In the record-setting year of our horde 2023, over 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have already been introduced in state legislatures. Over 220 bills specifically target trans and non-binary people. These are not records the US should be setting. For a voice of reason and guidance, we turn to the wisdom of radical transgender activist Leslie Feinberg in Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Marsha P. Johnson and Beyond. Notice how observant zie was in this passage in pointing out how capitalism is a key root of sex and gender oppression to keep our society divided.
Capitalism is one of the most irrational economic systems imaginable: those who do the most, get the least, and those who do the least, get the most. How can such a system continue? It couldn’t if the vast, laboring majority got together to fight for a new, more equitable economy.
Keeping people divided—that’s the purpose of making people fearful of those who dress differently, or who change their sex, or whose sex is not either-or. That’s the function of pitting lighter-skinned people against those with darker skin, nationality against nationality, men against women, straight against lesbian, gay, or bi, abilities against disabilities, young against old. Divide-and-conquer is a crude weapon, but it has proven historically effective—that is, right up to the point where people wake up and realize that they have a material need for unity.
So what is the solution? Are sex and gender oppression so ingrained in people after centuries of campaigns to justify trans persecution that this bigotry can no longer be eradicated? Should we even try? Where would we begin?
When I was growing up in the stifling repression of the 1950s, I couldn’t have imagined that the wave after wave of revolutionary struggles throughout the 1960s and 1970s would follow. The Stonewall Rebellion was part of those battles for change. I can remember seeing the banners of the young gay liberation movement flying at rallies in defense of the Black Panther Party, and against the Vietnam War.
But many of us who were working in the sixties enjoyed a higher standard of living, partly because the powers that be decided a liberal guns-and-butter approach would be most effective to dampen any domestic struggle against the Vietnam War. That’s why the Johnson administration beefed up spending for social services—the same vital services that are being slashed today. It was an attempt to keep the youth who were opposing the war and the Black, Latino, and Native liberation movements isolated from the mainstream of the working class.
But today, the system isn’t working for the majority of people. Many millions are holding down two or three part-time jobs, lack health care, or are one paycheck away from homelessness. Those in the ruling summits of power in the United States are emboldened by the setbacks for workers in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and are trying to crush the trade unions, as well as the gains, like Social Security, unemployment, and welfare, won by militant struggles over the last seven decades.
At a time when there is no real economic safety net for most working people and our standard of living is under attack, is it any wonder that we are witnessing well-coordinated state-by-state ballot campaigns to strip lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans people of any recourse against discrimination by characterizing our progressive civil rights legislation as “special rights”?
And is it any surprise that the same well-funded movers-and-shakers of these “family values” hate crusades are frequently in the same ranks as those who are violently attacking women’s rights to reproductive freedom, and are trying to scapegoat immigrants?
This is divide-and-rule. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for reforms! All trans people need basic civil rights, and we need them right now. In the United States at the present time, for instance, we have very little recourse against discrimination and are struggling to even be included in the broad human rights laid out in the Constitution.
As our contemporary trans movement gathers more and more oppressed sex and gender communities into its vortex, we will formulate extensive demands in the course of our struggle. We must demand the decriminalization of all forms of outlawed sex and gender expression, and gear education to winning social acceptance of sex and gender variance. We have a right to something as basic as clean toilets that are not marked “women” or “men.”
Transsexual women and men, and other trans people, have a right to affordable surgery and hormones. And all trans people need access to basic health care, without fear of being turned away because of bigotry or lack of money. The trans community is also ravaged by AIDS; we need AIDS education and services that are offered in trans-friendly spaces.
We need to fight discrimination against us in housing and employment, in the military, and in child custody and visitation cases. We need to fight violations of the rights of trans prisoners, and trans victims of police brutality.
High schools, colleges, and universities need to include trans individuals and struggles in their curricula. In addition, the very concept that our current narrow sex and gender system is eternal needs to be challenged by exploring the diversity that has existed throughout human history. We need a fresh reexamination of history, anthropology, and medical science in order to weed out any concepts that sex and gender variation are “abnormal.”
Sex categories should be removed from all basic identification papers—from driver’s licenses to passports—and since the right of each person to define their own sex is so basic, it should be eliminated from birth certificates as well. And affirmative action—first won to redress some of the historic discrimination based on race and sex—needs to be defended and expanded to include more victims of sex and gender oppression.
Each person should have the right to determine and change their sex—and express their gender in any way they choose.
But those rights won’t just fall from the sky. People have a right to food and shelter, and to be free from the threat of sexual or racist violence, too, but all of this takes a struggle.
For trans people, winning progressive legislation and repealing bigoted laws are important stepping stones in our larger struggle for justice. But the experience of this century has shown that the organic make-up of the profit system inevitably drives it into a cataclysm of economic and social crises that can wipe out the progressive gains of a lifetime. That’s the lesson I learned from the triumph of fascism in Germany.
As a Jewish child, I thought fascism gathered without warning, like storm clouds. So when I found a swastika carved into my wooden desktop at school, I feared fascism had arrived and nothing could stop the storm. It’s no wonder that I spent so much time studying the real reasons why the Nazis came to power in Germany in the 1930s.
The German economy was in deep decline, and a powerful workers’ movement was challenging capitalist rule itself, as were many in the movements of trans people, lesbians, gay men, women, and socialists. Fascism was unleashed to crush this movement, the working class, and all allied organizations. The rise of the Nazis was funded by a segment of the industrialists and bankers. Who paid for the construction of the concentration camps, railroad lines, and ovens? Who profited from the slave labor? Hitler promised to turn around the economy and bring about prosperity, and he delivered. War was still an effective jump start for a stagnant capitalist economy.
War was also “good for business” at the time of the Stonewall Rebellion. But, like any drug, sooner or later quick fixes don’t work. When the Pentagon waged war against Iraq, the economy didn’t revive. So what does the ultra-right wing have to offer now? They won’t deliver jobs. The “leaner, meaner” restructuring, along with the high-tech revolution, has meant more skilled workers are flipping hamburgers for minimum wage.
We are faced with either relinquishing what we and earlier generations won in terms of living and working conditions and political gains—or organizing in a broad counteroffensive.
As trans people, we have a history of resistance of which we should be proud. Trans warriors stood up to the slave-owners, the feudal landlords, and the capitalist bosses. Today, as trans warriors we are joining the movement for a just society in greater and greater numbers. By raising the demands of our trans movements within the larger struggle for change, we are educating people about our oppression, winning allies, and shaping the society we’re trying to bring into being.
None of us will be free until we have forged an economic system that meets the needs of every working person. As trans people, we will not be free until we fight for and win a society in which no class stands to benefit from fomenting hatred and prejudice, where laws restricting sex and gender and human love will be unthinkable.
Look for us—transgender warriors—in the leadership of the struggle to usher in the dawn of liberation.
About the Author
Leslie Feinberg born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1949, was a transgender activist, a revolutionary communist, and the author of five books, including Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue and the Lambda Award–winning novel Stone Butch Blues. Zie died in 2014. In 2019, zie was one of the first 50 LGBTQ leaders to be honored on the newly dedicated National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall Inn in New York City.