by Daphne Lawless, Fightback
Anne Russell’s article reprinted here clearly shows how the left have dropped the ball on defence of Chelsea Manning. Her 35-year sentence for the crime of letting people know exactly what the global hegemons have been up to in their war zones is a shocking travesty of justice.But perhaps even more shocking is the way that her gender and her medical history have become a stick to beat her with. Even those on the left of politics couldn’t resist the urge to use male names and pronouns with respect to Chelsea – or even worse, the dehumanising sneer of “he/she”.
Meanwhile, CeCe MacDonald, an African-American trans woman, is currently serving time for manslaughter in a male prison after fighting off a racist, homophobic attack. Paramedics in the United States have been known to simply leave injured people to die once they find out that the person is trans. Trans people are used as a cheap punchline by the likes of Hell Pizza and other “blokey” wits, while Germaine Greer spews out a “feminist” variation of the same hatred. Why are trans people still an acceptable punching bag?
The common sense of “Western” society is that gender is binary, and that is that – as the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition would have it, humans were created “male and female”. Of course, even at a basic biological level this is an oversimplification. Intersexed people – those with “ambiguous” genitals or other sexual features – account for 1 in every 500 live births according to some definitions, 1 in 60 according to others. Until recently, it was standard practice to simply surgically “adapt” these children – with no consent or even acknowledgement – into one or other of the socially accepted genders.
But beyond that, many human cultures through time and space have had at least one “third option” of gender. An example close to home would of course be the Samoan culture, where fa’afafine – generally seen as being closer to a third gender than to the Western concept of “transgender” – who have been an accepted part of the culture from time immemorial. Kaupapa Māori includes whakawahine and tangata ira tane. In many Indian cultures, a third gender known as hijra (sometimes called “eunuchs” by Western interpreters) have traditionally lived in their own communities, but have recently begun political activism for recognition and rights from the mainstream.
Gender-variant individuals were known as two-spirits in many Native American cultures, and often held important social roles such as healers, orators or craftspeople. The great war leader Crazy Horse, for example, is said to have had at least one two-spirit wife. A good resource for knowledge on other historical alternatives to the two-gender system can be found in Transgender Warriors by the American communist trans activist Leslie Feinberg.
We can learn from this that gender is neither simply a matter of innate biology, nor a matter of social conditioning. The experience of intersex people, as well as the tragic outcomes of unethical experiments such as that performed by Dr John Money – who performed vaginoplasty on an infant boy and told his family to raise him as female – show that an inbuilt “sense” of gender is not simply social programming. New Zealand transfeminist blogger Megan explains: “Gender identity is an intrinsic part of most people’s psyches, though like many things about their bodies, people don’t notice it unless something is wrong.”
As with homosexuality, a search for the “cause” of gender diversity (nature or nurture?) is not only futile but can lead to a reactionary interest in finding a “cure”. So why exactly is gender diversity still able, in the era of late capitalism, to unnerve and threaten mainstream society?
The 19th century socialist writer Friedrich Engels argued that nuclear family evolved as a way for men to control women’s fertility, and to enable the inheritance of property to the offspring of the male. It also means the privatisation of child-rearing and social reproduction – this becomes the unpaid labour of women, who survive on the income of a man participating in the labour market. Anything which is “off the books” is effectively free, as far as capitalist economics is concerned.
In this sense, when religious and social reactionaries call for “defence of the family”, this is what they mean – defence of an institution founded on women’s sexual subservience to men. And this is clearly threatened, not only by feminism and by homosexuality but by anything that questions the very categories of “man” and “woman”. It is interesting to note that fa’afafine have always played an important role in the Samoan sa (extended family). Their persecution and marginalisation began with the Christian missionaries and.their imported ideology of the nuclear family as divinely inspired.
But gender is also useful to the ruling classes as another way to divide and control oppressed groups – similar to ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Encouraging sexist attitudes in working-class men is a good way to split the workforce and thus lower wages and conditions of all workers – and, sadly, we see deeply ingrained sexist ideas asserting themselves even in radical social movements. Meanwhile, appealing to gender as something not only innate but as the “real” division in society is the modus operandi of bourgeois feminism which seeks to encourage women to climb the capitalist hierarchy, rather than confront it.
A third way in which gender is vitally important in modern society is that it is a commodity. Like any socially enforced division, gender is a taboo which it is impossible to avoid transgressing at all times. Consumer industries – magazines, clothings, personal hygiene, cosmetics, medications to prevent erectile dysfunction or delay menopause – make big money over gender insecurity. Buy this, we are told, to reassure yourself of your manhood, or your womanhood!
These gender boundaries are rigorously policed, not so much through the formal apparatuses of state, but by culture and peer pressure. Parents are bombarded with messages that by allowing their boys to be “feminised” – even if this only means wearing pink clothing – will either “turn them gay or trans” (as if this were possible!) or, at least, deprive them of the masculinity they need to survive and thrive in society. Children imbued with these messages can be relied on to bully other children – as can teachers, who often find a child’s gender-variance a useful “button” to repress and control their behaviour.
Rape is – for people of all genders – one of the ultimate weapons of gender policing. From effeminate or weaker young men in boarding schools or other male-dominated environments to lesbian women in South African townships, rape is the unspoken but very real threat of what can happen if you transgress your “proper” gender boundaries. Witness the threats of rape and other forms of violence routinely dumped upon women who complain about sexism in computing, science-fiction fandom or even the atheist community.
It should be clear from what we’ve seen so far that gender diversity is a far greater issue than simply the plight of the transsexual or transgendered (those assigned as one of the two “primary” genders at birth, who live their lives as the other gender). Trans issues are everybody’s issues, in that social enforcement of a rigid two-gender system is a symptom of alienation from an individual’s own preferred self-presentation. Violence and shame are the social fate of intersexed people, queer people, “feminine” men and “masculine” women for stepping over boundaries of social control. This weakens social solidarity and self-confidence, the basic building blocks for the working people to create a new world.
A socialist approach to gender diversity should, in one sense, come directly out of our commitment to socialist-feminism. If we support the rights of women to control their own sexuality and fertility – no tolerance for rape, safe legal and free abortion and contraception on demand – it is only obvious to suggest that, for example, transgendered people should have the right to safe and free surgical and pharmaceutical therapy to alter their bodies’ gendered characteristics – as well as the right not to do so, with their identity still respected. Confronting and dismantling rape culture, too, is of vital interest to all gender-variant people.
Working-class and socialist solidarity must apply to everyone up at the sharp end of capitalism’s tricks of social division. In our own organisations, we must rigorously combat any patterns of behaviour which reinforce male or “cis-gender” privilege. This may be the most effective way we can show solidarity to Chelsea Manning and CeCe Macdonald.