Jules Joanne Gleeson

An Aviary of Queer Social Reproduction


A glowing red chicken egg against a black field.

Image by Torange.biz. License: CC-BY 4.0

‘You don’t have to give birth to a child to be a mother.’
Meerder Wörter

I. Women’s Work, Womb-Work

What does it mean to bear a child? Can womanhood extend beyond being defined by this intimate labour?

Two strands in Marxist Feminist thinking have elaborated investigations of workforces that are not restricted to factory floors and fluorescence drenched offices, offering an inclusive view of economic modes that fully explores the household and maternity ward.

Gestation and its role in reproduction has been the focus of feminist geographer Sophie Lewis, who has explored the ‘uterine’ through a Marxist lens. Lewis’ work aims to deromanticize conceptions of pregnancy and childbirth in favour of viewing those carrying children as labourers. The political implications of this are contained in the pithy slogan: ‘Gestators of all genders, unite!’

Building on the work of theoretical biologist Suzanne Saladin, Lewis describes the process ‘Anthropogenesis’ (or the production of human beings) as having a chimeric character: it involves foetus and gestator ambiguously, a struggle which the adult immersed in the process is ‘locked into’, tasked with servicing cells that proliferate through them restlessly. Bearing a child is in this view at once collaborative, and adversarial. It’s on this basis that Lewis adopts a slogan from earlier black feminists: that infants belong only to themselves, rather than being belongings of their parents. Gestation in this view is at once a form of labour and an ambiguous struggle between claims to life.

Lewis’ forthcoming book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, rebuts more simplified ‘radical feminist’ conceptions of surrogacy (which often advocate for the practice to be outlawed), with reference to the actions taken by actual surrogacy workers, who predictably treat their struggle as more one of winning better workplace conditions.

Among theoretically retrograde feminists (commonplace in Lewis’ backwater island homeland of Britain), this position caused something of a controversy. In particular, replacement of ‘mothers’ or ‘women’ with the gender-unmarked term ‘gestators’ appears to have riled the usual suspects. A piece further elaborating on this view makes clear that this commitment to a ‘trans-inclusive’ view of gestation is an unflinching one:

‘Uterine’ relations are labour relations, historically contingent, scalar, and spatial. This includes not only abortion, miscarriage, menstruation and pregnancy, but also other life-enabling forms of holding and letting go that do not involve anatomical uteri, such as transgender mothering, end-of-life care, adoption, fostercare, and other practices that provide for births, better deaths, or survival.

Whereas for transphobic feminists, appeals to the body stress its fixity, its reducibility to body parts and their component atoms, the mammalian placing of our species, and assert dimorphism’s transcendence beyond all history and dialogue, this view instead stresses the uterine to establish its place as interlocked into broader labour processes. Much work remains to be done extending this same project of wedding the historical materialist and critical anatomical to other features of gendered existence.

II. Reproduction: Biological and Social, Babies and Labour Power

Another, larger current in Marxist Feminist thinking that presently exists in unclear relation to Lewis’ work on womb-labourers is that of social reproduction theory.

Expanding on a term found in Marx, the focus of this school is the question of ‘life making’: how workforces sustain themselves as such. For Marxists, ‘labour power’ is distinct from the exchanged labour hours themselves: the proletariat bring to the workplace a force and vigour that demands more of them than they regularly get remunerated for. Everything from basic daily scheduling to brushing one’s teeth is required for a worker to exist as such, and this ‘underside’ of the wage relation is the basis of capitalist exploitation.

Social reproduction is associated with a host of activities that serve either as dedicated jobs for other workers, or one task among many that is performed by the workers themselves (or those supporting them). From education to nursing to counselling to the hours spent providing upbringings within the household, this often underpaid or unpaid work serves as the inevitable underpinning of labour that produces commodities.

Social Reproduction Theory is a turn to bring this aspect of everyday toil, often neglected, into full view. As Marxist Feminist theorists David McNally and Sue Ferguson had it:

‘Social reproduction feminism reveals, in the first instance, that labor-power cannot simply be presumed to exist, but is made available to capital only because of its reproduction in and through a particular set of gendered and sexualized social relations that exist beyond the direct labor/capital relation, in the so-called private sphere.’

The heaving, bending, scrubbing labour that allows one generation of workers to replace the next is the main focus of this revived Social Reproduction Theory. Not only the deployment of labour is considered by Social Reproduction Theorists, but how the labour power which makes it exploitable comes into being at all.

An obvious connotation of Marxist Feminists addressing primarily social reproduction is an implied (but seldom stated) repudiation of the commonplace assumption that womanhood is defined primarily by participation in so-called biological reproduction (bearing, birthing, and ideally then raising, children). In contrast to this reductive vision, today’s Marxist Feminism seeks to unveil the work that goes into creating and sustaining a workforce, often landing on already overburdened pairs of shoulders.

The subversive aspect of this vein of thinking is in its refusal to normalise the work which underpins each mode of production. Women feature prominently when examining this variety of labour, and in placing them at the centre of the day-to-day functioning of an economic mode, those who prioritise social reproduction tacitly seek to dethrone a view of womanhood’s distinctive burdens as resting on and reflective their ‘biological destiny’ of childbirth.

For Social Reproduction Theorists, child bearing and birthing is only one facet of a much more elaborate enterprise of generating and sustaining exploitable workforces. The potential offered by this school for a truly trans-inclusive feminist theory is therefore considerable: trans and cis proletarians face much the same demands, and a shared set of class enemies. However, there remains a risk that Social Reproduction Theory lapse into the ‘revolutionary’s normativity’ that plagues many efforts at systematic thinking about gender. At its worst, Marxist Feminism is prone to establishing a grand sweep of schematic analysis, which then has to double back to post hoc include the everyday life of queers, lumpenproles, and other riff-raff.

There are several names for the vein of Marxist Feminism which is savvy and active in its efforts to avoid this great risk. Holly Lewis draws from transfeminism and theorisation of intersex bodies in her treatment of Social Reproduction to propose what she terms ‘The Politics of Everybody’. Kate Doyle Griffiths has proposed the term ‘Queer Social Reproduction Theory’ for those readings of reproductive labour which are attentive to lives that spill beyond the conventionally accepted limits of private households. As they put it:

‘The family is at once a “heart of a heartless world,” promising security, safety and affective warmth, but also a site and source of discipline and exclusion – within the family itself and in its effects on workers in the sphere of paid work.’

For Queer Social Reproduction theorists, a primary concern is providing a thoroughgoing materialist account of how private households dominate and immiserate the intimate lives and innermost identifications of those they ready for the workforce. From the disciplinary abuse and dispossession faced by queer children and youth, to navigating the unique struggles of the closet, many points of tension and crisis are being cast into new light by this school of queer Marxism.

III. The Dread of Transsexual Reproduction

‘The reproduction of life itself, where life is conflated with a social ideal (‘life as we know it’) is often represented as threatened by the existence of others: immigrants, queers, other others…[Here] the family is presented as vulnerable, and as needing to be defended against others who violate the conditions of its reproduction.’
– Sara Ahmed, ‘Queer Feelings’

Fertility for trans people is a fraught topic, and often forbidden. After recent court rulings, still today in Finland and Japan all trans people are mandated to be sterilised, as part of the conditions for their transitions being formally authorised. In other words, trans people rank alongside racialised minorities, colonised peoples, the disabled, and traveller/roma communities: the shadow of natalism is an anti-natalism that targets undesirable populations (sometimes quietly, sometimes ruthlessly), marking them out as the final generation to be tolerated (at best).

These eugenic policies have been significantly more widespread within living memory. Especially when meeting European trans women of previous generations, I’ve found tales of mandatory sterilisation quite commonplace including from nations normally taken to be ‘progressive’ and permissive, such as Nordic countries and the Netherlands. (In this respect, there’s a bitter irony to Anglophone social democrats so often vaunting Scandinavia as the assumed ideal model and ‘Other’ to the horrors of the hegemonic New Right.)

The popular basis of this bureaucratic termination of trans fertility is seen in the undisguised disgust and rage which fills the comment sections in the proliferating media stories on trans men carrying children. The prospect of any besides a woman gestating and birthing a child is clearly so horrifying as to be inconceivable for both reactionaries and self-identified radicals. The haughty hostility with which Sophie Lewis’ theoretical efforts to extend gestational conceptions beyond womanhood have been met matches the ferocity concrete examples of men carrying and birthing children. Stories in the popular press have been greeted with naked revulsion by internet commentators, who have furiously rejected the notion that a male could ever give birth. As well as navigating dysphoria and resistant healthcare systems, this popular fury must be faced down by men weighing the prospect of this form of fatherhood.

Despite this, an increasing number of children are now given birth to by those who would probably medically be classed as ‘female’, yet who in both a bureaucratic and everyday sense are no such thing (for this reason Sophie Lewis uses the term ‘gestators’). While this is certainly not a desire of all trans men, there seems to be little hostility among trans people towards those who opt for this path. As transition becomes more and more commonplace, it seems likely that the population of those who gave birth both before, and after, their transition to men will grow.

IV. Hens and Gadflies

Trans women at present have no recourse to bearing children, and for the most part are left outside of the reproductive circuit of gestation in the commonly understood sense: only the wealthiest can afford gamete storage in freezers, which is generally not covered by either insurance plans or state providers.

The exogenous agent which allows ‘male-to-female’ transitions is the same which reliably closes off production male gametes across the longer term: oestrogen. Biologists are often suggestive with their terms of arts. For instance the very word ‘hormone’ was selected by British physiologist, veteran of the Brown Dog Affair, and Classics nerd Ernest Starling. At a meeting of London physiologists in 1905, Starling proposed the term hormone in reference to the Greek hormoa, meaning variously ‘that which sets in motion, impels, or provokes’. Just as the Christian festival Easter’s origins have little to do with the Goddess Ēostre, ‘oestrogen’ does not in fact refer to eggs. Its in fact named as a homage to the word oestrus, from a Latin term meaning frenzy, and which came to refer in English to periods of heat or rut in animals. Oestrus is rooted in an older Greek word oistros, which similar to hormoa instead describes the short-lived gadfly, the breeze, or maddening influences. It’s fitting that trans women now rely on this substance to become hot.

On the memetic level, the urge towards reproductive labour has found itself opaquely expressed, as though the ‘eggs’ absent in ‘oestrogen’ were making their presence known, among seasoned trans women when they refer to those still in denial about the prospect of their condition. An ‘egg’ is a boy or man who will most likely not remain one.

A related state to the repression and bad faith of being ‘in the closet’, eggs are defined by the extent they deny their own condition, helplessly refusing trans consciousness. In light of this they are often seen as objects of pity: the longer medical transition is averted, the more irreversible features begin to accrue, and usually the more wrenching transition becomes (as more years and relationships have formed with the makeshift male persona).

Often the term is used to identify others who seem likely to undergo transition (most often behind their backs), even if they themselves don’t yet realise it. One trans woman might remark to another that someone they walked by with a bushy denial beard, a v-neck shirt and an unconvincing attempt at a manly gait was a ‘total egg’. But the term is also often used as a post facto reflection by trans women on their former selves, from the vantage point of someone who has now passed through that stage and is now coming to terms with having emerged as a chick.

The maternal figure which accompanies the pity figure of the ‘egg’ is rather vaguer: few declare themselves ‘hens’. Trans women introduced the term ‘egg’ as a modest gesture towards maternal humility: rather than carving another’s womanhood, drawing a new gender into being tabula rasa, the process suggested is a gentle and warming one: allowing the form that was gestating itself (for untold years) to emerge of its own volition, with tentative pecks.

Without question, the ‘egg’ meme contains a powerful teleological normativity of its own: the assumption is that trans womanhood lurks beneath the surface of many lives, simply biding its time to emerge to the surface. In truth the idea that gender is performative rather than expressive has never been ubiquitous among trans women’s circles, just as it has failed to gain traction among almost any group of women. But today the path by which that telos comes to fruition – the work of hatching – remains only suggestively charted.

V. A Confession

To confound the typically expected style of a Marxist Feminist, before making my exit I’ll shoulder the indignity of ‘situating myself’, and showing my own stake in questions around birthing and hatching.

Like many intersex people, I’m unable to take any direct role in triggering a gestational process (either as top or bottom). This leaves me a woman unable to bear a child, traditional terms for this state being: sterile, barren, unfertile. The pejorative edge of these descriptors makes it clear how I’m supposed to feel. And yet, my stubborn inability to carry and birth an infant seems simply one fewer thing to worry about – and a mild relief considering how lengthy that list already is. If there is a hardwired imperative to spawn etched into human, I have somehow found myself a confounding pervert. And Marxist Feminism seems to show me that this does not leave me (in a broader, truer sense of the word) non-reproductive.

Yet despite my willful dereliction of supposedly unerring biological duties and generative desires, I’m left cold, too, by the callow cocaine-flecked zeal of ‘queer nihilism’ – the puerile appeal to embrace effeteness as a lived reality, and celebrate our lives unflinchingly as ‘the end of the line’. To me there seems a more immediate truth in the dorky metaphors of hatching found in trans culture. As we make our ways through the world, ripples spread much further than we might realise, and the example we’ve set forms a reference for many more than can consciously accept us as ‘role models’ at the time. Even those of us with no time or energy on our hands to serve as wilful mentors for those around us, will yet find ourselves serving as instructive, however much we might blush or frown at being declared ‘inspiring’. Queer survival can never be a passive matter, and the activities required for it will draw us into relation both to the ‘old hands’ and scene queens who have been out for much longer than we are, and those who are left behind us, still in the closet.

While queers are often cast as defying the biological destiny of reproduction, in truth the demands placed on us to live openly, and the atypical needs which define our lives, both demand activity that draws itself onwards. We sift through generations of the dead, plucking at figures and scenes whose roles we will someday play in turn. To survive as a queer is to provide the basis for others to do the same. Our efforts to rewrite an ethics only fleetingly informed by the previously binding conventions of hetero private households (which reared almost all of us) leave us not only survivors against the existing regime, but living incubators who through our example warm and shelter those yet to come. Nurturing those who are not yet truly our peers, but yearn to join us. Wiping away flecks of shell and strands of albumen. Queer recognition often wears a maternal face.

In other words, to carve our way through the world is always to set a path for others. Reproducing ourselves means reproducing others. We can only ever survive together.

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