The last article described the reasons why the capitalist class supports the core ideas of gender ideology, particularly the central, mystical concept of gender identity; but it also discussed points of potential divergence between gender ideology and the bosses’ interests, which have created space for opposition from some sections of the right. The current article looks at the rise of right-of-centre liberal opposition.
Almost all liberal criticism of gender ideology has come from the right of centre. A notable example is The Economist. Its breezy endorsement of the trans trend in 2015 (see previous post) has been replaced by well-articulated concerns. These were expressed in a lead article 27 October 2018 (paywall) and the more detailed briefing 25 October 2018 (paywall). Two months later the journal’s finance editor, Helen Joyce, wrote a piece about gender ideology in the right wing website Quillette covering much the same ground. All this follows a series of invited essays in The Economist earlier in the year, where views considered transphobic by gender ideologists were included. The journal also raised some concerns the year before: see leader (paywall, full text here) and briefing (paywall, full text here) both 16 November 17.
Stereotypes have come roaring back
The Economist points out that “outdated gender stereotypes have come roaring back under self-id” (leader 2018); “once you abandon anatomy, attempts to help children determine for themselves whether they are boys or girls soon fall back on stereotypes: if you’re a leader and planner you’re a boy; if you’re nurturing and a gossip you’re a girl” (briefing 2018). The surge in the number of girls visiting gender clinics may be “because some girls ‘seem unable to find a place for themselves in a sea of sparkly pink princess dresses, and then, after puberty, in a hypersexualised pop culture.’” (briefing 2017) Puberty blockers then “start a cascade of intervention, in which almost every child given them goes on to take cross-sex hormones… Advocacy groups commonly say that children asked to wait are likely to kill themselves. There is little or no evidence for this.” (briefing 2018).
In defence of women’s spaces, it points out that men “commit almost all sexual crimes… Were just 1% of the men in prison in Britain for sexual crimes to identify as women, it would double the number of women in prison for such offences…There is no reason to think that identifying as a woman makes a male any less dangerous (or any more)… By contrast, there is every reason to think that predatory males will claim to be trans in order to commit crimes more easily.” (briefing 2018) The magazine further points to the stifling of opposition views of academics and clinicians, to disguised homophobia as a motive for transitioning, and to the demoralising intrusion of male-bodies people into women’s and girls’ sport.
It adds that young girls are now taught to doubt their own judgement and instincts, eroding their resistance to molestation. “If one child queries the presence of another of the opposite sex in a single-sex space, it is the child with concerns, if anyone, who should be removed. This protects trans people, but it teaches children that they should remain silent if something makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. It flouts safeguards designed to stop paedophiles insinuating themselves into children’s confidence. These were put in place only recently, after society grasped the prevalence of child sexual abuse. It is odd to loosen them.” (briefing 2018)
These are precisely the sort of issues that you would expect to concern liberals, whether left or right of centre. The remarkable thing is how few liberals of either hue have been raising such issues until fairly recently. This almost complete silence reflects the fact that gender ideology has been supported on the one hand by the bosses, and on the other hand by the identity politics milieu, heavily influenced by postmodernism and the political retreat of the working class. The fact that a right wing liberal journal like The Economist can now express concerns like these underlines the space opening up for establishment criticism of gender ideology, or at least some elements of it.
Similarly, we see The Times and Sunday Times allowing space for journalists like Andrew Gilligan and Janice Turner to raise concerns around free speech, the surgical and chemical mutilation of healthy children, and the intrusion of male-bodied people into women’s sports. Turner makes telling points about the violation of women’s spaces and the privileging of trans concerns over those of young girls; the imposition of affirmation-only policies and the very effective pressure stopping professionals speaking out. See for example her article Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby, The Times 11 Nov 2017 (pay wall; full text is reproduced here, along with a religious blogger’s commentary).
Further to the right, The Spectator has also criticised trans ideology. When Janice Turner’s Times article was attacked by Labour MP Stephen Doughty, James Kirkup on the Spectator’s blog defended her robustly. (1 May 2018) Another Spectator critic of gender ideology is Brendan O’Neill, who has been glowingly compared to Dutch bigot Geert Wilders and to hardline conservatives in Australia (Truth from stones – non-Christians getting it right, CultureWatch 16 June 2017).
While right-of-centre liberal sources sometimes make powerful criticisms of the effects of gender ideology, they are much weaker in explaining the source of its current influence. The Economist, for instance, explains it in terms of social media, but why does it hold so much sway there? Unlike the campaigns for women’s or gay liberation, the trans trend has never been a mass movement on the ground; its social media base has been fed not by mass activism but by mainstream corporate outlets. Janice Turner suggests that suddenly-naïve politicians are simply “deluded” about this “craze”. The Economist and Turner both mention electoral opportunism, but this puts the cart before the horse – it is establishment forces which mainstreamed gender ideology in the first place; politicians have simply added to the deluge of “born-in-the-wrong-body” propaganda produced by the liberal and conservative media. A more likely explanation why so many politicians dote on the trans trend is that gender ideology aids the bosses by reinforcing the oppression of women, to which capitalism is addicted. But right wing commentators cannot articulate this fact, even to themselves.
So we face the bizarre, sickening situation where the sexism of gender ideology is challenged mainly from the right of centre: articles about its reinforcement of sex stereotypes, about its violation of women’s spaces, about the sterilisation of children, about the harassment and silencing of physicians, academics and women’s liberationists, are set amidst pieces attacking Corbyn, unions, indeed almost every progressive cause urging ordinary working people to get off their knees. Left wing gender ideologists naturally seize on this juxtaposition to discredit progressive opponents and justify their campaigns to silence, revile and intimidate feminist critics.
Resistance in Britain
Resistance to this situation is strongest in Britain, where an important minority of feminists and Marxists have held the line against gender ideology and are pushing back. The Marxists include the Morning Star and Weekly Worker newspapers (eg here) and Counterfire (eg here). The feminists include groups such as Women’s Place UK and the Socialist Feminist Network. These feminists have started to have an impact on the liberal left media. For example, The Guardian has finally drawn limits to its support for gender sexism (earning the ire of its counterpart in the USA, who do not as yet feel the same sort of heat).
A much sharper response has recently appeared in the liberal New Statesman (22 May 2019) where associate editor Helen Lewis has cheered on Women’s Place UK, as “a loose collection of volunteers with roots in the trade union movement… A Woman’s Place draws its organising strength from socialist women, but many feel rejected by their own side”.
Her article covers a meeting of WPUK on 20 May this year. Transgender activists have repeatedly tried to disrupt such meetings, she points out, “describing them as hate speech. Venues have cancelled Woman’s Place bookings because of protests (and their associated security costs). An event in Oxford last year attracted condemnation from the student union, which accused the group of being ‘at the centre of this past year’s violent anti-transgender rhetoric and media abuse’”. But things are changing:
Gender-critical feminism is gaining ground, after decades in the wilderness. I could feel the relief of women who are used to Twitter beastings and whispered conversations, who were now able to see there are others like them…
The most stirring speech of the night was from Selina Todd, a historian of the working class, who made the case that queer theory and the transgender movement represented a move away from collectivist politics towards individualism. “Gender was not, and is not, an identity freely chosen,” she said.
Gender critical feminists, Lewis points out, “see gender as a social force, imposed on women from outside: wear pink, do your hair, suck up all that unpaid caring labour.” By contrast, “’trans inclusive’” feminists “believe in ‘gender identity’ – an innate state of being. They use phrases such as ‘born in the wrong body’.”
No dalliance with the right
Lewis argues against the “extremists” on both sides of the trans-feminist debate, in a way that did not strike me as particularly clear or helpful. But she also makes very strong – indeed, absolutely vital – points, on the need for progressive gender critics to avoid dalliance with the right:
[Julie] Bindel has ended up writing for the Daily Mail and Unherd as much as the Guardian. Earlier this year, activists from radical feminist group the Women’s Liberation Front (unwisely, in my view) sat on a panel hosted by the US conservative Heritage Foundation, which opposes LGBT rights.
With no home on the left, gender-critical feminism must resist allying with right-wingers who share none of its wider goals.
Who share none of its wider goals, and often work actively against those goals. Social conservative bigots opposed to abortion and same-sex rights are not coming from a pro-woman place, but nor are those sections of the liberal right who are now stepping back a little from aspects of gender ideology. They are all committed to an economic agenda that has brought misery to working class women over the last four decades: more vulnerable than men in the jobs market but also suffering when their male partners face overwork or unemployment; much more heavily burdened than men with unpaid caring roles for children, for the elderly, for those with disabilities, roles which are ramping up with every new neoliberal cutback to the welfare state.
Most of the left has failed to support women’s liberationists’ battle against gender sexism. In many cases they have also supported no-platforming and gross abuse of such women. In response some feminists have developed a loathing of the left as a whole, sometimes also buying into the slander of Jeremy Corbyn as anti-semitic. But moving to the right simply aids a different and much more pervasive anti-woman agenda. It gives left-wing gender ideologists ammunition against progressive critics. It creates a roadblock to winning over large numbers of progressive women and men who are trying to make sense of the gender debate. I believe the only way ahead is to keep up the pressure on left organisations to revisit their support for gender ideology, until they too reject this slimy, neoliberal, pseudo-progressive attack on women.
The capitalist class has mainstreamed gender ideology because it helps to oppress women and thereby aids the bosses interests; the corporate mass media, conservative and liberal, near-unanimously promotes and normalizes “gender identity” mysticism. But the bosses are not committed to every twist and turn of gender ideology, and this creates space for limited opposition from liberal and conservative supporters of the system. Many conservative media outlets oppose some secondary features of the trans trend. Right-of-centre liberals are increasingly critical. In the USA social conservatives have launched a powerful counter-attack. Meanwhile gender-critical women’s liberationists are challenging it from the left, particularly in Britain. Opponents of gender ideology on the right and left share a range of practical demands, but this surface unity conceals radically divergent agendas for women. We need to fight all sections of the right.
The story on transgender from most of the left describes a binary: progressives fighting traditionalists and bigots; embattled trans people challenging the might of the corporate media and right wing politicians. A lot of Freer Lives has been spent contesting this false binary, pointing out the vital support gender ideology has received from the capitalist class and the neoliberal right, support that has taken it from the margins to the mainstream.
The Caitlyn Jenner moment
Gender ideology originated in sections of the US medical profession, and was then taken under the wing of postmodern academia. From there its message was gigantically magnified by the corporate media, liberal and conservative (current examples here and here), throughout the western world, which began running supportive stories of kids born into the wrong body, evidenced by their yearnings for the stereotypes of the other sex. Doing so has allowed the bosses’ media to reassert the natural pinkness of girls and women in freshened-up, progressive-sounding form. It makes discontent with stereotypes a minority concern, and a matter of personal lifestyle, not social protest.
This right wing ideology was absorbed into identity politics, and from there it permeated the far left, weakened, split and demoralized by decades of neoliberalism and the political retreat of the working class. This wide right-to-left spectrum of support guaranteed that gender ideology would also be backed within the unions, including teacher unions. It also spread of course via social media, feeding back into more mass media coverage; celebrities were now disciplined into support, or at least silence.
In everyday life trans individuals remained at risk of ostracism, abuse and violence. But in the corporate media they were cheered on almost everywhere. Trans TV star Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time in 2014 and the year after Vanity Fair profiled Caitlyn Jenner. Apart from tiny groups of feminists, the only organized forces holding out were social conservatives, and even they were under siege.
In 2015 The Economist summed up all this as The Caitlyn Jenner moment, noting that gender ideology was now acceptable even to some senior US Republicans. “I can only imagine the torment that Bruce Jenner went through,” offered Lindsey Graham, now a leading Trump supporter. Graham affirmed that he was a “pro-life, traditional marriage kind of guy”, but said that Jenner was “welcome in my party.” Then there was Rick Santorum, on the hard right of the party and a former presidential contender. He had “once compared same-sex marriage to the union of a man and a dog”, but now he too supported Jenner. “The game isn’t over,” The Economist concluded, “but the outcome is not in doubt”:
The social forces that brought us to the Caitlyn Jenner moment are irreversibly ascendant… This is not to say that conservatives are being bullied by cultural liberals or are ashamed of their deepest beliefs…. Rather… [their leaders’ support for transgender] may reflect a dawning realisation that “our deepest beliefs” are not quite what we thought they were.
In the following year over 100 top CEOs campaigned against North Carolina’s bathroom law designed to force transgender people to use the public facilities of their birth sex. In South Dakota the Republican Governor vetoed a similar attempt to restrict tranwomen’s access to women’s rooms. One Reuters correspondent described bathroom legislation as “a wedge issue for Republicans, pitting the party’s pro-business branch against social conservatives”.
Support for gender ideology sails on today. National Geographic featured The Gender Revolution on its front cover in early 2017 (its group photo illustrating the “gender spectrum” included a “cis” man but no cis woman). In some US states natal males who self-id as women can access female-only amenities. Even Teen Vogue plays its part with an inane challenge to the sexual binary.
Over the last 15-20 years, then, western ruling classes have endorsed and encouraged a truly extraordinary social shift. They have broken with centuries of propaganda declaring biology as the natural basis for sex stereotypes. Sections of the corporate media have thrown their weight behind a bizarre postmodernist challenge to the material reality of the sexual binary. Healthy teens and children can now legally undergo surgical and chemical violations of their bodies, sometimes leading to sterilization. Women’s private spaces are being undermined. These are radical changes. It is hardly surprising that the mass of the working people have not kept up, and still require much “education” from the tabloids, TV, and celebrity-worshipping websites.
The limits of bosses’ support for gender ideology
This does not mean, however, that western capitalist classes have committed themselves to every twist and turn of gender ideology and trans activists.
The bosses get all the sexist propaganda material they need from having small numbers of individuals “born into the wrong body”. They show little desire for governments to subsidise surgery on healthy teenagers, certainly not on a large scale. Yet the risk of this surfaces with the surge in numbers of youth seeking physical transition. Trans activists are entangled with the despised political left; school programs now encourage needlessly wide numbers of kids to question their “gender”, and probably add radical nonsense into the mix. The trans movement gets into fights; the bosses like order and stability.
Some bosses may also fear that overreach from the trans movement will generate significant unease among sections of the broader population. In a worst-case scenario, this overreach could stir masses of working women into action to defend themselves: that would defeat the one and only purpose gender ideology has from an elite point of view. Yet that is just where the logic of gender ideology leads, with its demands for transwomen to enter women’s spaces and sports events, and its censoring and harassment of opponents.
The divergence of interests between the bosses and the gender ideologists should not be exaggerated. But it has translated into, or encouraged, four significant developments.
Firstly, the conservative mass-circulation newspapers that continue to serve up “born into the wrong body” stories have simultaneously opposed other aspects of the trans trend, and sometimes they cover their right flank with opinion articles from bigots opposed to all aspects of gender ideology (eg here). Secondly, while Britain’s Tories have clearly embraced gender ideology this is not true of all their backward overseas cousins, eg Australia’s Liberals.
Thirdly, the limits of bosses support for the transgender trend has given space for social conservatives to regroup, particularly in the USA. The 2016 Republican Party nationally adopted its “most conservative platform ever”, applying pressure on presidential contender Trump who was still vaguely supportive of trans demands. The Party convention endorsed language
that attacks the Obama administration for directing schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identities. “Their edict to the states concerning restrooms, locker rooms and other facilities is at once illegal, dangerous and ignores privacy issues. We salute the several states which have filed suit against it,” reads the platform. (New York Post 18 July 2016)
By September of that year, 16 US states had asked the Supreme Court to to reverse a lower court’s judgement that transgender people are covered by the Civil Rights Act. (Anglican Mainstream, 2 September 2018) In February 2018 the Republican National Committee endorsed a ban on transgender military service. Trump’s opportunistic implementation of this policy was provisionally affirmed in a 5-4 decision in the Supreme Court, which split along liberal-conservative lines. This social conservative attack on gender ideology is part of a wave of attacks on women, gays and workers.
Fourthly, the space created by the bosses’ reservations has also begun to generate questioning of gender ideology among right-of-centre liberals. That will be discussed in the next section of this article.
This two-part post examines the article Socialism and the fight against Transphobia, by Stephanie Hanlon and Adrienne Wallace, which leads the most recent edition of the Irish Marxist Review (IMR vol 8 no 23). Part 1 of this post looked at the authors’ treatment of gender identity. Part 2 now examines the issue of sexual and gender binaries.
Many gender ideologists go on about pink and blue brains, men inside women’s bodies and vice versa, and these concepts are widely employed in the corporate mass media’s propagandising. These formulations retain the concept of a binary between women and men. But the IMR authors, like many other left-leaning gender ideologists, dispute the whole idea of a binary:
Gender Critical Feminism (GFC) is an alternative term for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism, as there is no major ideological difference between them. Both argue that because sex is a “natural binary”, trans people are always the sex they were assigned at birth. Intersex people either do not exist or are “anomalies” produced as a result of birth defects…
And they say the very idea of a sexual binary is politically conservative:
Transgenderism blows the typical and repressive gender binary that has concreted the oppressive family structure, which capitalism has reified, right out of the water. It points to a whole human mosaic of sexuality, genders and relationships that do not conform to any norms. And while there is no definite answer with regards what defines our gender Identity one thing is for sure – it rests on an array of complex social, biological and psychological forces and has the potential to challenge one of the oldest oppressions of women and the working class- the nuclear family.
This passage makes ridiculous claims. Women’s liberationists and Marxists have long called for a world where everyone is free to adopt whatever sexuality and personal relationships they choose, within a humanistic, mutually respectful and loving framework. These ideas are not innovations granted to us by gender ideology. The only new arguments here are false ones: that the concept of a female-male sexual binary is a mere ideological construct, which somehow contributes to the capitalist family unit, and women’s oppression.
Overwhelming evidence for the sexual binary
It is true that some (not all!) scientists are now supporting this claim. The frailty of their case is well summarised in Do women exist? a measured, carefully argued piece by James Robb. “Distinct sexes,” he points out, “arose in natural history as a condition of sexual reproduction… There is no form of sexual reproduction known which involves more or less than two sexes. Sexual reproduction is universally binary”.
Scientists who support gender ideology highlight the existence of chromosomal abnormalities: we are not all simply XX and XY. But Robb notes the distinction between “the genetic ‘information’ influencing sex and the actual physical form of sex.”
“Chromosome arrangement,” he points out, “is one of the primary mechanisms determining sex in an individual, but not the only one. Hormones also play a major role, and these are not all governed by genes on the X or Y chromosomes.” And importantly, the “outcome of sex determination, the sex of a human being, is the form of the reproductive tract. There are only male and female forms.”
As for intersex people: “even among the small percentage of the population who have atypical chromosome arrangements and intersex conditions, ambiguity of the reproductive organs is rare… many people born with sex chromosomes other than the typical XX or XY pattern have some kind of developmental and/or reproductive disability, and often lifelong health problems,” making them “the exceptions that prove the rule of two sexes”. In any case, the intersex argument is simply thrown in when convenient; it is not as though transgender identity relies on such a condition, or that intersex people in general identify as trans.
The only reason why the sexual binary is now challenged is to justify trans identity. The fact that this has been taken up by some scientists does not reflect scientific method, or the knowledge accumulated through it. Rather, it reflects the fact that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. That class is using gender ideology as a new way to hold down women. And as the capitalist system declines, its apologists veer further away from materialism toward idealist and irrationalist views of the world, and this impacts on science.
Traditionalism and the sexual binary
Traditional sexism links the materially-based sexual binary to an imaginary, ideologically-driven binary of feminine and masculine personality types, or ideals; feminine and masculine are said to be grounded in the sexual division itself. This is the age-old “common sense” that does not need to be articulated or argued for, but can be left unsaid, since the audience is assumed to share these prejudices.
Gender ideologists try to blur the distinction between traditionalist sexism and gender-critical progressivism, to tar us with the same brush. Some traditionalist sexists do this too, trying to work with or even win over gender critical feminists; they are happy with formulations such as “woman is biological” since, by itself, it can be understood as “woman is biological and therefore naturally feminine”. This is a problem, since gender critical feminists, censored by the left, sometimes resort to conservative platforms to have their voice heard. Traditionalists don’t like any alternative to the hetero-normative, traditional nuclear family, whether from feminists, Marxists, gay rights activists or gender ideologists. Their vision of women and the family is linked to nationalism, union-bashing, and old fashioned sexism. Traditionalists are gathering strength in many parts of the world, blurring with racists and a resurgent far right. For these reasons it is essential to differentiate ourselves from the conservatives at every possible opportunity – to reassert that our fight is also the fight for abortion rights, against lesbophobia and homophobia, and against sexism in all its forms.
Neither gender ideology nor social conservativism, but women’s liberation
Marxist organisations like the SWP have made a massive error in their failure to defend women from the neoliberal sexism of gender ideology. In the face of their hostility a great many feminists have turned to right wing platforms to have their concerns heard; some have cast aside many years of allegiance to the left.
When western working classes finally move back into large scale political strike activity, masses of working women will shake off both gender ideology and any new-found friends among anti-union conservatives. When that happens there will be an opportunity, and an urgent need, to win them to a revolutionary socialist workers party. But that same upturn of struggle will confront the SWP with its own monumental errors in supporting gender sexism, and that will generate a new internal crisis for it.
The article Socialism and the fight against Transphobia, by Stephanie Hanlon and Adrienne Wallace, leads the most recent edition of the Irish Marxist Review, (vol 8 no 23) and is the latest defense of gender ideology in the SWP’s international tendency. This post takes up some of the main arguments in the IMR piece, which are shared with the broader tendency and other parts of the far left.
The two IMR authors present their case as anti-sexist:
The rigid gender stereotypes used as the bedrock for the nuclear family have transformed into a shower of pink and blue toys, acceptable clothing and deeply socialized norms in 21st Century capitalism. Women’s oppression is the oldest oppression and will be the most difficult to overcome as the roots are located in an institution that shapes the most intimate sphere of human life, in relationships between men, women and children in the family. As Sue Caldwell argues; “These gender stereotypes have remained a powerful force despite the many changes in women’s lives, opportunities and expectations, especially over the last 50 years.”
From a passage like this you might imagine that the IMR authors, and the SWP generally, would make a sharp distinction between biological females and the feminine gender roles despicably imposed on them. But gender ideologists, even the Marxist kind, argue that female is joined at the hip with feminine, and male with masculine, so much so that “gender” can replace “sex” as the way to distinguish men and women. This sounds very much like social conservatism. Not so, the authors say: “The trans community reshapes and challenges our perceptions of gender and sex, rather than as some claim, reinforcing it. Gender identity can exist without equating it to socialised gender norms or to a sexed brain.” We leftist critics, on the other hand, suffer from “oppositional sexism”, which, “as put forward by [Julie] Serano is the belief that the masculine and the feminine are; ‘…rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities and desires’.”
Gender and gender identity
If “gender” does not mean traditional femininity and masculinity, what does it mean? Its ideologists are remarkably vague on this central question. What does it mean to be a woman when this category no longer defined by biology, the lifetime experience of female socialisation, or even sex stereotypes? Just a mysterious, nebulous, immaterial something. The notion is nevertheless put to use: male-bodied people with no pretensions to conventional female appearance can simply self-ID as a women and use women-only spaces, if they identify as a woman. Those who desist from transgender identification can be dismissed out of hand, by the various pontiffs of gender ideology, as never having “really” had the gender identity they once claimed. Gender identity is real, the black racial identity claimed by a white person like Rachel Dolezal is not – again, simply because the gender pontiffs declare it to be so. All these claims rely on the coalition of unquestioning political support for gender identity stretching from the far left to the Tories and the warmongering leaders of the US Democrats: the case only holds up, that is, if nobody points out that the emperor has no clothes.
The SWP has previously tried to squirm free of this central dilemma by declaring that gender identity has a material basis in some kind of subtle and complex interaction between the biological and the social. But they add that this is so complex and subtle that its definitive nature can be established only through future research, or else given up on as too complex to ever establish. The IMR authors now repeat this line: “while there is no definite answer with regards what defines our gender Identity one thing is for sure – it rests on an array of complex social, biological and psychological forces…”. The SWP’s whole case for accepting gender identity is grounded on this quicksand. If we have not established the theoretical basis for gender identity, and may never do so, how can the concept provide a principled way to guide current political work?
Since there is no material basis for “gender identity” the vacuum is filled, in practice, by sex stereotypes, precisely the “socialised gender norms” that the authors claim to have moved on from. Feminine continues to mean self-decorating, nurturing, narrowly channelled in mind and habits: that is the feminine inherited from centuries of women’s oppression, the feminine still poured forth every day by the corporate media and entertainment industries, the concept of feminine taken for granted among the mass of working class people, whatever else it may mean within the identity-politics milieu.
Squaring the circle
As Marxists, the authors keep trying to separate themselves from sexist tropes used to attack women, but are held back at every turn by their support for gender ideology. They make another attempt to square the circle here:
Feminists are right to critique the highly socialised gender norms women and men are forced into as a form of oppression, and they are right to challenge their dominance within society. The distinction we must make however is that gendered roles are an expression of oppression and not the root of the problem. As previously discussed in this article, the roots of oppression can be located in the rise of class society. The trans community have wrongly been accused of reinforcing these rigid gender roles and it has been claimed that “accepting” the existence of Trans people reinforces gender stereotyping and the oppressive ideology it begets. For example, Trans-women who choose to wear make-up, shave body hair and wear dresses have been seen by some as further perpetuating the beauty standards that capitalism imposes on us and upholding an idealized version of femininity. There is, however, a clear difference between socialized gender norms and Gender Identity. Gender Identity is the personal sense of one’s own gender – it can correlate with assigned sex at birth, or can differ from it. To assert one’s sense of gender identity can often overlap with the desire to conform to the prevailing gender norms and to be accepted by wider society as your gender identity. It is deeply unfair to heap the responsibility of countering regressive gender stereotypes onto the trans-community.
This seems to be saying: all sorts of people, trans and “cis”, give in to sex stereotypes in their personal lives; we should focus instead on the real problem – class, and the underlying structural causes of women’s oppression.
This red-herring reference to class is the sort of thing that discredits Marxism among women’s liberationists. Yes women’s oppression has deep roots in class society, but one of the ways it is perpetuated is via sex stereotyping. The fight against stereotypes is a step toward addressing the deep structural issues.
In personal life, yes, people of all sorts accommodate to sex stereotypes, including “cis” folk. It would be unfair to single out trans people for blame if this was the issue. But it’s not, for two reasons. The first is that lesbians, gay men and heterosexuals are not defined by stereotypes, whereas trans people are: only through stereotypes can they externalise their “gender identity”. This does not preclude people from living as a member of the opposite sex, but it does make it politically important for them to distance themselves from the use of transgender identity for sexist typecasting. Which leads to the second, and I think far more important issue: transgenderism has been mainstreamed by the corporate media precisely because of its stereotypic presentation of girls and women, which helps to entrench women’s oppression, on which the bosses rely.
Not in our name? Why gender ideologists don’t confront their sexism
The IMR authors tell us that they are eager for solidarity between women and the trans cause: “socialists, while being clear in their support for trans rights, should strive for unity and comradely engagement”. Does that involve socialists and left wing trans activists attacking the corporate media’s use of born-into-the-wrong-body stories to reassert stereotypes? Does it mean trans activists publishing articles and running up petitions declaring “Not in our name! Stop using trans people as sexist tropes for your attack on our cis-women comrades!” Alas no. When they attack Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner, for example, it is for being a rich right wing Republican, not for sexist caricatures. Left-wing transwomen may personally prefer quieter stereotypes than heels, lingerie and girls-night gossip. But they cannot challenge the corporate world’s sexist portrayals of trans identity without hacking away at the roots of gender ideology. And they take the SWP in tow. The issue is addressed by transgender activists like Kristina Harrison (@KJ_Harrison) and Debbie Hayton (@DebbieHayton) who sharply reject the sexist typecasts. But they can only do this because they reject the sexism of gender ideology itself.
The next part of this article will discuss the politics surrounding the sexual and gender binaries.
Relentlessly conservative, The Herald Sun is the Murdoch newspaper in the Australian state of Victoria, with the largest circulation paper of any daily in the country. On 29 May 2015 it ran an article called The transgender conversation we had to have (paywall, title slightly changed online). Transwoman Marco Fink, it tells us, “used to envy the girls at primary school, their freedom to wear dresses and express their femininity”. It approvingly cites Roz Ward, a co-ordinator of Safe Schools Victoria, who “says transgender adults recall childhood experiences of being forced to wear a dress or of having all their sister’s dolls removed from the house to stop them playing with them. ‘Now if you ask any specialist in the transgender field they would say that is really damaging to a child’s health and wellbeing,’ she says.” So as well as handcuffing femaleness to femininity, the article positions trans specialists as the definitive or only people with something to say on the issue of discontent with sex stereotypes. There is nothing special about this article, and that is the point. It simply exemplifies the outpouring of support for gender ideology in the Australian and British newspapers. Research from Transgender Trend demonstrates that the print media in Britain consistently popularised the idea that children could be born into the wrong body and used this to explain their discontent with sex stereotypes.
What some of these same newspapers object to is transgender activists’ links to the political Left and identity politics, as previously discussed on this blog. While the Murdoch Herald Sun cited Roz Ward’s authority to promote gender identity, Murdoch’s national flagship, The Australian, later campaigned for her to be sacked from Safe Schools, essentially because she was in a far Left group. Another Murdoch paper made an explicit if half-hearted attempts to separate gender ideology from identity politics, highlighting the attack on queer theory by a prominent conservative transwoman, Catherine McGregor.
This approach is too stiff-necked for most of the capitalist class which treats identity politics as minor irritant, or something that can be entirely incorporated via stories around same-sex celebrities and “confronting” fashion shows.
A recent edition of the SWP’s Socialist Review (January 2019) led with the article The war on trans, written by Laura Miles. The article continues the SWP’s support for gender ideology. In the February edition, SR published a response from gender-critical socialist Sybil Cock, in the Letters section; under her letter was an editorial reply from SR. Among other things this editorial reply mentioned Women’s Place UK (WPUK), accusing it of having “helped fuel the rise in transphobia”, a claim which was then, understandably, contested by WPUK itself.
Considering the level of anger that exists around these issues, it is not surprising that these exchanges have been tense. But it is a great step forward for the SWP to begin to engage with left-wing gender critics within its media outlets, which much of the far left has so far refused to do.
This post picks up on some of the issues raised in the original Miles article, and links back to previous discussions of these issues on Freer Lives.
Gender-critical progressives defend the right of people to adopt the conventional appearance and behaviour of the opposite sex, and for adults to change their bodies along these lines if they choose to. It is one, valid, personal way to challenge the straitjacket of stereotypic expectations, and helps to show that these are not biologically ordained. Some people who identify as transgender are comfortable with this kind of formulation and have no conflict with feminists who defend women on the basis of their sex. But when gender ideologists talk of “gender identity” they mean something different: that transwoman are women in the full sense, and the whole category of “woman” must be redefined to accommodate this.
In the SR article Laura Miles claims:
Like sexuality, our gender identity is a deep-seated reality, not a “whim” or “a feeling”, emerging through complex interactions between our sense of self, our physical bodies and how we perceive them, the expectations of others, and our material circumstances.
This “deep seated reality” is given a simulacrum of truth by its regular endorsement from the corporate media (including the right wing media which attacks other aspects of the transgender phenomenon) and other neoliberal institutions, and also from the liberal and far left: since everyone agrees, it must be correct. And once this ideological construct is accepted as fact, then to challenge it automatically means attacking a core part of every vulnerable trans person, it is equivalent to denying the authenticity of someone’s same-sex attraction, and is just as oppressive as racism. Through this sleight-of-hand, gender critical leftists become instant bigots.
The corporate media has promoted the idea of gender identity because they want to mainstream its sexist definition of women, but it is the practical implications of this concept that have caused the most heated conflict on the left. One of the most contentious is the idea that male-bodied people, including those who make no attempt to change their bodies, can self-ID as women and therefore access women-only spaces (see previous discussions on this blog here and here). Gender-critical feminists oppose this. “For many trans people and trans rights supporters” that in itself is “evidence of transphobia”, according SR’s reply to Sybil Cock (do these “supporters” include the SWP? It appears so.) But to repeat, the claim of transphobia only stands up if you accept the existence of an innate gender identity.
Gender identity in this sense is not real. It is usually understood in mystical terms: something from “deep within”, but not based on either biology or the internalization of sex stereotypes, so effectively from the Beyond. Although the individual is said to be the supreme authority on their gender id, this only holds when they go with the flow; desisters, for example, can be dismissed as never “really” having had the gender identity they temporarily assumed.
Critics sometimes compare gender identity theory to the ethnically-white Rachel Dolezal’s claims to be a black person:
When asked… what being “black” means to her, Dolezal said that “sometimes how we feel is more powerful than how we’re born, and blackness can be defined as philosophical, cultural, biological, you know, it’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people.” (People 2 Nov 2015)
Gender ideologists can dismiss this view out of hand, on the grounds that racial identity doesn’t have the same mysterious inner truth about it as gender. They get away with this because gender identity mysticism is socially endorsed, ultimately via corporate support, while Dolezal’s racial identitarianism is not (see articles by Adolph Reed Jr in Common Dreams 15 June 2015 and Elaine Graham-Leigh in Counterfire 1 Mar 2018).
The SWP has strained to give gender identity a material foundation, as some kind of subtle interaction between body and society. But they end up arguing that this interaction is too varied and complex to understand, and fall back on nothing more than bald assertions of the “reality” of gender identity.
The tradition of debate
Socialists must unconditionally support the rights of oppressed people to express their sexuality and gender identity. So when the right attack identity theory by denying the legitimacy of anti-oppressive struggles, people on the left should never relay arguments against trans rights that open the door to the right’s attacks. Sadly that is what has been happening over trans rights in some cases recently.
This idea that leftists “should never relay arguments against trans rights” sounds very much like an attempt to shut down debate within the left. If so this would be an accommodation to the identity politics milieu, a move away from the SWP’s tradition of frank and fearless debate in pursuit of clarity, the underpinning of workers’ democratic decision making. So it is even more welcome to see the Socialist Review now beginning to “relay” such arguments itself, by giving space, however limited, to a gender-critical socialist.
Gender critical progressives are not “opening the doors to the right’s attacks”, but opposing an ideology that is backed by western capitalist classes, the Tories, US Democrats and the neoliberal right generally. The SWP avoids looking at the support given to gender ideology from the ruling class and the instruments of its rule. For example Miles’ article notes “the Women and Equalities Parliamentary Committee’s publication of 30 trans-supportive recommendations in January 2016”, without asking why a Tory-dominated committee would support this new ideology so wholeheartedly.
Certainly it is vital to distance ourselves from social conservatives and the far right. Their attack on gender ideology is driven by a reactionary wish to preserve traditional biology-based stereotyping, and is part of a wider, powerful and dangerous attack on workers, women, gays, immigrants and oppressed ethnic groups. It is also important to distance ourselves from right-of-centre liberals: despite agreement with us on concrete issues such as opposition to no-platforming and child sterilization they too have an anti-worker agenda and are no friends of women’s liberation. But if we held back from certain demands because they were also supported in some sense by sections of the right, we could not have opposed Russia’s bestial bombing of Syria lest we supported US neocons, nor could we support Britain leaving the EU lest we line up with racists.
We need to advance whatever demands are required, in ways that differentiate ourselves from right wingers who give the same demands or slogans a different content. So, for example, we support female-only spaces because females are oppressed by the social system, not out of some idea that females are inherently dainty or eternally vulnerable. We use the concept “woman is biological” because their biology marks females out for oppressive treatment from the moment of birth, and it is not a “performance” they can opt out of. But if conservatives use “woman is biological” to play to traditional sexism, to imply that the stereotypically feminine woman emerges naturally from female biology, we must explicitly oppose that, rather than letting left and right wing concepts flow together under the same formulation of words.
Does the link between gender-critical progressives and the right go beyond the superficial, the use of similar phrases? When the left does not take up the cause of the oppressed, the right will sometimes do so, in its own way, and so it is in this instance. Sections of the right have expressed sympathy with gender critical feminists on issues like free speech, and protecting children and teens from life-changing surgical and chemical procedures. Some right wing media outlets have given space to left-wing gender critics, pursuing their own agenda. Not all gender-critical feminists are leftists; some have responded to overtures from different sections of the right. But the great majority have felt driven to use the corporate media and right wing outlets by no-platforming and ferocious hostility from most of the left and the identity politics milieu (see eg here). “It is indeed unfortunate that it has been largely the right wing and liberal press that has enabled the views of gender critical socialists to be heard,” as Sybil Cock says. Left wing gender ideologists have used this to try to vindicate their claims against such progressives; instead, they should remove the beam in their own eye and start looking seriously at how their ideas abet women’s oppression.
The material bases of same-sex attraction and gender identity
Miles writes that
some trans critics are promoting double standards. Like the right, they deny the reality of gender identity (“identity is not material”, they claim). But they don’t deny the reality of sexual preferences, although they’ve not demonstrated any crucial differences between sexuality and gender identity.
There are certainly crucial differences between sexual preference and “gender identity”.
Same sex attraction must have arisen out of humanity’s break with the animal kingdom as we became laboring, speaking, conscious creatures. It is sometimes said that certain other animals with relatively complex social groups display same-sex attraction. Whether this is so or not, it is certainly true that when we became truly human the sexual impulse was no longer limited to a narrow unvarying routine; though still grounded in bodily biology, our sexuality was now decisively shaped by society and caught up in the immense complexity and thus variability of the socialized human being. Sexuality was freed up to go in all sorts of directions. And since variation of sexual preference is innately human, we can expect same sex attraction to persist in a future, truly free society, the communism envisioned by Marx.
However, the human drive to imagine and explore, and the inherent variability between human individuals, clashed with another aspect of early human society. Only women could bear and suckle young, and these roles also constrained them from certain types of work. So during pre-class societies there was a sexual division of labour, which was then, like everything else, codified in beliefs and rituals within each culture. Some people must have felt far better suited to the roles and attributes assigned to the other sex and forbidden to theirs. This clash was also bound to intensify when the division of sex roles deepened with the rise of class society. (While the constraint would have been felt by both women and men, women would have had less opportunity to present as a member of the other sex, because they had less opportunity for self-expression in almost every way. But individual women also had the added incentive to present as men, to escape their sexual oppression.)
The clash between these two elements of society explains the appearance of social groups outside the main female and male cultural categories, groups which here and there were given formal acknowledgment, such as the Two Spirit people noted by the SWP’s Sue Caldwell (see also this feminist critique of gender ideologists’ appropriation of the Two Spirit people). But unlike same-sex attraction, the drive to adopt the cultural attributes of the other sex can be expected to disappear under a truly free society, when sex roles themselves fall away, and you can be whatever sort of person you wish.
In any case, however, this wish to identify with the opposite sex, adopt its roles, or claim some kind of cultural membership within it, is very different to modern gender ideology, which with its explicit redefinition of women and men as a whole: this is very recent. The long history of resistance to sex roles does nothing at all to support the existence of an innate “gender identity”.
Wrong, and sexist…
Gender identity is an ideological concept, not a fact: its current popularity has other causes. The idea of innate gender identity is also sexist, chiefly because it defines females through sex stereotypes. These stereotypes are not emphasized among pro-gender leftists, but are precisely what the corporate mass media picks up on when it propagandizes about kids born into the wrong body and the brave mums supporting them – disseminated far beyond identity politics circles into working class suburbia. Left wing gender ideologues do not challenge the media on this – they cannot, without hacking into the core of gender ideology itself. The sexist definition of women also, inevitably, encourages misogynistic attitudes among some transwomen, examples of which gender critical progressives regularly cite on social media.
…but we need to debate it
Leftist supporters of gender ideology disagree: this should lead to debate. But there is of course a qualitative difference between tactical debates over “which way forward” and debates where one side is supporting oppression, eg via a government ban on Muslim headscarves in the name of feminism or secularism. The issue of gender causes particularly bitter fights because each side thinks the other is supporting oppression, and this has high-stakes practical consequences. Yet the only reason for thinking that gender-critical progressives support oppression lies in the idea of innate gender identity, and this too should be up for debate.
Last year Philip or Pip Bunce, a male-born gender-fluid executive, was listed in the “top 100 female champions” of women in business by the Financial Times, the closest thing there is to an official media mouthpiece for Britain’s ruling class. It is a handy enough symbol of elite support for gender ideology, whatever you think of Bunce. The bosses are responsible for the mainstreaming of the transgender trend, and determine its political impact, carried through via establishment political parties like the Tories and US Democrats, managers of public and private bureaucracies, and the corporate media. This is often pointed out by gender critical progressives and is the core argument in Freer Lives.
The capitalist class and its woman problem
The core reason for this support lies in the bosses’ tricky relationship with women. The capitalist class relies on the family to maintain today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves free of charge. As the welfare state is cut back and the population ages, the system’s demand for this free work is growing. Theoretically the burden could be lumped equally onto men and women, but the deep historical roots of sexism makes it overwhelmingly easier to keep the bulk of it on women’s shoulders. So for the bosses it is vital that women should continue to see themselves as inferior and as natural nurturers and homemakers. At the same time, they want women as wage slaves. Yet in the workplace women confront everyday sexism and the stupidity of over-promoted male managers, even as they themselves gain high-level skills and knowledge, and take part in far wider discussions of social and political issues than women last century, who were much more often confined to the home. This makes today’s women far more likely to challenge their oppression, including, potentially, the burden of unpaid labor.
For the bosses there is no single solution to this contradiction. What we do see is a string of ideological concessions characteristic of the neoliberal era and reflected in news and commentary, books films and TV: yes women have the right to get ahead individually, yes lots of men are contemptible, and gross physical abuse is not on. But while you watch super-heroines and Disney princesses kick male ass, you must remain feminine, wasp-waisted, a sex object, house-tidier and child nurturer. Gender ideology, with its impeccably progressive credentials, has been taken up and used as another strand in this ideological net: sex stereotypes are cool again.
This does not translate into unqualified, block support for every aspect of gender ideology and the transgender trend: some parts of the elite (the capitalist class and its most senior political servants) have some, limited, objections. Firstly, some conservative media barons have drawn a distinction between the trans’ trend’s “good” and “bad” features. Born-into-the-wrong body ideas are good, because they are so sexist, defining women and girls as inherently feminine. But some of the public programs that propagandise for these same ideas, including school-based programs, are bad, since they link transgender to identity politics and the left, and hence to the need for social change. Secondly, sections of the elite may feel uneasy that the unexpected surge in demand for gender reassignment will end up having serious cost implications.
But perhaps the most important issue, from the elite’s viewpoint, is that gender ideology has to do the job, and help reconcile today’s working women to the burden of unpaid labour in the home. All that is thrown into the air if a new women’s movement rises to its feet and begins to engage with or even mobilise wide strata of ordinary women against the new gender sexism. Under that scenario the disruptive impact of the trans phenomenon might start to look like a liability to some bosses. In Britain, gender-critical feminists have made enough impact to put that scenario on the horizon. Their pressure is also pushing liberal sections of the corporate media to hedge their bets, and move to keep up with shifting opinion, by opening some space to the views of gender critical progressives.
Opposition on the right
Beside the elite, there is also some push-back against gender ideology from right wing political formations. The opposition takes a range of forms and involves several overlapping constituencies. Social conservatives have never budged from the idea that biology is the basis for females’ femininity, and rail against gender ideology, abortion and gay rights in the same breath. Some right-of-centre liberals are uneasy about gender ideology’s intrusions upon free speech and civic order, the safety and dignity of women and girls (seen through a right wing lens) and surgical and chemical modification of healthy young bodies. Around the edges of all this, certain right wingers see an opportunity to work with gender-critical feminists, and perhaps win them over, or use them to hurt the left.
The pro-gender left
The pro-gender left have a very different take. They tend to present elite support for gender ideology as either the result of pressure from below, acceptance of the inevitable, common sense, or the result of cultural change sweeping through all social classes. When elite support is mentioned at all, it is usually in very vague terms. (As Roz Kaveney put it in a Guardian article 2017: “the [Tory] government is planning new rules to make it easier for trans people to self-identify their gender… If it seems odd that Theresa May’s government is going to do something this humane and sensible: well, they have to do something.”) By contrast, they seize on any sign of elite opposition to gender ideology as evidence that they are fighting the big end of town.
The fact that the neoliberal right champions gender ideology is also passed over. Instead they focus only on the bigotry of social conservatives and the far right, to present gender ideology as progressive. Feminists and leftists critical of gender ideology are denounced as hindering the fight against this bigotry.
The pro-gender left are not looking reality in the face.
Future posts in this series will look in more detail at the different forms of elite and right wing opposition to gender ideology, and how the left should respond.