In recent years, transgender rights and issues have gained widespread public attention with some advances being made as the result of the diligent organizing efforts of trans activists and community organizations. Most provinces in Canada now allow for a change of gender on identification without requiring gender reassignment surgery and have included gender identity and expression in their human rights acts as prohibited grounds of discrimination. Bill C-16 was passed at the federal level in June of 2017, adding protection for gender identity and expression to the Canadian Human Rights Code and the Criminal Code. However, despite these advances transgender people continue to face an alarming degree of discrimination, violence and harassment.
Studies conducted by Trans Pulse found that 20% of trans people in Ontario experience physical or sexual assault for being transgender, 34% are subjected to verbal threats or harassment and 67% fear they will die young. Among trans Ontarians, 13% have been fired for being trans and another 15% were fired and believed it might have been because they were trans. Because they were trans, 18% were turned down for a job and another 32% suspected this was why they were turned down. Additionally, 17% declined a job they had applied for and were actually offered, because they didn’t feel they would be safe from harassment there. 50% of trans people live off less than $15,000 a year in Ontario, and they experience three times the national rate of unemployment. Pervasive discrimination, harassment and violence contribute to high and disproportionate rates of mental illness, substance abuse and suicide among the trans population.
Transgender youth are particularly vulnerable. In a 2011 Canada-wide study by Egale Human Rights Trust, 74% of transgender youth reported experiencing verbal harassment in school, and 37% reported experiencing physical violence. The Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey found that 70% of respondents had been sexually harassed. More than a third of teenage participants aged 14 to 18 said they were physically threatened or injured in the past year. A Trans Pulse poll found that 45% of trans youth have attempted suicide in Ontario and 77% have seriously considered it.
Globally, transgender people are at risk of violence and poverty as well. According to Mic, the murder rate for the general population in the U.S. is 1 out of every 19,000 but when it comes to black transgender women, 1 in every 2,600 is killed. Furthermore, murders of transgender individuals tend to be particularly brutal and gruesome, being motivated by hate and discrimination. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, migrants, sex-workers and trans people of colour and Aboriginal trans people experience a disproportionate rate of violence and make up a majority of trans homicide victims world-wide.
The election of Donald Trump has created a more dangerous climate for trans people in the U.S. and internationally. In March of 2018, Trump announced a ban on trans people serving in the American military, fortifying discriminatory transphobic sentiments in society. While we understand that the military is the armed wing of the ruling capitalist class and ultimately serves only reactionary aims, any act of discrimination by the state toward any oppressed layer of the working class only serves to increase victimization and must be opposed.
Trump has also removed federal protection for trans students that allowed them to use the bathroom which matches their gender identity. A study conducted by Jody L. Herman for UCLA in 2008 showed that approximately 70% of trans people in the U.S. have experienced being denied access to restrooms, as well as harassment and physical assault while using restrooms. Furthermore, the 2011 National School Climate Survey found that 80% of trans students feel unsafe at school due to being trans, particularly in gender segregated spaces such as change rooms and washrooms. A 2015 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that at least one third of trans residents in Washington State cut down on eating and drinking in order to avoid using the washroom for fear of harassment.
More trans people have come out of the closet in the recent period, and that has increased the likelihood that people will see a trans person in the washroom. Right-wing reactionaries are attempting to capitalize on the lack of familiarity the general population has with trans people to spread horror stories of men disguising themselves as women to enter women’s bathrooms. For some, especially in the older generation, the presence of trans people can appear as something new and disconcerting. This is similar to the previous prejudice against same-sex couples holding hands or showing public affection, which is a lot more commonplace and accepted today. Familiarity helps the fear subside.
The reality is that there are almost no instances of assaults by trans people in the washroom, whereas assaults against trans people are commonplace. We must help people to see this reality. In the past in Canada and the US, homophobia was much more widespread than it is today. After decades of fighting against homophobia and familiarizing the population with homosexuality, this prejudice has decreased. Similarly, we should support educating the population about the trans population to combat these prejudices and in the meantime promote washroom design and renovations that give everyone more privacy.
It is ironic, to say the least, that transphobic arguments that purport to defend women, are coming from the same right-wing conservative forces in our society who have been at the forefront of denying rights to women for decades. By denying trans people access to safe washrooms, Trump’s actions have increased their vulnerability and emboldened transphobic bigots in the U.S and abroad.
In spite of all the reactionary rhetoric on this question, several school districts and post-secondary institutions in Canada have policies explicitly stating that transgender people can use whichever washroom matches their gender identity and/or have instituted gender-neutral washrooms. This is a positive step forward for trans students but Canada is still far from immune to transphobia and other forms of oppression and discrimination. In 2016, University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson gained notoriety by railing against Bill C-16 refusing to use students’ preferred pronouns, claiming this infringes on his “free speech”. Peterson has developed a large following, which includes alt-right and openly fascist elements. His reactionary ideas and refusal to acknowledge the existence and validity of transgender people adds to stigmatization and discrimination toward them on- and off-campus, which on top of silencing trans people can increase their vulnerability to harassment and abuse. Clearly Peterson and his followers are not really concerned with free speech at all, instead they seek to stifle the voices of historically oppressed layers of society.
The harrowing statistics outlined above, and the reality of powerful figures continuing to scapegoat trans people, show the limits of formal equality. While legal advances have been hard fought for and justifiably celebrated, demonstrating the possibilities of collective struggle, the economic and social reality for trans people remains largely unchanged. That is to say, the capitalist organization of society remains unhindered despite what is written on paper. Capitalism relies on the division of people based on sex and gender as well as other forms of oppression such as racism, to keep the exploited divided and distracted from the real enemy. The reforms for trans people that have been won up until now are not safe, as the capitalist class and politicians will claw them back in times of crisis to fan the flames of discrimination. We are seeing this with Doug Ford’s Conservative government in Ontario which has turned back the clocks on sex-ed in schools to the old 1998 curriculum which does not reference same-sex relationships or transgender identity. It is not accidental that this is taking place during a period of intense polarization in society.
The capitalist class also owns and controls the wealth and resources in society, including the means of disseminating ideas about different groups of people such as the media and the education system. There is no accountability when politicians, bosses, landlords, school officials or police are discriminatory or violent towards transgender people or other oppressed layers of the working class because there is no genuine democratic oversight over production or administration under capitalism.
This does not mean that fighting for trans rights is futile within the current system or needs to be put on hold until a future socialist revolution. Marxists fight for equality of rights and improved conditions for transgender people and all oppressed layers of the working class in the here and now. When transphobic discrimination and violence are committed in our workplaces, schools and communities, the trade and student unions, in concert with community organizations, should organize mass, collective action from below until justice is served: demonstrations, walk-outs, sit-ins and strikes. Similar class struggle means must be employed in the fight for funding mental health services and other social initiatives that would improve standards of living for trans people. Things like free education, guaranteed employment, and housing for all — that is, genuine social and economic equality — must accompany legal rights if the real barriers oppressing trans people are to be alleviated.
While we fight for these demands today, it must be acknowledged that this is taking place in the context of the deepest crisis in the history of capitalism. Improving living conditions and gains for the working class is not the norm; instead, declining living standards, cutbacks and deepening inequality are. Such times tend to lead to a rise in discriminatory attitudes as right-wing populists and sections of the media fan the flames of prejudice to keep the masses fighting each other and distracted. For these reasons, and because the reforms that could significantly improve the lives of trans people clash with the profit motive of the capitalist class, we have to direct the struggle for trans liberation and the emancipation of all of the oppressed and exploited, to the question of who owns and controls the wealth and resources in society.
Instead, much of the leadership of the student and labour movements, often under the influence of non-marxist ideas such as postmodernism and intersectionality (read more here), focus on largely symbolic change and institute tokenism instead of mobilizing a united struggle for real material change. This allows a layer of careerist types to advance within the student and labour bureaucracies while little is done to advance the living conditions for the majority of transgender and other oppressed layers of the working class. Instead of symbolic gestures, such as tokenistic identity-based quotas, we need militant fighting organizations that can mobilize students and workers in a struggle that will actually begin to eradicate the social and economic barriers faced by oppressed layers of the class — that is to say, that targets the roots of oppression itself.
During a collective movement of the working class it becomes clear that oppressive attitudes undermine the movement and its aims by threatening the unity required to win. It is through common struggle that these attitudes break down on a mass level, as workers of all identities come to see their common interests instead of what divides them. This would enthuse wider layers of the oppressed to get active in the struggle and would build genuine leadership from below instead of bureaucratic tokenism from above. What is required are class struggle methods that unite all layers of the oppressed.
If the working class, encompassing the most oppressed layers of society, owned and democratically controlled the vast wealth in society, everyone could be guaranteed all of the factors required for a quality standard of living. The funds would be freed up to install gender neutral washrooms and improve health care services for all. LGBTQ community organizations could receive the resources and funding they require to address the impacts of generations of discrimination and violence on their communities. Democratic oversight over our workplaces would be important to preventing and addressing instances of transphobia and other forms of discrimination. Similarly on our campuses, if staff (including bigoted professors) or students act in a discriminatory or abusive manner, they can be democratically held accountable. Only on this basis of collective and democratic ownership and control — that is, the socialist organization of society — can true trans liberation and equality for all be fully realized.
Linking the oppression of LGBTQ people to the need to fight capitalism is not new. Indeed, trans people have a radical history of protest and anti-capitalist struggle, as seen with their role at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in NYC. It is the case that the most oppressed layers of society can become the most passionate fighters because they have the most to gain from struggle. The struggle for trans rights and sexual and gender freedom for all must not only return to its radical roots, but must do so on a higher, mass level and on a more militant basis. Furthermore, the struggle for trans liberation cannot be left solely to trans individuals themselves, but must be taken up wholeheartedly by the entire working class and its organizations. An injury to one is an injury to all and a gain for one layer of the working class is a gain for the entire class and all of the oppressed. Fight for trans liberation and the emancipation of all the exploited and oppressed, fight for socialism!