In The Guardian 15 Dec 2017 Owen Jones wrote that transgender people face a “relentless media campaign” against them, and are “desperately lacking in influential media allies”:
A Daily Telegraph front page this week was headlined “‘Trans’ survey for 10-year-olds”. The article took issue with the NHS for asking whether children were “comfortable in their gender”. And so we’re back to the 1980s arguments behind Section 28, which barred the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools… Consider these recent headlines.“The transgender zealots are destroying truth itself”, screeched the Mail on Sunday. “The skirt on the drag queen goes swish swish swish”, wailed the Sun, adding “Trans classes for kids age 2” for good measure. “Church: let little boys wear tiaras”, howled the Daily Mail, describing “New advice on transgender bullying for C of E schoolteachers”.
Is the corporate media truly hostile to gender ideology?
What the corporate media actually says
First some reality orientation. Media research has been undertaken by Transgender Trend, in an attempt to account for the soaring number of children being referred to gender reassignment clinics.
We decided to take a section of the media – the UK national daily newspapers – not only to find out the number of articles about ‘transgender kids’ published between April 1 2016 – March 31 2017, but to analyse the content of those articles in order to understand the actual message which the ‘general public’ has been receiving over the twelve-month period….
The researchers identified an “uncontested belief in gender and sex-role stereotypes as evidence that a child is really the opposite sex”, referenced in 22 of the 27 articles on child transitioning. They also found that:
…the caution expressed by clinicians in the articles about gender clinics is not making its way over into other news stories; there is very little note of caution in the child transition stories… It is not, therefore, that editors are unaware of at least some of the risks and questions around diagnosing and treating children as ‘transgender’ but that they choose largely to minimise them and continue to publish cheer-leading child transition stories as if the issue is settled.
Critical articles tended to focus on “political correctness”, particularly involving schools. For example:
The Daily Mail published more articles which were critical or balanced (such as this one) but this was offset by the number of uncritical/celebratory transition stories (such as this). The Sun followed the same pattern, critical of ‘politically correct’ policies in schools (like this) but encouraging of childhood transition (this for example). The Express was also critical of school policies (here) but totally unconcerned about young girls ‘socially transitioning’ at home and school (here).
From this evidence base they conclude:
It is the media which has facilitated the speedy public ‘acceptance and recognition’ of not just ‘transgender and gender diverse people’ but the completely new belief that children are ‘transgender,’ together with the idea that invasive medical intervention is a necessity.
In other words the corporate media studied in this research heavily endorsed the core idea of gender ideology: that there is a gender identity in us all, which is defined through sex stereotypes, and which for the great majority of people closely aligns with their birth sex. In other words it naturalises sex-stereotypic appearances, habits, restrictions and behaviour. By implication, discontent with stereotypes now marks you out as part of a small, sharply defined minority. The researchers add:
Celebratory media coverage of ‘trans kids’ has continued unabated since the Tavistock referral figures were announced this time last year, with ‘serious’ publications like Time magazine and the National Geographic getting in on the act with glossy promotional features.
This coincides with the wholesale replacement of “sex” by “gender” now taking place in the language used in government, neoliberal public and private institutions, and of course the media: “gender” having a vaguely radical connotation for a small minority, while for the rest, the great mass of people, it continues to link males to masculinity and females to all things feminine.
There are many forces committed to transgender ideas, such as postmodern academia and various kinds of “gender specialists”, but none of them have even a fraction of the reach of the corporate media. This trend, as a mass, normalised phenomenon, has been brought to us by the capitalist class.
What the bosses do and don’t need from gender ideology
The capitalist class has every reason to champion the core idea of gender ideology. It cherishes the underlying message that females are naturally feminine, naturally nurturers, naturally inferior. What the bosses need is a way to keep the mass of working women from challenging their role as unpaid drudges in the home, unpaid maintainers of today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves, at a time when women have flooded into the workforce and can see every day that they are equal to men. Then there are the added secondary benefits of accepting lower pay, and profits for the cosmetics and fashion industries.
For these reasons the capitalist class has abandoned the old biology-is-destiny notions that XX chromosomes lead directly to lipstick and kitchen aprons. Individual bosses may lament this, but the old ideas simply won’t wash in today’s world. In gender ideology they have a more sophisticated way to preserve female stereotyping.
Centuries of propaganda mean that the old ideas linger in the minds of many ordinary people. Opportunist politicians, notably Trump, sometimes find it convenient to play to this gallery, but this does not reflect the underlying reality within major conservative parties like the US Republicans, where gender ideology is “pitting the party’s pro-business branch against social conservatives“.
While the bosses gain from the core ideas of gender ideology, they derive no added benefit from other, unfolding features of trans thinking or the fruits of trans activism, such as censorship and no-platforming, and disputes over woman-only spaces. (As for the actual protection of vulnerable trans individuals from abuse or violence, they couldn’t give a damn.) Even celebrations of child transitioning are only useful insofar as they carry the message that we are all naturally pink or blue inside. The bosses feel no need to support every twist and turn of gender ideology.
There are in fact several reasons why the corporate media might find fault with some aspects of transgender and gender-fluid politics. One is to appease the social conservative section of their audiences, hence the rant by Peter Hitchens in the Sunday Mail that Owen Jones complained of. Another is gender ideology’s entanglement with the Left. And thirdly, elements of this new ideology sit uneasily with the liberal values of some journalists and commentators. These latter two factors will now be discussed.
The attack from the Right
Gender ideology is championed by most progressives and the Left, as previously discussed on this blog. This makes some aspects of gender ideology a target for the tabloids: they hate identity and intersectional politics because it draws attention to many kinds of inequality and suffering inherent to capitalism. They also know that within this this milieu there are far-left activists to keep an eye on. So their coverage reflects the split noted in Transgender Trend’s research: “born-in-wrong-body” good, “political correctness” bad.
The same division has been evident in the Australian media. The Australian, Murdoch’s national flagship, ran a campaign against Safe Schools, an anti-bullying program funded to bring gender ideology into schools, which had some far-Left involvement. At the same time the regionally-based Murdoch papers, with a much larger total circulation, have affirmed gender ideology. A partial exception is the NSW Daily Telegraph, which has combined both approaches. For example it cited Catherine McGregor, “Australia’s most senior ranking transgender military officer” and winner of an Order of Australia award, who initially opposed the Safe Schools program, declaring:
Safe Schools teaches a derivative of Queer Theory, which I believe leads trans people into a blind alley. Most of us transition because gender is important to us and we feel torn between our anatomy and our psychology.
This attack on transgender political correctness has also been joined by more sophisticated right wing outlets like the Spectator and Quillette which have tried, with some success, to win over gender-critical feminists who have been so badly abused by their traditional allies in the Left and in the LGB community.
In Britain there is a further reason to attack gender-related political correctness in the mass media. Jeremy Corbyn’s support for gender ideology has occasionally been used against him as a small part of the corporate media’s campaign to bring Corbyn down by any means possible. His agenda has given hope to millions of ordinary working people, ground down by neoliberal austerity: they are starting to lift their heads, got off their knees: that has to stop. His personal integrity and talent have made him hard to slander so it is a matter of throwing any kind of mud at him and hoping some sticks: antisemitism, transgenderism, whatever works.
The strains on liberalism
Editors, commentators and journalists in the broadcast and print media broadly follow the needs and interests of their corporate overlords, but they do so within a belief-system that they take seriously. There are points of friction between gender ideology and the ideals of liberal democracy, leading to certain challenges from journalists such as Janice Turner and Andrew Gilligan in Britain’s Times and Sunday Times.
There is of course a liberal case for gender ideology: defend persecuted groups; it is simply decent to accept transwomen into women’s spaces (trustworthy sources say they pose no threat); give kids freedom to choose their identities.
Liberals do like free speech, though. Yet any attempts to question gender identity are said to be comparable to gay conversion therapy and so deserve to be silenced, and trans-critical women’s liberationists are haters who should be physically threatened and shut down, even when speaking on unrelated issues.
Liberals support women’s spaces to defend women’s safety and dignity, based on a “common-sense” amalgam of right wing ideas that women are naturally and eternally vulnerable and “different” with left wing ideas that women in our society face discrimination and therefore harassment. Well, it is one thing to open women’s spaces to post-op transwomen, another to let in those who are self-identified, maybe bearded, with no interest in physical transitioning. But since they too have a mystical inner identity as women, they must be allowed to self-id, without a humiliating bureaucratic rigmarole, and have every right to walk in on a 14 year old “cis-privileged” girl getting changed.
Liberals tend toward a humanism that accepts, for example, the evidence base of developmental child psychology. But gender identity thinking says clinicians should never question children who “choose” to take the path toward surgery, sterility and life-long drug dependency. If we all have a mystical gender identity it exists in toddlers as well tweens and adults. Kinder kids should be taught so.
The truly remarkable thing is how few liberal commentators have picked up on these and other points of tension, especially considering the sheer, stupendous extent of the changes demanded by the trans lobby, and the pressures it has put on liberal thinking: such is the hegemony of gender ideology, thanks to support from the ruling class and the lack of challenge from the Left. But the more push-back there is against gender sexism, the more liberal commentators will respond to the ways in which it clashes with liberal values. In Britain, some of this push-back has come from gender-critical women’s liberationists, who are better organised than elsewhere.
Freer Lives now includes a link to a new page, on its left hand menu, called Archived posts grouped by topic, so that previous articles can be searched more easily by subject. It includes some reposts from other sites, which are of course acknowledged. It should be read in conjunction with the other pages on the blog menu, on women’s oppression, sex role stereotyping and the top-down history of the transgender trend.
The topic headings are:
- Elite support for the trans trend
- The Left and gender ideology
- Soothing left wing sensibilities (how the liberal media soothes readers who are uneasy about the sex-stereotypes and other sexism in gender ideology)
- The progressive side of the trans trend, and its limits
- Gender-critical progressives and the Right
- Gender identity, biology, defining women, women’s spaces
- The new women’s movement
- No-platforming and harassment of feminist critics.
Increasingly, anyone who identifies as a woman can access female-only spaces, compete in women’s sport (see eg here and here) and represent women within public and private organisations. These changes are part of the mainstreaming of the transgender trend, and its normalisation by the corporate media (see eg here and here). The mystical idea of gender identity is rapidly being codified in law and statements of public policy where “gender” is replacing “sex”. For information about Britain, see here and here. But this is a worldwide trend, as James Robb points out:
For example, in most provinces of Canada there is no longer an requirement for people to have had gender reassignment surgery in order to change their legal sex designation; Denmark and Argentina have made a similar change. Ontario is likely to issue ‘gender-neutral’ birth certificates by 2018. A government committee has recently recommended a change along similar lines in New Zealand.
These changes raise the broader question of how women are to be defined and understood in our society. This is a political issue for everyone who opposes female oppression. Feminist women, like most women, don’t take well to be being lectured by men about who and what they are. I hope this post is understood as a comradely contribution to a key issue in the struggle for a better world.
The post looks at different political understandings of woman and women’s spaces, how the trans phenomenon has impacted, and where to go from here.
The traditional conservative view
Traditionally women have been seen as those born female and who naturally incline to feminine appearance and behaviour. As a group of Lithuanian MPs put it, “masculinity and femininity” are “imprinted in all parts of human body, its organs and tissues”. The argument is rarely spelled like this; it is more often a “common sense” assumption.
Historically this view has been associated with the confinement of women, physically to the home and ideologically to family-related concerns. James Robb points out that the fight for women’s toilets was taken up by women in nineteenth century Britain as part of the struggle to take part in public life. He adds that the “lack of female-only toilets in schools is a particular focus of campaigns in India by organisations such as Child Rights and You (CRY), which argue that this is an important reason that girls drop out of school.” Within an oppressive society, separate spaces mean more freedom for females.
But in the west, as women pressed forward into public life, separate female spaces were sometimes associated with the idea of inherent female vulnerability. As Alwyn Collinson says:
From the mid-19th century, [British] workplaces, railway carriages, even banks were often gender-segregated. Smaller, more cosily-decorated spaces were cordoned off for ladies to protect the ‘weaker sex’ from contact with the masculine world of business and public pleasure. (Museum of London website 6 September 2017)
Today the traditional common-sense conservative rationale for women’s spaces preserves the assumption that ladies need protection due to natural frailties.
The Left and feminist position, pre-trans
Feminists, Marxists and other leftists supported woman-only spaces on a different basis – not to protect females’ supposedly innate delicacy and mystique but as a partial defense against women’s oppression: within a sexist society males’ generally greater strength and height poses a threat; females are socialised into body-shame, self-blame, and passivity. Prior to the trans trend this was a general understanding on the Left.
It was accepted that female biology, within a sexist society, condemns women inescapably to sex-based dangers, restrictions, objectification, and oppressive socialisation, which individual females internalise to different degrees. Supporting separate spaces for women was part of fighting women’s oppression and therefore it advanced unity in struggle.
But for radical feminists biology is also the dividing line between oppressor and oppressed. They argue that a system of patriarchy has survived intact through different economic epochs, so women as a sex need to organise against it. Most Marxists on the other hand say that women’s oppression has continued through different forms of class society only because each new ruling class has found women’s subjugation useful, once adapted to its own, new way of doing things (just as Christianity has taken on different content in ancient slave states, feudalism and capitalism). They argue women’s oppression can only be overcome by the working class as a whole, while recognising that this will require a sustained struggle against sexism within its ranks.
The capitalist class and its woman problem
Before looking at how the trans trend has altered things, it is crucial to understand the role and interests of the capitalist class, and the issues that women pose for it.
In the 1940s capitalism still needed women to spend most of their time at home to maintain today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves. So at the end of world war 2 women were driven out of wartime jobs. But during the next two decades a sustained economic boom drew more and more women into the workforce and higher levels of education, and this brought a deep cultural shift. In the public sphere women increasingly realised that they were equal to men, and not so very different. Drives for equal pay began. Women resented the double burden of wage work and unpaid work at home. This growing confidence and anger fed into the radical era of the late 1960s and strengthened the women’s liberation movement. When recession and mass unemployment returned in the mid 1970s the cultural and economic shift had gone too far to bundle women back into the home. Indeed sackings were often in blue collar industries where swathes of the “patriarchy” were hard hit.
Women’s new life experience in the workplace is a major headache for the capitalist class. Yes it wants them in jobs, but it also relies on women’s perception of themselves as inferior and natural nurturers, so that they still accept the huge burden of unpaid work, the great bulk if it in the family home. For example: the Australian Bureau of Statistics has valued unpaid work at $434 billion, or 43.5% of Australia’s GDP (2006 figures). Most of this is done by women, of course, as Australian Labor politician Tanya Plibersek recently emphasised.
Citing the 2016 census figures, Plibersek said the average woman did 14 hours of housework and family organisation per week and the average man fewer than five, while women did three quarters of the child care, and 70 per cent of caring for elderly or disabled family members or friends. (Making Women’s Unpaid Work Count, The Monthly May 2018)
Indeed the bosses want to add to this burden, as they shrink the welfare state. And women’s continued oppression obviously has huge secondary benefits: profits from fashion and cosmetics and from unequal pay, divisions within the working class, etc. For all these reasons the bosses will never accept women’s liberation. How then can they deal with women’s greater confidence and anger?
One way has been to channel women’s discontent toward individualism and liberal feminism. This is managed by an army of editors, tame journalists, think tank experts, by everyone in its propaganda machine; for these people the needs of capitalism and the wishes of their lords and masters constrain what they say and write and, above all, what they allow themselves to think.
Fortunately for the bosses, a new and wonderfully cool form of sexism has now fallen into their lap, reinforcing old stereotypes and therefore the belief in female inferiority. The corporate media and indeed all the public and private institutions of capitalism have seized on this new trend (as previously discussed here and here), and carried it from the margins to the social mainstream.
The transgender view of women and female-only spaces
Transgender ideology says a woman is anyone who deeply feels themselves to be so.
This breaks from the idea that our biology of birth destines us for naturally sex-stereotypic appearance and behaviour. To that extent it shakes up old ways of thinking. It offers one particular way for individuals to escape the sex-stereotypic expectations they were born to. It leads to clashes with social conservatives, and persecution and danger for trans individuals (especially if they sex workers, from oppressed ethnic minorities, or in central and South America: see eg here and here). It gives trans politics progressive credentials, and partly explains its endorsement by most feminists, leftists, liberals and same-sex attracted people.
But the trans trend acts far more as a Trojan horse to disseminate right wing sexist ideas within progressive ranks. Right inevitably dominates left in trans thinking because it relies absolutely on sex stereotypes that are maintained by capitalism for the benefit of capitalism. Female femininity is once again declared to be natural and unchallengeable, though it is now based in a mystical knowledge of one’s inner self (in reality, this is nothing more than the internalisation of a lifetime’s experiences of how females and males are defined. The Marxists who should be explaining this are instead cobbling together pitiful and half-hearted “materialist” justifications for gender identity. See earlier discussion on this blog, also this article.)
Most importantly, trans ideology says that biology aligns with innate gender identity for the vast majority of people. To be a girly girl becomes once again natural and right; it is not due to female socialisation; there is no reason to protest. It is this right wing side of trans thinking that the corporate mass media runs with (it cares far less about trans deaths or harassment by police, for example) and it is these ideas that constitute the message of the trans trend for the great majority of people. Left wing trans activists rarely if ever denounce this celebration of sexist typecasting: to do so would cut too deeply into trans ideology. (It is fine to sneer at Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner for being a rich right wing Republican, but not for flaunting crass stereotypes.) Nor do other radical leftists denounce it: to do so would alienate them from trans activists and their host of supporters. The Trojan horse at work.
James Robb is absolutely correct to say that “this particular form of identity politics sets itself squarely against some of the key conquests of the women’s movement and its strengthening of the working class.”
Men and women have every right to adopt the identity of the other sex, as a particular, individual way to escape the stifling expectations they were born to. The problem starts when “woman” itself is redefined: a gigantic shift, which has only occurred, and has only been remotely thinkable, thanks to full support from the capitalist class.
For these reasons, it is wrong to see the battle over woman-only spaces simply as a contest between trans rights and women’s rights, between two groups concerned with competing agendas over safety and privacy. At base, it is one front in the bosses’ battle to maintain sexism, and thus the subordination of all working class women.
The emerging women’s movement
Centred in Britain, a new women’s movement is slowly forcing its way forward, dealing with the distinctive forms of oppression women face in the neoliberal era, including the anti-woman politics of transgender.
The fight to have or retain women-only spaces is one of their demands. This means resisting the right of entry of men who identify as female, and also the growing interest in gender-neutral facilities. For example, firefighter Lucy Masoud takes up the issue of women’s battle for female facilities in fire stations, a demand backed by the London section of the Fire Brigades Union. She also describes the opposition by management and managers’ efforts to pit male and females members against one another. She adds:
And now, thanks to the current push for gender-neutral toilets our hard fought battle for privacy for all may have been for nothing… there are managers out there who are watching this current political landscape very closely and will jump at the chance to cut costs and save money on stations by getting rid of female accommodation altogether and instead installing gender-neutral toilets, changing areas and dormitories. Gender-neutral toilets and shared changing facilities may tick the box for [the] Stonewall index, but it will be at the expense of female firefighters.
Feminists in this emerging movement point out that the transgender conception of woman relies on sex stereotypes. They sometimes add that such a definition obscures the oppressive socialisation that shapes the lives of natal females from their earliest years.
Biology, feminism, the Left and the Right
These feminists also point out that female biology makes oppression inescapable for females of all ages and in all places within our current society: womanhood is not a choice or performance.
But the focus on biology also reflects the politics of patriarchy, the idea that sex itself crucially divides male oppressor from female oppressed. When seen in these terms, the transwomen activists who attack feminist meetings or abuse women online can easily be seen as representing men in general. And when women’s oppression is seen in these terms, women cannot hope to gain liberation just by fighting for their interests alongside men within the wider struggle for socialism.
Such a view has been enormously boosted by the leftists’ and liberals’ response to trans-critical feminists: no-platforming, physical and verbal abuse, hypocritical evasions, sly manoeuvres, and a complete refusal to admit to the issues of women’s rights that these feminists try to raise.
These leftists and liberals are keenly aware of the dangers, suffering and prejudice experienced by trans people; those who are also same-sex attracted might feel a particular empathy. But the complete intolerance and the refusal of any dialogue with trans critics has other sources. They include the acceptance of gender-identity mysticism; the general atmosphere of identity politics, which emphasises division over unity; the confidence that comes from ruling class support; the frisson of radicalism generated by having social conservative enemies; and not least, the capitulation of the Marxist Left on this issue.
The most notable feature of the attack on trans critical feminists is its misogyny. The “punch/kill a terf” slogans and calling trans-critical women “cunts” have been taken up with glee (see also here, or the overview here).
This atmosphere seems to pervade the Left within the British Labour Party. In March this year, feminist writer Harvey Jeni pleaded with the Party to “take a serious stand against this deliberate intimidation and degradation of female members and voters.” Such pleas have been ignored. This had led many left-inclined feminists to quit the Labour Party, just as individual feminist women have felt driven from the Left across the world (here is one moving example from New Zealand).
The Left is not a monolith. The Morning Star newspaper has given space to trans-critical feminists. The British SWP’s publications have not, but the party does argue that progressives should not “clamp down on dissenting views on, say, sex work or trans politics. These ideas should be openly debated.” This is consistent with the SWP tendency’s long-standing support for women’s liberation, highlighted today for example in its support for abortion rights in Ireland. Regrettably, the SWP has not taken a stand against sexism within the pro-trans Left: in a key recent piece on trans politics the author simply “prefers” not to use the term terf, without denouncing the menacing misogyny that so obviously surrounds it.
But while most of the Left stamps on the new women’s movement, sections of the Right have smiled on it, as previously discussed on this blog. Whether alt-Right (eg here) or social conservative (eg here), whether sincere or slimy, the Right explains the trans trend in terms of the moral degeneracy of western liberalism; for them it is purely a cultural phenomenon. (And like some trans-critical feminists, they sometimes see the trans trend as a social contagion or passing fad: completely unrealistic given transgender’s deep value to the capitalist class).
The Right does not want to talk about the oppressive socialisation women experience, since this leads to places they don’t want to go. But they are very happy to talk about biology, because for them it leads back to more traditional biologically-justified forms of sexism; they don’t even have to articulate this argument, since it is the default “common sense” unless explicitly challenged. The Right can also find common ground with trans critical feminists on attacks on free speech (eg here) and on opposition to child sterilisation (see eg this report from a very brave doctor, published however in the right wing Daily Mail, a paper which in 2015 urged a vote for UKIP in three constituencies).
The Right is no friend of women. And any compromise trans-critical progressives make with the Right is sure to be exploited by left wing apologists for trans sexism. So it is important to differentiate trans-critical progressives from the Right’s agenda, at every opportunity.
But rather than wag a finger at hard-pressed women’s liberationists, Marxists should start cleaning up the dog’s breakfast of confusion, capitulation, and evasion on this issue within the Left.
Transgender activists and supporters recently attacked a British trade union official Paula Lamont, driving her off a picket line on International Women’s Day. A report in the Morning Star describes the trans activists shouting ‘“Terf! Terf! Terf! Get her out of here, she’s a Terf.”… One activist can be heard to shout: “She’s not here in solidarity with anybody,” while another challenges her: “If you’re not here in solidarity with transwomen, then what are you doing here?”’
It will be interesting and instructive to see how many trans activists come forward to condemn this behaviour.
Some leftists will no doubt condemn the attack on Lamont while also attempting to separate it from the overall “progressive” tendency of trans politics. But since transgender ideology is founded on sex role stereotyping, misogynistic and right wing actions of this kind are not some unfortunate and avoidable accident. They emerge from the core politics of transgender, so they will keep appearing.
The Morning Star article reports that the picket line was part of the Bectu Picturehouse dispute, ‘part of a long-running campaign for the living wage and sick pay for staff. It has received widespread support, including from Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.’
The previous month Paula Lamont had attended a meeting about the planned changes to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act. “I was attacked purely for being identified as having attended A Woman’s Place UK meeting,” she said.
The attack was condemned by Prospect union general secretary Mike Clancy. LGBT secretary for London fire brigades union Lucy Masoud, who was one of the WPUK speakers, said: “I utterly condemn the attack on this female trade union member. The fact that it was an attack on a picket line while she was defending the rights of other workers is absolutely disgraceful… I call on other unions, specifically women’s sections, to come out and condemn this kind of behaviour towards our female members.”
The Morning Star reports: ‘RMT [union] executive member Eddie Dempsey and friend of the victim said the incident was “a complete disrespect to our movement. There are only two sides to a picket line… This sort of behaviour completely undermines the picket. If something like that happened on one of our pickets, the employers would be jumping for joy.”… Dempsey said that women in RMT, which has a 15 per cent female membership, had expressed concerns about changes to the GRA… Dempsey said he thought, “as a whole, the trade union movement has ducked the issue” of the GRA and that “people were afraid of speaking out.”
See full report from Ros Sitwell in the Morning Star 20 March 2018
This post looks at how gender identity is most commonly understood, and then at attempts by the British Socialist Workers Party to explain it in real-world materialist terms. After that the post looks at whether the term “gender” itself can be accepted as progressive.
Gender identity is, more or less, “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female” (Merriam-Webster). Wikipedia says “Gender identity is one’s personal experience of one’s own gender. Gender identity can correlate with assigned sex at birth, or can differ from it. All societies have a set of gender categories that can serve as the basis of the formation of a person’s social identity in relation to other members of society.”
Gender identity is not biologically determined, since it may differ from your sex of birth. Nor, we are told, is it socially derived, an internalisation of gender stereotypes about masculinity and femininity. It is said to come from deep inner feelings or inner knowledge, and, crucially, individual people are the authorities on their own gender identity.
A high stakes issue
Gender identity is a core concept in transgender politics and a high-stakes issue. Because gender identity exists, supporters say, therapists or clinicians who don’t automatically accept a child or teen’s declaration of being different from their sex of birth are engaging in conversion therapy, comparable to denying gay or lesbian sexuality – so it is right to get such harmful practitioners sacked, silenced or discredited in their professions. Because gender identity exists, it is right to redefine “woman” to include transwomen, and hateful to question their right to access woman-only spaces: any challenge will inflame prejudices to the point of violence or murder of trans people. Because it exists, activists have the right to censor or no-platform deniers, either by appeals to public authorities, or by direct and sometimes violent action.
Does it exist?
The rationale for gender identity
Attempts to identify pink and blue brains have been entirely discredited as both sexist and unscientific, eg in Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex (though this has not prevented the myth being widely disseminated, for example by the BBC). Today, gender identity is most commonly presented in mystical terms. It is said to be is found through a personal communion with inner truth, a deep, spiritual intuition not reliant on evidence from the material world. Some people born male simply “know” or “feel deeply” that they are female, so that’s it, they are.
Neither phony science nor mysticism will do for Marxists. So how do they deal with gender identity?
At this point three principles would normally come into play. One is that you don’t endorse fantasies, however oppressed the people who hold to them. The second is that you defend the oppressed wholeheartedly even if you think that some of the ideas used to support them are not realistic or helpful. This means you may set aside your disagreements with some of the beliefs of a political current that represents the oppressed group – as long as these beliefs don’t actively and seriously impede the overall struggle for a better world, for example by opposing the rights of another oppressed group. Which leads to the third principle: you need to look at the whole complex, messy picture of what is happening, decide the relative weight of different factors in a situation, and work out what intervention will be best for the working people as a whole, to advance the overall struggle for human liberation.
How does this apply to transgender? One approach would be to defend trans people from the social conservatives, individual haters, and all those still believe that XX and XY chromosomes translate naturally into femininity and masculinity – to demand separate safe spaces for trans and gender fluid people, and real protection by police and the courts. It would also mean defending the right of transwomen to publicly adopt the surface appearances and conventional behaviours of women. But you would stop short of endorsing mysticism. Above all you would avoid reinforcing sexist, superficial notions of what a woman is, which are poured forth every day by the neoliberal media, by the advertising industry, and by countless individual people who accept these sexist ideas.
So while defending trans people you would also stress that in our society, people with female biology are born into a lifetime of demands, restrictions and socialisation (notably in the early years of life) not experienced by males – that “woman” in our society equals biology of birth PLUS the oppression imposed inescapably on everyone born female. You would want to defend the rights of children and teens who wish to be gender non-conforming – while also emphasising that ALL people are socialised in a stereotypic way and that discontent with stereotypes is not a minority concern.
Above all, you would emphasise that the neoliberal capitalist class promotes the more right wing aspects of trans thinking to help keep women down (while doing little to protect actual trans people’s personal safety). You might point out that the powers-that-be sometimes collaborate to sanctify lies and empty formulations, letting them roll on and on in public life – like the supposed “peace process” and “two-state solution” for Palestine. You would point out that you defend transgender people on an entirely different basis than the capitalist class does.
That approach would involve a head-on clash with many trans activists and their supporters, whose fantasies and sexism are turbo-charged by support from the neoliberal media, public institutions, and indeed almost every political group from anarchists through to business wing of the US Republican Party. Any Marxist group that took this approach would delight their pro-trans rivals contesting for members and influence on the Left.
Another approach is to square the circle, to fake a material-world basis for gender identity. Sadly, this is the line taken in Marxism, feminism and transgender politics the lead article in of the SWP journal International Socialism issue 157. It is written by Sue Caldwell but is clearly a statement of party policy rather than an opinion piece.
The interplay of biological and social factors
The article states:
The formula often used to describe the difference between sex and gender is “Sex is biological and gender is socially constructed”. This differentiation highlights the profound social influences on the accepted norms for masculine and feminine behaviours. However, this formulation rests on a false separation between the biological and the social…. gender identity can exist without equating it to socialised gender norms or to a sexed brain…
Caldwell approvingly quotes transfeminist Sam Hope:
“Women and men are not that fundamentally different, although there are all sorts of complex nuances to our neurological, chromosomal, hormonal and social experiences that create variety in how we are embodied and how we experience and interact with the culture around us”. In other words, gender identity is not “entirely separate” from socialised gender roles, but neither is it reducible to them.
So gender identity is a bit biological, it is all very complex, and don’t worry, there is a materialist explanation in here somewhere. This is a vague grab-bag that can mean anything to anyone. Never until the advent of trans politics has the SWP engaged in such sophistry.
The author goes on:
One complicating factor is that external genitalia are not the only sex characteristics. There are chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics. Do these attributes always tie up neatly into a gender binary?…
Commenting on how sex should be defined when different characteristics clash, Eric Vilain, director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at UCLA, says: “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter…gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter.” In other words, concludes the author, if you want to know what gender someone is, just ask.
In these passages we are left to imagine that people with some secondary physical attribute of the other sex are more prone than most people to adopting trans or gender-fluid identities. Are they? Readers could also come away with the idea that a man born with some kind of womb, for example, might be more prone than other men to gossip with the girls or sit with legs crossed.
The closest the author comes to resolving this issue is here:
Fausto-Sterling quotes several studies that suggt “quite a number of environmental and cultural variations contribute to small individual differences in gender development. But the hard truth is that there are probably so many contributing streams, and they interact in so many different ways, that we will never have a single story to tell about gender development”… She urges more work to be done to “understand what happens when chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal and genital sex disagree with body image and gender identity”. For now it is important to note that such disagreement is a real and established fact, often referred to as gender dysphoria.
So the notion that biology contributes to gender identity is now passed off as something for future research, or else too complex to ever establish. We are asked instead to simply dwell on the very real anguish that some people experience as gender dysphoria, without any further questioning of transgender ideology’s rationale for it.
Yes the social and biological interact. By itself, this general truth provides no ground whatsoever for gender identity. The most it can do is rule out the crude biological determinism of some social conservatives who think chromosomes translate directly into femininity and masculinity.
The issue is in some ways comparable to the battle over the theory of evolution. Creationism and intelligent design are hocus pocus, but once you believe in them the position of God is clear and secure for you. But Christian theologians with a scientific world view have to rely on vague, abstract, fuzzy concepts of God, since He has no clear role in life, the universe or anything. Similarly, most trans ideologists stand proudly by their mysticism, while the SWP and similar-minded Marxists are forced back on the same kind of waffling as Anglican ministers.
A different justification is offered later. Caldwell quotes another SWP member Laura Miles, who says that “while gender identity may not be fixed and unchanging, it is deeply rooted in us; otherwise trans people could presumably be socialised out of our gender variant behaviour and identity” . Yes indeed people can and do resist their socialisation, to different degrees. But we are also taught to think of femininity and masculinity as a package of inherent qualities rather than as the internalisation of a social value system. If you hate the stereotypes you were born to it may be tempting to embrace to the other package, especially if that is the only escape on offer.
Is “gender” inherently sexist?
Of course it is, obviously it is, due to centuries of ruling class propaganda on the naturalness of femininity, which continues to this day. Because of this propaganda, sometimes crass, sometimes subtle, but ever-present, the great majority of people associate “gender” with the idea that men are masculine and women feminine. The legal and cultural adoption of “gender” instead of “sex” is therefore a huge step back for women.
The Left, along with many trans and LBG people, can decide to use “gender” in a new way within their own communities. Left groups, within their own periphery, can use someone’s rejection of their “gender” of birth as a starting point for rejecting all notions of gender, and draw individuals into struggles over other issues. But things look very different from the viewpoint of the capitalist class. They have no problem in letting a few malcontents have their gender-fluid playground. What matters to the bosses is what is in the heads of the vast mass of working women, from whom they want continued unpaid labour in the home, rearing and maintaining the current and future workforce. For them it is essential that these women continue to define themselves as born nurturers and in some sense inferior, so they put up with this burden. Then there are the secondary advantages of lower female pay, and profits for the beauty and fashion industries, and the obsession with body-image that feeds back into a sense of lowliness.
For the bosses, gender identity works very well indeed. Young women with girly-girl self-image have it affirmed as natural, their biology of birth being aligned to their innate gender identity. Meanwhile young women and girls who are discontented with stereotypes receive virtually no message of support or encouragement to explore new ways of looking or behaving, unless they are willing to adopt trans or gender-fluid identities – so once again, trans ideology works to stifle discontent among the majority of females. Political protest against sex stereotypes has come to mean supporting trans people, not women battling their own sexual oppression. These are the messages most commonly pumped into school via trans-awareness programs, which is why neoliberal politicians are so happy to fund them.
The SWP tradition
The SWP and its International Socialist Tendency have a very proud and inspiring tradition. They are committed to worker’s revolution, and a humanism mediated by the class struggle. They have always been committed to women’s liberation – as part of the overall struggle for a better world but as a cause in itself as well. This has been irrefutably demonstrated through their theoretical works and their support for women’s protests over decades, a tradition which continues, notably around their contribution to the abortion rights campaign in Ireland.
It is important to note that the SWP continues to attack sex role stereotyping, but alas, only so long as it does not impinge on core trans ideology. As Caldwell states:
Feminists who object to the existence of gender identity, admitting only the social construct meaning of gender, see gender variant behaviour, especially in young children, as simply that—forms of play, etc, that go against stereotypes. Behaviour in young children that challenges gender roles is quite common and all socialists would encourage it. Boys do play with dolls and some girls want to drive trucks. Despite the many societal pressures against them, some will have non-traditional careers and dress and act in non-stereotypical ways… Socialists support attempts to counter gender stereotypes and actively promote the reality that girls can be assertive and boys can be empathetic and so on. It is completely wrong, however, to imply from this that children who are experiencing distress because of their gender identity are not genuine.
The SWP’s terrible line on transgender politics shows how effectively the trans phenomenon works as a Trojan horse within the Left, as previously discussed on this blog.
A future post will look at how the SWP article explains the emergence of the transgender phenomenon, and will offer an alternative. Later posts will focus on the progressive side of trans politics, and toxic “support” that feminist trans-critics receive from the Right.
Last year saw growing unease in parts of the Left in Britain at the efforts of some trans activists to “no-platform” critics, to suppress debate on issues raised by women’s liberationists and other feminists. These trans activists have attempted to get critical articles removed or to stop their publication. They have pressured venues to cancel meetings held by women’s liberationists. A few of them have physically attacked these women. There was, for example, the attempt to prevent Julie Bindel from speaking at the Working Class Movement Library, and later the no-platforming of Linda Bellos at Cambridge University (see Judith Green’s report) Then there was the physical attack on Helen Steel at the Anarchist Bookfair (see statement from Steel and comment from the Freedom Co-op).
Across social media trans activists and supporters have normalised viciously abusive and threatening language against trans critics, so that many fear for their professional positions and standing, and sometimes their personal safety, if they speak out. Megan Murphy points out some examples.
Men with large platforms who are publicly associated with Antifa and groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have amplified the “punch TERFs” and “TERFs get the guillotine” message proudly, with the support of their comrades. In reference to The Handmaid’s Tale, many have taken to saying “TERFs get the wall.”
Individual women who might lift their heads to voice concerns are very often frightened into silence, which is plainly the point of these tirades. Jo Bartosch wrote in the Morning Star (“Women’s concerns should not be minimised”, 25/11/17) about the harassment within the Labour and Women’s Equality parties faced by feminists who consider “the sex-stereotypes that inform gender to be harmful to women…. As a feminist campaigner of many years, I know women who work in organisations from across the domestic and sexual violence sector; many are scared to openly raise questions about gender identity theory. Doing so could lose them their jobs, or worse, jeopardise the minimal funding that charities they work for depend upon….”
Transgender politics constitutes a great asset to neoliberal capitalism (as discussed earlier on this blog eg here and here), so it is hardly surprising that trans activists and their Left supporters have had great help from on high, notably from the Conservative Party. Helen Saxby notes some of this elite support:
In 2015 the [British parliament’s] Trans Inquiry, led by Maria Miller and the Women and Equalities Committee, invited contributions from trans groups and other interested parties to give evidence…. The Trans Inquiry legitimised the notion pushed by trans groups that only trans people should be allowed to speak on trans issues. Amongst the groups invited to give verbal evidence were Action for Trans Health, GIRES, Trans Media Watch, Gendered Intelligence, Mermaids and the Scottish Trans Alliance. Since then these same few groups have been allowed a near monopoly on trans discourse, consulted by everyone from the BBC to the NHS, the NSPCC, the EHRC, schools, prisons, the Girl Guides, universities, political parties and the media.
Left wing trans critics have pushed back, and are finally making headway. Kiri Tunks, National Union of Teachers Vice-President, has written in the Morning Star on “changes to law on gender identity, ‘sex’ and why women’s voices must be heard” (9 Aug 2017. See full text). “The government’s announcement that it will consult on a change in the law… means that a fierce debate that has, until now, been taking place off-stage is being thrust into the public arena.” The ability to define one’s own “gender”, she points out, “will undermine the legal characteristic of ‘sex’ and could lead to serious implications for women and their ability to fight sex discrimination and oppression… Gender roles are socially constructed and are commonly formed in stereotypical ways that reinforce discrimination.” She says that “women are being told they cannot talk about ‘a woman’s right to choose’ or refer to vaginas or ovaries because to do so is transphobic.” She also defends the need for single-sex spaces. Concerns to defend these spaces is “often dismissed as unjustified moral panic”, but they “exist to try to ameliorate the oppression women face.”
Also in the Morning Star Ruth Serwotka has written on the fight to open debate within the Labour Party on “women’s spaces, women’s and girls’ rights to privacy and safety and our right to define who we are”.
Prominent female trade unionists are beginning to understand the fundamental questions at stake and are furious to realise they have been blocked from consultation or meaningful discussions.
Where socialist feminists are involved in trying to reassure women that the party will come good, they are angrily dismissed because, quite rightly, women want to hear reassurance coming from the party leadership itself.
Simultaneously, vitriolic, misogynist language, such as the use of the acronym “Terf” and the insult “bigot” are being liberally sprinkled into the language of some party supporters and used against women with a long history of organisation within the movement, or to silence dissent among new party activists.
The wider Left
These women are drawing some support from sections of the wider Left. The Morning Star newspaper has led the way by allowing space for left wing trans critics. Elsewhere, Kevin Ovenden has strongly endorsed Helen Saxby’s above-mentioned post. Another left wing blogger writes that the trans-critical Socialist Feminist Network site “should be compulsory reading for those commenting on the subject [of gender identity and the Gender Recognition Act]… The comrades from the Socialist Feminist Network raise legitimate concerns”. This small-scale, scattered support is heartening, though there is a long way to go.
At the end of the year, when leftist criticism of trans politics had gained momentum, Britain’s Socialist Workers Party produced an article Marxism, feminism and transgender politics (International Socialism 157), the party’s clearest statement to date on the topic. Future posts will look more closely at this piece. For the moment it is worth noting that the article continues the SWP’s firm support for all the fundamentals of trans politics, but refuses support when this politics takes its most blatantly anti-worker and anti-woman forms:
It is a refreshing sign that young trans, queer and feminist people are discovering an activism that is more outward looking, joining demonstrations against Trump and in support of refugees and being part of the movement behind Corbyn, for example. But sometimes the tactics adopted in support of trans rights undermine such collectivity.
For example, when [trans critic Julie] Bindel was invited to speak at an event in Manchester in February 2017 the website of the venue, a well-known local resource for working class history and events, was bombarded with abuse and instructed not only to withdraw the invitation but to close down the venue itself. This is not a tactic likely to win wide support, as many activists use the centre. It is also mistaken in its aims of closing down the meeting, which had been scheduled as part of LGBT+ History Month.
No platform is a tactic developed by the working class movement as part of the fight against fascism… Fascism needs the oxygen of big rallies and demonstrations to grow, and anti-fascists are right to stop them… No platform is not a tactic to be applied willy-nilly to people whose views we do not like, however offensive they may be.
In the same vein the article takes up the issue of trans activists’ anti-woman stance on abortion.
It is true that abortion campaigns, especially in the US, have become the unfortunate site of polarised arguments on either side of this debate. Some trans activists have argued that such campaigns should drop the slogan “A woman’s right to choose” because it is exclusionary of trans or non-binary people who may get pregnant. This would be a mistake as fundamentally the attack on abortion rights is an attack on women and an attempt to reinforce their role in society as child bearers. In most major pro-choice organisations common sense has prevailed, and the slogan “A woman’s right to choose” remains in place while efforts have been made to ensure inclusivity. So the Irish Abortion Rights Campaign website includes the statement: “While the term ‘woman’ is used in this document, we are fighting for abortion access for any person who needs or wants one, including women, trans men and non-binary people”.
While making these arguments the article does all it can to appease trans supporters. For example the author says she “prefers” not to use the term “TERF” without saying that the term encourages physical harassment, no-platforming, and misogynistic abuse on social media.
Against immense pressure, progressive trans critics are finally forcing back some of the sexism of trans politics. Individual left wing women who felt demoralised and paralysed by the primacy of trans sexism now have points around which to rally, and many are doing so. Left wing trans critics are also offering a badly needed alternative to social conservatives and the alt-Right who oppose trans politics with their own sexist and homophobic agendas.
The wider Left’s failure to defend women’s rights on the trans issue is now coming back to haunt it.
London Bookfair ‘won’t happen in 2018’ Freedom 10 November 2017
Jo Bartosch. Morning Star Women’s concerns should not be minimised. 25 November 17
Sue Caldwell. Marxism, feminism and transgender politics International Socialism 157
Andrew Coates. Culture Wars on the Left, The Gender Recognition Act, and Transphobia in the UK. 28 November 2017
Judith Green. Making sure A Woman’s Place is on the Platform. Socialist Feminist Network 29 November 2017
Rachel Loughran and Anne Menin. Linda Bellos ‘disappointed’ by Beard Society ban. Varsity 5 October 2017
Megan Murphy. Julie Bindel on growing up a working class lesbian (podcast). Feminist Current 14 February 2017
Megan Murphy. ‘TERF’ isn’t just a slur, it’s hate speech. Feminist Current 21 September 2017
Kevin Ovenden. When Women’s Rights Are #NotaDebate. 26 November 2017
Helen Saxby. When Women’s Rights Are #NotaDebate. 26 November 2017
Ruth Serwotka. Women are a vital part of the socialist movement – they must be consulted over changes to the Gender Recognition Act Morning Star 23 February 2017
Helen Steel. Statement on events at Anarchist Bookfair 2017. 3 November 2017
Kiri Tunks. Sex Matters – Law, terms, definitions, gender self-identity and woman’s rights. Europe Solidaire Sans Frontiers 9 August 2017.
Originally published Morning Star 8 August 2017
“Women are a vital part of the socialist movement – they must be consulted over changes to the Gender Recognition Act”
Left wing trans-critics demand dialogue with Labour Party leaders about the Gender Recognition Act, writes Ruth Serwotka.
‘Prominent female trade unionists are beginning to understand the fundamental questions at stake and are furious to realise they have been blocked from consultation or meaningful discussions…’
‘Simultaneously, vitriolic, misogynist language, such as the use of the acronym “Terf” and the insult “bigot” are being liberally sprinkled into the language of some party supporters and used against women with a long history of organisation within the movement, or to silence dissent among new party activists…’
‘Where socialist feminists are involved in trying to reassure women that the party will come good, they are angrily dismissed because, quite rightly, women want to hear reassurance coming from the party leadership itself…’
From Women are a vital part of the socialist movement – they must be consulted over changes to the Gender Recognition Act. The Morning Star 23 February 2018