Hammer, Sickle and Four logo
September 2023

From Portland, Oregon

Workers Solidarity Against
the Anti-Trans Onslaught

Painters Local 10 banner at Portland Pride march, 16 July 2023.  (Photo: CSWP)

By Fred and Lydia

Working-class militants brought a bold and timely message to this year’s Pride march in Portland: a striking banner reading “DEFEND TRANSGENDER PEOPLE,” with the image of a lion standing up, teeth bared, claws raised, and the words “Painters United/Pintores Unidos, Local 10.” The lion logo is the emblem of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT); the decision to carry the banner was made by unanimous vote at a membership meeting of IUPAT’s Portland local.

In the picture here, you can also see comrades of the Revolutionary Internationalist Youth proudly accompanying the Painters’ banner. It’s also an encouragement for us to learn more about working-class struggles here in the Pacific Northwest, including historic ones for basic democratic rights like the “free speech fights” that the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) led before and during World War I. Three years ago, anti-racist workers and youth here had to stand up for the right to protest when then-president Trump sent in the feds, and Portland’s Democratic mayor “Teargas Ted” Wheeler sent his cops, to try to quash mass protests following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The Painters’ banner defending the rights of trans people is an example of what class-struggle unionism looks like, at a time when these rights are under major attack in the United States.

Bringing workers power and solidarity into fights against capitalist oppression and bigotry is a major part of our program. In 2016, a union-sponsored “Hard Hats for Gay Rights” contingent marched in Portland’s Pride parade (see photo below), as an expression of solidarity days after the horrific anti-gay massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The contingent was initiated by activists from the building trades, IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) and other unions who are supporters of Class Struggle Workers – Portland (CSWP). The CSWP, as the first issue of its newsletter Bridge City Militant (Fall 2015) explained, was started by unionists active in “working-class struggles fighting for labor solidarity and independence from the capitalist state.” Some, it noted, were “prominent in Cross Trades Solidarity, which sought to organize construction workers across craft-union divisions, insisting that picket lines mean don’t cross.” Since its inception the CSWP, which works fraternally with the Internationalist Group, has played an important role in Portland-area struggles.

At the June 2016 Pride march in Portland, Oregon, members of the Painters, IATSE (stagehands) and several other unions marched with banner declaring “Hard Hats for Gay Rights!” (Photo: CSWP)

An example was Portland Labor Against the Fascists, the June 2017 labor mobilization calling to stop white-supremacist and fascist groups from marching days after a local Nazi carried out a double murder. Three hundred workers from 14 unions came out, helping to stop the planned fascist parade. (See Portland Labor Mobilizes to Stop Fascist Provocation,” The Internationalist No. 48, May-June 2017.) The June 2017 action built on a resolution for unions to stand ready to mobilize against racist provocations. Put forward by CSWP members, this was passed by the Painters and other local unions. (Later adopted by the Painters union in Chicago, in August 2019 it was also passed by IUPAT’s national convention.1)

In November 2018, the CSWP brought out Iron Workers, Painters, IATSE members and others in defense of women’s rights, against a misogynist provocation that fascist groups dubbed “#HimToo.” The CSWP highlights the demand for “Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants” and the call to “Form Workers Defense Guards to Defeat the Fascist Threat,” as headlined in Bridge City Militant (Spring 2019).

In numerous parts of the United States, racist and fascist groups are often prominent among those inciting anti-trans bigotry. In Portland, news media have reported violent attacks including one in which a trans woman was beaten with baseball bats in September 2019.

Last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, together with racist efforts against the teaching of black history, book-banning drives, etc., have fed into the current barrage of virulent anti-trans bigotry whipped up in bills introduced, and in some cases passed, in states across the U.S. Many of these are particularly aimed at imposing reactionary state regulation of the lives of transgender youth – in the name of “good old American freedom,” of course. This includes a supposed “religious liberty” to discriminate against trans people, gays, lesbians and others deemed a threat to the nuclear family. A “threat,” that is, to this building block of capitalist society, embodying women’s oppression and domestic drudgery, “traditional family values” and young people’s regimentation, bolstered by religious obscurantism and stifling conformity. It’s one big reactionary “American way” package, peddled for both political and financial gain.

The anti-trans bills proposed, and in some cases laws that have passed, take many forms, in the drive to sadistically shame, ostracize and intimidate trans people (as well as those who associate with, provide care to, teach or write about them). This ranges from vicious and idiotic “bathroom laws,” censoring of teachers and libraries, targeting of performances involving trans people, etc., to brazen intrusions into people’s health care.

Early this year, the New York Times (26 January) reported on bills in Oklahoma and South Carolina to make it a felony for health care professionals “to provide hormonal or surgical transition treatment to transgender people younger than 26 – an uncharted incursion into adults care.” In May, Oklahoma’s governor signed into law a measure threatening imprisonment on felony charges to those who provide such care for people under the age of 18.

Readers have doubtless seen a lot of coverage about the whirlwind of anti-trans measures whipped up in Florida, whose Trump-trailing Governor Ron DeSantis hopes they could catapult him into the White House. Less reported are states like Mississippi, where, as the same NYT article noted, this year’s anti-trans bills included one declaring that “‘separate is not inherently unequal,’ an allusion to Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling in which the Supreme Court upheld segregation.”

Bigotry Crusade’s Racist Roots

Lily-white protest by parents against transgender policies and teaching about racism, at meeting of Loudoun County, Virginia school board, 22 June 2021. Loudoun County was hotbed of racist opposition to school integration in the 1950s and '60s.  (Photo: Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters)

This points to a fact often ignored, or deliberately omitted: racism is a huge part of what fuels the anti-trans onslaught. This parallels the origins of the anti-abortion “movement,” as well as such anti-gay crusades as the one launched in 1977 by Florida orange juice promoter and “born-again” zealot Anita Bryant under the name “Save the Children.” As the last issue of Revolution (No. 19, September 2022) pointed out: “Like similar movements, [these] drew on the model of how the politicized Christian right cohered in the 1960s on the basis of racism against black people, to ‘save’ white families from school integration and ‘save’ society from secular education and the separation of church and state.” Today, the crusade for anti-trans bigotry is being pushed as the “Protect the Children platform.”

Events in Virginia highlight racist realities about the anti-trans “movement” – notably Loudoun County, Virginia, subject of a lengthy recent feature story in the New York Times Magazine (5 August). This presents the county as a kind of ground zero for a series of “culture-war” battles, over library books and a range of other topics. In 2021, numerous anti-trans bills were coming up in Virginia and the Ku Klux Klan was distributing leaflets seeking to capitalize on school-board issues. Loudoun County made headlines after a fight broke out at a school-board meeting, with parents of a student saying that a sexual assault had been carried out in a bathroom by a boy in a skirt. This was promptly weaponized by opponents of transgender rights.

Soon all kinds of professional backlash promoters got into the act. Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin seized on the furor, vowing to make schools less “un-American” and to push back against transgender rights. After winning the election, Youngkin enacted a series of measures against the rights of transgender students. Against this, 1,400 students in 12 Loudoun County public schools walked out in protest, in September 2022.

What the Times’ feature story does not mention is what the words “Loudoun County” and “school board” evoke for anyone familiar with the history of the South. The county was the focal point for a major onslaught by white racists against civil rights. Having been a “hotbed” of the slaveowners’ Confederacy, it became a hotbed against school integration after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision overturned the “separate but equal” Jim Crow segregation that Plessy v. Ferguson had enshrined in 1896.

Virginia’s state government, like those across the South, was run by “Dixiecrat” (Southern Democratic) politicians. In 1956, Virginia’s Senator Harry Byrd promoted the “Southern Manifesto” against school desegregation, which was signed by over 100 Southern congressmen – and declared a campaign of “Massive Resistance.” As part of this, Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors voted to withhold funding for the schools and shut them down unless they remained segregated. Jim Crow laws, “Old South” plantations, racist paeans to Virginia’s Robert E. Lee, Klan terror – these are what reactionary bigots hark back to when they rail about resisting “all the changes threatening traditional values” and pine for “the way things used to be.”

Prowling for targets, rightists, including outright fascist groups, have targeted Drag Story Hour events from New Hampshire to New York, Florida to the Pacific Coast. Against the rightist thugs, our comrades have participated in the physical defense of Drag Story Hour in several locations, including Portland and New York, where we have also been active in the defense of abortion clinics menaced by “god squad” bigots. By spring of this year, 18 states were considering bills against drag performances.

In Tennessee, the governor signed a law prohibiting performances by “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators [sic], or similar entertainers” if they occur in locations where they “could be viewed by a person who is a minor.” Shortly thereafter, at a “Love Rising all-star LGBTQ benefit concert” held on March 20 in Nashville, singer Maren Morris took the stage declaring: “And yes, I introduced my son to some drag queens today, so Tennessee, fuckin’ arrest me.” Tucker Carlson brands her “Lunatic Country Music Person,” but we say: You go, Maren!

Break with the Democrats – For a Class-Struggle Workers Party

Contingent of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in 1985 London Pride march during the hard-fought British coal miners strike.  (Photo: LGSM / Twitter)

Learning more about the organizing by comrades in Portland brings to mind the film Pride (2014), based on the true story of a group that was called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. In Margaret Thatcher’s Britain during the 1980s, they made common cause with the National Union of Mineworkers in the great miners strike of 1984-85. While the movie does take a bit of artistic license with the history, it does a good job of depicting this inspiring example of both labor solidarity in the fight against gay and trans oppression and the need to have a solid understanding of the class line. “Which side are you on?” asks the old U.S. miners song.2

We often explain that the power of labor needs to be unchained from the parties, politicians and institutions of the capitalist state. Another important initiative by CSWP activists was the resolution that IUPAT Local 10 passed in August 2017, to reject the Democratic and Republican parties, or “any Party of the Bosses,” and to “call on the labor movement to break from the Democratic Party, and build a class-struggle workers party.” In the recent period, a resolution calling for workers action to free Mumia Abu-Jamal was passed by the Painters in Portland as well as other areas, and by IATSE Local 28, Iron Workers Local 29 and the Northwest Oregon Labor Council.

We in RIY, youth section of the Internationalist Group, help win radical-minded youth to the understanding of how crucial it is to help build a revolutionary leadership in class struggles throughout society. The fight against oppression must be carried on now, it can’t be postponed – but to carry it through to victory requires a socialist revolution. This would replace capitalist rule, which feeds on and profits from oppression and exploitation, with a workers state – spreading revolution internationally to open the way to a classless, stateless society. Clearly, this revolutionary standpoint is a far cry from identity politics, which the Democratic Party uses as yet another means to harvest votes.3

Some might hope that living in a “blue state” means living without transphobic violence. The brutal murder of O’Shae Sibley on July 29 in Brooklyn, New York, is a recent reminder that this isn’t the case. Capitalist politics in the U.S. is a two-headed beast. The Republicans are currently seeking to drum up votes via anti-trans bills and laws (though Trump and others sometimes postured as pro-gay in past campaigns). The Democrats, supposed purveyors of hope, change, “progressive ideals” and so forth, just use trans people as bargaining chips – as they have with immigrants, DACA recipients, labor unionists, etc. Meanwhile President Joe Biden follows in the footsteps of Deporter-in-Chief Barack Obama; uses a strikebreaking law against the railway workers, with the aid of Nancy Pelosi plus AOC and the “Squad” (see article on page 5), etc.

Democratic politicians’ response to the bigoted attacks on trans rights is similar to their response to the onslaught against abortion rights, including the overturn of Roe v. Wade. They seek to channel widespread outrage not to defend those rights in reality, but to coin that anger into electoral gold for this ruling party of capitalist oppression. They hope people won’t know, or will forget, that Joe Biden (and Jimmy Carter) were instrumental in pushing through the racist Hyde Amendment that barred federal funding for abortions. Or that two years after Biden and Bill Clinton rammed through the 1994 crime bill accelerating mass incarceration, Clinton signed the anti-gay “Defense of Marriage” Act. We could go on. The point is that you can’t fight reactionary bigotry by voting for or building illusions in the Democratic Party, whose mayors are the bosses of the racist cops from NYC to Chicago and Atlanta to Oakland and L.A. – and whose imperialist war drive against China and Russia threatens to blow up the world.

How did the Democratic Party, which was the party of the slaveowners, eventually become the party that pretends to represent different downtrodden and discriminated-against sectors? In the wake of the civil rights movement, Dixiecrats went over to the Republicans, and the Democrats decided to let a layer of African American politicians administer a series of cities for the capitalist rulers. It employed its traditional “pork-barrel politics” (using patronage to incorporate different ethnic groups, e.g., Irish Americans) to bring in and subordinate new sectors. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the “sectoralist” outlook of the New Left wound up helping the Democratic Party co-opt new constituencies. (This is discussed in the article “Gay Rights and Socialist Revolution,” which we quote below.)

In 1984, the Rev. Jesse Jackson launched a presidential campaign under the name of the “Rainbow Coalition.” This did not refer to a symbol for gay, lesbian and trans rights, but in the words of his Democratic National Convention speech: “Our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow – red, yellow, brown, black and white....” This campaign for the Democratic nomination sought to refurbish the image of the U.S. imperialist party of Hiroshima and the Vietnam War (as Bernie Sanders’ campaigns aimed to do decades later). In adopting the name of “Rainbow Coalition,” it recycled and co-opted a term previously used by Fred Hampton, the courageous Black Panther leader murdered by the Chicago cops under notoriously racist Democratic mayor Richard J. Daley in 1969.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Democratic strategists employed “pork-barrel politics” to bring in many gay, lesbian and trans activists in the decade after the Stonewall rebellion. In 1976, the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club was founded, changing its name to Harvey Milk Democratic Club in 1978 after the gay SF Board of Supervisors member was murdered by a homophobic former cop. It became a mainstay of the Bay Area Democratic machine that boosted Nancy Pelosi, who advertises herself as a staunch “LGBTQ+ Ally.”

In the House of Representatives, Pelosi has been instrumental in countless capitalist crimes against the workers and oppressed here and around the world. Over the recent period this has featured everything from strikebreaking against the railway workers to rabid warmongering – from helping push and fund the U.S./NATO proxy war in Ukraine to her trip, on a U.S. Air Force jet, to Taiwan last year (see U.S. Anti-China War Provocations Over Taiwan,” The Internationalist No. 67-68, May-October 2022).

USNS Harvey Milk, an oiler that fuels U.S. aircraft carriers at sea, named after the gay San Francisco Board of Supervisors member murdered by homophobic former cop in 1978. Marxists call for defeat of U.S. imperialism in its endless bloody wars .  (Photo: NASSCO)

And get this: today, the U.S. Navy has a ship named Harvey Milk, which refuels aircraft carriers at sea. At its naming ceremony in 2016, Nancy Pelosi accompanied the Secretary of the Navy, whose office tweeted that the warship honors “#LGBTQ #Sailors & #Marines.” Against the Democrats and Republicans, Marxists stand for the defeat of U.S. imperialism and its endless bloody wars.

In a wide-ranging article on the origins of gay oppression, the difference between “sectoralism” and our Marxist program for uprooting all forms of social oppression, and other key topics, Revolution wrote:

“Marxists seek to build a genuine revolutionary party that, as V.I. Lenin put it in What Is To Be Done? (1902), acts as a ‘tribune of the people ... able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears,’ mobilizing the power of the working class, whose emancipation cannot be accomplished except by uprooting all forms of social oppression.”
– “Gay Rights and Socialist Revolution,” Revolution No. 4, September 2007.4

Join us in the struggle for socialist revolution!  ■

  1. 1. The resolution reads: “Whereas there has been a sharp increase in racist and anti-immigrant attacks across the country in recent days; and Whereas white supremacist groups have announced they would stage menacing provocations across the country; and Whereas the KKK and other racist organizations represent a deadly threat to African-Americans, Latinos and immigrants, as well as to Muslim, LGBTQ, and Jewish people, among many others, and directly to the members of this union and the labor movement as a whole; and Whereas the white supremacist forces are related to the origins of anti-labor ‘right to work’ laws in order to destroy unions because they believed unions would lead to ‘race mixing’ among workers; and Whereas unions are considered a threat to racist organizations because they are a working class defense organization for all workers in the community, Therefore be it resolved that the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades stands ready to join with communities in mobilizing against the clear and present danger that racist organizations’ provocations pose to us all.”
  2. 2. A classic 1941 rendition of “Which Side Are You On” can be found available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEwE0R_7TDc 
  3. 3. As the “Founding Declaration of the Revolutionary Internationalist Youth” states: “This form of bourgeois ideology feigns a fight against oppression through ‘check-your-privilege’ liberal idealism and ... is used to deepen the wedge between different sectors of the workers and oppressed, claiming to unite those who share a sectorally defined identity, including members of the exploiting class” (Revolution No. 14, January 2018. Far from explaining that this is the opposite of a program for actually winning liberation, opportunist groups (Left Voice being one constant example) pander to and tail after every “latest thing.” (Editor’s note.)
  4. 4. Reprinted in the Internationalist pamphlet Marxism and Women’s Liberation (2017).