by Fili Gena
This essay first appeared on the Feminist Political Economy and Global Development course blog in June 2023.
In the past weeks, I have encountered the book Transgender Marxism (Gleeson and O’Rourke, 2021). For the first time in months, I felt that there had been a fundamental shift in how I problematise my way through my days. I started reflecting on the instances of social reproduction through which I sustain my Non-Binary body (and being) in my everyday life. I started grasping the value that is produced, the one that is negated, the labour that all this requires.
This is not a review of the book but a series of personal thoughts.
At the end of a twelve-hour shift, I sit at the cafe where I work and wonder why no one respects my pronouns. If it happens, it is often when I decide to wear make-up or a skirt. I feel tokenised.
I start rethinking how my body feels after meeting a client at my sex work job. “My little boy”, that’s how they call me.
I start rethinking how I pass, why I pass, what negotiations it entails, and how oppressive it sometimes feels.
Passing scars me.
It devours me.
I do not eat; empty stomach; empty body; I do not feel my body; can I transcend my body?
Passing is exhausting.
Passing is productive.
It generates my gender /(un)genders.
Dickson, writing in Transgender Marxism (Gleeson and O’Rourke, 2021), speaks about transition as socially reproductive labour spent teaching ourselves new gendered ways of being. These might require a painful degree of passing as something that is legible and that does not disturb the integrity of gender for the functioning of the capitalist system. This integrity is not necessarily ‘the gender binary´. Indeed, it increasingly often includes specific expressions of queerness that do not challenge the myth of individuality and private property.
I read Transgender Marxism, and I think of how I make up for the wounds of passing. I look back and now see the care I learned to take through social interactions with my queer chosen family, through baths, walks, and new clothes. I begin to understand emotional labour as socially reproductive work.
2. care beyond the family
Socially reproductive labour speaks to the myriads of activities that allow for the waged worker to exist. Such labour is often unrecognised and unwaged under capitalism and, as Bhattacharyya (2018: 42) argues, this invisibilisation is ‘a matter at the heart of how humanity comes to be divided and allocated differential value’.
Furthermore, Lewis’ Abolish the Family (2022) professes that the homo/hetero-normative family is the privatised nucleus where the (waged) labourer and her capacities are reproduced. Therefore, under neoliberal structural adjustment, the costs of the privatisation of care, welfare, and social reproduction, are internalised in the family.
I have the privilege of having chosen to live far from my family, and I benefit from the distance from that nucleus. At the same time, I have no means to translate how trans*ness, and the wounds of passing, have changed me. I cannot access the family anymore, I think— and if I must— I ache.
This makes me think about queer organising groups, for instance, Wages Due Lesbians, and how they demanded the recognition of the unpaid socially reproductive labour that they carried as individuals placed outside of the family.
Wages Due Lesbians were an organisation linked to the International Wages for Housework movement and, accordingly, they moved specific demands towards their unpaid labour. They demanded compensations for lesbian mothers’ labour under the conditions set by the privatisation of care structures in the heteronormative household, a space that becomes inaccessible for many queers.
In 1986, in the UK, Wages Due Lesbians took part in the Time Off Day, part of the Time Off For Women movement, and articulated a list of demands that asked for compensation for the labour that queer individuals have to engage in for self-determination, survival, and resistance.
They demanded compensation for
‘Coming out – a continuous process of working out when, where, how, to whom, on what occasions’,
for 'having to get by on low women’s wages or poverty-line benefits’,
and for ‘doing emotional and physical work for lovers, friends, family… but never being acknowledged for doing it because your relationships are not 'real’…'.
(Wages Due Lesbians, cited in Gleeson and O’Rourke, 2021: 85-86).
All that time spent self-medicating, all that work necessary to re-think the gendering of my body, all that care that my close-ones have to provide, they are all forms of unrecognised, unwaged labour that permit my own reproduction as a non-gender-conforming body.
Meg Wesling (2012, in Gleeson and O’Rourke, 2021: 95), calls this ‘queer value’ to indicate ‘social activity that goes beyond subsistence and reproduction’ but also includes them and that aims at caring through joy, the comfort of the body, affect building, and myriads of efforts that sustain our being despite the marginalisation that we face. A marginalisation which, again, comes with the choice, coerced or non, of refusing homo/hetero-normativity.
3. care as resistance
The choices I have made have shaped my relationship with the gendered reality of my body.
‘In other words, my material relation to the world brings me into being’
says Dickson in Transgender Marxism (Gleeson and O’Rourke eds., 2021: 216).
In turn, alongside the privilege I have as a non-working class, white, European individual, the changing gendered legibility of my body has shaped the socially reproductive labour I take on. This is both unpaid labour and work of resistance that allows me to re-invent my gendered and sexed material reality in ways that disturb homo/hetero-normativity.
As Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory (2020) argues, care is protest, and a praxis of interdependent sociality. Establishing interdependence through practices of communal care, as queer individuals, challenges capitalism by posing an alternative to the individualised homo/hetero-normative monopoly over welfare.
As a final thought, I then want to think of recognition and compensation as not a goal in itself but as the realisation of the radical value that our everyday thriving poses to capitalism. I think of care as the root of alternative forms of being together, of healing, and of re-making one-another.
I then write these final lines:
The cognitive dissonance of knowing ourselves through the frames of others, of re-making our genders while awaiting for the recognition of the gaze.
But I come back home and I wear the crop top you gave me. And now you borrow my shirts. I smile at seeing your fear and joy when you rub your newly shaved head.
We re-make ourselves, we give each other gender, communally. We care and imagine otherwise. We imagine joy.
Bhattacharyya, G. (2018). Rethinking racial capitalism: Questions of reproduction and survival. Rowman & Littlefield.
Gleeson, J.J. and O’Rouke, E. (eds.) (2021) Transgender Marxism, London: Pluto Press.
Hedva, J. (2020) Sick Woman Theory. Available online at https://www.kunstverein-hildesheim.de/assets/bilder/caring-structures-ausstellung-digital/Johanna-Hedva/cb6ec5c75f/AUSSTELLUNG_1110_Hedva_SWT_e.pdf
Lewis, S. (2022) Abolish the Family: A manifesto for care and liberation. London: Verso Books.
Image: University of Ottawa Archives / Canadian Custody Cases - The Case for Wages for Housework.
Image: Radical History Review / “We Can’t Afford to Work for Love”. New York Wages for Housework Committee, 1974.