One of the reasons that Leslie Feinberg researched the history of trans people is to find out whether they have always been oppressed and why their oppression began. She discussed the historical examples she found of cross dressing or sex change in her book Transgender Warriors and traced the rise of discrimination against such people. Page numbers in this post will refer to the book Transgender Warriors.
Feinberg searched for trans people in history by looking for any mention of cross-dressing or sex change in historical texts. She did find lots of mentions of cross-dressing, but I’m a bit skeptical about whether anything she found actually constitutes sex change.
Here’s an example of something I’m skeptical about. She quoted Deuteronomy as an example of early bigotry against male-to-female transgender expression. “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter the congregation of the Lord” (p 50). This quote displays bigotry toward men who have lost their genitals, but does this have anything to do with transgenderism? In early societies men could have lost their genitals due to illness or accidents. They were doing physical labor and didn’t have modern hospitals. I don’t think we can know whether the writer of Deuteronomy had male-to-female expression in mind while writing this, or whether feminine men in this time period ever removed their genitals for transgender reasons. I am always skeptical of modern people taking these historical texts and interpreting them in terms of our understanding of transgenderism today. It seems like that is likely to turn out inaccurate.
I don’t doubt that there have always been cross-dressers and people who have been different from what we normally expect from men and women. I also don’t doubt there have always been people born intersex. It’s the way modern people interpret these things that draws out my skepticism. I do agree with Feinberg on one important point here, and that is that patriarchal societies discriminate against cross dressers and people who have a different gender expression than expected. I view this through a feminist lens and I would describe this as patriarchal systems enforcing rigid gender roles on people and punishing those who deviate from the norm in order to reinforce patriarchy.
In addition to using religious texts and historical accounts, she also drew from communist theory for her theory of the development of trans oppression. This means that she blames the class division and patriarchy for trans oppression, which comes pretty close to my own theories.
“The accumulation of wealth in the form of herds, agriculture, and trade led to deepening class divisions among the Hebrews, so no wonder the religious beliefs and laws began to reflect the interests of the small group who owned the wealth and their struggle to strengthen their control over the majority.” (p 50.)
The invention of private property led men to need control over their wealth and their wives and children and this also led to strict divisions between the sexes.
She draws on the work of Frederick Engels to describe the overthrow of communalism and the rise of private property.
“In every society in which human labor grew more productive with the use of improved tools and techniques, people stored up more than what they needed for immediate consumption. This surplus was the first accumulation of wealth. Generally, men, who had primarily been wild-game hunters, domesticated and herded large animals, which represents the first wealth. Men, therefore, were in charge of stockpiling this abundance: cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and the surplus of dried and smoked meats and hides, milk, cheese, and yogurt.
Prior to this surplus, tools, utensils, and other possessions were commonly owned within the matrilineal gens. As wealth accumulated in the male sphere of labor, the family structure began to change, and men began to pass on inheritance to their male heirs. Those who had large families and other advantages gathered and stored more surplus. These inequalities, small at first, became the basis of the enrichment of some male tribal members over the women and the tribe as a whole.” (p51-52.)
“Shackling a vast laboring class meant creating armies, police, courts, and prisons to enforce the ownership of private property. However, whips and chains alone couldn’t ensure the rule of the new wealthy elite. A tiny, parasitic class can’t live in luxury off the wealth of a vast, laboring class without keeping the majority divided and pitted against each other. This is where the necessity for bigotry began.
I found the origin of trans oppression at this intersection between the overthrow of mother-right and the rise of patriarchal class-divided societies. It is at this very nexus that edicts like Deuteronomy arose. Law, including religious law, codified class relations.” (p52)
She even names some points about the development of patriarchy that agree with radical feminism.
“Once property-owning males ascended to a superior social position, those categories could not be bridged or blurred without threatening those who owned and controlled this new wealth.” (p62)
“The heterosexual family, headed by the father, became a state dictate because it was the economic vehicle that ensured wealth would be passed on to sons.” (p62)
“Males who were viewed as “womanly” were an affront to the men in power.” (p62)
“Hatred and contempt for women partly accounts for the growing hostility of the ruling classes toward men they considered too feminine.” (p62)
While reading these chapters I found that Feinberg had described the rise of capitalist patriarchy and named that as the source of trans oppression. She gave considerable attention to the way the European Catholic Church eliminated matrilineal belief systems and communal living. These earlier cultures tended to accept and even celebrate cross-dressing and include it as a form of expression in cultural and spiritual ceremonies, but the Catholic Church, representing the interests of ruling class men, eliminated these cultures and outlawed cross-dressing in order to protect its own power. I agree with her about this, although I would use slightly different words to describe it.
In my own words, the rise of capitalist patriarchy led to the discrimination against people she describes as “trans” because it created a hierarchy between men and women and separated the sexes into distinct roles. This means that people who blurred the lines by taking on roles not allowed to them by capitalist patriarchy were subject to corrective violence. This corrective violence was done to protect the patriarchal system and the ruling classes—both the economic ruling class and the ruling sex class (men).
Feinberg doesn’t specifically name the enforcement of gender roles as a method of protecting patriarchy, although I think she did understand this, she just didn’t put it into focus. Rather than focusing on the female sex class she focused on all cross-dressers as a group. I think it’s a mistake to consider both males and females to be part of the same oppressed group, since this disappears the sex hierarchy. Both male and female cross dressers are discriminated against, but they still have different places in the hierarchy. Men are expected to take their place as head of the family, husband and father, while women are expected to take their place as domestic servant and breeder. Both groups aren’t subject to the same discrimination.
To repeat a quote that I mentioned above:
“A tiny, parasitic class can’t live in luxury off the wealth of a vast, laboring class without keeping the majority divided and pitted against each other. This is where the necessity for bigotry began.” (p52)
It looks like she saw bigotry against cross-dressers and gender variant people as a deliberate strategy by the ruling class to keep the working class fighting each other so that they wouldn’t overthrow their economic oppression. This is a decent theory, because the ruling class does indeed introduce social issues in order to distract the proletariat from forming class consciousness and working together to fight for their own class interests. We can still see this happening today. However, I see the bigotry against gender variant people as rooted in the need for sex hierarchy between men and women and the enforcement of cultural beliefs about men and women that are used to protect that hierarchy.
It’s important that communists, particularly communist women, analyze oppression on the axis of biological sex as well as economic class. Just as we need to create class consciousness among the proletariat, we need to create class consciousness among women, and we need to see ourselves as a class of people with a common class interest. I think it was a mistake for Feinberg to focus on both male and female cross-dressers as a group, rather than identifying with her sex class. All women are harmed by the enforcement of gender roles coming from capitalist patriarchy, although that harm will look different depending on whether we conform or not to feminine gender expression. Women whose political analysis doesn’t come from viewing the female sex class as a distinct group will ultimately create politics that don’t support women’s best interests. For example, Feinberg was against Michfest, even though it was created with women like her in mind, because she considered her political allies to be cross-dressing males rather than the female sex-class. Of course, feminists need to also be cognizant that they are listening to butch women and not doing things to alienate them from the movement.
One of the biggest failures of the left is the failure to recognize sex-based oppression and that other forms of discrimination flow from it. I think Feinberg’s analysis came close to the truth but just stopped short before getting there.