Workers Vanguard No. 1081
15 January 2016
Bathroom Bill Bigotry
Full Democratic Rights for Transgender People!
We note the death of David Bowie (1947-2016), whose music and gender-bending inspired many.
The right-wing bigots notorious for going after black people, immigrants, women and gays have launched a new crusade against transgender people and the front line is the bathroom. Last November, a broad anti-discrimination measure called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was defeated following a hysterical media campaign suggesting that transgender people would rape women and children in public lavatories. The Houston ordinance was actually about outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, age, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public spaces. The measure’s opponents won with an ad of a man entering a women’s restroom with a narrator intoning, “Protect women’s privacy. Prevent danger.”
Meanwhile, a bill currently on the agenda in Wisconsin would ban transgender K-12 students from using school restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity, i.e., how they identify or prefer to be identified even if it differs from their biological sex at birth. Spearheading the campaign in Wisconsin is the Christian fundamentalist outfit Alliance Defending Freedom, which views same-sex marriage (or anything contrary to the dark ages of Christianity) as an abomination. Under the cloak of “privacy” concerns, the organization has lobbied for and provided the model for so-called “bathroom bills” in states like Kentucky, Nevada, Texas and Florida. Such legislation would mandate that individuals use only the facility that matches the sex on their birth certificates—with some bills carrying a potential prison sentence for a violation. Aptly dubbed “show your papers to pee,” the bills thus far have failed.
Transgender and gender non-conforming people—that is, anyone whose appearance, behavior or dress falls outside of bourgeois gender norms—face an exceptionally high degree of harassment. Around 75 percent of transgender students report being verbally harassed at school and more than 30 percent physically assaulted. Transgender individuals are vulnerable in public spaces, especially if the difference between their preferred gender identity and their biological sex is apparent. Barring them from bathrooms would turn them into criminals while inviting further harassment and physical violence.
Everyone—regardless whether they match the skirt-clad or pants-clad signage on the door—should be able to go about their business in peace. Sex-segregated toilets, which appeared before the turn of the 20th century, had a lot to do with Victorian prudishness. Especially amid social anxiety over women increasingly entering the workforce, separate facilities were mandated to “protect” women’s modesty.
Just as the war against women’s right to abortion is linked to all-sided right-wing reaction, the scapegoating and marginalization of transgender people is part of the generalized bigotry that pervades this class-divided and deeply anti-woman and anti-sex society. If the reactionaries get away with attacking this particularly small and vulnerable section of society, they will be further emboldened to go after working people and all the oppressed.
In this country, the myth of the sexual predator has been a component of every anti-sex drive aimed at banishing those considered “deviant” to the margins of society. Like today’s transgender bogeyman, gay people have long been witchhunted—branded as dangerous child molesters unfit to be teachers—in order to whip up social panic. In this racist society founded on the oppression of black people, vicious stereotypes of black men sexually preying on white women are still pushed and were long used to justify segregation and to mobilize lynch mob terror.
Lately, trans celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have captured the media spotlight, while series like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black and movies like The Danish Girl and Tangerine have highlighted the experiences of transgender people. Though their presence is increasingly visible in pop culture, transgender people are stigmatized in capitalist society and face daily discrimination in employment, education and health care. At least one in five trans people has experienced homelessness at some point in their lives; in New York City, the average age at which a trans person becomes homeless is around 13 years old. Many suffer impoverishment, abuse and rejection from their families and are often driven to sex work to survive.
For the transgender population in prison, already hellish conditions are made worse by untold physical brutality. Those who identify as female in a men’s prison or male in a women’s prison face assault, rape and the torture of solitary confinement. It is a constant struggle to get adequate medical attention, including hormone therapy. Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of espionage and sentenced in 2013 to 35 years behind bars for heroically exposing crimes of U.S. imperialist barbarity, has endured such gruesome mistreatment.
Nationally, around 40 percent of trans or gender non-conforming people attempt suicide. A 26-year-old Utah trans woman posted a suicide note on Facebook last year: “From a very young age I was told that people like me are freaks and abominations, that we are sick in the head and society hates us. This made me hate who I was. I tried so hard to be just like everyone else but this isn’t something you can change.... Please help fix society.”
Last February, Bri Golec, a 22-year-old in Ohio exploring a transgender identity, was stabbed to death by her father. In October, Kiesha Jenkins, a black transgender prostitute in Philadelphia, was shot to death after being assaulted by four men. These were two of the 22 documented murders of trans and gender non-conforming people in 2015. Of those 22, most were black and Latina women and half were involved in sex work. Given the level of misreporting and distrust of the police—who routinely terrorize homeless people and sex workers—the total number of murders is likely far higher.
Violence against gays, lesbians and transgender people is not merely or even primarily the result of individual narrow-mindedness or ignorance. It is a concentrated expression of the bigotry flowing from entrenched gender roles in the monogamous, patriarchal family. The main source of the oppression of women and youth in class society, the institution of the family reinforces rigid notions of “manhood” and “womanhood” which condition and bolster anti-gay as well as anti-trans prejudice. Along with organized religion, the family instills ideological conservatism, pushing conformity and obedience to bourgeois codes of morality that proscribe anything that deviates from “one man on one woman for life.”
The oppressive family serves not just as a source of individual torment (for most, at least), but as a key economic prop for capitalism, ensuring both the “rightful” inheritance of property for the bourgeoisie and the raising of the next generation of wage slaves. As fighters for the socialist liberation of humanity, Marxists do not see our task as “remaking” the family to fit a different or alternative template. In a communist future, after several generations of socialist development based on a worldwide collectivized economy, economic scarcity will have been overcome and classes and private property will have disappeared. The institution of the family will be replaced by collective means of caring for and socializing children and by the fullest freedom of sexual relations.
While sexuality and gender identity are complex, they are essentially personal and private matters. We vehemently oppose any government intrusion into private life and consensual sexual activity. Since our inception, the Spartacist League has called for full democratic rights for gays—and the same goes for others targeted for their sexual practices or gender expression. Down with discriminatory laws against transgender people!
In capitalist society, democratic rights for the oppressed are partial, fragile and reversible. We defend any legal advances that gays, lesbians and trans people can obtain in this cruelly repressive society, including the right of marriage and divorce. But we have always pointed out that gay marriage rights would not end anti-gay prejudice and violence. The legalization of same-sex marriage has less to do with social acceptance of unorthodox sexual practices and more to do with promoting bourgeois respectability by fitting gay relationships into the “family values” monogamous mold.
In the U.S. during the last several decades—a period of Christian reaction and attacks on workers, the poor and the oppressed—the gay rights movement as a whole has become more conservative. Unwavering ties to the Democratic Party have further hamstrung the “LGBT movement.” While posturing as the friends of the oppressed against their Republican foes, the Democrats are the other capitalist party of racism, war and “family values,” pandering to religious backwardness, busting up labor unions and repressing political dissidents (like Chelsea Manning). Support to the Democrats means acceptance of the capitalist order, which is antithetical to any genuine fight for the liberation of women, gays, black people or any of the oppressed.
Liberal “lifestyle” and “identity” politics continue to predominate in the struggle for gay and transgender rights. Lifestylism is a belief that the sum total of individual lifestyle choices can effectively transform society. But being gay or trans is not in itself political. Pursuing an unconventional lifestyle may go against societal norms, but it will take a fundamental social and economic transformation to change the institutions that are the source of deeply rooted attitudes toward gender roles and sexuality.
The theory of “identity” politics—which presumes that only those experiencing the oppression can combat it—relies on the false notion that everyone outside the group is part of the problem. By this logic, men can never oppose anti-woman chauvinism and straight people can never fight anti-gay bigotry. A twisted version of such dead-end politics can be seen with the feminists known for waging venomous campaigns against trans people. Negatively referred to as TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists), these feminists argue to exclude (male-to-female) trans women because they are not “real” women and have “male privilege”!
Communists seek to build a revolutionary workers party as the “tribune of the people,” which is “able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects,” in the words of V.I. Lenin (What Is To Be Done? ). The working class, which lacks any interest in the preservation of the bourgeois order, must be won to the understanding that its historic mission is to overthrow the capitalist order and open the road to human freedom for everyone.