State-Sponsored Transphobia

Reactionary rampage in America

7 May 2022

Texas has become a key battleground in the ongoing war on trans rights in the US, with a directive issued in late February declaring that gender-affirming care for minors will constitute “child abuse” under the Texas Family Code. A new low in a long and sordid history of targeting trans children and their parents for persecution, the order effectively illegalizes the provision of gender-affirming care to a trans minor, meaning any parent or medical professional providing basic support to a child can be investigated.

The directive, sponsored by Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, attempts to scaremonger with talk of surgical intervention and sterilization, but surgery is very rare for trans minors. The most common form of gender-affirming care for those under 18 is puberty blockers, a safe and reversible medication that delays the onset of puberty, allowing children to avoid the potentially traumatic experience of going through sexual development at odds with their own self-perception and to allow time for considered decisions about future treatment. Originally developed to treat abnormal early puberty, blockers are prescribed for a wide range of situations besides transition. The directive considers puberty blockers to be child abuse, falsely claiming a risk of “mental and emotional injury associated with lifelong sterilization.”

Like the recent abortion ban in the state, this Orwellian order would deputize ordinary Texans to snitch on their neighbors, colleagues, classmates and friends. Anyone who has cause to believe that a child is being “abused”—that is, receiving support in determining their own gender identity—is directed to report the “crime” to the authorities. Professionals such as teachers, daycare workers, nurses and doctors (most of the adults any child is likely to encounter outside their family) must report within 48 hours or face criminal charges themselves, condemning trans children and supportive adults to live in fearful secrecy.

Swiftly after the Paxton-Abbott directive was issued, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services launched a number of investigations into reported “abuses.” However, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal (a queer civil rights organization) led to a state court issuing a temporary injunction, and the directive is currently in legal limbo, awaiting a decision from the state Supreme Court as to whether the investigations can continue. Whatever the court decides, Paxton is already looking for new ways to prevent trans youth from receiving the care they need—on 24 March, he announced that the state would launch probes into pharmaceutical companies that manufacture puberty blockers.

The medical consensus is that gender-affirming care greatly improves the mental health of minors. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association published the same week as Paxton’s directive, for instance, reported that affirmative care reduced suicides in trans and non-binary youth by 73 percent and moderate to severe depression by 60 percent. Counter to the rhetoric about “protecting children,” forcibly detransitioning trans children and scaring queer youth into staying closeted will ultimately lead to the preventable death of vulnerable young people.

The assault on trans rights in Texas is only the tip of a festering boil of anti-queer persecution underway throughout much of the United States. In March, a bill with very similar content to the Paxton-Abbott directive was defeated in the Idaho Senate after passing the House of Representatives. It proposed to make giving puberty blockers or hormones to a minor punishable by life in prison, and it failed in the Senate only because there was fear it could be used to prevent invasive surgeries on intersex children. Alabama recently passed a similar bill (though with “only” up to 10 years in prison) that requires schools to inform parents if their child’s “perception of his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with [their] sex,” which will expose many trans children to parental abuse. Arizona and Arkansas have passed their own bans (with the Arkansas state legislature even overriding a veto from the state governor). In Missouri there are proposals to ban gender-affirming care not only for minors, but for anyone up to the age of 25. Similar measures are on the table in numerous other states.

Queer rights are not only under threat in the area of healthcare. Since the start of this year, over 300 bills have been proposed in the US that limit the rights of queer people, almost half specifically targeting trans people (CBS News, 22 April 2022)—a nearly sixfold increase since 2018. The proposals include restricting education on queer issues in schools, permitting anti-queer discrimination in the name of “religious freedom,” and trying to shut trans people out of schools and public life by policing their use of bathrooms. Iowa, South Dakota, Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah have enacted bans on trans girls’ participation in sports, while Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law aims to prevent education on sexuality or gender in schools on the grounds of “protecting parental authority.” Alabama passed its own version of the Parental Rights in Education bill at the same time as its trans youth healthcare ban.

Trans Americans: Living on the Edge

Even when not actively persecuted by the state, trans Americans must still contend with extreme social discrimination and marginal living conditions. In a recent article on gender self-identification in New Zealand we noted that the benefits of the historic struggle for queer rights “have accrued disproportionately to affluent cis gays. Many queer people—chiefly young, working class, trans and/or non-white—still face major difficulties navigating societal oppression” (“Birth Certificates & Bullies”). This statement is even truer in the United States—despite their important role in queer rights campaigns, working-class trans Americans have seen little improvement in their material conditions. Often cut off by their families and communities and facing extreme prejudice in employment, welfare and housing, many struggle simply to survive. Discrimination in the healthcare system is common, with trans people routinely denied not just transition-related care but even basic medical treatment on the grounds of their gender. In this precarious environment, poor mental health is common and trans people (particularly trans women and/or people of color) are subject to high rates of transphobic abuse, assault and murder.

While the Biden administration engages in empty virtue-signaling intended to bolster the Democrats’ 'progressive’ liberal image, it advances no program to fundamentally address the material concerns of any oppressed community. The expansion of the carceral state presided over by Biden fell heavily on ethnic minorities, but also on queer people, who have historically been marginalized to the fringes of the capitalist system. Many trans people, faced with heavy discrimination in employment and pervasive fetishization by cis society, have few viable options to make a living besides sex work, which is still mostly criminalized. While less inclined to overt discrimination against trans people, the Democrats are just as committed to the American “criminal justice” system and to capitalism as a whole. They are neither willing nor able to address the dire conditions of poverty in which trans people and other minorities find themselves.

Material Roots of Transphobia

Not all trans youth are rejected by their families, but the prevalence of this practice points to the material basis of transphobia: the strictures of the nuclear family and its role in capitalist society. Marxists have long recognized that the bourgeois family is the main social institution of women’s oppression, subjugating women to unpaid domestic labor and reproduction and care of the next generation of workers. Also embedded in the family structure are two practices which combine to foster the oppression of sexual and gender minorities. The first is the division of all humanity into two distinct and non-overlapping genders, “man” and “woman,” defined strictly on the grounds of their perceived role in human reproduction. The second is the pressure on both men and women to have children, transferring property and reproducing the labor force from one generation to the next. Under capitalism, the autonomy of the individual must be subordinated to this general socio-economic need.

The family is therefore also the source of the oppression of queer people. The oppression of homosexuals historically stemmed from the need to suppress alternatives to the nuclear family and force men and women into the mode of domestic life most suited to capitalism. Trans people, who both represent an alternative to the family and threaten the strict distinction of men and women along reproductive lines, are even less compatible with this system.

It is no coincidence that Texas, a pioneer in restricting the right to abortion, is also leading the way in stripping rights from trans people. The wave of transphobia in America and abroad is part of a wider campaign to subordinate the autonomy of the individual to the demands of the nuclear family and bourgeois society, reversing gains won through decades of hard struggle. The recently leaked draft decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, and thereby fully repudiate federal protection of a woman’s constitutional right to choose whether or not to have children, is an ominous omen. The words of Republican Idaho Representative Julianne Young, who supported her state’s ban on healthcare for trans youth, make this abundantly clear: “I see this conversation as an extension of the pro-life argument.… We are not talking about the life of the child, but we are talking about the potential to give life to another generation” (Idaho State Journal, 9 March 2022). Young’s link between trans rights and reproductive rights denies the individual control over their own body, whether to transition or to bear a child. This is one of the paradoxes of bourgeois ideology and capitalist society, which are supposedly rooted in notions of “individual rights.”

As the global economic crisis deepens, scapegoating of trans and other queer people for increasing stresses on “the family” will only get worse. Marxists must oppose anti-trans bigotry in all its manifestations. This includes not only its openly hard-right form, which serves alongside other touchstones like abortion and immigration as a nexus for fascist recruitment, but also the baseless claims of reactionary feminists, unfortunately swallowed and regurgitated by some ostensible socialists, that trans rights and women’s rights are somehow in conflict. The oppression of trans people and cis women springs from the same social source—capitalism and its bourgeois family structure. Any struggle against sexism that continues to uphold trans oppression is not only morally bankrupt but also politically divides and weakens the working class.

For Workers’ Action against Reactionary Attacks!

A standard liberal response to persecution in Republican-controlled jurisdictions—besides advocating a Democratic vote—is to exhort targets to flee to the diminishing number of states that offer trans and reproductive healthcare. This is a “solution” only for those with means—poor and working-class youth have nowhere to go. Fundamentally, it is a strategy to do nothing.

It is the working class that is best placed to combat transphobia, alongside other forms of oppression. There is hope to be found in the numerous student protests against the anti-trans measures, but also in the rise of teacher militancy in the United States. The chief target of this wave of reaction is children and young people—their right to education, to safety, to autonomy and to fully participate in society. Workers in closest contact with queer youth, such as teachers, clinicians and social workers, have the strongest role to play—not least because measures like the Paxton-Abbott directive put them under the gun as well. Linking the economic demands of striking teachers with the demand for safety from persecution at school—both for students and staff—would represent a mighty first step in halting America’s war on trans youth.

A Marxist program for trans people must demand full legal recognition and protection from discrimination—but it cannot stop there. A program for the rights and dignity of gender minorities includes the fight to make relevant medical care free, legal and available on demand, and to stamp out abusive interventions such as conversion therapy or genital surgery on intersex infants. It must also include a profound struggle against social inequality and the criminalization of poverty, a struggle to end homelessness, to drive the police and other agents of state persecution out of schools and queer communities, for the right to employment and for safe environments for queer youth who have been cast out by their families to grow up and be themselves without fear of reprisal.

Removing the threat to trans people will require struggle against the roots of anti-trans hatred in the bourgeois family and the system of capitalist property it reinforces. Only the organized working class, guided by a party with a revolutionary program, can carry out such a task, which requires the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with a socialist-egalitarian society where the well-being of the whole and the autonomy of the individual advance together.


Related articles:
Birth Certificates & Bullies” (27 July 2021)
Democrats in Power” (1917 No.44)
Marxism, Feminism & Women’s Liberation (1917 No.19)