Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance’s “World to Win” series aims to give voice to the ideas and demands of radical young people who are involved in the struggle to make the world a fairer and more just place.
This week, Maryam Allami and Claire Thoen discuss the struggle of transgender people against systemic oppression and the possibilities of liberation.
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Transgender people have always existed. Brotherboys and Sistergirls were a part of Aboriginal Australian cultures reaching back tens of thousands of years before the British invasion. Accounts regarding transgender women from the Umayyad Caliphate recall them as being flippant, just as Hollywood portrays them to be 13 centuries later.
Even the gender binary is a new construction. The Navajo recognised five distinct genders before the US government put them on reservations. Indigenous Siberians thought intersex people were spiritually gifted.
Yet as the European powers began their reign of colonial terror, trans identities and non-binary gender expressions were covered up with Western ideologies and Christian narratives.
Illegal to be trans
Christine Jorgensen, a Danish-American World War II veteran, is widely regarded as the first transgender celebrity. Her surgeries were internationally publicised and drew far more media attention than earlier Danish transwoman, Lili Elbe. She was one of those who started the Sexual Revolution, and later went on to speak at universities during the 1970s and ’80s.
Another key figure was the troubled-yet-enigmatic Andy Warhol, or, more accurately, his cadre of queer superstars. One of several transwomen working with Andy was Holly Woodlawn, who recalled: “When [she] moved to New York in the 1960s it was illegal if you even wore mascara. You could be put in jail for ‘female impersonation’.” Some, like Candy Darling, were able to pass as women and remained undetected, but those who were unable to pass were forced to express who they were in private.
They often mingled with drag queens and were labelled as such themselves. From these origins, animosities began to grow. Transwomen were often excluded from cisgender — identifying with one’s assigned gender — gay spaces.
Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco served as a more inclusive space than the hostile gay bars. But crossdressing was illegal, and eventually Compton’s Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender and transsexual individuals who frequented the restaurant.
In response to police arrests, the transgender and transsexual community began picketing Compton’s Cafeteria, in one of the first demonstrations against transgender and transsexual violence in San Francisco.
One night in August 1966, the management of Compton's called the police when some transgender customers became raucous. A riot began, dishes and furniture were thrown, and the restaurant's plate-glass windows were smashed.
The next night, more transgender people and other members of the LGBTI community picketed the cafeteria, which would not allow transgender people back in. The demonstration ended with the newly installed plate-glass windows being smashed.
Predating the Stonewall riots by three years, the Compton’s Cafeteria riot has been described by queer historian Susan Stryker as “the first known incident of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in US history”.
One of the greatest struggles for transgender people in today’s society, especially for transwomen, is to be recognised as the gender that they self-identify. Systems of power and authority, which oppress other sections of the queer community often damage transgender people most severely.
An example of this is in the marriage equality struggle. It is often not recognised that current marriage laws force transgender people to get divorced if they want to have their identity recognised by the state. However, transgender people have often been absent from struggles around marriage equality.
Positive transgender representation in the media, pop culture, and the community allows more transgender people to feel safe enough to come out. Statistics have shown that transgender youth tend to become less suicidal if they feel more accepted by their parents, friends and community.
This is a key part of transgender liberation struggle today — by raising consciousness around transgender issues, queer youth will feel less isolated and marginalised.
Struggle for inclusion
The transgender community also struggles against being undermined by sections of the feminist movement. Trans exclusionary radical feminists are usually cisgender people who exclude and deny transgender people their gender identities in the name of feminism, often invoking the concept of “universal femininity”.
We need a feminism that is accepting of transgender people and aware of the intersections between oppressions. Allies of the transgender community need to stand up to such exclusion on behalf of the community as most transgender people feel too hurt to do so themselves. Transgender activists and socialists need to fight for a feminist movement that is broad and accepting of all oppressed people.
If our goal as socialists is to work for equality, then that means including transgender people and their diverse identities in the struggle. The key to this is education. Consciousness around transgender issues tends to be low and it is up to us to educate people on how oppressive social structures can be damaging to people who rebel against the gender binary.
There is a higher chance of transgender people ending up homeless, without proper healthcare and constantly being fucked over by the legal system. This oppression and social violence is perpetuated by a society that pushes people into distinct gender categories at birth, and demands that life be structured around this binary, because that is what is most conducive to social conservatism and productivity.
Our aim should be to struggle for a new society where people are truly free to express themselves and have access to the resources to live happy and fulfilling lives — regardless of identity.
At the core of the demand for transgender liberation is the call for a society that allows people to express themselves freely. It also raises the call for an inclusive united struggle of the working class that includes the demands and struggles of the most oppressed at its centre.
As transgender revolutionary communist Leslie Feinberg said: “Like racism and all forms of prejudice, bigotry against transgender people is a deadly carcinogen. We are pitted against each other in order to keep us from seeing each other as allies.
“Genuine bonds of solidarity can be forged between people who respect each other’s differences and are willing to fight their enemy together. We are the class that does the work of the world, and can revolutionize it. We can win true liberation.”