Gay For History

or 5 Points for Trans Feminism

I was lucky to join Max Fox and Jules Gleeson at Haymarket Books for ‘Gay For History,’ a fab conversation stemming from the crossroads of our books, thinking, and the experience of desiring and producing history in gay, queer, and trans registers. The event was recorded and is embedded below; I also wanted to publish my opening remarks.


ONE OF THE PARTICULARLY successful strategies of today’s moral panics amounts to something like the advantage of libidinal warfare: calling the bluff of liberalism and daring it to admit that the entire edifice of reason is a paranoid prison outside of which the panic moralist laughs in a performance of angry pleasure, spreading disinformation and reveling in the enjoyment of promiscuous unreason. There is an easy version of this to pin on the anemic middle of the US or UK, the kind of liberal “allies” who, as I frequently complain to friends in only half-joking terms, will surely be held up at a Sex and the City-style brunch while we are being locked up, virtue signaling about how they had a cousin who dated “one of those trans people” in college—for a semester, or something.

The harder lesson for the left is not to moralize in reaction to the panic moralist who, let’s not forget, is not merely making money from books with patently absurd subtitles like The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, or When Ideology Meets Reality. The professional trans panicker is also carrying on what she has libidinally metabolized as a civilizational mandate for white women as keepers of the order of things. The great empire of White Womanhood has been at it through sentimental and moral genres since the nineteenth century. She and her friends goad us on because they hope we will respond to their cheap moralism with the weakness of debunking and fact-checking, or dunking on their inconsistencies with quote-tweets, lamenting their hypocrisies and fallacies, and all the while pretending that could outmaneuver, rather than renew the resolve, of their libidinal politics. And so, we witness, time after time, how the liberalism inside each of us bows to the fascism that is its neighbor by making of reason a moral principle for goodness, where goodness turns out to be a fantasy that only we are clinging to, not a description of the terms of engagement with our oppressors. “When they go low, we go high,” or something equally haughty in that it imagines reason as transcendently capable of denuding a sex panic.

There’s nothing to denude. That’s our first mistake. The second is to think that we need a new moralism—which is to say, an extra justification—to defend ourselves at all, besides the fact that we are flesh and blood.

When TERFs and their fascist allies openly employ a blood libel that transition is funded by a cabal of Jewish billionaires seeking to destabilize their children’s genders; or ally with bought-and-paid-for legislators to ban our children from going to school or the doctor; or call trans women pedophiles with impunity; or send us death and rape threats before accusing us of doing the same; or invent an entire incident at a spa in Los Angeles in order to get today’s brown shirts out into the streets and invite the police to come beat and shoot trans protesters at point blank range with rubber bullets—well, none of these actions need to be revealed to the public in the light of paranoid reason. There is not truth hiding behind them to ferret out.

These are not ideological ruses, some sort of side-show or distraction. This is the main stage of history and the social media age sophistry that is disinformation is not window dressing to a hidden “real” politics. There is no “sudden culture war” targeting trans girls, as the New York Times put it so poorly a few months ago. To violently eject trans women and girls from the public sphere, the clinic, school and, consequently, the labor market, is a material issue, not a “cultural” one. The over 100 anti-trans bills tabled in state legislatures this year were not smoke and mirrors to distract from anti-Black voting legislation, they were their open collaborator and partner in maintain a republic founded on codified white supremacy in the form of private property rights. The preventable mass death of hundreds of thousands at the hands of the neoliberal state, which has withdrawn what meager benefits it ponied up to force people back to work for unlivable wages, is part of the same political operation. We don’t need an elitist, ethnocentric and Western fantasy of reason to save us from this racist, transphobic flavor of corporate authoritarianism fueled by moral sex panics. It’s all evident and before our eyes. 

The question is rather what do we want, or what do we desire to do about it?

What I’m getting at is that “we”--on the left, or in queer and trans and anti-racist struggle-- need our libidinal investments too. Only liberalism’s self-limiting ascetic ideal asks that we renounce feeling for reason to preserve our stubborn pride in the face of so much lost ground. Those investments are something like what we’re calling here today being gay for history

We are only as helpless as we declare ourselves to be.

Let me offer a preliminary sketch of an alternative, non-moralistic, and historical-materialist approach to “trans feminism”—something I’m working on in a short book provisionally entitled A Brief History of Trans Femininity. Think of this as an alternative to trying to prove TERFs wrong and thereby reclaim feminism and womanhood. Think of it, in other words, as moving away from the idea that “trans feminism” only ever means trans-inclusive regular feminism, as if the trick is merely to excise the error of the TERF to restore the goodness of the original term, instead of transform and radicalize its vision from a trans feminine standpoint.

The shifts would go something like this, in 5 points that are also, by the way, deeply informed by my sitting with both Sexual Hegemony and Transgender Marxism, two books for which I am deeply grateful:

  1.  The ends of feminism are not formal and representational; therefore, correctly defining womanhood to include trans women is not its aim;

  2. Trans femininity is not a crisis of definition, nor valuable insofar as it expresses an internal gender identity that can be owned like private property; therefore, the goal of trans feminist politics cannot be “gender self-determination” where “self-determination” is an analogy to political self-determination, which is a collective rather than an individual, property-bearing process. (As any post-colonialist could tell you, when a collectivity self-determines, it hardly or inevitably leads to harmony and identity.)

  3.  If not individual gender self-determination and formal inclusion within the category womanhood, trans feminism might take a historical point of view and think about how trans femmes know something about what we could call the “collective ownership of the means of gender’s production” within larger anti-capitalist, anti-statist struggles.

  4. If trans femininity is not a sexological category that fusses over being or not being a narrow racialized definition of woman, we might propose that, historically speaking, trans femininity is a racialized and criminalized labor category. Trans femmes emerge, antagonize, and are targeted through the lens of sex work above all, not just in the metropoles of Europe or North America, but globally, beginning in the nineteenth century, through colonial projects racializing sex work and “native custom” through one fell swoop, as in the case of anti-prostitution campaigns in India that radically disenfranchised Hijras. Trans femininity is a criminalized, pathologized, but also made a central lumpen proletarian category of labor that, during much of the twentieth century, collects around the figure of the street queen: the feminized public sex worker and nightlife service economy worker. Trans femmes form alternate household units with mothers and kinship systems like the Black and brown ballroom worlds in large American cities, not as idealized or parodic citations of hetero gender norms, but as actual labor and kinship systems for surviving in a largely informal economy. Trans femininity is a central category of social reproduction, one whose contradictions are evident in the truism that that everyone’s husband is fucking us, or watching us in porn, while their wives are joining moral crusades to eradicate us. 

  5. Suddenly, trans feminism is no longer a problem defined by exclusion or inclusion; instead, trans feminism is based in a historical materialist analysis of sex work, criminalization, and the social reproductive labor of feminized subjects whose centrality to modern urban space in metropoles, settler colonies, and global south colonies and postcolonies offers a rich political grammar for building coalitional trans politics against exploitation and immiseration.

This is one example of what I would aver that it means to practice being gay for history.