This article is written in the hope of generating some discussion around this topic, the author would strongly encourage response pieces, whether in agreement or disagreement.
Discussion around trans rights, particularly in the last few years, has largely fallen into two strands: the liberal identitarian view, and the essentialist, determinist view held by some of those who call themselves radical feminists. I hope to offer an alternative view grounded in materialism, situating transphobia within gendered oppression and broader, queer oppressions.
The material basis of gendered oppression is, in brief, the gendered division of labour. This has its historical basis in biological sex-differences and women’s ability to birth children, though it is not bound solely to this. Women cannot individually escape gendered oppression if for whatever reason they are not able to have children.
This condition led to women primarily performing reproductive labour. In pre-capitalist society, the family had greater independence in economic terms. Much economic activity, particularly agrarian production, was organised on small family holdings. As capitalism developed the family moved from being a relatively independent unit, to an economically dependent (as wage labourers), but internally interdependent unit. This exacerbated and formalised the gendered divide between productive and reproductive labour.
It is at this point historically that D’Emilio asserts homosexuality came into being - an assertion, for what it’s worth, I don’t think he literally believed but rather used for its analytical and political value. D’Emilio argues that because of this move away from the family unit, away from independent units to interdependent units, several things occurred.
Due to the increased, limited, individual economic freedom that capitalism introduced, people were able to effectively live outside of any family unit, it was no longer an economic necessity to do so. Therefore, gays and lesbians (though mostly gay men given the dominance of men in the wage-labour force) were able to live their lives fully expressing their homosexuality where before they were unable to.
As capitalism developed it showed an increased tendency away from the central economic role of the family. Women were entering the workplace in increasing numbers, the working day was becoming shorter and improvements in technology meant there was less need for a dedicated class devoted solely to reproductive labour in the same way as before. As this central economic role of family life waned, its social aspect was emphasised. Family was seen as central to personal fllfilment, happiness and social stability.
So we see as the forces of capitalist development weakened the bonds of the family unit, the blame was placed on homosexuals as a convenient scapegoat for perceived fraying of social fabric to do with the de-prioritisation of family life.
Recent history I think has supported D’Emilio’s analysis; the habilitation of homosexuality in most advanced capitalist economies has been largely dominated by liberal assertions that gays and lesbians are just as able to participate in family life and the institution as marriage as anyone else. I think the analysis of grounding transphobia in materialism lies parallel to the argument made by D’Emilio.
As capitalism is developing, the ruling class has less and less interest in maintaining rigid gender divides as it did in the past. It is in the interests of capital that women’s surplus labour be appropriated in line with men’s and that they have cause to consume the output of production as men do. So as such rigid ties to maintaining strictly enforced gender roles wanes due to the requirements of capital shifting, trans people act as a convenient scapegoat for those that see this freeing up of gendered expression as an affront to the health of our social fabric.
Source: John D'Emilio, (1983) 'Capitalism and gay identity', in Powers of Desire: the politics of sexuality.