Gender Liberation and Revolutionary Politics

Two comrades from FRSO/OSCL sat down to discuss their thoughts around gender liberation and socialism. The interview is part of our work on the oppressed gender commission, as we draft new line taking into consideration new thinking around gender liberation struggle in the 21st century. The commission represents a grouping of young, majority oppressed nationality, queer and straight non-transgendered women revolutionaries who have a variety of experience in mass work and revolutionary work. The discussion represents the perspective of two comrades who have been involved in queer and gender liberation struggle. It explores the theme of gender broadly, how gender functions in mass and revolutionary organizing, and queer politics.

L: Gender liberation struggle is integral to a revolutionary politic and has an important role to play in how people relate to each other and the role of self-determination broadly. Sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism have specific and complex ways of functioning in our capitalist society. We experience these oppressive institutions on various levels; in our day-to-day lives, in our political work, and in our left organization.

I think it is important to be thinking about gender liberation with an intersectional framework. An intersectional framework helps us, as revolutionaries, understand how people experience oppression as a function of the combined oppressions we experience. Because we experience the world in complex ways having an intersectional framework is necessary strategically in order to be thoughtful about how we intervene at the nexus of interconnecting oppression. One lesson we learned from left movements in the past and present is that the failure to utilize intersectional frameworks results in their continuation of oppression.

M: Right. And sometimes it’s not even like a continuation but a re-affirming of oppressive behavior. In movements where these things go unexamined really intense sexism and homophobia can arise. One of the main reasons the mainstream GLBTQ rights movement is totally divorced from the left is that gay/queer people were sorta pushed out of the left and formed their own movements that are based in identity but which lacked class analysis.

L: I feel like you’ve done a lot of thinking about what it means to queer the left and what it means to give more of a left analysis to your queer community. What have you been thinking about these days around those issues?

M: Well, I guess with Queer people… I think of there being a really big difference between the GLBTQ movement, which would include the Human Rights Campaign, all the marriage equality stuff, and all of these well-funded organizations that put forth a mainstream assimilationist-style agenda. Then there are people who call themselves queers who are anti-assimilationist and can be separatist. Queers tend to be more radical and to have more progressive politics but queer separatism is also problematic because it lacks a clear class or race analysis. It lacks a clear understanding of capitalism and it tends to be focused around identity. Identity is really important but when it is the only thing a movement is focused on, it’s not going to lead to a revolution. Queer identity politics could lead to new ways of understanding gender and sexuality and give people more freedom in those areas but on its it is not a movement that will not end capitalism because it is not even interested in that.

L: Do you feel like it is a problem that the queer folks you are talking about don’t necessary identify as revolutionaries or have revolutionary politics? Is there a particular reason why you feel they don’t have a more developed class or race politic?

M: I think queer people of my generation have a vague understanding of class that comes from intersectionality theory but that doesn’t actually question capitalism. There is a bit of a race analysis but it is not one that is grounded in understanding structure and how institutional systems have caused these inequalities. In general, queers of color tend to have a better analysis than white queer people. Like FIERCE and Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP)1—they are NGOs so they don’t specifically call into question capitalism but there is a deeper understanding of the structure of capitalism and how it relates to racism.

L: Why do you believe they have a sharper analysis?

M: So… I interned for SRLP my first year of college so I know more about them than other organizations. Dean Spade is the person who started SRLP and they provide free legal services to trans people. They specifically prioritize people of color and working class people. And then they do some policy stuff. Their policy work is really focused on issues that the funded GLBT movement won’t touch, like they do prison work with trans prisoners. It is a huge problem that transwomen are placed into male prisons so for example, because they are the only women in the prison, they are subject to all kinds of sexual abuse and sometimes forced into prostitution. SRLP’s analysis is that working class trans people of color face a higher rate of institutional oppression. It is not easy to get a job if you are a transwoman, you don’t pass and you are already working class or a person of color so a lot of transwomen do sex work or the cops just assume they are sex workers when they are just walking down the street. This means that they are subject to higher levels of surveillance and that filters into the prison system. So they really see these kinds of connections around how class, race, and gender interact so that transwomen face high rates of police harassment and incarceration.

M: I wanted to ask you… How do you understand gender? Like, what is gender?

L: My understanding of gender is dynamic. I’m still learning from my trans friends and a lot of the theory and work coming out about gender. I feel that gender has a really specific way of functioning in mainstream society that reinforces an unhealthy binary where male/female have really specific meanings, expectations and relationship to power. On the left “gender” has a different meaning rooted in our understanding of gender in terms of struggle, self-determination, and liberation. Gender is this complex combination of how someone relates to their psychological understanding of their body and their feelings and how they choose to express that as they interact with the world. I think that gender can be tied to sexuality but not necessarily. There is a complex arrangement around how people are perceived and how people want to be perceived. The role of self-determination, in a unique way, places the definition of gender very much on the individual in a kind of self-determinist way where an individual should have the right to decide what gender they want to be recognized and live their life as. This can actually be a dynamic thing. It doesn’t have to be a fixed identity. But I think it is complicated. What makes it complicated is the role in which this left, safer, healthier way of thinking about gender interacts with the unhealthy mainstream concept of gender and then the roll of the individual within the struggle of gender liberation. I believe bell hooks rightly critiques the feminist movement for not having a very clear definition of feminism and that leading to a very individualistic take on what feminism is which allowed a very liberal strain of feminism to develop. This really weakened the movement. I am still searching for a clear definition of gender that takes into account a spectrum of struggles and has a revolutionary vision.

M: Yeah. At one point in our work together you said “gender oppression is a systemic problem that exists within capitalism but not because of capitalism.” I was wondering if you can tell me more about that.

L: I think that specific point is building upon the thinking that there is a static “primary contradiction”. This thinking was prevalent in Left struggles internationally and in the US. There was a focus on the major problem being capitalism and class and that every other oppression is a result of capitalism. The strategy was that if you attack capitalism then you ultimately get rid of all the other forms of oppression. In my opinion, that is not accurate. Racism, sexism, patriarchy existed before the capitalist system but not having a strategic understanding of how institutions of oppressions are interacting in context weakens our ability to fight. There is also a strain of thinking with which I agree where the process of how you address different liberation struggles is different based on the context and the complex arrangements of given oppressions. I like the idea of distinguishing that capitalism exploits gender oppressed people but that also gender oppression, sexism, and patriarchy function as their own unhealthy institutions that require strategic thinking on how to break them down. There are examples from the numerous movements of the 60s and 70s where you had movements with a sharp analysis around class but very weak on gender and sexuality, and depending on the movement, national oppression. You can see a wave of folks who were involved in these movements who recognized these unhealthy patterns and then developed their own movements.

M: Yeah, like the gay liberation movement or lesbian separatism those kind of things that came out of 60s movements but then people left…

L: Yeah and it wasn’t just happenstance how the radical left women’s movements came out of anti-capitalist movements in Europe, in France specifically, and in the U.S. There is a book, From the Revolution to the Maquiladoras that details how women involved in the Sandanista movement in Nicaragua came out of that struggle with a very sharp analysis about patriarchy and the role of women in movement work. I believe that one important lesson from these concurrent left radical movements in the 1960s is the importance of struggling with an intersectional framework, not negating other forms of oppression because there may be a focal point for broad unity.

M: It is interesting that you said that gender oppression exists within capitalism but not because of capitalism. Orthodox Marxists say something similar to this. Engels wrote that patriarchy arose due to the advent of private property. Men needed to control women so that they could ensure inheritance benefited them. Private property predates capitalism2. But the thing that always bugged me about that shit is that it already assumes there was a binary gender system in place. It already assumes that there were two genders (men/women) and one gender just needed to oppress the other and try to own them. We know from research and theory that has come out since the 90s, that the way we understand gender now is not the same as even 25 years ago. It is a historical category that has evolved. All places during all times didn’t have just two genders that were constructed in the same way where women=weak, men=strong. There were differences in how gender was enacted in other historical periods and societies. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that the rise of class systems imposed a rigid binary gender system because it required greater control over every aspect of individuals’ lives and gender was one of those aspects, not that it created patriarchy. But who knows. I think it is dangerous to search for an “origin” of patriarchy because that kind of thinking leads to the assertion that if we just overthrow the class system then gender oppression will end. Well, it ain’t that simple and patriarchy will never end until we stop thinking of men/women as opposites on a binary gender system.

L: How would you define gender?

M: Well, my definition of gender comes out of post-structuralist feminist thinkers who conceive of gender as a social construction. People get confused about this but it doesn’t mean that gender doesn’t exist or that it’s fake. It just means that the way gender is enacted and the rules that come along with it are socially constructed. The idea that there are only two options is a social construction because there is even variation like a spectrum of sex, where people are not necessarily born with only male or female sex characteristics. It is also a social construction that everything is gender-segregated like bathrooms, sports, colors, and children’s toys. Children don’t understand gender in the same way such that if you show young children naked pictures of people and ask them if the people are boys or girls they will often say “I don’t know. They don’t have their clothes on.” They haven’t made the same sex/gender connection. Young children are learning how to categorize things so sometimes the won’t categorize gender in ways we would expect. If the only men in their lives have big beards then they might think people without big beards are not men. I think this speaks to how much energy is put into making sure that children learn how to categorize gender in socially acceptable ways.

L: What do you think is the role of a leftist in the struggle for gender liberation?

M: I think people need to be self-reflective about the way they interact with the world and how that is informed by their gender socialization. So within organizations, people need to think about the way men (for example) have been socialized to be more confident or assertive and what affect that has on meeting spaces.

L: Yeah, that rings true to me. I am also curious, what do you feel like the role of leftists is in the transformation of people who don’t necessarily have left politics? Within the left, what is the role of a leftist who has this particular goal of thinking about gender liberation, in terms of engaging the unhealthy place most people are at with gender, how do we move people to have a healthier perspective?

M: I don’t know that I have the answer to how we move people to a healthier perspective. That is really hard. It depends on the struggle and the particular area you are working in. I know one of our comrades up in the Boston area struggles a lot with challenging the men he works with around sexism and around their blatant misogyny. He is one of the best guys I know and a great feminist but it is still hard for him to really challenge people because he doesn’t want to alienate them from the work they are doing. The thing with men generally is that their most intense misogyny centers around homophobia, like fear of being perceived as gay or effeminate. That is a clear area where men can challenge gender oppression. Within the organization, I think we really need to get on FRSO/OSCL becoming a clear leader within the socialist left around gender liberation. Other socialist organizations out there don’t have anything that profound to say about it. They say that they “like gay people” or are “against sexism” but they don’t have an analysis around what we’re talking about here, like how the binary gender system is a huge part of this oppression. That is coming from a younger generation and the other organizations haven’t gotten with it. Some socialist organizations say really regressive shit about gay people, taking mainstream lines on gay marriage and resembling the Human Rights Campaign. Of course, there shouldn’t be laws against who we can or cannot marry but a more left perspective would focus on tackling homelessness amongst queer youth, gender segregation in public assistance programs, prisons, access to health care, and the like. We in FRSO/OSCL want to take a left orientation to queer politics. I think young queer people are ripe for being recruited into socialist organizations but they have to know that people are not only going to accept them but welcome them. That this will be a place where they are not going to have to fight with people about how they live their lives and the ways they do gender or have sex. I know for me, one of the things I loved when I joined was knowing older people who didn’t think it was fucking weird to be trans or queer. But being queer in this organization can be lonely. Patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia are BFF*—they are interconnected systems. We can’t attack one of these systems without attacking all of them. We all need to be a part of that struggle.

1. FIERCE is a membership-based organization building the leadership and power of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth of color in New York City. SRLP is an organization that works to increase the political voice and visibility of low-income people and people of color who are transgender, intersex, or gender non-conforming.

2. See “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” by Engles (1884).

*best friends forever

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