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A happy holiday break to all – I will be away with very limited internet access until about 9 January.
Transgender campaigners and lobbyists have been delighted at the downfall of North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, who was voted out at the recent US elections. He is the first sitting governor to lose an election in the state, and in 2016 he was the only sitting governor across the USA to lose his post. The same electors backed Trump and voted in a Republican senator. McCrory’s loss is widely attributed to his support for North Carolina’s HB2 law. The law includes viciously discriminatory anti-worker provisions (see here and here; I think these provisions will appeal to local small-to-medium businesses more than major corporations), and anti-gay measures, banning “any local restrictions on discrimination in public places based on sexual orientation”. But the notorious aspect of the law – the aspect that has rallied forces for and against it – relates to transgender rights, in particular the use of government-run bathrooms: it says people must use the facilities matching their sex of birth rather than the gender they now identify with. The law was used to over-ride a pro-transgender ordinance in the city of Charlotte.
Big business was prominent in the campaign against the HB2 bill. Corporations held back investment in the state, impacting on jobs: they launched what amounts to a capital strike, of the kind that has previously been used, on a larger scale, to bring uppity left wing governments into line.
Associated Press had previously reported that “over 100 top CEOs” had protested against the impending law.
The list now includes leaders of many sectors of the economy. Tourism is represented by Hilton, Marriott and Starwood hotels; AirBnB, Uber and Lyft; and American Airlines, which has a major hub in Charlotte, the state’s largest city.
Banking and finance executives include the leaders of Bank of America, Citibank, TD Bank, PayPal and others. Restaurateurs and retailers include leaders of Starbucks, Barnes & Noble and Levi Strauss. Technology leaders joined in force, including the leaders of IBM, Apple, Intel, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, eBay, Twitter, YouTube and many others.
After the election The Economist noted that corporate supporters were heavy hitters within the pro-trans alliance:
“Mr McCrory did worse than other Republicans in part because of a state law widely thought to discriminate against transgender people and others. After he signed it, some businesses reconsidered their investments, entertainers cancelled concerts and sports tournaments were moved… the economic costs, and the broad coalition that mobilised against him, seem to have convinced some Republican-leaning voters to ditch him…” (North Carolina: Not going quietly. The Economist 26 November 2016 p32)
Indeed The Economist could not help gloating over McCrory’s come-uppance after his “rash” support for the HB2 bill. Similarly, Time magazine called the governor’s downfall “a cautionary tale for other conservative legislatures that will almost certainly consider similar measures in the coming months.”
Republican candidates for the state legislature did not suffer in the same way as McCrory from the pro-trans campaign. They won both chambers. This may be due to what The Economist called “energetic gerrymandering”. (The New York Times has described NC Republicans’ “unscrupulous efforts to fence off black communities” so as to “diminish the political power of black voters”; this included “an unnecessary and harmful voter ID law and other unfair electoral restrictions”.)
Meanwhile the alt-Right Breitbart News has exploited the bathroom dispute to boost its salt-of-the-earth, anti-elite credentials, by railing against “corporate extortion” and the alliance of big business with the “radical left” and gay rights groups.
Two right wing ideologies slugging it out
The bathroom access issue has wider ramifications for Republicans, “pitting the party’s pro-business branch against social conservatives“, according to a Reuters article. To put it another way, the top layers of Republican and Democratic parties both reflect the views of the neoliberal capitalist class, which has moved on from the traditionalist, backwoods sex stereotypes where chromosomes are destiny. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, the capitalist elite finds in transgender ideology a means to help preserve women’s oppression in a changing world. And women’s oppression remains vital to its economic interests. The neoliberal elite is by far the most powerful force driving the trans trend, and now defines its fundamental nature.
The main difference between the Republican and Democrat grandees on this issue is that the Republicans have to try to accommodate the traditionalist views still cherished by the their base, and championed by the religious and alt Right. For the Right, the battle against the trans trend is part of a wider war against lesbians and gays and liberalism. But lacking elite support, the Right is almost certainly doomed to lose on the trans issue. Its only path to victory would be the nightmare scenario where it manages to take leadership of mass anger during a social crisis, deeper than anything we have yet seen, and extending far more deeply than the election of someone like Trump. Under that scenario trans people, lesbians and gays, women and organised workers would all get it in the neck.
The only way out of this morass is to start building an alliance between trans-critical feminists and Left, which can then start to rally wider layers of support for women against the trans trend, on a progressive basis.
Ms. Hungerford clearly has no time for all the silliness po-mo brings to the table.
“Post-modern neoliberalism seeks to dismiss the experience of womanhood by claiming that anyone can choose to be a woman. And, in any case, it claims that we are too diverse to be generalized about. An interesting position to take: the class “women” has no defining characteristic, and yet transwomen know exactly what being a “woman” feels like.
The maxim “trans women are women” means at least three things: first, it means that being raised as girl from birth is not an important or relevant aspect of being a “woman” because one can be a woman without it.
Secondly, it means that having a female body is not an important or relevant aspect of being a “woman” because one can be a woman without it.
And third, it means that to be a “woman” reflects an…
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Miranda Devine, a media commentator in Australia, says:
We now have a medical profession too cowardly to speak out against a trend in which parents are procuring questionable hormone therapy for their prepubescent children so they can change sexes.
She adds that physicians who are brave enough to watch and wait, to question and explore, rather than rush to endorse a child’s transition, are demonised as supporters of conversion therapy. Devine repeated her attack on childhood gender reassignment in a more recent article, where she points out that the sort of girls who used to be known as tomboys are now potential candidates for puberty blockers.
Some of her remarks in these articles could have come from a trans-critical progressive, but Devine (@mirandadevine) is explicitly and proudly on the Right. She is anti-abortion and an opponent of same-sex marriage. She rails against “permissiveness” and blames welfare for domestic violence (“end the welfare incentive for unsuitable women to keep having children to a string of feckless men”).
Her reference to tomboys is potentially misleading. She does not articulate any objection to sex role stereotypes. Her concern about the gender transitioning of children occurs within a conservative and traditionalist worldview. This comes out in her attack on Australia’s Safe Schools program.
Devine and the Safe Schools program
As discussed in a previous post, Safe Schools has a brief to make schools safe and inclusive for transgender and LGB students. “Disguised as an anti-bullying initiative,” Devine says, “the ‘Safe Schools’ program started a new sexual revolution under parents’ noses.” She and other conservatives have recently drawn blood, with the sacking of Safe Schools’ Marxist co-founder, Roz Ward (see here, here, and here).
Several things may be said about Safe Schools. Firstly, there is no question that bullying is a serious risk for LGB and transgender students, and is also suffered by other students simply because they don’t fit well with sex roles. This sort of bullying has driven some to suicide, one recent victim being Tyrone Unsworth, a feminine-oriented gay boy aged 13.
If the Safe Schools program took on sex stereotyping as such, it would not only create a safer and less stressful environment for lesbian, gay, and transgender students, it would offer wider assistance to feminine boys and masculine girls. And most subversively, it might open new possibilities to the great majority of children who have more or less accommodated to restrictive typecasts. But there is very little evidence of such a subversive approach on the Safe Schools website. Instead, discontent with stereotypes is overwhelmingly posed as the concern of a minority of students. This helps to explain why the program has wide and enthusiastic support from the neoliberal politicians of the Australian Labor Party (it is funded and championed by the Labor Government in Victoria) and from the less right wing sections of the Liberal Party.
But Devine attacks Safe Schools on different grounds: for “promoting the idea to school students that there is something wrong with the norms of heterosexuality and ‘binary’ sexes — male and female.”
Her “defence” of heterosexuality appears to be nothing but a complaint that the Safe Schools program affirms lesbian and gay identities. As for binary sexes, she does not present them as sites on which stereotypes are inscribed, through a lifetime of socialisation. She allows the reading public to understand them in traditional terms, in which chromosomes turn us naturally into feminine females and masculine males, and she approvingly quotes three doctors who declare that “human sexuality is ‘binary by design with the obvious purpose being the reproduction and flourishing of our species'”.
The impact of the Right
Does it matter that she is right wing, as long as the warnings about childhood transitioning are put out there? She is right that transgender ideology disseminated in schools will cruelly limit the life choices of young people if they end up sterilised by gender reassignment surgery and dependent on drugs for the rest of their lives. But any victories scored by the Devine and her friends against the transgender lobby will predominantly reinforce a conservative agenda, which is also an anti-woman and homophobic agenda. The anti-trans position of the Right also reinforces the storyline accepted by the great majority of leftists and liberals, which frames all opposition to transgender demands as bigotry.
By challenging the stifling consensus around transgender – extending as it does from the far Left to “moderates” in the US Republican Party – the Right may inadvertently create some space for truly oppositional arguments to be heard. That does not make them allies.
Why does the far Left not oppose the conservative and sexist aspects of the transgender trend? None of the rationales that I have heard, or have come across online, ring true:
- The feminist critique of transgender does not rest on biological or cultural determinism, but on opposition to sex stereotyping and the demand that we recognise oppressive female socialisation – ideas that the far Left shares with these feminists, but chooses not to apply to the trans issue.
- It is not a matter of pontificating to trans people about their ideological imperfections, but recognising that neoliberal capitalism is promoting the transgender trend for its own reasons.
- Opposing sexist transgender ideology does not mean caving in to the religious Right, any more than supporting Brexit meant caving in to UKIP, or opposing Russian genocide in Syria means capitulating to US imperialism (though it does highlight the need to distinguish yourself from the warmongers and racists).
So what is the real reason for the Left behaving as it does? Is it the result of sexism from socialist men? Apart from anything else, their line on transgender is little different to that of most feminist women. Fear of isolation? We are talking about people who support open borders for migration.
But it is one thing to be isolated from mainstream public opinion, another to be despised by the sort of people that you are trying to work with and recruit. In the Left’s milieu it is widely agreed that “gender identity” is real, innate, and essentially separate from your sex of birth. Once you believe in gender identity, you are also likely to believe that those denying its existence are bigots, comparable to lesbophobes and homophobes. For far Left groups to point out that “gender identity” is ultimately an internalisation of sex role stereotyping, and to campaign against its oppressive implications for women, is likely to make them pariahs, in the short term at least. For one Left group alone to challenge this orthodoxy would be a gift to its rivals. Here, perhaps, is one fundamental reason for the Left’s position, whatever rationales might cover it.
The demoralising impact of neoliberalism
Context is crucially important. This debate occurs against a backdrop of persistently low levels of working class struggle in most of the western world, conditions in which Marxist groups have battled very hard to maintain membership and morale. The Left has been becalmed by the quiescence of the working class during 35 years of neoliberalism. This has hit the best sections of the Left most of all: sections that do not look to trade union bureaucrats, dictators, or ossified dogmas, but to the real live working class as the way forward for the world.
The fall in working class political activism has many causes. Workers lost confidence with the onset of high unemployment in the mid-1970s. As unions became more highly centralised and legalistic in the 1980s grass roots union organisation rotted away. Thatcher and Reagan inflicted huge, game-changing defeats. The fall of the USSR demoralised Stalinists in the western workers’ movement, people who had, for all their problems, formed the backbone of much of the industrial Left. All this while, globalisation and fragmentation of the workforce eroded bargaining power.
The union bureaucracy often tries to snuff out industrial campaigns before they build up too much momentum, to maintain their own control. Under the conditions described above, this tendency has had a particularly deadening effect. Meanwhile rising workers’ movements in the so-called developing countries have rarely as yet moved from economic to political demands. Despite pockets of intense industrial and political action in countries such as Greece, the international working class just doesn’t look that much like the key agent of social transformation, and this will probably continue in the short term at least.
These difficulties don’t change what needs to be done in relation to the transgender issue. I believe that the Left needs to seek alliances with trans-critical feminists to challenge the conservative and sexist side of trans ideology, and highlight the capitalist interest supporting it. This might create a rallying point for those working class women, and men, who currently feel uneasy about the transgender trend, but have been silenced.
This is the third in a series of posts discussing why the Left does not criticise the conservative aspects of the transgender trend.
Criticising an oppressed group
Some leftists do privately acknowledge that certain transgender ideas are conservative. But they are wary of voicing these criticisms too loudly, for fear of harming an already oppressed group. This argument ignores the all-important context of neoliberal support for the transgender trend.
In some cases the elite, or sections of the elite, make cynical use of a group’s oppression to promote their own agenda. These cases require us to fight on two fronts. The transgender trend is one of these cases. Transgender people do defy the most traditional form of sex stereotypes and as a result face day to day discrimination and political attacks from the religious and alt Right. Of course we should help to defend them from these attacks. But to leave it at that, as the Left currently does, allows the slimy neoliberal elite and their propagandists to use the trans phenomenon as a cool way to promote sex stereotypes and bury the existence of oppressive female socialisation.
Taking “the same side” as the Right
Liberals and leftists sometimes also claim that critics of transgender ideology are actually allied to conservatives, or at least, end up supporting their agenda.
Whether we like it or not, sometimes progressive demands converge, at least superficially, with those of the Right, or sections of the Right. Some people who denounce Russia’s bestial bombardment of Aleppo are anti-imperialists, others support US imperialism. The Brexiteers included UKIP racists and Tory bigots, but they were sometimes “Lexiteers”: Leavers who opposed the EU due to its role in imposing neoliberal austerity.
Where this sort of superficial convergence occurs, it is critical – absolutely essential – to distinguish yourself from the Right and from the elite, eg in your articles and speeches and in your concrete slogans, and by taking care that the platforms you speak on do not give grist to the Right or make you its unwitting ally.
The biggest public issues of contention around transgender rights create a superficial convergence between progressive and conservative critics of the trans trend. You can be horrified by child sterilisation in gender clinics, or oppose male-to-female transitioners using women’s private spaces, whether you are a conservative traditionalist or a feminist who rejects all sex stereotyping. For this reason the Right is sometimes able to draw, selectively and to a limited extent, on the work of trans-critical thinkers such as radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys.
Is this convergence ever more than superficial? There are several reasons why some trans-critical feminists may make concessions to the Right. One reason is the sheer pressure of political isolation, that is, the utter refusal of almost all liberals and leftists to support them. Liberals and leftists need to remove the beam from their own eye and start opposing the sexist elements of transgenderism. Another reason, perhaps, is the dispersal of trans-critical feminists. Individuals and loose groupings may be more likely to be drawn rightwards than tight organisations. A third reason is that some feminists’ analysis of women’s oppression have permitted them to make limited but real alliances with conservatives around other issues, eg use of police powers and punitive legislation to combat the suffering women endure from porn and sex work. I think they are wrong to do so. No alliance with conservatives works to the ultimate advantage of working women. But the feminist critique of transgender politics is not founded on right wing ideas.
Feminist criticisms of the transgender trend are drawn from the core politics of women’s liberation, politics which the Left shares and should apply to the issue of transgender.
The western world is changing fast, nowhere faster than in the USA. The Right and the far Right is surging; women, Muslims, blacks, and Latinos, lesbians and gays and unionists are mobilising to defend themselves. While Trump’s views on transgender issues have wobbled, the forces at his back are filled with hardened sexist racist homophobes and transphobes. A movement will arise against the Right’s surge. It will fight to defend transgender people among many other targets of far Right abuse.
However, as that movement draws new people into politics, and gives them confidence to challenge the oppression they face in their own lives, conservative and sexist elements of transgender thinking will come under new scrutiny. The Left will find itself left behind if it doesn’t address those issues now.
Hardened sexists and racists are making the most of Trump’s victory. Nigel Farage, for example, has entertained his followers with the thought of Trump groping Theresa May. It is all made worse by the odd tradition of seeing the US President as a moral as well as political leader.
Countless women around the globe must be feeling personal pain that such a gross man defeated a female candidate so heavily favoured to win. Particularly galling is the fact that, according to exit polls, almost 53% of white women voted for Trump; for white women without tertiary education the figure was two thirds. The response to this from female journalists and commentators has ranged from contempt at white women’s betrayal to explaining the result as internalised misogyny or women putting their whiteness above their interests as a sex. One of the bitterest articles came from LV Anderson who also hinted at some likely implications for US women:
More than half of white women voted for the man who bragged about committing sexual assault on tape, who said he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, who has promised to undo legislation that has afforded health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans, whose parental leave plan is a joke, who has spent his campaign dehumanizing nonwhite people, who has spent 30-plus years in the public eye reducing women to their sexual attributes. More than half of white women looked at the first viable female candidate for the presidency, a wildly competent and overqualified career public servant, and said, “Trump that bitch.”
Why it happened
In reality, the majority of white women voted for Trump as part of a working class backlash against neoliberalism, similar to the Brexit backlash in Britain. Michael Moore called the result as “anger and the need for revenge against the system”. As Naomi Klein said:
Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.
At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous.
As a strong and accomplished woman, beset by sexist attacks on her like so many other female leaders, Clinton became a symbol of hope and pride to innumerable women around the world. But her glass-ceiling feminism did not connect with struggling working women in her own country. They saw her, correctly in my opinion, as part of the elite attacking them.
That does not mean that they attack neoliberalism as such. They interpret their suffering through a framework of right wing ideas, some racist, some sexist, some about the virtues of self-help etc. But above they hate what the elite has done to them.
As analyst Stephen Long points out, it was this same economic pain that allowed Trump to increase the percentage of Latinos voting Republican, despite his racism, whereas among “the well-off and well-educated whites who normally favour the Republican candidate, there was a slight drift towards Hillary Clinton.”
In response to their economic misery some people simply withdrew from electoral politics. The Republican vote was almost two million down from 2012, but the Democratic vote fell by almost seven million (IBT), despite the election being billed as high-stakes. But a lot more people did vote and they voted to punish the candidate connected most clearly to the elite and the status quo.
Trump and transgender
Trump was initially on-side with the transgender trend, which will be no surprise to trans-critical feminists and socialists. However, most of his support base is hostile to the trans phenomenon (not, or course, as an attack on women, or because it supports for sex stereotyping, but because it challenges the most traditional, anatomy-is-destiny stereotypes). Under this pressure he changed position on North Carolina’s HB2 law banning male-born trans people from using women’s bathrooms, saying that it was an issue for the state government to decide, effectively supporting the ban. His instincts lead him one way, but he is susceptible to pressure from the religious Right.
Where to now
Protests against Trump have already started. Over time there is huge potential for these protests to draw support from millions of working people as they gradually realise that Trump is not improving their lives.
Trump will certainly want to divert that mass anger. He will scapegoat the vulnerable, most likely through immigrant-bashing and Islamophobia. He will also mobilise social conservatives around a range of reactionary demands as he tries to keep people’s economic misery off the political centre stage.
Trump may choose to accommodate trans people to widen his support base, but he may equally attack them to curry favour with social conservatives. In any case, the religious Right has received a shot in the arm from his victory, and will be active and vocal.
Trans-critical feminists and socialists challenge the trans trend from a pro-woman perspective; for the religious and alt Right opposition to trans people is part of an anti-woman agenda. In the current atmosphere distinguishing ourselves from the Right is more important than ever.
A compilation of Trump’s vile statements about women, contrasted to his statements of support for transgender rights. (As I understand it, Trump initially said that transgender people should be able to use the bathroom of their choice, but retreated under pressure from the Republican Right, saying that North Carolina’s HB2 law was an issue for the state to decide.)