Queer Notes, January-February 2015

From the January-February 2015 issue of News & Letters

by Dee Perkins

The late December suicide of 17-year-old Transgender youth Leelah Alcorn has shaken the public with an intimate glimpse into the torment of gender dysphoria in a too frequently uncomprehending world. In the suicide note she posted to Tumblr, the Ohio youth recounted that she “cried of happiness” when she found a term for who she was, Transgender, something she’d felt since she was four. Her parents treated her to so-called Christian conversion-therapy and the teen despaired of not receiving hormone therapy before completing puberty. Leelah concluded her note, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day Transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of Transgender people who commit suicide this year….Fix society. Please.”

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On Nov. 15 writer, activist, and Transgender pioneer Leslie Feinberg died at age 65 of complications from decades-old tick-borne infections. Author of the 1993 award-winning coming-of-age novel Stone Butch Blues, which was groundbreaking as a tale of gender complexity, Feinberg complicated notions of gender, preferring the gender-neutral pronoun ze over she and he and hir over her and his. A creative and tireless activist, she organized against anti-Black racism in Atlanta and Boston, for Palestinian sovereignty, for AIDS patients in the early days of the epidemic, and for women’s reproductive rights. She rejected the state’s right or authority to confer family, underscoring the individual’s title to define family and loved ones, citing Marx, who wrote that in order for the individual’s relationship to the world to be a human one, only love can be exchanged for love. Feinberg is survived by hir spouse Minnie Bruce Pratt and extended family of choice.

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Russia has denied driver’s licenses to Transgender people. In its unrelenting campaign against LGBT people, the “On Road Safety” law signed by Prime Minister Medvedev on Dec. 29, outlines medical conditions, including mental and behavioral disorders—in which it counts, against all credible medical conclusions, Transgender identity—that disqualify individuals from driving.

0 thoughts on “Queer Notes, January-February 2015

  1. I was quite stunned by “Leelah Alcorn’s Last Words,” making her suicide an appeal for transgender people to be “treated like humans” and to “fix society” if her death is “to mean something.” When Dee came by to share “Queer Notes” before it appeared in N&L, she had already singled out Leelah’s appeal and wrote a memorial note on someone I hadn’t heard of–Leslie Feinberg, who engaged this issue in a well regarded autobiographical novel and subsequently wrote about it in the context of Marx’s 1844 writings on a “human world…[in which] you can exchange love for only love” (296, Marx/Engels Collected Works, vol. 3). Meeting before these pieces were sent in generated discussion about what exactly Marx meant for people to be “treated like humans” and live in a “human world.”

    The immediate contrast in Marx’s concept of a human world in Feinberg’s quote is to the “upside-down” world of money exchange with its “confounding and confusing of all natural and human qualities.” In other words, in our alienated world material money can actually become exchangeable for “love.” When Marx says “you can exchange love for only love,” he goes on to show that this can be realized only through “self-deriving humanism”, his restatement of Hegel’s absolute negativity, a negativity that is not merely against as being against an externality like money, the state, private property etc. but is a “self-referred negation” which realizes labor or human activity as humanity’s “act of…emergence of species-consciousness and species-life” (342). “Free, conscious activity” is how Marx had already laid out what he meant by “species-consciousness and species-life” (276).

    Marx’s point of contention with Hegel is that this act of emergence cannot be abstract or formal but invokes the whole, that is, “corporeal” human being whose activity unites both idealism and materialism as it reflects back innate human objective powers (336). Though Marx didn’t write about queer and transgender as a dimension of liberation, innate objective powers, which emerge instinctually, are constantly expanding, transforming nature and human nature. Marx’s concept of “corporeal” or embodied dialectic speaks to a “human world” where transgender people are “treated like humans” because of Marx designation of what is specifically human species “life activity.” Again, specifically human species “life activity” is “free, conscious activity” in distinction from its appearing “only as a means to life” (276).

    The dialectical perspective of beginning from “life activity” as “free, conscious activity” is, at the same time, the most objective and empirical in absolutely letting the material world, including the material basis of life in one’s body speak for itself. Dialectics never subsumes the concrete under some abstraction. It took the Church centuries to apologize for its abuse of Galileo in this regard even as only a week ago did the new Pope agree to meet with a loyal transgender Catholic who was totally shunned eight years ago because the man/woman gender binary way of defining human nature is a such prominent Church doctrine.

    Though Marx enunciated his universal of human species life activity in contrast to alienated labor in which one sells one’s ability to labor as a mere means to life, the most fundamental relation he singles out is not labor/capital but the man/woman relation. That is so because in the man/woman relation there is a “natural species relationship,” including material reproduction of the species. Through this direct natural connection between the sexes one can see the degree to which human’s have attained their “species-being,” that is, the degree to which they are acting as a “free, conscious” agents and the degree to which another human is needed as a human (295-6) or a free, conscious agent.

    While there are a lot of material differences between people and necessary material limits, in each case what is central to Marx is not those material differences or limits but what people make of them, that is, do they begin from the concept of a free, conscious specifically human world? Leelah’s message reaching for meaning beyond death is to confront a most fundamental abuse and oppression of youth in not allowing one to freely determine one’s relation to one’s own body. The oppressors here happen to be Christian parents, subsuming her under their immediate truth and refusing to acknowledge her freedom and exercising their power to stop her from undergoing treatments before reaching puberty. Capitalism’s immediate truth is a “religion of everyday life” that truncates workers’ humanity making them an appendage to the value producing process of accumulating capital which rules over them.

    As to “fixing society” it can only come from the activity of the individual consciousness becoming a “theoretical existence as a social being.” That is why it is so important to take Leelah’s message seriously and to encourage others struggling with the same questions to work out a theoretical expression of a human world with others doing so as they begin from their own concrete experience. “Above all,” Marx continued, “we must avoid postulating ‘society’ as an abstraction vis-a-vis the individual. The individual is the social being” (299). East European humanist Marxists took this to heart as they fought state-capitalism calling itself Marxism after WWII. I’m glad Leslie Feinberg looked to Marx to work out a concept of individual freedom and transgender liberation, but there appears to be some some cognitive dissonance over doing it with Worker’s World, a group that supported crushing the Hungarian Revolution, where Marx’s humanism reemerged, and supports totally inhuman state societies like North Korea.

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