The roots of trans oppression

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.

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21 thoughts on “The roots of trans oppression

  1. I agree with the overall direction of your post, PS, but I’m going to pick you up on this: ^Generally, men, who had primarily been wild-game hunters, domesticated and herded large animals … Men, therefore, were in charge of stockpiling this abundance …^

    I keep seeing this assertion, but am unaware of any evidence for it. Patriarchy appears to have risen in early Bronze Age civilisations at around the time massive stockpiling began – when cities were accumulating wealth (in the form of food and also minerals) in big enough quantities to require vast storehouses, some of which remain today and are, in any case, documented within surviving written evidence. Those cities and even empires seem to have been run by either women or men, dependent on everyday causes like heritage (daughters/sons) and wars (won by armies serving female or male leaders.)

    It’s totally unclear how men managed to take control of nearly everything. But it was probably a case of individual males realising they could physically overpower their female leaders, even getting them pregnant & creating new lineage if they planned it right … Anyway, my intention wasn’t to explain the phenomenon but to query this idea that men did all the ‘stockpiling’.

    I once worked with an organisation that specialises in supporting the women of rural communities in the developing world. The reason this specialism exists is that substantial overseas aid reaches many such communities but then makes no difference. This is because international aid providers make contact with the male leaders – who are put forward as spokesmen. These spokesmen have no idea how the community economy works or what’s needed to improve it … because, you guessed, the women do all the work and take produce to market, the women know which resources are poor and which could be better exploited, and the women understand their community’s needs.

    Those are modern equivalents of Bronze Age civilisations, give or take a few mobile phones and maybe a truck. The overarching pattern is women doing it all, making everything work out, while the men strut around being important and looking for a fight. OK, that was simplistic and probably rude – but the point of this extremely long comment is that being “the hunter” (women hunt, too!) does not automatically lead to being the stockpiler & owner. That takes opportunistic violence.

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      • Oh, OK, so I’ve just joined in a little with your nit-picking 😀

        I really liked the way you showed how close she got to the root, but never made it because her lens was slightly out of focus. I often feel like that when talking about gender with trans advocates.

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      • One of the things I remember from anthro classes discussing modern hunter-gatherers: women whether gathering, fishing, or hunting generally provide about three quarters of the group’s calories. Men would get large (celebrated, of course) single kills, but weren’t actually the main providers. There’s no evidence of a big difference in that pattern through time.

        And then, as far as the origin of agriculture goes (which is close to my field in biology), one of the likeliest scenarios is that women would store the excess of what they gathered near home. When that sprouted, it was obviously much simpler to collect than walking for miles.

        So, when it comes to stockpiling, it’s much likelier to have been women who worked out the basics.

        Who then decided to take control, well, as they say, the rest is history.

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        • This is indeed true. Hunting was notoriously inconsistent. There are also cultures in which men would sometimes eat their kill before reaching the village.

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    • I think I may agree with your point. I believe that patriarchy became widespread with the rise of empire and empire building, which does have correlation with the Bronze age. Historically China was matrilineal. By the Shang dynasty, it was completely patriarchal. However, there were patriarchal cultures before the bronze age, so although empire building may have been the final nail in the coffin of cultures developing as matrilineal, even before the “rise of civilizations” men were trying to control female reproduction so they could control their decedents and thus society. So I think there are multiple points in time were patriarchy began, but patriarchy became the majority with the rise of empire building.

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  2. A note on those matrilineal belief systems that the Catholic Church usurped – they would have been very warlike, and they wouldn’t have been matriarchies.

    The origin of warfare is problems with population levels vs. resources available. Originally, there would’ve been a huge amount of infanticide (of mostly females) to control the population. Warfare emerged as a ‘solution’ to this issue (according to Marvin Harris, anyway). Matrilineal cultures have to engage in warfare on a wider scale with more distant tribes because there’s a good chance that they’re related to the clans who live nearby. This has been shown repeatedly in anthropological studies into the patterns of warfare engaged in by matrilineal vs. patrilinal cultures. Since men control warfare (and weapons) in these cultures, the cultures are effectively patriarchal.

    Women and gender non-conforming men had a ceremonial role in religious and political life, but the underlying power structure was still male-dominated. This ceremonial role was usurped by monotheistic religion and appropriated to some extent (see Virgin Mary and Celtic goddesses becoming female saints). None of it constituted oppression of ‘trans’ people. It was one male-dominated power structure replacing another. If you were a GNC man or a woman though, things started to suck even more than they already did: you lost even the ceremonial role you had. I guess most GNC men went and joined the clergy (where they repressed themselves for political power) and women got less respect and even more drudgery.

    Of course, I’m nit-picking Feinberg here, not you.

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    • A lot of the matrilineal cultures/belief systems in the Mediterranean, like the Minoans, were gone by the time of Catholicism. In fact, I believe the sexism in Catholicism was reflective of the intensely patriarchal Greek and Roman empires, which screwed over women in more sex-egalitarian societies such as the Etruscans, ancient Egypt, Basque country (although this did have powerful women up to Catholicism) and some Celtic tribes. In other words, cultures that were most likely not Indo-European or Indo-Iranian. All of these cultures were patrilineal/ patriarchal (although to differing degrees).

      In terms of warfare in matrilineal cultures, however, while the men may have controlled the weapons, women could overturn chiefs and decide when to wage war. So these cultures were not patriarchies, even when they went to war.

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      • Ancient Egypt was definitely patriarchal before Greco-Roman times – it became so as a result of population instability and famine, which happened even before Upper and Lower Eqypt were united. The Minoans – you perhaps have a point there, but they’re a special case, being on an island. The Celts were mostly patriarchal and patrilineal (although they did have an interesting facet in that the women trained the men in warfare). The Pre-Celtic people in Britain may have been matrilineal. The Picts were matrilineal, and they are something of an enigma. The Etruscans were patriarchal.

        You’re right that the matrilineal cultures and belief systems were nearly all gone by the time of the Roman Catholic Church. I suppose some remnants of the ancient cultures might have remained in places, but only in a dim way.

        While matrilineal cultures might have been more egalitarian than Greece and Rome – most of the other European patrilineal cultures were also more egalitarian than Greece and Rome. I guess not all patriarchies are created equal.

        Harris’s study of matrilineal cultures was based on North America, so maybe it’s a bit of a mistake to compare that to European cultures. I think though, it still mostly applies. The Celts and Ancient Egyptians were patriarchies – just because they were more egalitarian than Greece/Rome doesn’t alter this fact.

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        • Although ancient Egypt and Estruscsn culture were patriarchal and patrilineal, women still had a lot more rights than Roman and Greek women. Egyptian women could divorce, own property, engage in premarital sex and were simply more involved in public life. The level of patriarchy is disputable, actually, in Etruscan civilian. There is evidence of matrinomes alongside patronomes before Roman conquest, and women are both depicted in art as engaging at least equally with men and are buried with wealth unrelated to men. But no one will know for sure because the Etruscan language, not being at all related to Indo European, has not really been translated – but the evidence that women had more rights before Rome is there. It seems more like of mix of patrilineal and matrilineal aspects. Either way it all changed with Roman conquest.

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        • I personally think that these cultural details and distinctions are important in terms of studying patriarchal evolution, but of course I see your point in that Egypt and possibly the Etruscans were patriarchal. But you’re right in that not all patriarchies are created equal – traditional Basque culture is another example.

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        • I think it’s worth bearing that in mind when discussing patriarchy as it currently exists. When antifeminists use the old ‘Western Europe and North America are hardly patriarchal compared to…’ argument, you need to be able to show that these cultures are still patriarchal because they most certainly are.

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  3. As to the bit about Deuteronomy … You wrote, “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?”

    Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with transgenderism. Your analysis is good, as, far as it goes, citing men who have been injured due to war or work. But any history major (and thank you for saying that you are not “good at history”) would be able to tell you that one of the reasons the Hebrews set themselves apart by religious and tribal law was to end the rule of women in the other religions and cultures around them. It was common for men who wanted to serve as priests for the goddesses Astarte, Cybele, Anat, etc. to self-castrate or be ritually castrated in order to be feminine enough to serve the goddess. This is what Deuteronomy is talking about. They don’t want anyone in their tabernacle who had served the goddess in any capacity; women of course could not serve; nor could men who had altered themselves in order to serve.

    In When God Was A Woman, Merlin Stone makes clear that the entire Old Testament is all about suppressing the rule of woman and the Goddess religions that were everywhere in the Fertile Crescent. If transgenderism was suppressed as well, that was just a side-note in a symphony about the suppression of WOMEN.

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    • Wow, that’s interesting about the priests! I was thinking about the Old Testament tribes as I went to sleep last night (pretty unusual for a lifetime atheist) in just those terms. For most of us, the bible is our best insight to human culture 4,000 years ago. It’s not a bad source for what it is, but differs radically from other things that were going on around the same time, in the same region. It makes sense that the Hebrews’ separatism was prompted by wholesale rejection of existing civilisations – including stronger roles for women.

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    • This is interesting, Silverapplequeen. Feinberg did mention castrated male priestesses a lot, although she referred to them as male-to-female transgender. I’ve been skeptical about that one because men who’ve been castrated to serve as priestesses probably bear little resemblance to modern people like Bruce Jenner. This information makes the Deuteronomy quote seem relevant though, insofar as it talks about the laws against men feminizing themselves.

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  4. Here and now, there’s a lot of pressure to turn “boys” into “real men.”

    I think Serano’s concept of “traditional sexism” and “oppositional sexism” is a good starting-point. I think “traditional sexism” includes the ideas that maleness is best and that toxic masculinity is best. And “oppositional sexism” includes the idea that conforming to one’s assigned role is best.

    I think most contemporary Hijras are trans, and they’re our best analogue to similar past religious communities.

    Supposedly, during the reign of King Josiah, the priests “discovered” a previously unknown book of the law. Perhaps the earliest version of Deuteronomy, which gave them the pretext to suppress worship of Asherah.

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  5. Patriarchy and toxic masculinity encourage assholery, but I can’t rule out the idea that men were already pre-disposed to assholery.

    I am not a biologist, so take this with a grain of salt.

    But from what I’ve read, male bonobos have much lower testosterone levels than male chimpanzees. The decline in testosterone may have co-exovolved with the decline in assholery among male bonobos.

    I can’t find three-way comparisons including humans.

    And from what I’ve read female spotted hyenas have much higher testosterone levels than female striped hyenas. The increase in testosterone may have co-evolved with the increase in assholery among female spotted hyenas.

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