before. These advisors urge leaders to send in their “best-dressed, most articulate spokespeople” (code words for white and middle- to upper-classed) to negotiate for progressive legislation and other reforms. But, they counsel, “Keep it to a single, simple demand. And disassociate with those who are too angry and too militant.

We must be the too-militant, the too-angry. We must be the people who refuse single, simple demands. But this leaves us with the obvious question: How?

As Marxists, we have a different idea of how we win.

The Democratic Party has made it clear that it offers no solutions for issues for queer and trans oppression except the shallowest gestures, which act more as collateral to keep voter booths full than as real measures of protection. They have failed to understand the current political moment, but we cannot.


WE ARE living through a unique period characterized by an enormous degree of polarization, leading to Trump on the one hand and on the other, the birth of a new socialist movement.

The anti-Communist Cold War propaganda has faded from popular memory and a generation separates us today from the last gasp of the Soviet states. With this political reality comes some important questions not just for the revolutionary socialist left, but for progressives of all sorts, especially with the explosion of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to now 52,000 members in just a couple years. By the way, the average age of a DSA member in 2013 was 68; today, it is 33.

More and more, the question is turning from “Can we fight, can we win?” to “What are we fighting for and how?” The emerging social movements are militant and their demands are often structural.

Undoubtedly, they are shaped by the fight for marriage equality, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, the Women’s March and #MeToo, as well as the fight against Trump’s policies like the Muslim ban and immigrant separation.

In general, activists are starting to see ourselves as part of something bigger, and we are not afraid to name capitalism and the two-party system as our common oppressor. We have seen the murderous results of the liberal impulse to leave far-right organizers unopposed in the name of “free speech” and “balance.” Some of us have even shouted down neo-Nazis in the streets, sometimes outnumbering them 10 to one.

It is this movement, along with the strike wave that crisscrossed through the states this year, that can provide the power we need to make lasting change.

The movement that is growing in the streets and meetings like these throughout the country is intersectional. It has an impulse toward action and a mindset of “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Some have argued that this is due to Trump’s seemingly haphazard barrage targeting everyone, but I like to believe it is due to the tireless efforts of activists struggling in solidarity together. Struggle brings us together to fight for each other arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, and it is the lynchpin on which we must base our movement for queer and trans liberation which is beginning again to take the national stage.

Marxists, have something essential to add to the fight for queer and trans liberation, more than just our warm bodies at protests. What this movement needs now is what I lacked when I was door-knocking for the Democrats: A firm foundation in our history and theory to help understand both what we are fighting against and what we are fighting for.


TO DO that, we need to know where queer and trans oppression comes from.

In Capitalism and Gay Identity, John D’Emilio describes the advent of queer identity and oppression:

On the one hand, capitalism continually weakens the material foundation of family life, making it possible for individuals to live outside the family, and for a lesbian and gay male identity to develop. On the other, it needs to push men and women into families, at least long enough to reproduce the next generation of workers. The elevation of the family to ideological preeminence guarantees that a capitalist society will reproduce not just children, but heterosexism and homophobia. In the most profound sense, capitalism is the problem.

Social reproduction theory adds to this that the nuclear family unit he describes privatizes the costs of reproduction while forcing women to subsidize the price with our unpaid labor. This social reproduction is an integral component of women’s oppression and also contributes to LGBTQ oppression.

We therefore see the fight to dismantle the system of capitalism as being part in parcel with the fight to end transphobia, queerphobia and sexism. As Leslie Feinberg writes, “Women’s oppression can’t be effectively fought without incorporating the battle against gender oppression. The two systems of oppression are intricately linked.”

In Sexuality and Socialism, Sherry Wolf, adds an argument against the application of biological determinism or nurture to “explain” queer identities, and I would argue this applies to trans identities as well.

Although I do believe that trans identities can be seen throughout history in many different cultures around the world, biological determinism — the idea that your biology decides your fate — is a hallmark of right-wing evangelicals and trans-exclusionary radical feminists alike and has no place in our movement.

While many liberals and those on the left may believe there is a “gay gene” or a “trans brain,” we should argue that the sexual and gender binaries that have been constructed for us do not serve the interests of the working class and should be abolished regardless of whether an “immutable” queer-ness or trans-ness exists.

That is to say, socialists are fighting for a world where bodies are not forced into this or that type of labor or class position based on birth lottery. Fundamentally, we are fighting for bodily autonomy, which underpins the fights for abortion, for trans liberation and for sexual freedom; and the fights against rape, slavery, war and exploitation.

In his book Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagleton imagines a world free from the narrow confines of sameness demanded by capitalism:

Socialism is not, in the end, much interested in equality. To treat two people equally must surely mean not giving them exactly the same treatment, but attending equally to their different needs. It is not that they are equal individuals, but that they are equally individuals. And to this extent a reasonable concept of equality already implicates the notion of difference.”

As Fainan Lakha wrote at Socialist Worker: “The possibilities for our bodies and our lives are limited under capitalism. The socialist impulse is to fundamentally change this condition.” Or as a slogan from the protests against Trump’s memo put it, “No Borders. No Binaries. No Bosses.”

This is the world we are fighting for, and we should unapologetically win others to join us.


IT’S IMPORTANT to realize that the struggle for liberation of any oppressed group is rarely a linear process.

With the rise of the far right in the U.S. and across Europe, and the election of the fascist Bolsonaro in Brazil, we have to understand why the rabid homophobia and transphobia of our enemies exists and how to fight it.

What drives the far-right and fascist elements of queerphobia and transphobia today is much the same as what drove it in the 1920s and 1930s. I believe there are several sides to what is driving the right-wing hate we are seeing today.

Among others, there is a sense of resentment that the right feels because we won marriage equality. The far right’s “us against them” muscular nationalism vilifies immigrants and people of color and pushes far-right men to view themselves as the protectors of the national masculine identity.

This means that, on the one hand, anything effeminate associated with them must be destroyed, and on the other, a vigilante role is instilled in these men that leads down the “bathroom bill” thread: White men need to protect their women, including from trans women in the bathroom.

All these factors are present on the Breitbart, neo-Nazi side of Trump’s base. But with Trump and Bolsonaro, a large part of their base is also the evangelical right. Evangelicals converge around issues of conservative morality, fighting against abortion, homosexuality, transgender identity and changing family relations.

Trump does not have a mandate of support, at least partly because capital is still split between the Republicans and the Democrats. The unlikely phenomenon of Trump’s victory, as I see it, is in part due to a loose alliance of single-issue voters who are anchored to the far right by their immovable ideals of sexism, racism or homophobia.

But in Brazil, Bolsonaro represents a real fascist threat. He came to power because of the resignation of the capitalist class rallying behind him in the 11th hour, along with his far-right and evangelical base, because he was the only one who could beat the Workers’ Party (PT).

He was also bolstered by the anti-corruption campaign against Lula and the PT. We should recognize that the PT’s complacency with neoliberalism and their refusal to push popular demands and social safety net policies did lose them the support of a sizable swath of the masses as well.

Just as the Workers’ Party in Brazil could not face down the rise of a fascist, the Democratic Party has no strategy for fighting the right if it should take a fascist character in the U.S. If we are going to hold on to the gains we have made for queer and trans rights, and fight for more, let alone the goal of revolution and abolishing the confines of traditional gender and sexuality, we as socialists must have a solution.


CONFRONTING THE right head on, with our own parties, strong social movements and militant labor struggle, is not merely a matter of political principle, but a life-and-death struggle against erasure.

As Marxists, we are fighting for a different world that urgently needs to be born: one organized from below in opposition to all oppression, including the exploitation of workers by the capitalist class.

We must not beg for help from above, giving power to a party that cannot save us from the right and sapping power from our class. We must understand that we have the power not only to demand our rights, but to stop society in its tracks and build a world without exploitation.

This does not mean we do not make demands of parties of capital — quite the contrary. Fighting for reforms today that will help us live easier lives helps oppressed groups recognize how powerful we are and also has the potential to teach us that solidarity is how we beat the right.

But we cannot take this for granted. We cannot take for granted that reform will lead to revolution. We cannot take for granted that struggle will lead to solidarity. The potential exists for both, but it is only through building socialist organizations, by party-building, that we can bridge the gap between struggles and create a memory of the working class that lets us stand on the shoulders of those that came before us.

Comrades, let’s not forget our history. Let’s build like our lives, quite literally, depend on it. We have a world to win.

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