Jules Gleeson - Transgender Marxism
GenderSexuality and Gender

Excavating transphobia: In conversation with Jules Gleeson

Transphobia continues to rise in the UK, permeating marginal groups to mainstream media outlets like the BBC, who have published asinine and outright inaccurate commentary that endangers trans people. Juliana Gleeson tells us that what was once considered a hard-line anti-trans position is now relatively acceptable in some circles. However, Gleeson points out the fact this hasn’t hindered the growing acceptance of trans people in wider society. 

Jules Gleeson and Transgender Marxism

Jules Gleeson, born in London, chose to migrate to Germany in 2013. In Saxony, she worked as a temp in an academia for three years– then moved to Vienna (Austria) in 2016, where she is developing a career as an editor and performer. Gleeson identified as a communist “from childhood”, and currently focuses on intersex theories. 

Jules Gleeson

Thank you for taking your time to speak to us, Jules.

A.L: Transgendered people speak to are deeply concerned about the traction transphobia is gaining in British society. Do you think existing transphobia has become more acceptable or has it worsened to the point that it cannot be hidden?

Jules Gleeson: Transphobia is clearly becoming more acceptable in Britain! Key liberal institutions have come to support the country’s right-wing government on restricting the rights of trans people or even pushed the Conservatives to go further.

That includes much of the media (The Times’ coverage has been especially shocking) to bodies that deal with equality, like the EHRC, which recently pressured the governments in England and Scotland not to ban conversion therapy on trans kids.

What would have once seemed like hard-line anti-trans stances are now coming to be expected from these anti-trans liberals. On the other hand, none of this has prevented more British trans people from transitioning than ever before. So, at once there are more out British trans people, facing down intensifying hostility.

A.L: That’s interesting. Do you think there’s a courageous move to defy or render redundant, the growing transphobia among those who transition? Or is it down to growing levels of acceptance within substantial parts of the population?

Jules Gleeson: I think both in Britain and worldwide, transphobia is being used to mobilise political alliances. That can cement the power of the political right and make trans people’s lives harder in concrete ways.

For instance, in Hungary, invalidating trans people’s government IDs was the first move taken by the Fidesz government after it assumed dictatorial Covid-emergency powers. But equally, transitions are becoming easier than ever before. T

hat’s due to the deepening and expansion of community networks, which take a broad array of forms. These communities can be transformative on the life prospects of trans people but are usually weakly understood by the wider world (if at all). In other words, even as transphobia intensifies, mutual support and efforts to raise continue through channels that  political reactionaries and transphobic liberals are usually oblivious to!

A.L: About transitions becoming easier: A YouGov poll found that even though most Britons support trans people having access to facilities, they are not in favour of making transition easier. The context of this hasn’t expanded much. But what do you think about it? Should young people be advised to be thoroughly examined before a decision has been made? I’m asking this against the backdrop of regret of transitioning false between 1-5%.

Jules Gleeson: First a more general word on transition regret: as the number of people transitioning expands, so will those who transition and then revert (usually known as detransitioners). In some cases, this happens repeatedly.

Not all detransitioners report ‘trans regret’. Instead, in some cases, it’s simply a stage of their lives that they wished to attempt at the time, a need now satisfied. Legal barriers to transition vary between countries.: In Thailand, HRT/sex hormones are available from any pharmacy (even as the government refuses to allow for changes to legal documents).

Hence, in the United States most clinics operate on the basis of ‘informed consent’ where the side effects and limits of these drugs are fully explained before being distributed. Either of these approaches seems altogether preferable to the ‘clinic’ system that developed in both Britain and Ireland.

The waiting lists of these Gender Identity Clinics have swollen to absurd lengths, and the treatment provided has become old-fashioned and incompetent both in Britain and Ireland. Many trans people in these countries have taken to ‘self-medicating’: sourcing sex hormones through community provision, and perhaps relying on a GP to monitor their blood work.

I explore this ghastly situation (and how to escape it) with my friend JN Hoad in a piece we wrote for Salvage Magazine back in 2020.

A.L: How should transgender activists and allies approach communications with those who are suspicious of trans people? Is there a way or have too many influential thinkers made a career out of transphobia to the point that they are unwilling to budge?

Jules Gleeson: Sadly yes! Today, publishing anti-trans media for pay is its own career path. It’s usually quite easy to spot people going down that road, as they talk about little else (touching on other topics only if they can give them a forced anti-trans spin).

I think it’s a lot better to stay focused on those who aren’t already committed to that kind of hostility. Many people are still unfamiliar both with the needs of trans people, and LGBTQI people more generally, but that will change as we share our lives and political struggles with them.

Personally, my own work clearly favours ‘deep’ development and movement history to outreach and 101s, but that’s not because advocacy to a broader audience is never important!

A.L: Do you think there’s a language that activists can deploy to get through to people who are just sucked in?

Jules Gleeson: I have known people who found themselves drawn into anti-trans hate circles, at earlier points in their life. In most cases, what burnt them out was the sheer nastiness of these groups. And how across time the targets for this venom seemed to follow a ‘purity spiral’ typical to the online-focused organisation.

I think patience and keeping a cool head goes a long way in gradually drawing people away from these crowds. Few are going to be able to tough out participating in that kind of orchestrated cruelty forever.

A.L: Totally agree with you. The expecting purity is detrimental to the movement. You co-authored the book transgender Marxism with Elle O’Rourke, where you argued that the oppression of transgendered people is inextricably linked to capitalism. Most trans activists agree with that approach, but it seems there’s a lack of either energy or praxis to communicate the notion to the rest of the public or among themselves. Do you think trans activism is lacking in that respect? Does this even need to be communicated?

Jules Gleeson: My co-editor Elle and I decided to compile the sixteen essays that make up the book exactly because we saw a huge amount of insightful and incisive writing, produced by thinkers embedded in a broad range of contexts. But too often, this analysis was restricted to fleeting and semi-private spaces (AKA social media).

We wanted to pin some of that disintegrating text into a book, because those are easier for future movements to build on. And also for today’s communists to get hold of and discuss in detail together. They also look arresting when read on public transport!

To be clear, there were countless people already committed to understanding transition and capitalism at once: we found it quite easy to find the 17 authors of the book, and with a bigger budget could probably have added another 17! So ‘Transgender Marxism’ isn’t something we invented – it’s just a showcase. I don’t really consider myself a trans activist, so I’m not well placed to assess what it lacks!

I usually don’t go into conversations expecting either that people will already agree with my communist politics, or that I personally can convince them. The daily grind of employers and landlords must do that on my behalf.

A.L: In brief, how does capitalism, the economic structure, maintain the oppression of trans people?

Jules Gleeson: You saved the easiest one until the end, eh! 

A.L: Haha I have a couple more.

Juliana Gleeson: Both Elle [co-editor for Marxism Transgender] and I have been greatly inspired by the work of Angela Mitropoulos, who refers to the ‘law of the household’ (Oikonomia) as a feature of political life both prior to capitalism, and now thoroughly reworked by the logic of Capital.

Whether as units for consumption, or the reproductive source of capitalist workforces, it’s on the level of household struggles that the abstracted needs of Capital become realised. And unfortunately, it’s often the political Right that is savviest at mobilising these connections (private household to the private workplace) and setting the terms for acceptable living.

From this view, it’s hard to divide the ethical rupture involved in a transition (the decision to live anew), and the situation within capitalist workforces that transition so often leads to (in Transgender Marxism this point is explored marvellously in essays by Nat Raha, Michelle O’Brien, and Kate Doyle Griffiths).

In other words, the defiance of expected household order, and the ‘structural’ pitfalls of transgender life (from impoverishment to becoming a media-targeted folk devil), are matters which are always bound together.

A.L: You are currently writing a book on inferentialist philosophy. In short, what does inferentialism mean to you, and does your approach inform your conceptualisation of transgender ontology?

Jules Gleeson: Inferentialism is an account of how humans give meanings to the terms we use that asserts we do so in a logically expressive way. When we use terms, we do it as part of a process of providing reasons from which individuals whom we interact draw inferences. This material process establishes meanings through a series of commitments, which entrench into normative statuses.

Inferentialism was argued for by Hegel, but as of today, it is usually associated with Pittsburgh philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, and those inspired by him including Richard Rorty, Ruth Mellikan, John McDowell, Robert Brandom and Ray Brassier.

My usage owes the most to Brandom and Hegel. The inferentialist view of normativity (and its role in establishing meaning) has been influential on what I try to mean when I use the term communities. This is clearly at work in my essay for Transgender Marxism, ‘How Do Gender Transitions Happen?’, which in its second section considers the unique re-articulation of experience only possible in the reciprocal contexts opened up by trans communities.

It’s this ‘expressive’ role unique to communities that get too easily lost when we reduce transitions to either personal struggle or social expression. The book I’m currently working on will apply inferentialism much more explicitly to the history of the intersex movement. Intersex organising has been challenged by a continual ‘nominal crisis’, with clinicians treating intersex people coining one term after another in an effort to categorise, and then re-categorise, us.

Acronyms have come and gone, but the underlying ideas at work (‘pseudohermaphroditism’ in particular) have remained unchanging. At times the renamings from non-intersex actors (clinicians and academics) have seemingly aimed to ‘define out of existence’ any unifying intersex experience. This conceptual meddling has been accompanied by a harsh clinical conservatism, resulting in an ongoing set of unnecessary treatments, including surgeries.

It sometimes seems like medics will call us whatever they have to, to prevent any real reformation of their clinical practice. I hope that an inferential view will allow for a better historical grasp of the stakes in the restless renaming of intersex variations and allow us to settle on a new Pragmatic view of terminology, to better pursue a true intersex liberation. That starts with a clear account of what our communities look like and how we use them to build consciousness!

A.L: Are there any substantial differences in trans rights between the UK and mainland Europe?

Jules Gleeson: The situation in the European Union is quite varied concerning trans rights, but it’s fair to say that Britain is taking a direction only a scant few EU members are committed to (Hungary and Poland). We can see this for instance, through the ongoing question of NHS England’s non-provision of fertility treatments, which eventually led to the threat of a human rights lawsuit.

More recently, Britain was bracketed with Russia by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for having a national context where LGBTQI people face down “extensive and often virulent attacks”. Doubtless, this divergence will worsen in a post-Brexit world.

But we should remember that EU member states are far from consistent on civic rights provisioning: for instance, Finland has only recently moved to overturn requirements for mandatory sterilisation of those wishing to change their legal documents (here in Austria that was won after a 2010 human rights ruling). And even in states which afford full civil rights such as Ireland, nobody is under the illusion that trans oppression has truly come to an end.

A.L: To round it up: What does the future of Trans people look like in the Anglosphere?

Jules Gleeson: I don’t think I have an answer to that.

A.L: Ha! Thank you so much. 

Jules Gleeson: Thank you for your questions.