How capitalism enforces gender binary

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By Cal

Before reading this article, if this is your first exploration into gender variance, cis heteronormativity, its connection to capitalism, or with any of the LGBTQ+ community, please take a moment to visit  to get a more foundational understanding of the terms being used throughout this article.

No time in my life has been harder than the past year, it seemed as soon as things could not possibly get worse, I would be unpleasantly proven incorrect.

After having an abortion, losing my mother, and being outed for being trans, life seemed to sink deeper into the impossibility of improving and it reminded me of how life generally feels all the time. Before I moved in with my partner, I was only eating one meal a day and they would bring me something when they could. Eventually, I was supporting myself and my partner after they were fired, as we were at risk of becoming homeless.

The six months I took off from school to work full-time taught me that just existing in capitalism was exhausting, without factoring in everything else that had been going on in my life. I was exhausted and depressed from working over 60 hours a week while organizing, and I still could not buy enough food. I say this to make the point that existing in capitalism alone is nearly impossible, but having a marginalized identity complicates that existence further. I found it difficult to imagine a time that my class interests would ever shift, which led me to wonder how many marginalized people could continuously support capitalism.

Capitalism uses the systems and institutions of oppression to attempt to control the people with the most cause for rebellion by giving a few of them crumbs to satiate their dreams of a better world, all while robbing them of their capital, health, and joy.

Specifically, I focus on how capitalism reinforces cis-heteronormativity and the oppression of transgender and gender variant people. Engels writes about how a core feature of capitalism is competition in the market, which includes the labor market. People compete to have their labor bought by corporations, inherently pitting workers against workers.

Capitalism at this point must define what a perfect worker is so that people know how to compete and bosses may use workers that will be exploitable, obedient, and buy into the system. Capitalism lives off of exploiting the worker to the greatest extent that it can, evident in the history of slavery, genocide, and war. Capitalism uses oppressive systems to both define the perfect worker and to justify the mistreatment (sometimes downright murder) of an entire group of workers.

Capitalism has defined the perfect worker as white, cis, straight, and able-bodied. It is important to note that white, cis, heterosexual women who are able-bodied are also considered the perfect worker while simultaneously being further exploited for their labor in two distinct ways. Judith Butler notes that women who fulfill these roles, provide two types of uncompensated labor; vital domestic labor and sexual reproductive labor, which is itself further exploited by the healthcare system.

For a household to function, someone must do the domestic labor, it becomes a woman’s prerogative to find the best husband possible for economic security and to market their usefulness accordingly, just like any other labor market. Sylvia Federici reports that women are told the biological essentialist lie that they are physically and characteristically created for housework and it is non-compensatory because it is a part of their nature, they cannot escape from it. She is also expected to make a product: more workers. By producing more laborers, this makes the future labor market more competitive and gives more opportunities for the owning class to drive down wages.  Workers who act in competition with each other are easily manipulated and obedient to the bosses. They are told they are lucky to have been chosen to be exploited and this replenishes the work force.

Capitalism exists in binaries: workers and bosses, poor and rich, man and woman. Capitalism portrays the world as a zero-sum game, and it creates a system that manipulates workers into believing it: the richer your poor neighbor gets, the poorer you will get. Meanwhile, they never look at where most of the capital is stockpiled. Capitalism depends upon extracting this unpaid labor, while also exploiting the labor market to pay them the lowest wage, effectively also extracting unpaid labor from them. However, they believe the lie that because they are getting paid, they are being treated fairly. It is just how the world works.

In a class this semester, I was told by my professor that I could include “complicated, modern definitions of gender if I had to,” but that he and the rest of the class would be using only male and female because that is all that is really needed. The next time I had this class, I sat as the entirety of the room chanted, repeating after him, “Gender is a dichotomous variable because there are only two options: male and female.” This continued for the rest of the semester, the transmisogynistic comments, refusal to provide the same feedback and guidance as he did with the rest of the class, and not a person said a word about it. Not only are these comments transphobic, they are inherently racist, erasing the history of non-white cultures that had gender variance that was accepted and celebrated.

While I cannot speak personally to the history and affects of colonization on gender variant and sexually diverse people, there are many that live this and write about it, one author I have read recently is Dr. Z’étoile Imma and her piece that analyzes the works of Zanele Muholi and the experiences of transmasculine and sexually diverse Black people in South Africa. It is important for trans folks to remember their history, that trans people have always existed across the world, and to celebrate the multitudes of examples of gender variant people living openly and the societies that embraced them.

Coming out in capitalism is an ordeal that is in the best of circumstances uncomfortable and the the worst deadly. Not only because capitalism is violent and breeds violent people, but because the weight of not fitting the mold of the perfect worker can break anyone, especially those that the system targets for their deviance. Capitalism creates a false dilemma between the perfect, acceptable worker and the deviant.

At one end of the binary, there is the perfect worker: labor that capitalism in that society has deemed acceptable (commonly white, cis, straight, able-bodied). On the other end are all the people that do not fit into that box and subvert capitalism and its goals to uphold white supremacy and cis-heteronormativity. This is not to say that everyone that does not fit the perfect worker does not side with that end of the binary. because of the psychological and social payment they receive from society for their obedience to the rules. Unfortunately, many white people (and cis, straight, and/or able-bodied people) that break the conventions of capitalism find a way to continue to sell their solidarity and consciousness for privilege and power.

Judith Butler describes how sexual reproduction is not just a labor market used against women, but the justification for the oppression of LGBTQ+ people as well. Capitalism views sexual reproduction as a different kind of labor market, one where a worker puts in labor to produce more workers and thus future labor. Capitalism depends on its binary, on upholding the perfect worker so that workers will continue to produce more laborers, create more competition, drive down wages, and turn more profit to hoard.

Thus, capitalism depends on man and woman being defined in a biological essentialist sense and assigning roles as inherent to biology. It necessitates that sex is seen as a means of reproduction and that there must be a man and woman as defined previously. Capitalism protects cis-heteronormativity because it relies on the ever increasing production of new workers to increase profits. When queer couples exist, they subvert that process and often do not produce new workers.

According to biological essentialists, gender is the same as sex. Thus when discussing gay couples, many automatically assume that they will share the same type of genitalia, also assuming that gay couples cannot procreate. Butler focuses almost solely on gay couples in this context; however, even with this narrow definition and understanding of queer relationships, in recent years it has become possible for those couples to produce new workers through a variety of means, like surrogates. In the case of trans people, HRT often renders people infertile, but there are ways to save those products needed to reproduce for later. There are even cases of trans women having successful transplants to carry their children and give birth.

With the beauty of these processes, there is one truth that is unnerving: LGBTQ+ people have all found ways to produce new workers. While it is not correct to assume that queer couples cannot procreate or that it is inherently radical to not, it was one of the reasons that capitalism feared this community, even for those that chose to adopt. This increase in use of new procreative methods supports the rhetoric that many marginalized people have used to assure the system that they are just like everyone else, but with small caveats. When fighting for marriage equality, the message quickly became, “We are just like you, love is love, no one chooses to be gay, so why can’t we be happy, too?” This is dangerous not just to the people, but for liberation.

There are many people that celebrate the fact that queer relationships are truly nothing like heterosexual ones, that choose to celebrate our liberatory history and struggles instead of our minimal acceptance into a capitalist society. Many people have no interest in fulfilling the roles that capitalism dictates to us all and are actively working to subvert that system in order to gain true freedom. Like bell hooks teaches, no one can make a truly free decision until all oppressive systems have been destroyed, for any decision made cannot be granted full agency because no person has full agency of their person while living in an oppressive society.

As the LGBTQ+ community at large seeks assimilation into this capitalist, racist society, Sylvia Rivera reminds us of the danger of trying to appease our oppressors by attempting to model them. She gave a speech to Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York and reminded them how they sold out transgender people to make back door deals with politicians, just to have their bills still take 17 years to pass. She told them how infuriating it was to being on the front lines for gay liberation, just to have that community sell out and promise to be reasonable, normal (read: as straight as possible without being straight), and drop all trans issues in exchange for the right to marry. They promised to play into the “same love” rhetoric; they bent over backwards and cast their siblings aside to prove that they were really just the same as everyone else, they just wore rainbows a little more often.

Reading her speech, I felt such a deep connection to her anger, it was the same anger I felt as I saw gay people chant in class that non-binary people were not real and that trans people as a whole are unnecessary, wrong, and inconvenient. How easy it is for our communities to forget how many trans people are on the front lines of every struggle for liberation.

Trans people gave LGB people every right they have today. In return, they turned our riots into parades and told us our issues were secondary, that they would get to us after marriage equality. However, they are no where to be seen when my siblings, primarily trans women of color, were dying in the streets. Rivera chastises her audience because she helped turn out droves of people to fight for gay liberation, but could not get a fraction of those people to show up when it was time to talk about trans issues. It is much the same today; our Trans Days of Remembrance turn out small groups of mostly trans people, but pride parades amass people in the tens of thousands in many cities.

No identity will ever make anyone an automatic radical leftist. Anyone can sell their solidarity for social status, seen often with the concept of respectability politics: the system will overlook that flaw or two, so long as you are in every other way the perfect worker, upholding the capitalist system and its goals. Just like in Marxist-Leninist theory about superprofits, those that receive a higher share of the profits, regardless if it is an actual livable portion, will believe their class interests to lie with the bourgeoisie, the ruling class.

Using the concept of the perfect worker, it can be concluded that anyone, regardless of identity or class status, may become an agent of capitalism by upholding whiteness, cis-heteronormative, and ableist systems. This furthers the alienation of a group of workers not just from their labor, but also from other workers. It is not any marginalized identity that makes a radical, but the connection between personal struggle and the need for liberation from capitalism and all its oppressive systems that make a radical.

It is important to note that on the left, trans people are often alienated from radical spaces. We are a group that is treated as though they can be taken or left, because on some level they know our lives depend on winning the fight. They can treat us terribly and we will still be fighting. They exploit our relentless labor for freedom just like the capitalist system we are trying to tear down. That is not unique to the LGBTQ+ community, many groups experience their struggles being forgotten while they are mined for their labor. Native people are often publicly chastised for stating that the left should focus on Indigenous liberation. These people claim to believe that the worker is the vanguard of the revolution, and that freeing the worker from his chains should be the focus of the left, and Indigenous struggles will be addressed later.

Black left feminists throughout the history have debunked this as White supremacist rhetoric. Claudia Jones explored the superexploitation of the black woman worker, making the argument that black women are the actual vanguard of the revolution. The core idea is that one cannot uphold whiteness as revolutionary, and that putting the struggles of the most marginalized first will necessarily address the struggles of all other workers. Remembering the definition of the perfect worker, this means that leftists cannot afford to relegate certain struggles as secondary, the left must look at all the strategies that capitalism uses to protect capital and the system itself, and work to dismantle it all, else we fall prey to becoming agents of capitalism. Only then will we truly be free.

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