Not a week goes by where a shit-storm over the recognition of trans women doesn't explode on social media. On one side, there are the so-maligned TERFS [Trans-exclusionary radical feminists], who fight against what they claim is the infringement of space of real women by trans women. The other side fights for the recognition that trans women are in fact women and are accused of ignoring basic science.
And at ground level from these raucous seminar debates, scarcely a day goes by when a trans woman, particularly a trans woman of color, is not assaulted or murdered for being a trans woman.
This makes trans liberation a critical and urgent discussion among radicals and not one to be put off "until later," as many marginalized people are used to hearing from some of our so-called friends in privileged places.
The murders and assaults don't care about our panel discussions.
These debates on social media are rarely productive because the so-called defenders of trans women as women do not go beyond the strident demand that "trans women are women" and maintain anyone who says different is transphobic - the TERFS - and is complicit in the brutalization of trans women. For the other side there seems to be no end of news stories about how a trans woman athlete displaced a cis-woman athlete, and the sky is falling.
It is not helpful that many of the opponents do in fact oppose the existence of transgenders for their very existence, even going to far as to call it a psychiatric disorder.
While solidarity is over due to those activists engaged in the on-the-ground work to stop these assaults against trans women, I will try here to further this rhetorical debate, hopefully break new ground with some more classic references, and bring this argument back to the struggle for liberation.
First, to be clear, I am for the liberation of trans women - and trans men. I don't consider those who think transgender a psychiatric condition any more than I would consider those who consider same-sex attraction a psychiatric condition.
I am similarly for the liberation of lesbians, of gays, of queers, of Same-Gender Loving people, and of women. I am for the liberation of the working class. It is important to put it like this, because I do not pretend that there is an "LGBTQ" community as such - ask an HIV+ Black gay/SGL man or working-class Latina lesbian where this "community" is. But I do acknowledge we face some common obstacles - from the Left and from the Right, just as workers we face common obstacles - from the Left and from the Right.
These are distinct communities with distinct histories they carry to the present times, but we do share common struggles.
I already know my argument will be dismissed by some out of hand, and that I will be accused of making an excuse to hate trans women, etc. Some or all of the people I reference may be dismissed as well. However exact I craft my arguments, I know this cannot be avoided, but I hope some others, whether their minds are changed or not, will appreciate another perspective that does seek liberation, draws from a radical tradition, but rejects out of hand the notion that trans women are women (or that trans men are men) and that this is in any way a radical move toward liberation.
That's why I call this piece "an argument." It is not the last word or a prophecy chiseled into stone tablets.
My thesis is that the call that "trans women are women," despite its radical appearance, is a reactionary position that undermines the liberation not only of women in particular but also trans women in general.
Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Special Questions
These marginalized communities fall under what is sometimes called "Special Questions," with its nod to Marxism-Leninism and Joseph Stalin and the "National Question."
In Lenin's day, transgenders, lesbians and gays were not considered in his discourse, but concepts behind the National Question thesis inspired communists and were progressively expanded from the ethnic minorities of the Russian Empire to ethnic minorities generally, to women, and to Blacks, and eventually to sexual and cultural minorities.
According to Stalin, "a nation is a historically-evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture." [Stalin, Joseph. "Marxism and the National Question: Selected Writings"]
Generally, this short set of criteria constituted a nation, or a national minority, in Marxist-Leninist terms, but as with any idea and any Marxist, it would find broader applications.
The National Question was a debate that even found its way to Territorial, US-occupied Hawaii, where members of the Communist Party of Hawaii debated its application [Reinecke, John. "Hawaii Nationalism: a Non-Question". 1981]
Hay and the Liberation of Cultural Minorities
Cde. Harry Hay of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was inspired by this concept and expanded it. Hay joined the CPUSA in the early 1930's, though he had been involved in the labor movement before that. Hay, a gay man, was not only a labor organizer but became one of the Party's Marxist educators until his departure in 1951. He was in a unique place not only as a student of Marxism but also a Party educator, and he took the Special Question further than Lenin and Stalin to construct a space within it for lesbians and gays.
The impact of Hay's contribution on the lesbian and gay movement has been glossed over but bears repeating. As Hay biographer, Will Roscoe, notes "without the idea of Gays as a cultural minority there would be no gay identity and no Lesbian/Gay movement." [Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the words of its founder, Roscoe. 1996]
In contrast to Hay rendering lesbians and gays a cultural minority, if you read the anti-gay laws of Hay's day and of the last 100 years, they do not target gay men as such. Rather, these laws specifically prohibit our sexual acts as being illicit. This is because society long viewed gay men not as gay men but rather as heterosexual men with a mental illness or with a perversion. So the laws often prescribed either imprisonment or chemical castration for the offender.
For example, the infamous US Supreme Court case, Bowers v Hardwick  upheld a Texas anti-sodomy statute designed to proscribe gay sex; it did not prohibit gay men as a group. Such anti-sodomy statutes existed in most states and were used in such disparate ways as denying employment, housing, or allowing some public universities to deny funding for lesbian and gay student groups.
While it seems quaint today, what made Hay's contribution unique in this struggle is he did not accept that lesbians and gay men were mentally ill heterosexuals but rather that we were special and unique persons unto ourselves with special and unique things to contribute.
As Roscoe describes it:
"The cultural minority thesis has been Hay's most profound and lasting contributions to Lesbian/Gay political theory. Hay argues that Lesbians and Gay men differ from heterosexuals much as African Americans, Latinos, Japanese Americans, and other ethnic groups differ from Euro-Americans - in terms of shared values, modes of communication, historical heritage, psychological orientations, and behavioral patterns." [Roscoe, ibid]
Mostly drawing from Marxism-Leninism, Hay's ideas blossomed over time. He also drew from non-Marxist texts, but one work he used in his curriculum had a notable impact. Joseph Stalin's 1913 pamphlet, Marxism and the National Question. To those trained like Pavlov's dogs to growl at the mention of Stalin's name, it must be reminded that all this is well before the so-called Secret Speech by Stalin's successor. In Hay's days in the Party, Stalin was an able theoretician and an international class warrior. Even the leaders of the CPUSA praised him.
At any rate, Hay rejected the Old World, Tsarist paradigm and racist constructs toward national minorities, which was to lessen their cultural differences, obliterate their native language, maintain them as subjects to a racially/culturally superior master class - in the Tsar's case, that was Russian culture and Russian language.
Hay gleaned from the liberatory language afforded from the Special Question an explanation for lesbians and gays and new areas in which to struggle within the broader communist movement. And he had a precedent for expanding the ideas of the National Question right in front of him.
While Stalin had insisted on a firm set of criteria to constitute a nation, the CPUSA had itself for a time expanded this to include Blacks in the US South as an oppressed national minority. According to Roscoe, the Party "hoped to threaten the ruling class with the specter of a peasant war in the rural South allied with proletarian revolution in the industrial North.
Rejecting the reactionary mindset of pre-Revolution Russia, Hay employed the tenets of the Bolsheviks and argued all his life that lesbians and gay men were special beings with a special language and a special culture. So while it would be wrong to say he was alone, Hay was among the first and loudest to protest when the emerging "LGBT" movement veered into the mainstream to aspire to be like heterosexuals - seeking marriage, cleaving away its more risque subcultures, etc.
To Hay, these reactionary fights were not unlike the earlier presumptions that lesbians and gay men were actually heterosexuals.
Most pro-LGBT allies today would reject the notion that gay men were heteros with a mental illness, missing chromosomes, or having a sick perversion, but the tendency toward assimilation, which Hay vigorously rejected, is in affect leading to the same thing. But these same allies would promote the idea that trans women are women.
Trans women as Women a form of Violence
It's strange that just as we once could only conceive gay men as actually straight men, that some now can only conceive various gender identities restricted to just the two which have served very defined roles within developing and late-stage capitalism.
Wouldn't it be interesting if part of our struggle to dismantle capitalism included connecting the dots between accepted, dominant-class gender identities, their designed oppression, and their integral part in building capitalism, and that we dismantled them too? Not by erasing them, but rather by widening the terrain to include other identities. This is essentially Hay's pioneering contribution to the lesbian/gay movement.
"Socialists, " Isabelle Bartter of the former ISO writes, "are fighting for a world where bodies are not forced into this or that type labor or class position based on birth lottery. Fundamentally, we are fighting for bodily autonomy, which underpins the fights for abortion, for trans liberation, and for sexual freedom ... " ["How Can We Win Trans and Queer Liberation," from The Socialist Worker, Dec 3, 2018]
What is wrong with being a trans woman?
What would Hay say about the call that "trans women are women"? Just as I am not aware that Lenin or Stalin mused on lesbians and gays, I'm not aware of any exact writings on this by Hay. But given his decades of argument, Hay would apply the same Marxist-Leninist, Special Question to transgender liberation.
Hay would argue that they too, like lesbians, like gay men, were a special and unique being and that this uniqueness is not enhance by, nor is their liberation attained, from imposing established dominant norms on them. They are no more destined to fit into gender norms as gay men are or as Kazakhs were supposed to speak only Russian.
Hay began with Lenin and Stalin, but later complemented those ideas with his study and life among First Nations communities, communities who for thousands of years developed outside of early capitalism and appreciated much broader notions of gender roles. The trans community in general, and trans women in particular, fit his notion of a cultural minority which is defended by his reading of Marxists and those indigenous communities.
The answer is to let transgenders develop their own path, mindful how all of our oppression within pre-defined gender roles are linked to the development of capitalism. White racism against Blacks, for example, is not because we are of African descent but because of the prescribed roles we are supposed to play under this economic system.
While acts of physical violence are abhorrent we must all unite to stop, arguing that "trans women are women" as a form of assimilation and reactionary is a form of cultural violence. Moreover, I further argue it is a form of social violence against women. It quashes the development of s social identity and cultural vocabulary that is the right of national minorities.
Many of the de-platformers and anti-"TERF" people are not part of the resistance but rather more like those supposed friends of the left - friends of Blacks, of Indigenous, of queers - who tell us if we just "toned it down" and weren't "so angry," things would improve. They might mean well - bless their hearts - but their goals are far from liberation and more about accommodation.
While the only thing we share is an abhorrence to violence and marginalization of trans women, and the trans community, rather than accept the diversification of the working class they seek to groom this community to conform to a dominant paradigm with patriarchal scientific thinking.
Liberation is not an all or nothing fight. While I am not an "equality feminist," placing liberation and the dismantling of capitalism as priorities does not negate that civil rights today must be afforded all of these communities. Equality is worthy in itself, but it always risks becoming a panacea from which we cease struggle.
Pessimism for the Future?
Given the furor this issue continues to ignite, I expect vitriol to be heaped upon me. But I hope some others might ponder the argument and trace the roots that Harry Hay established from his time as a studied Marxist-Leninist and engage the arguments. Without these roots there would have never been a lesbian and gay movement at all, and without which there will never be a trans liberation movement. And without such a movement, a nascent vocabulary will not be born and refined.
Trans liberation will demand deeper questions for the roles we assign men and women in capitalist society, and this is why it is intolerable to making them fit into dominant-cultural roles.
I should be pessimistic that this piece will ignite a trans liberation movement, or new levels of discussion between radicals and Marxists, given Hay's own trajectory in radical struggle.
These struggles seem not to bode well.
Bartter directs that "queer and trans people, and everyone fighting for our liberation, need to break from the Democratic Party, which had never thought twice about abandoning us." She correctly notes how the Democrats use "the shallowest gestures" as "collateral" "to keep voter booths full."
But the disaffected, maligned, and misused are just as likely to fill the rolls of that 50% who boycott elections altogether and potentially make way for greater dangers than those "shallowest gestures."
Before Hay, Chuck Rowland, and other gay Party members were expelled from the CPUSA under Cold War fears around lesbian and gay comrades being blackmailed by the FBI, Hay was already organizing a front group from within the Party, formed from his ideas, and aiming to lobby CPUSA-endorsed presidential candidate Henry Wallace. This front group ended with his expulsion.
When they did leave the Party, they went on with their project independently and formed the first gay rights organization in the US in 1951, the Mattachine Society. The Communist Party would not rectify its position against lesbians and gays for more than 50 years, placing it outside some key struggles within the gay liberation movement.
Hay's role as a pioneer is a fact even few lesbians and gays know. Hay, Rowland, and the Communist founders of Mattachine were expelled from that group after just a few years later for being Marxists. The other foot of the Cold War dropping. Many of those comrades disappeared into history.
Not Hay. He would keep reasserting his message until his death in 2002, both within the Gay Liberation Front, railing against continued assimilation tendencies in the 70's and 80's, and later by founding the Radical Faeries in 1979. His mark has been overshadowed by the reactionary counter-revolt that expelled him from Mattachine and has fought for inclusion - rather than eradication - of the dominant, economic paradigm of capitalism. But Hay's ghost overwhelms my abject pessimism and inspires me to write even though it's hard to conceive the trans community being liberated when Gay Marriage, Gay Families, Gay Service members, and Gay Homeowners have overwhelmed our sense of direction.