The transgender consumer: An initial reading of Marx’s ‘Capital’

Author’s Note: This essay was originally written as a memo for my Sociological Theory I class. It was based on readings from Capital including: the Preface, Chapter 1, Chapter 4, Chapter 7, Chapter 9, Chapters 12–14, Chapters 25–26, and Chapter 33 and subsequent class discussions. Presented below is a mostly unedited product as it was turned in for the aforementioned class. I look forward to good faith engagement. This writing is an attempt at a Marxist perspective which the author isn’t necessarily committed to. As such, this writing acts more as an intellectual exercise than a positing of a theory.

Introduction

For a long time, capitalism wasn’t interested in transgender people as such. Unfortunately, recently, transgender people have become legible as a market. A recent example of this is a Starbucks’ ad where a young transgender man is called by his correct name. That is, he isn’t dead named. This ad, while celebrated by some as progress toward the acceptance of transgender people, creating space for transgender people to be accepted, appeals to transgender people and their allies to become consumers of Starbucks coffee. “Come into our cafes,” you can almost hear the Starbucks executives encouraging, “We’ll put your correct name on a $6 cup of coffee.”

The transgender person as consumer

If one goes to a pride festival across the United States, they will find the excited celebration of LGBTQ people that corporations take part in. Some argue that Starbucks does more to “put its money where its mouth is” in terms of offering transgender-inclusive healthcare for its workers. While this is uncontestable, it is arguable that these offerings don’t negatively affect Starbucks’ bottom line, and, more importantly, bring in new and different customers. If transgender people work at any of the myriad corporations that, say, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) notes offers transgender-inclusive healthcare, where are they going to spend their wages? The transgender community as a consuming community is a new community. The transgender community, that is, is a new market. As transgender people enter the workforce, that is, the “official economy” versus the “underground economy,” they now have not only more wages to spend, but more validity as consumers and as a market, and as such, capitalism is only now beginning to imagine how to get this new market to buy its products.

Then there is the ally. The ally as a cisgender person may have already been a market. Though a cisgender person who may be a person of color, or a cisgender woman, or LGB, may not yet be a market, or may be a newer market than a very specific white, straight, cisgender man, who, arguably, was the original market and marketer. But the ally, who may have already been spending money, is now spending money to understand themselves as allies. An ally might then, feel better about themselves for getting their coffee from Starbucks then from Chik-Fil-A, for example. This isn’t to suggest that the ally won’t be a market for Chik-Fil-A. It’s only to suggest that when the ally goes to Chik-Fil-A, possibly shamefully, they aren’t an ally, which is to say, they aren’t going to Chik-Fil-A as an ally.

We’ve already had the first transgender CEO, we have transgender professors, we have transgender politicians, and one can imagine that they’ll move through the ranks. While transgender people are still participating in underground economies, and there are those who attempt to quantify what percentages of those communities are participating in those economies, as they’ve now been moving into the official economies, they’ve slowly been accepted as their own market. Given their own pride flags, the transgender community has its own merchandise. More things to make and be made. Does the transgender consumer ask where their flags are sewn together? In the U.S. we might understand where the first transgender flag was designed and made, but do we understand how we as a market encourage the need for more workers and more cheap labor that is exploited throughout the world. As our own labor might be exploited, are we noticing the raced, classed, gendered, and sexed ways that others labor is being exploited so that we ourselves may become a legible market?

The transgender parent as consumer and producer

How else can we understand the labor value of the transgender person? One might wonder if the transgender person can, for example, have children, thus reproducing labor. It is often thought that transgender people, particularly, transsexual individuals, cannot have biological children. This is because, the thought goes, hormone replacement therapy acts a sort of chemical castration. However, this is seen to be not quite the truth, as transgender participation in this sort of reproduction enters into discourse. Probably the most well-known type of transgender reproduction is that of the pregnant man, the pregnant transgender dad. While it is undoubtedly true that the focus on the pregnant transgender dad has to do with cultural voyeurism and the consumption of the transgender body (which could also be understood in a marxist lens), it can be read and will be read here as a celebration of the reintegration of transgender bodies into reproductive modes that contribute to the conservation of reserves of labor.

The transgender man can get pregnant and give birth. Do we then care about the transgender woman? One might ask: Can transgender women produce sperm that can fertilize an egg? Instead of focusing on this, here we will be more interested in another project, namely the project of the uterine transplant for transgender women such that they can give birth. While the science is still working on one, a successful uterine transplant, and two the successful transplant of an embryo such that the body won’t attack either and thus a transgender woman may be able to print a fetus to term and give birth to it via c-section, there is undoubtedly the question of the regulation of this market. This market is highly specialized compared to the one for coffee (though, of course, the market for coffees is in a state of specialization). It requires teams of medical professionals: Surgeons, doctors, nurses, psychological teams, orderlies, and so on. The question becomes about whether or not this science is being done out of a sense of altruism toward the transgender community, if it’s being done as a way to keep transgender women perpetually in the cycle of producing labor reserves, and/or if it is done to create a new market of transgender women (there is also an argument to be made that it is done to pure scientific ends, but that possibility is of less interest here). This is evidence of further commodification of birth and reproduction.

Asabiyah and the religio-political ostricization of transgender people

While it may be advantageous to create markets out of transgender consumers, one may argue on the other hand that transgender people broadly are not a part of any asabiyah that might exist in the United States. In fact, insofar as asabiyah has a strong relationship with religion as an institution used for social control, and insofar as asabiyah has an influence on the government, there’s evidence that transgender people function from a Khaldunian perspective, as what creates asabiyah amongst groups of people in the United States. Those who oppose transgender people conceptually have no market argument. Those who oppose gay people largely lost the argument about the role of homonormative gayness and homosexuality because gay people were able to be made a part of the market, they were found to want to reproduce and/or otherwise raise active members in the reserves of labor. Over time, despite myths about gay people as pedophilic and predatory, this participation in consumption and the perpetuation of labor has led to the general acceptance of gay people. It is yet to be seen if this same formula will work with transgender people. Already they seem to have been folded into the market, at a rate that could be accelerated from the rate at which gay inclusion in the market occurred, due to the fact that that inclusion had already happened, but this hasn’t stopped the demonization of transgender people and the attempts to legislate against them. It isn’t useful here to attempt to understand the success of anti-transgender legislative campaigns. Instead, what would be useful is understanding the effectiveness of anti-transgender rhetoric to get conservative voters to, yes, vote, but also to send in their money and to otherwise volunteer their time to conservative politicians, celebrities, and causes.

These divides, which have proven politically expedient, perpetuate cleavages in the proletariat and prevent the organization of said proletariat to revolutionary ends.

In this way, in the same way that there is a market for transgender allies, is there also a market for those who are transphobic? Would this not be one way to maximize market reach? If there can be products made and sold to those who are pro-transgender rights, anti-transgender rights and agnostic to transgender rights, not to mention that there are markets for those who are transgender, those who aren’t transgender and are agnostic about it, those who aren’t transgender and identify that way, and those who aren’t transgender and think others shouldn’t be either, isn’t there a way to appeal to all of these individuals to consume based on these identities? Whether that consumption is at a coffeeshop, a big-box store, a church, a political organization, it is consumption. The commodities now are coats bearing slogans indicating one’s views and positionality. A coffee cup isn’t enough anymore, now there are coffee cups with transgender pride flags on them, or travel mugs showing the logos and slogans of prominent conservatives. Moreover, these views help individuals determine where they want to labor, but labor they still will, and their value will be someone else’s profit.

Conclusion

Given all of this, does acknowledging one’s difference as transgender create a false cleavage amongst the working class? Are the fights for and against transgender rights a distraction from a necessary class struggle? It becomes tempting to side-step the question by calling on others to abandon their identities before transgender people abandon theirs, but this of course would itself be misguided if the only worthwhile distinction is between the worker and the rest. Still, there seems to be evidence to suggest that there are applications of Marxist thought that considers, if not completely embraces, differing identities. This is where further understandings of Marxist feminisms, queer Marxism, and possibly even a trans-informed Marxism will help in consideration of applying Marxist ideas to current situations.

Trans woman writer | @MetalRiot | @Medium | @GAHighlands alumna | @KennesawState alumna | @GSUSociology PhD Student | #Metalhead