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Transgender liberation? A movement whose time has passed

David Faes

Platypus Review 111 | November 2018

TRANSGENDER ACTIVIST LESLIE FEINBERG PROCLAIMED in a 1992 political pamphlet that the time for transgender liberation had come. Over twenty years later, popular media described the increasing visibility of transgender lifestyles as a “trans tipping point” or “trans moment.” However, upon further inspection, one discovers luminaries of the Enlightenment already expressed whatever “new” ideas have come to the fore, and better the first time around. While the number of writings grows beyond count, the new insights fall below the potential characterized by the moment of their conception.

Sexual emancipation, conceived of in the Enlightenment era, challenged the natural basis of gender and the nature of sexual identity fixed to procreation within traditional family structures. Marx saw that this challenge to the ideas of man and woman indicated “how far man’s natural behavior has become human, and how far his human essence has become a natural essence for him, how far his human nature has become nature for him.”[1] In this way, sexual emancipation was understood within the context of the development of man’s transformation of nature, and thereby of himself—of human nature—toward the end of human freedom: “the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick.”[2]

It was this development and elaboration of all human powers as such, of human freedom, which was understood to be the task of world history by those who struggled for socialism over a century ago. It was by their hand that the industrial revolution was developed, informing the technical and scientific concepts we use to understand sex and gender, pointing toward their potential overcoming. The political struggles of socialist sexual reformers such as Magnus Hirschfeld, who founded the Institute for Sexual Research, advocated the legalization of sodomy, prostitution and cross-dressing, coined the terms “homosexual,” “transvestite,” and “transsexual” in their contemporary usage, and professionalized sex-reassignment surgery, stoked the flames of the ongoing process of the industrial revolution. Their view that human freedom could be achieved by the simultaneous abolition and fulfilment of the need for production seems almost cavalier on the other side of the 20th century, faced with the failure of the emancipatory project of the world socialist revolution. Indeed, the political efforts of the contemporary movement for transgender liberation appear meagre by comparison and what’s more threaten to liquidate the previous insights.

Today, real weakness in the pursuit of freedom is glossed over with the luster of identity. Although we inherit the technological developments bequeathed by the 19th-century socialist sexual reformers, today’s misunderstanding that the desire to use these technologies is the effect of a congenital pathology or an authentic way of being curtails the freedom of the individual to elaborate his own acquired wants and needs. At the same time, the trans community and its advocates use whatever political strength they do have to overcompensate for their lack of principle. “Left” leaders of the LGBTQ movement, either direct employees or indirect advocates of the public-services bureaucracy, hold their beneficiaries politically hostage to the existing dynamics of the Democratic Party. Leftist critics tend to focus narrowly on the influence that private and philanthropic funders have over non-profit LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS institutions. Budget constraints on these institutions marginalize low-income and transgender beneficiaries resulting in competition within the LGBTQ community over social services and medical resources. It is true that access to medical and social resources is limited to those who can afford them and that even after transitioning, access to employment and the rights that come with it, is restricted due to discrimination. However, the present Left’s line of criticism frames the obstacle to sexual emancipation as a betrayal or “co-optation” of the movement by the Democratic Party and whatever corporate influences gravitate around it. In this way, trans advocates galvanize support for community institutions which rely on the support of the Democratic Party to offer limited social provisions such as housing and medical services to the general LGBTQ community. This elides the deeper problem of the pursuit of freedom in history. Instead the contemporary Left’s criticisms reproduce the screen-image of patronage to the LGBTQ community: on one side a more smoothly managed and served LGBTQ constituency is envisaged, and on the other a subcultural, aesthetic self-curation thematizes and prematurely sublimates the resentment that one must rely on these state-managed bureaucracies in the first place. It is as though every contemporary discussion of trans freedom is expected to fulfil certain requirements: first and foremost, the queer or trans identity. The hard-Left’s calls to “queer” the existing Left to build a broad movement to pressure the Democratic Party coalesce with the academic navel gazing inspired by Judith Butler. Both preoccupations provide students with an anesthetic in that they avoid what was once historically possible and obscure their own lowered horizons. Since the principles of sexual emancipation have suffered such heavy losses and have reappeared today in this new form of the “trans identity,” we must ask what is still left to it. While a full consideration of this would require a more thorough historical study, what is of concern here is simply that students should become aware of what is absent from today’s efforts to bring about sexual emancipation, particularly for transgender people.

A history of freedom, not oppression

The effort to consider what is absent in today’s movement for transgender liberation in relation to the history of the Left must be carefully distinguished from a nearly universally accepted understanding of what is called “transgender history”: namely, the idea that trans people have always existed since the beginning of humanity and will always exist. This view, however, was first proffered by sexual reformers working within the homosexual-emancipation movement in order to argue for the natural basis of legal rights. The socialist sexual reformer, Magnus Hirschfeld, for instance, claimed that sexual minorities deserved rights on the basis that their condition was biological, in part evidenced by the fact that people had lived this way since the beginning of human history. This argument was used to justify sexual reforms such as the Scientific Humanitarian Committee’s famous, and unsuccessful, attempt to repeal Paragraph 175, the law which penalized sodomy in the Prussian Empire, as well as the distribution of identity documents for transvestites by the Berlin municipal government in 1908.

This natural explanation has prevailed, however uncritically, and can be recognized in Leslie Feinberg’s 1992 pamphlet, “Trans Liberation: a movement whose time has come,” wherein she claimed that transgenderism “predates oppression.” For Feinberg, transgenderism, due to its superficial resemblance to certain castes in matriarchal communalist societies of the paleolithic era, is venerated as outside of, and even a priori against capitalism. However, these pre-Modern cross-gendered castes were specified as roles within closed, spiritual cosmologies and traditional family structures. Let us recall that in Okinawa, the process of winagu nati, was used by male shamans to “become female,” or that in South Asia the Hijra undergo a similar process in order to participate in the rituals of their community. We could also recall the muxes, a “third sex,” still found in Oaxaca today, who live with their mothers for their entire lives in order to perform those productive tasks which seem best suited to them, namely domestic labor. Or we can consider the historic role of the Two-Spirit genders in the Pacific Northwest, whereby women could become women-men as hunters, and men could become men-women by performing domestic labor. Each of these examples illustrates a gendered caste which is determined by on a role within the family or spiritual community. What is recognized as a similarity between the ancient and modern world betrays a sense of our own historical moment, the simultaneous movement beyond the family and its latent persistence. What Marx wrote of the bourgeois myths of the ancient world describes this well: “This is why the childish world of antiquity appears on one side as loftier. On the other side, it really is loftier in all matters where closed shapes forms and given limits are sought for. It is satisfaction from a limited standpoint; while the modern gives no satisfaction; or, where it appears satisfied with itself, it is vulgar.”[3]

Hirschfeld, by contrast with contemporary activists such as Feinberg, was consciously taking up a project he had inherited from the bourgeois revolutions. The rise of emancipated free labor challenged the natural basis of gender and the nature of sexual identity fixed to procreation within traditional family structures, giving rise to new social forms of sexuality and sexual identity. Emancipated laborers were not only free to determine what sorts of work they would take up, but also what sorts of lives they would lead. Laboring individuals could work for a period of time so as to elaborate their own creative capacities, needs, and interests in their free time through exchange. What is of concern to our argument is the development of the laborer’s own personal sexual, erotic, emotional, and familial desires and needs. We can recall the emergence of the “molly houses,” effeminate male brothels, in the 18th century, Dr. James Barry a male surgeon in the British army who was discovered only after his death to be a biological female, the life of Chevalier d'Éon in the 18th century who lived his first 49 years as a man and her last 33 years as a woman, among many other examples. Whereas the pre-modern castes were intended to give a closed form to life in order to reproduce a culture as it existed, the freedom of sexuality in modern society is open-ended. Modern individuals are tasked with making meaning of their own lives in relationship to the development of freedom in society, i.e. in terms of history.

Sexual emancipation and Social Democracy

The cultural developments within society that facilitated sexual emancipation concomitantly gave rise to political transformations. Most significantly, in 1791, the French National assembly repealed punishments for sodomy and cross-dressing. This new legal system was subsequently spread across Europe in the form of the Napoleonic Code. The German states of Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, Hanover, and Brunswick had all taken up their own versions of this code, abolishing the penalization of same-sex sexual behaviors and cross-dressing, while the less liberal states such as Saxony and Prussia had retained the feudal laws.

It was against this background that socialists took up the political demand for sexual emancipation as part and parcel of the social question in the 1848 revolutions. Just as most socialists agreed on the goal of abolishing the state, they also agreed on the goal of abolishing the traditional family and the division between the sexes. The failure of the democratic revolutions of 1848, and Bismarck’s subsequent efforts to establish Prussian hegemony culminating in the foundation of the German Reich gave way to the reintroduction of the Prussian sodomy law for many states in Germany in the form of Paragraph 175, and the laws criminalizing cross-dressing as a public nuisance in the form of Paragraphs 360/11 and 183. Consequently, people who were formerly free came to recognize a significant loss in their freedom: an aspect of their life suddenly became a crime. In response to these circumstances, intellectuals such as Karl Ulrichs had developed the term “Urning,” a reference to Plato’s Aphrodite Urania, to describe a biological condition in which a person with a feminine brain lives within a masculine body and to write publicly in defense of those who were punished for it. Ulrichs’s work inspired literary personalities such as Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, and James Addington Symons to further popularize the term. This urged sexologists, such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Carl Westphal to research sexual inversion and the contrary sexual instinct, which simultaneously facilitated their readers using these terms to identify themselves and their own obstacles. In order to maintain their jobs and livelihoods, they used these newly developed terms as focal points around which to form civil-society organizations to coordinate the development of social clubs, litigation, and minor municipal reforms only insofar as existing municipal procedures were obstacles to their livelihoods and organizing. Because liberals had abandoned the desiderata of sexual emancipation and the separation of the state from private life due to pressures from the right, only socialists such as Hirschfeld remained.

Hirschfeld founded civic institutions to facilitate the further development of the sexual-emancipation movement and to struggle for social reforms. These institutions included the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1896, the Institute for Sexual Research in 1919, and the World League for Sexual Reform in 1928. Through his work in these institutions, Hirschfeld would come to define the terms “homosexual,” “transvestite,” and “transsexual” and distinguish them from one another in the way we understand them today. However, rather than understanding these terms as innate identities, Hirschfeld understood them in relation to the types of political obstacles faced by his patients.

Paragraph 175 corresponded to the definition of “homosexual” as one who finds a love-object of the same sex because this law criminalized same-sex sexual activities. Paragraphs 360/11 and 183 corresponded to the definitions of “transvestite” and “transsexual” as someone who felt and behaved as the opposite sex because these laws penalized public cross-dressing. The lack of state-regulated medical resources corresponded to the further specification of the term “transsexual,” which was used to describe those who would use unregulated medical procedures and surgeries on themselves in order to appear as the opposite sex.

Hirschfeld’s institutions worked to clear these political obstacles. The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee put forward political petitions to the Reichstag in 1898, 1922, and 1925 to repeal Paragraph 175. When Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee first put forward their 1898 petition to repeal Paragraph 175, leading orthodox Marxists such as Karl Kautsky and August Bebel supported it. Kautsky argued in his series of articles critiquing state socialism, that abolishing the state would facilitate the development of a free society with new forms of communal life and kinship.[4] It was this understanding of sexual emancipation in relation to the need to conquer state power to bring about a social revolution that led Kautsky to support the petition. Similarly, August Bebel, co-founder of the SPD, gave a speech in the Reichstag in favor of repealing the penalization of sodomy, arguing primarily against the state’s intervention into private life.[5] Orthodox Marxists such as Kautsky and Bebel could take up this emerging discontent on the basis that it expressed the problem of the state rising over society, pointing to the need for a political revolution in order to fulfil and overcome the possibilities for freedom that arose in the bourgeois revolutions.

1920s: Magnus Hirschfeld (second from right) with patients and friends attending a party at the Institute for Sexual Science. Photo from

Sexual reforms and the political revolution

While the effort to repeal Paragraph 175 was highly politically articulated, the efforts to mitigate or repeal Paragraphs 360/11 and 183 were only pursued insofar as they presented an obstacle at the local level. Hirschfeld and his colleagues, such as psychoanalyst Karl Abraham, attempted to change the prosecution of Paragraphs 360/11 and 183 at the municipal, rather than national, level. By 1908 Hirschfeld and Abraham had convinced the Berlin municipal government and its police to issue their transvestite patients certificates and passports if they could show they had approved medical documentation. These “transvestite certificates” showed that the police knew of the bearer's behavior and so was not guilty of creating a nuisance.

These and other developments of the socialist movement raised questions about the relationship between the socialist struggle for reforms and the task of seizing state power in a political revolution. Lenin, for instance, in his 1902 pamphlet What is to Be Done? agreed with the orthodox Marxists such as Kautsky that Social Democracy must saturate the working class with the consciousness of its position and task.[6] Lenin saw that the party could mediate the wider efforts of the socialist movement allowing the movement to reflect on its own activity in relation to its end goal. Thus, political education would comprise “illuminating all aspects of life, and [be] conducted among the broadest possible strata of the masses” to the extent that capitalism “manifests itself in the most varied spheres of life and activity – vocational, civic, personal, family, religious, scientific, etc., etc.”[7]

Similarly, in her 1900 pamphlet Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg argued that the advances in capitalism which resulted from the growth and success of the socialist movement, such as the development of credit, the employer’s associations, communication services, and the political strength of the trade unions, aggravated rather than attenuated the conflict of capitalism, creating the potential for new crises and deepening the need for revolution. Thus, she argued that the party must mediate between the practical accomplishments of the movement and its consciousness of the necessity, possibility, and desirability of the end goal. In Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s terms, the party facilitated the development of this “socialist” or “class” consciousness.

The ostensible advances of socialist sexual reformers can be understood in the same way: as an aggravation of the crisis of society in capitalism, posing and deepening the necessity, possibility, and desirability of the revolution. The supposed successes of the sexual reformers posed the necessity for a critical reflection on the relationship between the movement for sexual reforms within the broader socialist movement and the end goal of socialism. The mass socialist parties of the Second International were a necessary precondition for even considering this question practically, because the International actualized the possibility of taking state power to the end of a world socialist revolution in the first place.

To the extent that the party was regarded as the focal point of coordinating the efforts for sexual reforms, reformers such as Hirschfeld and orthodox Marxists such as Lenin, Luxemburg, Kautsky, and Bebel were in practical agreement. It was only after the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the subsequent political success of the SPD in the Reichstag that the difference between the orthodox and the radical Marxists manifested itself.

The emergence of workers’ councils as a bourgeois democratic form with de facto power in the 1905 revolution posed the practical possibility of party-educated workers taking state power to lead the revolution. The party leadership’s support for parliamentary forms, which were opposed to proletarian socialist leadership of the revolution, anticipated the SPD’s support of the provisional government in the October Revolution of 1917 and the failed German Revolution of 1918.

As the largest party in the Reichstag, the SPD itself had begun to lead society, and consequently took on the same crisis of society. In the context of socialist sexual reforms this meant that the advances of the party’s efforts to ameliorate the conditions of “sexual variants” also simultaneously deepened the problem of the capitalist state. In November of 1918 Hirschfeld wrote that, with the establishment of the provisional government by Scheidemann and Ebert, all those whom the sexual emancipation movement had fought for would be finally liberated from their oppression. With the removal of the Prussian state, and the relaxing of obscenity laws in 1919, Hirschfeld could broaden his work under the new state management of the SPD by developing his Institute for Sexual Research and the World League for Sexual Reform.

In 1919, after Ebert and Scheidemann had put down the Spartacist Uprising, the state of the Weimar Republic required the police to delegate some of their authority to new positions within the state bureaucracy: social workers. Hirschfeld relied on this expansion of the state bureaucracy and its social workers to process legal name changes for his patients. The same year, Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Research, in order to provide regulated medical services to his patients. Prior to this his patients would perform a variety of surgical procedures on themselves, including hormone replacement, self-castration, facial-hair epilation, paraffin injections, breast removal, and uterus removal. By 1921 the Institute had attempted its first male-to-female surgery. In 1922, the Berlin municipal government changed their enforcement of the penal paragraphs 360/11 and 183, reiterating that wearing clothes of the opposite sex was not illegal, unless it involved prostitution. Just as Scheidemann and Ebert rendered the workers’ councils impotent by incorporating them into the state through the Workmen’s Councils Legislation in order to preserve the Reich state under new management, Hirschfeld relegated the sexual and gender identities of sexual variants to the realm of state management.

By contrast, in the October Revolution, when the soviets conquered power from the provisional government, they abrogated the tsarist legal codes, thereby abolishing the penalization of sodomy and cross-dressing. This opened up the potential for various lifestyles to develop in private, just as they had in the 17th and 18th centuries, without the guardianship of the state. Because there were no official state positions concerning issues of homosexuality, transvestitism, or transsexualism, medical and juridical experts would weigh in with their professional opinions if and when political problems concerning sexuality and gender emerged at the level of the soviets. Medical doctors and psychologists such as N.F. Orlov and P.B. Gannushkin, were influenced by Hirschfeld’s efforts, insisting that the soviets should not disregard requests for sex change as a decadent “German Problem.” Indeed, the medical entry on homosexuality in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, written by the psychologist Mark Sereiskii, was inspired by Hirschfeld’s research. Sereiskii assumed Hirschfeld’s belief that sexual variation was a natural condition which should not be penalized.

Throughout the 1920s in the European regions and urban centers of Russia it had become regular, though tenuous, for individuals to request and for soviets to permit an operative and lawful sex change. In Moscow’s city health department, some medical practitioners would carry out the surgery and several medical cases show that doctors documented their patients with both a male and a female name. Presumably, these patients and their doctors took advantage of a legal loophole which allowed patients with hermaphroditism to undergo surgery. Some of these individuals even gained legal family rights: when a female-to-male transsexual, Evgenii Fedorovich, married a female postal worker in 1922, a soviet court decreed that the marriage was legal. However, due to the infrequency of these cases, the 1929 Expert Medical Council postponed clarifying “the right (pravo) of transvestites to enter into marriage with persons of the same sex and […] the right [of doctors] to produce operations to change the sex of transvestites legality for another time.”[8]

Despite the advancements in sexual freedom achieved by the October Revolution, the resources of the soviet state did not match the goals of the Communist Party, not least of all with respect to issues of sexuality and the family. The failure of the revolution to become international and the turmoil of the Russian Civil War engendered ideological disorientation resulting in the subsequent period of Stalinization. For Trotsky, the suppression of the youth’s questions about the compromise of the party’s stated goals, as a measure to prevent splits and factions, naturalized the unfavorable conditions of the Civil War and curtailed the party’s ability to anticipate new possibilities and tasks.[9] Trotsky argued that the convolution of the party and the state bureaucracy motivated the repression of questions with regard to the party’s utopian goals. This conflation led to the reconstitution of traditional moral and family laws which would more exploitatively enforce the reproduction of the working class including the reinstatement of the law criminalizing homosexual behavior. This abandoned the party’s role of anticipating the tasks towards the proletariat’s self-abolition.[10] The reversals of sexual liberation during this period of reaction, such as the banning of sex-reassignment surgeries and the re-criminalization of homosexuality, could be understood as part of the problem of the failure of the Socialist International and its leading parties, the SPD and the RSDLP/Communist Party, to realize their end goal.

The trans identity and counterrevolution

Just as the theory of vulgar Marxists throughout the crisis of Marxism naturalized the relationship of the movement and the party to the state, resulting in ideological obstacles to the task of advancing the socialist revolution, the theory of the socialist sexual reformers naturalized the relationship of sexuality to the state, resulting in ideological obstacles to critical reflection on the failure of the revolution. Both Hirschfeld and Sereskeii prioritized the biological as opposed to the social explanation of sexuality. Not only did this obscure the way in which sexual variance is a manifestation of an individual’s free pursuit of happiness, but moreover this same biological understanding was the basis for the re-criminalization of homosexuality in both Germany and Russia.

This casts the supposed “advancements” of the 20th century, such as the “gender clinics” of Hirschfeld’s student Harry Benjamin, in a different light: it would allow us to understand them as moments in the self-liquidation of the party throughout the 20th century, which permits us to apologize for declining political horizons today. Benjamin used Hirschfeld’s terms to relegate transitional hormones and surgeries to those who had exhibited the correct pathologies. Competition for these resources reinforced fractures within the gay subculture between transvestites, transgender people and transsexuals. Subsequently the term “trans” itself was proffered by Jordy Jones as an umbrella term for all gender variance. But still, the social pressures on trans individuals to “come out” as an “authentic self” that one “always was” has reinforced the ways in which trans people have been integrated into the state-regulated medical industry and the LGBTQ public-services bureaucracy.

The extent to which sexual emancipation remains a salient political demand is the extent to which it has continued to develop as an aspect of bourgeois society, however in crisis. There can be no sexual freedom in an unfree society. Actual sexual emancipation is not realizable on a basis of “generalized want” in response to the crisis of capitalism. This would have to be replaced by the unfettered development of human potential, as Marx formulated nearly 160 years ago. Socialism, should it become a world-historic effort building upon this newly emerging political context, could not offer anything particular to any group or any particular creed; it could only offer the emancipation of all humanity. Without a mass international socialist party, such as the Second International, there is no room for critical reflection or debate actually informing mass political practice and international social action. Without this, it is not possible to critically recognize sexual liberation’s own history in relation to emerging practical tasks and possibilities for social change. The struggle for socialism and sexual emancipation can be understood as epiphenomena of the historical problem of advancing the project of freedom, rather than as interest groups within the state, as they were seen in the past by Hirschfeld and as they are still seen today. The contemporary Left attempts to use them to mobilize constituents as pressure groups to agitate existing civic institutions and the Democratic Party. However, their more powerful effect is the political miseducation of the youth they aim to enlist to such a cause. Not only do today’s ostensible advances run the risk of transforming into their opposite, but even worse, the potential to even consider, let alone make use of, history is constrained. The “Left” today in their “resistance” to the state and gender actually identify with both. The disjecta membra of previous attempts to change the world are used to justify the wrongness of the present one, whereas the point in the past was to master society, as a kind of second nature, and thereby pose the possibility of transforming it. | P

[1] Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.” In K. Marx & F. Engels, Collected Works Vol. 3 (pp. 229–348). London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1959, p. 269.

[2]Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. New York: Vintage Books, 1973, p.488.

[3] ibid.

[4] Kautsky, Karl. “Der Staatssozialismus.” Der Sozialdemokrat, 1881; Kautsky, Karl. “Die Abschaffung des Staates.” Der Sozialdemokrat, 1881.

[5] Bebel, August. (John Lauritsen, Trans.) “The Man Who Spoke Out: 80th Anniversary of a Landmark in Gay Rights.” Gay News, 1978, p. 136.

[6] Lenin, V. I. What is to be Done?: Burning Questions of Our Movement. 1969. New York: International Publishers, p. 40.

[7] Ibid., p.172.

[8] Healey, Dan. Homosexual desire in Revolutionary Russia: the regulation of sexual and gender dissent. 2001. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 170.

[9] Trotsky, Leon. The revolution betrayed: what is the Soviet Union and where is it going? 2009. New York, NY: Pathfinder Press, p.162-163.

[10] Ibid., p.267.

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