Note: The following talk was given during the Trans Day of Resistance, March 31 in Portland, Oregon. Johnson is a member of the Portland branch of Workers World Party.
Where does transphobia come from? Are we born hating each other?
Civilizations throughout history have had different gender norms than we do — different conceptions of what it means to be a woman or a man or something else entirely.
There were societies that not only accepted but revered gender-diverse people, even ones where such people were necessary to their cultures. This is not to say that bigotry did not exist in those societies or that we need to go back to a time before things got corrupted. But merely to explain that societies have prevailing ideologies, normalized ways of thinking that are built around the conditions those societies existed in.
Transphobes talk about the degradation of society, a return to tradition, to the values of “Western Civilization.” What tradition are they referring to? Why does their tradition exclude trans people, while the traditions of some other cultures champion us?
Transphobia in our society has a root. It is the same place sexism (the oppression of women) comes from: patriarchy. And patriarchy has a root: class society.
There was a time before class society, when children were raised in a more communal fashion. Where monogamy was not the standard — a society where you may not know for sure who a child’s father is, but you always know who the mother is; mothers have a certain right of stewardship over their children.
As agriculture led to centralized static living, and the land was enclosed and divided up, so too did relationships change from fluid, to polygamy (but only for men; a woman could never have multiple husbands), to strict monogamy. Marriages became more permanent, and instead of children falling under the final purview of their mother, both became the property of the father. Thus we have the nuclear family, the smallest building block of class society.
Why was this necessary? When a man died, his land and his wealth fell to his son. The legitimacy of a child’s parentage could not be questioned. Infidelity was a high crime, and women became shackled to their husbands for the purpose of preserving the class structure.
This is the tradition that feudalism and, later, capitalism were born into. This was part of the prevailing ideology that kept those at the top rich and powerful. And thus it was necessary to make those at the bottom believe in it, lest they start questioning everything else.
Innate threats to class society
Some people pose innate threats to this system: people like independent women, like gay people, like transgender people. While in a communal society, those people would have been able to play a role in the shared responsibility of raising children; they did not have a place in class society. Their existence threatened the house of cards everything was perched upon.
Have you ever noticed how bigots are more willing to tolerate queer folks who seem “normal?” The white gay couple in the suburbs? The passing strictly binary trans woman? It’s because those people at least approximate the existing class structure. The further away you get from it, the less comfortable they are. But that’s why people were taught to hate us. They say we’re unnatural. We don’t fit into their family values. We corrupt the moral fabric of society.
Whether bigots realize it or not, and usually they don’t, the tradition of heteronormative families serving property is what people are talking about when they discuss a return to traditionalism at the expense of trans folks.
Now, your typical backward worker isn’t thinking of all these thousands of years of history, when they say that trans people are ruining things. What they’re thinking about is how hard it is to survive: how hard they work; how little they make; how much they pay in medical bills; how there’s nothing they can believe in anymore; and how it’s only getting harder. They desperately want to cling to what they do have.
And so instead of looking up at the top of the pyramid, they listen to the ruling class when they’re told that the people at the bottom of the pyramid are upsetting the natural order and threatening everything they hold dear.
This is where bigotry comes from. This is how we get the frothing hatred toward “wokism.” Of people of color. Of the LGBTQ2S+ community. It’s a fear of losing one’s place in the system.
So when you wonder: “Why do they hate us so much? Why are they passing all these bills across the country to hurt us and to exclude us and to drive us to suicide?” It’s because conditions are getting bad, and the ruling class needs a distraction. They want the working class violently angry at us instead of them.
Enough! Enough relying on the system to fix the system! The capitalist system is the reason a bunch of fascists are in the government getting ready to kill us!
This is what we mean when we say that trans rights are a class issue. We have to unite as workers, stop looking at things individually, see how they’re all connected and fight the problem at the root.
Get organized! Get out of the closet and into the streets!