Wed Sep 27, 2023
September 27, 2023

On Brazil’s “Trans Visibility Day,” Popular Unity (UP) Defends Transphobic Stance on Gender Identity

Originally Published: 2/2/2023

By: The National LGBTI Secretariat of the PSTU-B

On January 29, “National Trans Visibility Day” in Brazil was marked by marches, struggles, and debates throughout the country demanding an end to transphobia. This day, which was established after a huge protest held in Brasilia in 2004 as part of the “Trasvesti and Respect” campaign, is extremely important, namely because it draws attention to the many forms of violence that mark the lives of millions of people whose gender identities do not match the gender imposed at birth (i.e., cisgender identities).

The capitalist system – which always uses oppression as a way to marginalize and exploit huge sectors of the population – deploys these forms of violence in very concrete ways. These forms of violence include chronic unemployment, expulsion from schools, segregation in the labor market, the denial of access to the health system, the imposition of prostitution as the only way to survive, in addition to physical, psychological and symbolic aggressions, as we denounced in the article “Brazil is the country where one LGBTQI+ person is murdered every 34 hours and, for the 14th year in a row, more transsexuals are killed.”

For this very reason, in the face of the enormous gravity of this situation, and the need to enter into this debate with seriousness and responsibility, we are outraged by a post made on Twitter by Popular Unity for Socialism (UP) on “Trans Visibility Day.”  Among several other problems with the post, the party develops a scientifically outdated and essentially transphobic position under the pretext of solidarity with this struggle.

“(…) We must collectively fight for transgender and transsexual people to have a dignified life and access to the means to resolve their condition (of not identifying with the body they were born into),” says an excerpt from the post, which is actually part of an article published in 2019 on the UP portal, under the title “Why Fight Alongside Trans People?”

We share the indignation of many people who have expressed themselves on Twitter. The outrage expressed by trans people, but also by activists from various sectors and organizations, eventually led UP to delete and change the post. But in no way are we surprised by the situation.

Nor do we see, as some supporters and activists of UP have argued, that the text is a “slip,” or that it is the result of a “wording problem.” Much less do we accept that the problem can be “overlooked,” since it was written by a trans militant and it is a recent text that was approved in its entirety by the organization. In other words, there was knowledge and intention to affirm all parts of the statement, in addition excerpts were reposted online. For us, the underlying problem is that the text confirms and reinforces that the UP (headed by the PCR, Revolutionary Communist Party), despite its failed attempts at “revisionism” on the issue, continues to echo the worst of the Stalinist tradition on gender and sexuality.

Gender identity is not a “condition to be solved”

Before pointing out why the UP’s text is fundamentally transphobic and reflects a political conception rooted in Stalinism, it is worth pointing out that it is not by chance that Jones Manoel, from the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), was one of the first to speak out.  In a deeply biased way, he “passed the buck” to the UP and tried to dismiss criticism regarding the history of betrayals and crimes that Stalinism committed in connection with the LGBTQI+ struggle as well.

Assuming his role at the head of Stalinist revisionism, Jones Manoel rushed to counterattack while completely ignoring “Trans Visibility Day” and the merits of the post. He used one of his usual generalizations (“Conservatism in Marxist organizations is a serious problem”) and once again tried to attack Trotskyism.

The problem, however, is that the debate with UP is not simply about the “conservatism” of leftist organizations. It is about a worldview, and particularly about the issues surrounding manifestations of sexuality and gender that do not fit into heterosexuality and cisgenderedness. This is a debate in which Stalinism has always been on the wrong side of history.

By stating that trans people need to “solve their condition,” UP sinks the whole debate in a “naturalistic” or “biologizing” conception of the issue since gender identity has nothing to do with the “biological body in which they were born.” This understanding is long outdated and has been “buried”  by the uninterrupted struggles and political-theoretical elaborations of travestis, transsexuals, and transgendered persons. Under the cover of solidarity with transgender people, they rescue the absurd idea that transsexuality is a “disease” that needs surgical and medical intervention in order to be cured.

We completely repudiate this stance. As we recently discussed in the text “Understanding gender and transsexuality from a Marxist and revolutionary perspective,” when it comes to gender issues (including those who are straight, cisgender or non-binary), “the major differences are dictated by Culture (understood as an individual’s relationship with a ‘way of life’ and the social relations of their time), not by Biology.”

In other words, from a Marxist and revolutionary perspective, the understanding of “gender” is something determined by historical processes and the socio-economic characteristics of a given period. Under capitalism, gender is fundamentally associated with the role that a person is given in the division of labor and their position within broader social relations. Gender is not determined by biology or “nature.”

Discussing transsexuality through the beyond-mistaken notion that “a person in a wrong body needs to ‘fix their condition'” means not understanding that it is transphobic oppression itself that imposes marginalization, oppression, and violence on these bodies, along with the idea that they have to be “eliminated.”

Human beings do not exist outside prevailing social relations. Our ideas about the self and the world are conditioned by capitalism. The necessity that these social relations be reproduced fosters transphobic ideologies that naturalize the social roles of women and men. Just as it is not possible to subvert these roles without changing the social relations that maintain them, that is, fighting ideas in the field of ideas, as the identitarians do, neither is it possible to aim for a new society without defeating the prejudices that divide the working class.

Vulgar visions of Marxism, such as Stalinism, and even some currents that claim to be Trotskyist like the PCO ( as in a recent polemic published against us), see human beings as mere “puppets” of history, without will or individuality. In this way, they make trans identity invisible.

The only condition to be solved, whether for trans people, LGBTQI+ people, or all others oppressed and exploited under capitalism is the overthrow of this system. We must put an end to the system that prevents the free and complete expression of human beings, that divides us, catalogues us, marginalizes us. We must topple the system based on the inequalities, prejudices, and ideologies that reign in a society founded on exploitation and based on oppression.

March on the National Day of Trans Visibility | Photo: Press Release

Pathologizing transsexuality is more than conservatism, it is a reactionary discourse

The text published by UP, even though it wants to take a supposedly “progressive” position of non-pathologization (treating as a disease), does exactly the opposite:

“(…) For a long time gender dysphoria was treated as a disease, a condition to be ashamed of, which was due to the force of prevailing extremely sexist and LGBTIphobic morality, even with science having advanced to the point of solving this problem more reasonably, through hormone replacement and sexual reassignment surgery. If these people feel bad as they are, and the means exist to resolve the situation, why shouldn’t they? The problem is definitely not with them, but with those who stand in their way (…),” states UP in the article (with emphasis added).

The term “dysphoria,” employed insistently in the text, is used to designate a feeling of “dissatisfaction, anguish, anxiety, and uneasiness” in relation to one’s own body. And, more importantly, it is used by the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) to frame transsexuality as “gender dysphoria,” which has historically served to impose on transgender and travesti people a series of medical and surgical procedures as a requirement for their identities to be recognized.

The same happened with lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, who were considered “sick” by the World Health Organization until 1990. The consequences of this kind of classification were nefarious: lobotomies, hospitalizations, chemical castrations, unemployment, impossible and painful treatments for sexual orientation readjustment, “gay conversion,” and even imprisonment in psychiatric hospitals.

In the case, for example, of trans women who wanted to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, it was necessary that they fit into a “transsexualizing protocol” as a “true transsexual,”which was a total farce and one of the greatest cruelties of Medicine and Psychiatry. Despite the Unified Health System (SUS), making access to hormone therapy and surgeries available for trans women since 2008, and for trans men since 2013, after much struggle, we are still very far from this being a reality throughout the country. A number of factors contribute to this problem, whether it be a lack of clinics that offer these services, the long waiting lists, the absence or neglect of health professionals, and doctors who refuse procedures or treat transgender people as mentally ill.

And if this were not enough, many health professionals, who are aligned with religious fundamentalist or far-right viewpoints, continue to advocate that the only way to “resolve their condition” is by conversion therapy to become hetero-cis.

Moreover, trans and travesti identities have nothing to do with surgery or medical procedures. A person does not need either to identify as a trans man, or trans woman, or trasvesti, and individuals should be able to make the free choice as to whether they want to perform surgery or have a medical procedure

And worse, the imposition of surgeries and medical procedures as a condition for transgender and travesti people to assume their gender identity, is wrong. This is especially true in a society where trans people are completely marginalized, exploited, and segregated from the public health system. Moreover, these procedures can be a source of profit for unscrupulous people, while clandestine clinics often expose transgender and travesti people to unsafe conditions, which is one of the factors that raises mortality rates in trans communities.

Faced with all of this, we must ask: Why don’t cisgender people have their dysphoria pathologized? Why don’t they need official reports to perform procedures on their bodies, while these same limits are imposed on trans people? And the answer can only be that this is a form of oppression and transphobia.

For that reason the UP’s text is unacceptable. Like it or not, the published post strengthens this transphobic perspective. Remedying this issue would require much more than the post’s removal, it would require a coherent self-criticism. The problem, however, is that the Popular Unity remains a prisoner to the historical tradition to which it is affiliated and continues to echo.

Can revolutionary Marxism meet the demands of LGBTQI+ people?

In the debates on social media many commented that “the left has no program for trans people.” Unfortunately, this perspective reflects what the perspective spread by the greatest counterrevolutionary apparatus in history: Stalinism. This misrepresentation of revolutionary Marxism leave out diversity, whether of bodies, of cultures, or of political opinions.

In the second part of our article, we will look to the programmatic and political differences between revolutionary Marxism and Stalinism. Read here.

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