Marxism and Trans Liberation

The only path forward for trans liberation is the abolition of capitalism and the development of socialism. Its time for trans people to acknowledge this, and its time for Marxists to make it safe for us to organize with them.

Aly E
7 min readJul 12, 2018

This week I had to get my hormones for the first time on a new insurance plan. Because the US has a privatized healthcare industry where insurance is largely predicated on employment, this is an experience many other trans women have had as well. After navigating the bureaucratic nightmare of transferring my prescriptions into a pharmacy within my new network, when it came time to pick up my prescriptions I was shocked to find that I would have to pay over 100 dollars for my hormones. On my previous plan, my hormones had cost around 15 dollars. So I emptied my bank account for them because I had to, because I can’t go without them, because I had no other choice.

Hormones are a life saving treatment for many trans people. They give us agency and control over out bodies. They enable to us to change our bodies in ways that both relieve dysphoria and allow for embodied self expression. Under capitalism, hormones are also a commodity. They are produced by pharmaceutical mega-corporations who along with insurance companies ensure that private healthcare has a social monopoly on access to them. If you are trans and want hormones in the US, you will have to buy them, like you would buy any other commodity.

Unlike most other commodities, however, you can’t just go to the store to get hormones. Trans people have to navigate the labyrinthine world of private insurance, often negotiating agreements to have hormones billed as birth control or non-transition-related endocrinology, all because transition related care is not covered under many insurance plans.

Trans people who are medically transitioning are kept dependent on the mercy of a private healthcare industry which hardly cares for them at all. Insurance companies and healthcare conglomerates often take a callous stance towards their patients, who under capitalism are treated as customers or potential customers instead of human beings in need of care. Trans people face a unique level of callousness and discrimination — 19% of trans people report being outright refused treatment by medical providers. According to the same report, 28% of trans patients were also subjected to harassment in a medical context. For those brave enough to attempt to navigate the complex world of capitalist healthcare, there is a high likelihood of unique mistreatment.

While all this is already horrific, many trans people lack access to insurance at all. The capitalist privatization model often ties insurance access to employment. Unfortunately, 75% of trans people also report employment discrimination, with many having to leave jobs to escape discrimination. This can often mean loss of access to insurance. Trans people face extreme levels of unemployment at approximately double the natural average. This of course means that a staggering amount of trans people lack access to insurance and therefore to medical transition. Trans people across the country have flocked to states like Oregon and California in hopes of receiving state funded insurance. They have been abandoned by the market and rely on the small social safety nets which still exist.

Beyond Healthcare

The problem extends beyond issues of privatization of healthcare. Trans people are dependent on hormones with ever changing prices, and a constant struggle for coverage, but the social problems trans people face are much broader, more structural, and tied to the political economy of capitalism itself.

The massive discrimination which trans people face is exacerbated by the capitalist system. Under capitalism, workers sell their labor on the market and are payed a wage which represents a small amount of the value they have produced. The rest of the value is taken by bosses and owners: the capitalist class, who profit off the labor of the workers. Laborers are kept in a constant state of precarity, where joblessness is a constant motivating threat. Don’t work hard enough, don’t work happy enough, don’t sufficiently please the capitalists, and your job can be gone in second. Such precarity necessarily puts workers in a state of constant anxiety, but those who face social discrimination and struggle to find employment are under an extra level of pressure. Capitalism necessarily leads to suffering and loss of quality of life for trans people.

What is even worse is that the social marginalization of trans people is not a fluke or leftover bigotry from another time; rather, it serves a central role in capitalist political economy. Capitalism requires a certain level of unemployment. Marx refers to the unemployed masses as the reserve army of labor. The reserve army of labor is necessary for capitalism's survival because the amount of laborers the capitalist system needs is in constant flux. During times of intense crisis, mobilization of the reserve army can be necessary. The mobilization of previously unemployed women to support a wartime economy during WWII serves as a simple concrete example of this.

Since having a reserve army of labor is necessary, capitalism requires a set of criteria for who will be granted status as a laborer and proletariat and who will be relegated to unemployment. Social marginalization on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and gender identity all serve a crucial role within capitalism to ensure that some people are forced into the reserve army of labor. Social marginalization is actually a fundamental structuring principle of capitalist economics. Liberal capitalist attempts at addressing social marginalization have all failed because such discrimination is necessary for capitalist economies to function. Even if such legislation worked, it would be entirely irrelevant for trans people in the US, as leading democrats who have vocally supported such legislation have repeatedly abandoned protections for gender identity in order to form a compromise with more conservative democrats. Capitalist and liberal solutions have repeatedly failed to provide real protections for trans people.

A Marxist analysis of the social and economic forces which produce anti-trans social violence concretely demonstrates that the discrimination trans women face is inseparable from capitalist economics. As long as capitalism remains, trans women will face oppression and marginalization. While we might be tempted to pursue social democratic policies which offer universal healthcare and other possible reformist solutions, these fixes can do no more than solve the issue of healthcare access, and cannot resolve issues of harassment and discrimination outside the context of healthcare. Social democratic fixes cannot address the biases of indiviudual healthcare providers as well; biases which emerge from the capitalist need to an unemployed underclass. Additionally, much smarter and more prolific Marxists have already pointed out why such attempts to augment capitalist healthcare with social programs are doomed to fail.

If social democracy and liberal solutions fail, we are left only with one option: communist struggle. Only communism offers a theory of revolutionary struggle against the material conditions that produce trans social marginalization. Only communism can undo the economic forces that invariably lead to discrimination. The only way forward for trans liberation is to collectively struggle as workers to do away with the entirety of the capitalist system. Employment precarity, social marginalization, and relegation to the reserve army of labor all stem from the capitalist division of labor in which one class owns the means of production, and the other class works it. Only the overthrow of this capitalist class, the collectivization of labor, and the establishment of a revolutionary socialist state can provide a way forward.

For Unity and Liberation

While it is clear that only the struggle for communism can lead to trans liberation, Marxists have often failed to adequately welcome and protect their trans comrades from internal reactionary forces who would attempt to continue to marginalize trans people within Marxist organizations themselves.

Marxist parties have often not only failed to adequately theorize the oppression of trans people, but have embraced socially reactionary positions on trans womanhood in particular. Especially in the UK, Marxist parties have often adopted the TERF line which denounces transgender individuals as antifeminist and in opposition to the collective liberation of women. As a result of the actions of reactionary parties like Communist Party of Great Britain (ML), many trans people have been pushed away from Marxism and have turned elsewhere to find support.

The DSA and other social democratic groups have a large trans support base. Various unorganized anarchists factions also have broad appeal among trans people. All of the supporters of these ideologies could be potential comrades in the struggle to establish socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, but Marxists have failed to demonstrate support for trans comrades. When trans people see Marxists explicitly attacking them, or choosing to remain silent in the face of such attacks, the revolutionary left suffers a great loss.

The task for Marxists going forward has to be twofold. First, Marxists must publicly and thoroughly denounce anti-trans sentiment as not only reactionary, but as bourgeois ideology used to ensure capitalist social relations will be maintained. This must be public and at the forefront of Marxist organizing. Second, Marxists must take seriously the task of theorizing trans oppression and laying it out in materialist terms. Marxist theorists must continue to elaborate the necessary relationship between capitalist political economy and the oppression of trans people. These two combined actions may not be sufficient to create total unity between trans individuals and Marxists more broadly, but they provide a concrete path forward for creating such unity that is currently lacking.

Trans liberation cannot be achieved without communist struggle against capitalism, and such struggle cannot succeed without a unified working class ready to fight for their liberation. Reproducing social marginalization which the capitalist class uses to divide the workers and structure reserve armies of labor is counterproductive to such unity. It must be denounced as a reactionary attempt to quell communist organizing. Our liberation is tied together in ways that cannot be overlooked. Only unity can lead to collective liberation for trans people and all other workers. It’s time that trans people begin to recognize this, and that Marxists begin to do the necessary work to ensure that such unity can be achieved.

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