What Does Trans Liberation Mean to Me?

Marsha P. Johnson, cofounder of S.T.A.R.

What is the meaning of trans liberation to me?

We could say trans liberation means ending or dismantling the systemic oppression of all transgender and gender nonconforming people, regardless of “race” or any other differences in identity within the trans community.

But the word “race” is in quotation marks because race– like racism– is an invention of colonial capitalism (see Dr. Dorothy Roberts’ book Fatal Invention).  So my argument here, instead, will be that colonial capitalism, the basis of racism, is also the foundation of transphobia.

The political (not biological) identity of “whiteness” was created by Europe when we invaded Africa and the Americas more than five hundred years ago.  Since then, the ideology of white supremacy– like the “white” identity itself– has been used by Europeans as a justification for our colonial genocide against Africans, indigenous peoples, and all communities who are not identified (by whites) as “white.”  And the dominant system of power on the planet for the past six hundred years has been capitalism.

So the systemic oppression of trans people comes from one source: capitalism.  In order to oppress a particular group, one must have power.  Power doesn’t come from the individual but from the political organization of a class or a nation around material and ideological interests that the members of this ruling class or nation have in common.  And a person isn’t oppressed just as an individual but as a member of an oppressed group— that is, as part of a class or a nation.  And this class or nation is oppressed because they don’t have power.

This means, if we want to end the systemic oppression of trans people, we will need to change the current relationship of power that is responsible for our oppression.  That is, in order to achieve freedom for transgender people, there must be a transformation of society that qualitatively changes the dialectical relationship of the oppressor to the oppressed.  So, if we believe all trans people should be freed from transphobia, we need to look at the source of power– the system– that makes it possible for one group to oppress another group.

There’s only one system in this country that has the power to oppress trans people: capitalism.  And capitalism is a global system of power.  This means that the systemic oppression of trans people gets its power from the same imperialist attack on Africa and the Americas that gave birth to capitalism.

Without Europe’s ongoing attack on Black people, Indigenous peoples, and the majority of people on the planet (as well as the planet itself), capitalism would not exist.  Certainly the United States would not exist.  White people would not exist on this continent.  And so we can begin to make the connection between (1) the systemic oppression of transgender people and (2) the white supremacist colonization of Africans, Indigenous peoples, and (in general terms) people of color (the majority of the world’s population).

Transphobia and white supremacy are connected to each other, and to capitalist oppression, on account of the power they have to oppress, which comes entirely from the system of capitalism.

While it’s true that racial prejudice, patriarchy and economic exploitation existed before capitalism, it’s just as true that the ability of societies outside Europe to evolve beyond these inhumane ideologies has been impeded by the grip that capitalism has had on the world for the past six hundred years.  We don’t know how these individual societies outside Europe, and Europe as well, would have evolved without the murder and theft of Africa, but we do know that human progress (or the lack thereof) has been locked into place by a global system of power– controlled by Europe– that is simultaneously racist, transphobic, sexist, homophobic, ableist and economically exploitative.  The progress of humanity has been blocked by capitalism.

If we only focus on the United States (which shouldn’t be too difficult for us to do), perhaps we will be able to recognize how the progress of Indigenous peoples, Africans/Black people, Latinxs and (generally speaking) people of color on this continent (and Hawaii and Puerto Rico) has been locked into a dialectical relationship with a system of power– capitalism– that was created by white people for white people.  Of course, the material benefits of capitalist exploitation aren’t distributed on an equal basis, and never have been.  The few at the top in the ruling class enjoy most of the benefits of capitalist oppression.  The rest of these benefits are distributed based on a political, economic and social hierarchy that is simultaneously racist, transphobic, sexist and every other intersecting form of oppression, all connected to a single source of power, capitalism.

By looking at the systemic oppression of trans people in this historical and material context, perhaps we can begin to recognize that trans liberation is not possible unless it is centered in organized struggles to overturn the capitalist system.

To me, trans liberation means the revolutionary struggle to replace a system that is anti-Black, anti-trans, and anti-women (all at the same time) with a system based on egalitarian principles.  Trans liberation means socialist revolution.  Yet this socialist revolution, in order to be truly materialist and historical in its objectives, must recognize the primary dialectic of Europe to Africa in this struggle for power.  To me, trans liberation must not only be anti-capitalist, it must be global in its scope, and it must center the struggle for power by Africans everywhere in the world.  In other words, trans liberation (to me) means Pan-African socialist revolution.

The system of power that is responsible for the oppression of trans people began with Europe’s attack on Africa more than five hundred years ago.  The Portuguese built Elmina Castle in Ghana in 1482– a house of horrors through which thousands of enslaved Africans would pass– and, of course, this was a decade prior to Christopher Columbus’s terrorist attack on the “New World” (an event that is still a national holiday in this European settler colony: the United States).  And the wealth and power of the United States, as well as Canada, Europe, Australia, Israel (Occupied Palestine), and South Africa (sometimes referred to as “Occupied Azania”), is based on the colonial and neocolonial domination of the African continent and Africans everywhere in the world.  Without our parasitic dependence on the land, labor, resources and lives of Africans, the wealth and power of the white world could not exist.  The same system of power that oppresses trans people only has power on account of its oppression of Africa and Africans.

To me, trans liberation means that the aim of every revolutionary should be “the total liberation and unification of Africa under an All-African socialist government” (Kwame Nkrumah).

When Africa is free from the colonial and neocolonial grip of the white world, capitalism will no longer have the power to oppress anyone.  Societies can then be reorganized around the principles of true justice, freedom, equality and peace, and can progress according to the unique but collective identities of each community.

Following the Pan-African socialist revolution, the political identity of “whiteness” will become irrelevant because the ideology of white supremacy (inseparable from whiteness itself) will be cut off from its source of power, which is capitalism.  So the primary objective of socialist revolutionaries should be to cut off capitalism’s source of power, which is the genocidal, colonial and neocolonial oppression of Africa, Africans and Black people everywhere.

Capitalism cannot exist– and, currently, white people cannot exist– without the parasitic relationship it has with Africa.  Europe’s theft of African resources, labor, land and lives is the material basis for the oppression of trans people in the United States and everywhere else in the world.  Once Africa has power, the white-controlled political, economic, and social structure of the U.S. will be thrown into chaos.

For 240 years, or more, the “law and order” of the U.S. has meant chaos for the world.  The stability of the capitalist system– which is responsible for white supremacy, patriarchy and economic exploitation– is the instability of world.  The white bourgeoisie and the white petit bourgeoisie in the U.S. (of which many white transgender people are a part), and even the white proletariat within the oppressor class/nation of Europe, enjoy the progress of our particular class only through the racist ruling class’s violent subjugation of the true global proletariat: people of color.  To me, the only way there can be liberation for all trans people is for this dialectic of Europe-whites/Africa-people of color to be entirely disrupted.  Then society can be reorganized to protect the most marginalized identities, communities such as working class queer and trans people of color (Q/TPOC), who are currently under the greatest attack by a capitalist system built and maintained by racist, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic violence.

In fact, in order for there to be any revolution at all, we must be totally invested in the lives, work, art, and organizing of Black trans women who are currently erased by a system that is anti-Black, anti-trans and anti-women.  We won’t wait until after Africa is free to protect and uplift trans people of color.  To me, trans liberation means this should be our first move: to stop the murders and all other systemic forms of violence directed at Black trans women.  If we don’t move now to protect Black trans women from capitalist violence, they won’t be around for the revolution– and how can it be called socialism, or trans liberation?   It wouldn’t be possible.  But this violence is global, just as anti-Blackness is global.  And capitalism– the source of this violence– only has the power to oppress on a global scale through its colonial and neocolonial domination of Africa.

To quote Kwame Nkrumah at length (from the Working Platform of the African People’s Socialist Party*):

“[T]he total liberation and unification of Africa under an All-African socialist government must be the primary objective of all Black revolutionaries throughout the world. It is an objective which, when achieved, will bring about the fulfillment of the aspirations of Africans and people of African descent everywhere. It will at the same time advance the triumph of the international socialist revolution, and the onward progress toward communism, under which every society is ordered on the principle of — from each according to his (her) [their] ability, to each according to his (her) [their] needs.”

* Note: Many of the ideas in this essay are based on the political theory “African Internationalism,” as taught by Chairman Omali Yeshitela of the African People’s Socialist Party.  European colonizers (whites) can pay reparations that support the programs of the African People’s Socialist Party by going to http://www.uhurusolidarity.org.  Reparations can also be paid to the Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC).

What Does Trans Liberation Mean to Me?

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