On May 1st 2023, the Party for Socialism and Liberation held a May Day block party and rally for trans rights at Old Louisville Coffee Co-op in Louisville. The event kicked off with a march, which began at Central Park, and ended in front of the coffee shop.
I had been assigned the role of emcee, and was stationed at the co-op’s balcony, ready to launch into our speaker lineup when the protesters reached their destination.
The first protesters rounded the corner, and the parade spilled across third street. Soon the street was filled with people, and more were still coming around the corner. I watched in awe as the mass advanced up the street toward me. Among them were my fellow PSL members, fellow co-op worker/owners, all kinds of regulars, folks from the Louisville Tenants Union, and trans people galore.
When something strikes me as strange or unbelievable, I sometimes experience vertigo. Looking out on the mass of gender-expansive bodies and bicycles, smiling faces and signs that said “a better world is possible,” that queer sensation rippled through me.
I’d expected a good turnout, but this exceeded my expectations—much like life has, seven years into my transition. How did I end up here, when my goal had merely been survival? I pondered. There wasn’t time to answer. The march was over and it was time to introduce the first speaker.
Photo by Emmett Valentin
Looking at the photos from the rally later that evening, two things stood out to me: 1) how much the Louisville branch had grown since I’d joined the party in early 2022, and 2) how many of the new members are trans. Not that I find this all that surprising. Trans folks, in my experience, are one of the most politically radical and politically active groups there is, in general, and especially in Louisville. But while our presence and staying power no longer surprises me, I continue to be amazed at my community.
Anywhere people are fighting oppression, trans people are in the room. In the movement spaces I was a part of in 2020, most of the white folks in attendance were trans. This is significant when you consider that trans folks make up only 1-2% of the general population. Indeed, despite the size of our community, trans folks are rarely the minority in progressive movement spaces.
On more than one occasion I have organized fundraisers for trans individuals I wasn’t on speaking terms with. I know other trans folks who’ve put up total strangers for weeks after surgery, cooking their meals and helping with their aftercare and living needs. Trans people be like, “ Yeah I’ll take Aiden to the ER. Is it pretentious Aiden, or Aydin my girlfriend slept with?” Because of how marginalized we are, my community shows up: whether or not we like (or even know) each other.
And that, in essence, is socialism: the understanding that my well-being depends on the well-being of the community. Trans folks are so deeply aware of our interdependence that socialism is practically in our DNA. Yet most Americans, trans people included, wouldn’t know this, because our government-controlled media and education systems have fed us a false understanding of socialism. We live in a country where “socialism” is used interchangeably with “fascism,” and where typing “communism” into a search engine can get you put on a “government watch list.” In reality, communism (the final goal of socialism) is actual democracy, a system of collective governance and common ownership that produces material equality (i.e. a world where everyone has a house, education, food, healthcare, leisure time, and creature comforts). Actual democracy would destroy capitalism, hence the U.S.’s fear of it.
What follows is a dialogue about socialism between myself and seven of my closest transgender comrades (a.k.a. fellow socialists). Because who better than trans folks to set the record straight, but not too straight?
Erika (she/her) is a registered nurse and organizer with the Louisville Tenants Union and PSL Louisville. Growing up in Lexington, KY, Erika struggled to come to terms with her queer identity before finally coming out as trans in her senior year of high school. As an adult, she moved to Louisville, working in the restaurant industry and bouncing from apartment to apartment before completing her nursing education. Today, she’s proud to fight for Socialism and queer liberation. She currently lives in the Highlands with her partner and their cat, Sassy.
Photo by Emmett Valentin
What is socialism?
Erika: Socialism … is the belief that a better world is not only possible, but necessary. It is an outlook that has emerged from the centuries long experience of workers’ exploitation by capital and the realization by workers that the capitalists need us, but we do not need them. Socialism can also refer to a social system, advocated for by socialists, that organizes society in accordance with human need rather than with the desire for a few capitalists to forever increase their profits. A socialist system is by necessity democratic, because it takes power from a small, exploitative minority and puts it in the hands of the masses, who can then organize society around the needs of the many.
Have you always been a socialist?
Erika: For most of my teen years I was essentially a garden-variety liberal, perhaps what might be called today a “progressive.” I joined my school’s Young Democrats and vocally supported Obama. As my queer identity emerged and my political commitments grew, I sought ways to become more directly involved. I participated in lobbying at the Kentucky State Capitol and canvasses for Democratic candidates. I also spent three years as the president of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
All of this culminated in my senior year of high school, when I set out to form an organization that would connect GSAs at Kentucky schools with one another. Our school GSA, while lacking in many material accomplishments, had been relatively successful thanks to a dedicated staff sponsor and the support of the Lexington Pride Center, which hosted a city-wide GSA. I aimed to support other GSAs throughout the state, especially in more rural areas, by forming an organization wherein students could discuss their experiences and get support from one another.
This project ended up taking the form of a new chapter of GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national nonprofit focused on supporting LGBTQ+ students. I managed to form connections with several others in Lexington interested in doing so, and was excited at having some institutional backing for my insurgent project. However, I quickly realized that operating a nonprofit involves far more paperwork and fundraising and far less actual organizing and helping. By the time I had to step away to go to college out of state, I was left with the dismal feeling that I hadn’t at all accomplished what I set out to.
Although many events since then have informed my politics as well, my experience with GLSEN taught me that working within approved systems of change (e.g., the non-profit system) often hampers us more than it helps us. More than ever before, I became convinced that queer liberation would come only from a rejection of conventional, liberal politics, rather than from an embrace of it.
Alexander is a black transmasculine man and an activist for gender minorities. His struggles to obtain access to transition related services inspired him to create a platform as a resource to the local community. He has worked with several organizations in the community over the years as an educator and advocate for the trans / gender nonconforming community. Alexander is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in Psychology with a concentration in gender and sexual fluidity to undergird the work of building Transcending Stigma, an organization created to connect gender expansive individuals together through mentorship, to provide affirming therapy services and to help remove the element of gatekeeping from transition for gender minorities in the area, and to challenge and educate individual allies, businesses, churches, schools, and other organizations to be more safe affirming for gender minorities to live, work, and commune.
Why are you a socialist?
Alex: My politics have gradually moved toward socialism over time alongside my gender transition. As I struggled to gain access to autonomy over my own body, I couldn’t help but notice the other areas of my life that I also didn’t have autonomy over. Socialism for me goes hand in hand with people having autonomy over themselves, over their bodies, over their time, over their efforts, etc. At the end of the day, everything boils down to control which leads to money. Socialism means putting the needs of the people over the greed of the elite and is the only viable option to combat the fascist intentions of this country.
Jibril (they/them) is an elementary school teacher and organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, along with the Louisville Tenants Union. Of Haitian descent, they are also Spalding University’s first graduate with an African American Studies degree, their academic work primarily focusing on the Black national question in the US.
How does socialism differ from liberalism?
Jibril: Socialism is a rich terrain of revolutionary ideas from every corner of the world expressing a scientific, humanistic, and optimistic outlook of the world. We can both understand ourselves and make the world better for all of us through struggle. Liberalism [on the other hand] insists that “human nature” is unchanging and selfish, that only the mystical hand of a “free market” can save us from our own worst impulses. While socialism strives to investigate and uplift, liberalism (even in its “progressive” form) damns us to ignorance and pessimism of one form or another. Whether consciously or not, liberals uphold the rule of the minority over the majority…the deification of private property over human life.
How were you introduced to socialism?
Jibril: Let me put it this way: both of my parents are left-wing, my Papi is an outright communist, and my childhood (especially my teen years) still featured me internalizing and expressing reactionary views, emphatically referring to myself as a “neoliberal”. I’m far from the first person to say I’m extremely ashamed of who I was as a teen. But as a communist I now know that all people are capable of change. No one is incapable of this, and I know from my own experience. As I matured and grew, traveling around the world, talking to people (including in former-socialist Eastern European states) and opening my mind to new ideas, I was eventually able to challenge the ideas being presented to me at school and online. But this was a long and drawn out process that was extremely personal to me. There is no single guide or playbook, no magic statement in a conversation which can pull anyone out of liberalism. This took years of living and learning.
For example, I traveled to Peru (a country which came extremely close to becoming socialist in the 90s, and whose revolutionary movement has been heavily repressed, slandered and demonized by imperialists and neo-colonial collaborators since then) well before I truly became a socialist. But I couldn’t help but be profoundly affected when I witnessed houseless Peruvians destroy Incan structures. Their own cultural heritage! What made this so significant to me wasn’t the destruction itself, I had witnessed such tragedies so much in other countries by that point that I was almost numb to it, but why houseless Peruvians were doing it. They held no malice towards their ancestors, they meant no disrespect, they simply couldn’t afford to build their homes out of anything else. The desperate poverty created by centuries of imperialism and exploitation is forcing Peru to eat itself alive to survive. Realizing this, I was pushed further left and eventually into revolutionary politics.
Was your relationship to your gender affected in this process?
Jibril: In my teenage and early college years I had been in deep denial about being non-binary. On some level I knew, and was scared of admitting it to myself. Part of me was afraid of being treated the way many of my trans classmates had been treated in high school, and the other part felt I didn’t deserve to be honest with myself because of my own complicity in that treatment. I was a mess of guilt and self-loathing.
As I read Marx and understood dialectics I also came to see the harm in viewing people as unchanging or static. “I’m just shy”, “I’m just selfish”, “I’m just a hypocrite” are static assessments that give us a wrong mentality about ourselves and others….So for me, overcoming liberalism and engaging with communist politics also became a process of self-love and healing. I gained comrades and friends who I would genuinely die for, and who I know equally have my back. I also gained a vision of a brighter future world for all of us, where neither my students nor anyone else ever have to go hungry, where we can reasonably expect fulfilling work and a good home to live in, where peoples of all nations can support each other rather than climb over and exploit one-another, and where we can all be our most genuine selves. This world won’t be perfect, utopias don’t exist, but it’s a world I’m proud to fight for.
Oliver is a non-binary person born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. They serve as the Trans Health Director for Kentucky Health Justice Network, where they advocate for Trans Kentuckians’ access to healthcare through direct services, direct funding, education, and legislative advocacy. They graduated from the University of Louisville in 2017 with a B.A in Political Science with minors in LGBT Studies, Social Change, and Philosophy.
Photo by Emmett Valentin
How did you develop an awareness of class, and your position within the U.S. class system?
Oliver: I grew up in a lower middle-class family in the Wilder Park area, my parents were both involved in their respective unions, but I don’t think I really got an understanding of class or that everyone did not struggle financially until I got to high school. I went to DuPont Manual and the majority of my classmates were upper middle class. I was angry most of the time tbh, I was angry because I was being bullied daily for being gender non-conforming but more so because of the inequity I saw. My classmates were wholly going to Europe over summer break and I was making peace with going into immense debt just to go to a state school even after receiving federal financial aid. I was so angry all of the time because I just saw some people having so much while others were struggling to have their most basic needs met.
When I got to college, I entered a monogamous relationship with a cis woman from an upper class family, I was deeply uncomfortable spending time around her family, outside of the homophobia they treated me like I was not good enough for her because it was clear I was not also from a rich family and that I should not be there.
How did these experiences lead to political activation?
Oliver: Strangely that not belonging was a blessing for multiple reasons because rich people are… fucked up. In the fallout from that, I leaned into the organizing I was doing on campus at UofL with Cards United Against Sweatshops, my comrades there had my back and held me through that experience as we organized an international solidarity campaign on campus to get UofL to cut it’s contract with Jansport/VF. I was seen and valued for my personhood and my contributions to a common struggle rather than my ability to thrive within capitalism.
We went on to occupy the administration building at the end of that campaign for a week (finals week lmao), which resulted in them cutting that contract and us winning our campaign. This was the first time in my life that I felt actual hope. I went on that summer to travel with other United Students Against Sweatshops organizers to the Dominican Republic to learn from union leaders at Alta Gracia and learn more about labor organizing in the Dominican Republic and in Haiti. These experiences solidified my understanding of the power of organizing based on class and collective self-interest.
Can you talk a little about socialism through the lens of your trans experience?
Oliver: After coming out as trans toward the end of college, I learned first hand about the specific ways that capitalism fucks trans people. I found it overwhelming and near impossible to navigate accessing HRT much less the gender-affirming surgeries I knew I needed. I eventually was able to get my insurance to cover HRT after an unnecessary and stressful battle, but the only reason I was able to get top surgery is because my partners grandma died and left them money (almost the exact amount of self-pay for one surgeon at the time, $6,500, an amount I would’ve never come up with on my own working at a non-profit). My insurance was never going to cover top surgery for me. Today even if my insurance covered bottom surgery for me, I would be forced to pay my out-of-pocket max of $8,000 toward it in addition to a month’s minimum of travel costs as there are no phalloplasty surgeons in Kentucky. This is not something I will ever be able to afford.
In the midst of beginning HRT and understanding my trans identity at age 21 I was diagnosed with diabetes. My doctors pointed out how exceedingly rare this was and I came later to understand the role that childhood trauma and the high cortisol from that, in combination with lack of access to nutritious foods, played in my developing diabetes.
I live everyday knowing my life is shorter, harder, and immensely more expensive (in terms of medication and food) because of capitalism. I held socialist sentiment throughout my life but all of these things make it impossible for me to not center a socialist consciousness in the work I do and in my vision for the future.
Therry is a Twenty-Fine year old nb queen. They graduated from a Black Ivy, where they were taught by Dr. M. Bahati Kuumba and Dr. Beverly Guy Sheftall. Since Breonna’s summer, they’ve been rocking with the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL). Their likeness has been featured in and made the front page of many a news source
Photo by Emmett Valentin
How did you identify prior to becoming a socialist?
Therry: I used to identify with however Bernie did. I graduated high school in 2016, so of course I did lol. I went to a boujee high school (public school, but I feel like I needed FBI agents to walk me to class like in the 60’s). This high school basically only offered, and even moreso nowadays, the best of the best when it comes to courses a high school can offer. I was drawn into how Bernie was spouting the idea that things shouldn’t be this hard. That I shouldn’t have the entire rest of my life on my seventeen year-old shoulders.
So, I walked into college with a fire. I and everyone around me should be given what it is we need to meet the bare minimum of our needs. I didn’t know exactly how to explore these ideas/feelings. I didn’t know how deep socialism ran. I knew that I was part of several marginalized groups. I only saw Bernie talking about these things, then I saw that he was just another cog in the machine. I had a lotta good mentors who pegged the 2016 election for what it was: an activation phase. People were finally starting to wake up and feel entitled to see the tax money we pay work in our favor. I suppose there was a year where the only answer I had to things was to “vote vote vote! :)” But once I saw what happened in 2016, I think I knew that there wasn’t much that would get us.
There wasn’t a time where I fit myself into a particular liberal box, in my opinion – a lot of organizations that take that liberalist approach take one look at me, see that I’m a college graduate and that I’m not on the streets, and sort of turn their backs to me. Luckily, I dodged the liberalist bullet by being a Black femme that rich white women couldn’t use as a mouthpiece XD
Emmett is a Genderqueer/Transmasc 28 year old, PSL member, photographer, KY20 member, and animist who is fighting for collective liberation for all oppressed people, a future where we live in tandem with nature instead of exploiting it for it’s capital.
Did you ever go through a “liberal phase?”
Emmett: Yes, certainly. Growing up my dad always told me the stories of the indigenous genocide started by colonists and then continued by the US government. So while the importance of that didn’t really hit me until well into my teen years I did have a healthy distrust for the government at large. But especially conservatives. I would consider myself at that time to have been like a wary liberal.
Overall I think it gave me a general distrust for white folks in positions of power. But I was definitely still very naive in a lot of ways and believed that the government still in some ways worked for the people, it was just hampered by conservatives. So I was elated when Obama was elected as president and then later reelected. I remember in high school coming home from school to watch the president/vice president debates in my room.
When I got to college in late 2013 I started hearing more about socialism and was very open to it from the start because I had at that point, been on my own since my 18th birthday and saw how easily systems of government allow people to fall through the cracks and suffer.
Prior to turning 18, I had spent the prior 4 years in foster care, and really developed this motto of like, I am here to look out for myself and anyone else that doesn’t have people looking out for them, and like, no one else. But the key part here is that I thought that the right reforms could turn everything around, and I truly believed that the government would enact those reforms while Obama was in office.
Fast forward to late 2015, the standing rock protest was definitely the most pivotal event in my overall political development. Seeing videos of water protectors, largely indigenous people, getting sprayed with water hoses and shot at by police was very traumatic. I remember during this time I started having night terrors about indigenous people getting murdered by the government. I thought I was seeing the stories my late father had told me growing up, played out again, and it affected me deeply.
I recall Bernie Sanders urging the Obama administration to get involved and stand up for the water protectors and the response from the administration was essentially that they were just going to “let it play out”. That was the moment that I fully realized that the government was only there to uphold its own self interests and did not care about who was harmed in the process of that. That was definitely the key moment for me where I realized both sides of the political establishment were not going to protect me or anyone else like me. Only through solidarity with other marginalized folks were we going to get anything done.
Adrian is a queer sober trans man, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Louisville Tenants Union, and a founding member of the Old Louisville Coffee Co-op. He is also a published poet, proud cat dad, freelance writer and speaker, and a member of the Kentucky 20/Protect Trans Kids Taskforce. When Adrian isn’t writing or organizing, he’s sleeping or slinging drinks.
Photo by Emmett Valentin
Notes on Power
I arrived at socialism by feeling my way through the dark. The dark was powerlessness: the human spirit de-illuminated by capitalist propaganda and programming, fear and alienation, and scarcity.
I had plenty of reasons, as a trans person, a queer, and a service industry worker, to reject capitalism, but I lacked a systematic critique of the system, a theoretical framework to ground my resistance.
I also lacked community. An transgender introvert with social anxiety, new to town and new to sobriety, I didn’t set foot in a social situation I wasn’t required to. I fought like hell for reforms at work, and used my writing and speaking abilities to educate cis people all over the country. I networked, voted, lobbied, and provided mutual aid. And as I did all this, the situation for trans people in the U.S. got progressively worse.
During the 2020 uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I saw glimmers of power, in the sheer number of people who turned out day after day. Like the fleeting moments of gender euphoria that led me to a body that feels like home, or the flashes of insight that lead to the poem, the glimpses of power I caught that summer were enough to keep me moving forward, hungry for more.
But when the lockdown ended, folks went back to work. The marches thinned out, along with the direct action trainings. All of the property that had been destroyed was replaced, and my social media feeds returned to their regularly scheduled programming. I looked out the window: the oppressive systems we had been so determined to dismantle were still standing. The most powerful actions of the summer, which I am so grateful to have been a part of, had been co-opted by milquetoast liberal nonprofits that are funded by the same gentrifiers said actions targeted.
By the time I joined the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), I’d been to countless protests, marches, lobbying days, election polls, phone banks, direct actions, DEI and direct action trainings, most of which were ineffective. As you can imagine, or as you have experienced, it was painful to realize this.
One of the most important commitments I’ve made this year is the commitment to not show up powerlessly, and not allow folks who don’t share my self-interests to take my power. This principle is modeled by my comrades, who’ve had more wins in the last year than many organizations in this city have in their whole existence.
Lucí (they/them) is a communist and ecologist working to co-create a world where people matter. When Lucí isn’t in the lab or organizing, they enjoy playing piano, going on nature walks, writing poetry, dancing, and reading folklore and mythology.
Photo by Emmett Valentin
Socialism seems to be growing in popularity in the United States. What does this say about our current political climate, in your analysis?
Lucí: The popularity of socialist and communist candidates shows that, even with anticommunist media, the people of the US see that we need a change. The government also shows us how afraid it is of socialism when it targets candidates that speak truth to power and advocate for true democracy. So long as capitalists control the levers of power, through lobbying and state violence, the will of the people will be stifled. The two party system (liberals versus conservatives) in the United States is a tool to relieve the pressure of social unrest. By marking one politician red and marking them with tradition, and another blue marked with progress, government officials can divide and conquer. Meanwhile, they push through policies which increase profits, destabilize the climate, and chip at the rights of poor and working people.
What is one specific way that your politics have changed/evolved over time?
Lucí: My understanding of intersectionality has changed greatly over the years. When I was a baby organizer, it was a useful way to look at the ways our identities cross to make a matrix of oppression. The person with the most oppressed categories carried more weight in conversations on how to change the world for the better. As I learned more Marxist theory, I started to see all of these categories as stemming from capitalist exploitation. The power structure and this matrix of oppression were ways to control labor and prevent us from coming together. Now, I see both truths as existing together. Capitalism has taken all these social divisions and turned them into something all its own. Our place in the world is informed by these categories, but these categories do not define us. And the times when we come together in spite of differences are the times when the greatest positive change happens in society. Our struggles are tied together, and none of us are free until all of us are.
As I’ve delved into the partway hidden history of social struggle, privilege has become less of a condemnation and more of a call to action. When I first started hearing it in my organizing, it was used as a weapon to dismiss the plans and thoughts of co-organizers. While someone’s access to social acceptability and/or wealth does impact their work, a person can still contribute meaningfully to debate in spaces for social liberation. People with advantage can also use this advantage to further the struggle, throughout the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, well-off white people contributed to the fight for black and brown self-determination and autonomy. Marilyn Buck, a white woman and anti-imperialist communist, helped liberate freedom fighters from the clutches of the prison system. John Brown and other white abolitionists sacrificed their freedom and their lives to assist black people in their fight for emancipation. Whether in the heart of empire or on the margins of society, we all share a common heritage and a common struggle, and so long as you use your position to lift us all up, you’re a friend to me.
Can you talk a bit about socialism as it relates to transness?
Lucí: My budding socialist politics gave me a passion for history that I didn’t have before. I wanted to understand how these systems of power came to be in the first place. Through history and contemporary struggles, I realized that gender variant people have existed throughout recorded history. History gave me the language to describe myself. It made me proud to call myself trans, seeing the revolutionaries who lived their fullest lives in the struggle to end sexual oppression and capitalism. ‘Trans’ became a little piece of holiness when I learned of the spiritual leadership roles that gender variant people have played in their communities. Transness subverts those divisions which allow for discrimination to exist, and that is a gift in a world as divided as this one.
How do you think about liberation as a socialist?
Lucí: As I’ve learned more about socialist history and the liberation struggle, I’ve learned to see liberation as both a goal and a process. We fight continuously for our right to exist. When we amass enough people power, politicians and capitalists give concessions to prevent their reign of terror from coming to an end. These reforms give us ground to regroup on as we go on fighting for a true democracy, one in which people have the right to self-governance and access to the means of life. Even after such democracy is a reality though, the struggle for equity continues. Liberation is economic, social, political, and even spiritual. We recommit every day to building a better world. And there’s constant reassessment. There will be large watershed moments when we break through some of the chains that hold us down, but there will be a billion tiny victories as we learn to love our neighbors and build communities based on cooperation. Progress towards liberation is also not linear, and there will be growing pains as we adjust to the constantly changing world. Regardless of setbacks, someday we will all be free. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”