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.)
A thoughtful and well-researched piece discussing the danger of gay erasure via the trans trend, noting the use of gender transitioning in conservative countries intolerant of lesbians and gays.