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Why the Left does not challenge transgender conservatism

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.

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Are trans-critical feminists actually aiding the Right?


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.

 

The Left and transgender: “work with trans people, not against them”?

This is the second in a series of posts discussing why the Left does not criticise the conservative aspects of the transgender trend.

At times the far Left acknowledges that trans ideology contains conservative ideas. For example Laura Miles points out:

Many trans people have tended to take a highly essentialist view of gender identity, which treats gender as somehow natural and given — “a man’s mind in a woman’s body, “a woman’s mind in a man’s body”. A glance at a selection of trans people’s autobiographies will confirm this. Transgender is also often presented in the media in this over-simplified way… there are serious problems inherent in such an essentialist approach to gender identity.

This quote was a passing comment in an article within a theoretical journal. Such points don’t tend to get made very often, and when they do they’re not highlighted in Left newspapers. Why not?


A Left argument for setting aside conservative trans ideas

One reason, I think, is tactical. Trans people face serious daily discrimination and are attacked by the anatomy-is-destiny Right. Because they suffer from capitalism, they are driven to oppose it. You don’t deal with such a group, the argument goes, by lecturing them about their errors: that would be sectarian and/or ultraleft. (An analogy is sometimes drawn with lesbians and gays: you don’t pontificate about the bourgeois nature of the marriage institution, you support LGB people’s fight for equal rights. More generally you defend lesbian and gay rights without harping at those who adopt stereotypically feminine or masculine roles.)

Instead you start from common ground and take people forward step by step, involving them in campaigns around other social issues, giving them a working class perspective, winning them to the common struggle against the system, and slowly eroding their conservative ideas through new experiences, and sometimes comradely discussion. You say: now that you’ve broken with the most traditional stereotypes of sex, why not break with all sex stereotypes?

This seems to be the approach articulated, for example, by Socialist Alternative’s Red Flag in Australia. An article on gender and capitalism concludes with this: “We need to remove all political content from the categories of ‘men’, ‘women’, ‘gay’, ‘straight’, ‘trans’, ‘cis’ and so on. This would lay the basis for a society in which gender is either a purely personal matter, or no matter at all.”  (Red Flag 22 April 2016) In this spirit the group describes a struggle against anti-trans discrimination in the workplace: “we achieved the right for a transgender employee to dress as they chose providing they followed the company dress code. In addition, we were able to secure the right for our fellow worker to be addressed by their preferred name and without any need for gender references. Then we were able to negotiate the abolition of gender identification requirements on forms.” (Red Flag 1 Sept 2013)

This approach probably works very well with left-leaning trans individuals and perhaps many other trans individuals. They are not the problem. In their personal lives many trans people are a long way from the crass Caitlyn Jenner stereotypes, but even those who do go for extreme stereotypes are not the problem. It is a problem when trans activists go on the offensive against feminists trying to defend women’s rights, but even that, I think, is secondary.

The core problem, entirely unacknowledged by most of the Left, is the sexist propaganda around transgender that pours from the neoliberal mass media and public and private institutions, telling us that pink and blue are a natural fit for almost everyone, ensuring discontent with sex stereotypes remains chained to “gender”, and snuffing out the concept of oppressive female socialisation. The neoliberal elite are using the transgender trend as a road block. By all means swap gender, they say; be genderfluid, genderqueer, or agender if you must, but do not advance beyond this point – don’t go saying that sex stereotypes might be a problem for the mass of people, especially the mass of womankind. Don’t start defining womanhood via restrictive ideas internalised over a lifetime.

The better sections of the Left sneak a few individuals around this roadblock, but don’t confront it directly. They don’t even admit to its existence. There is no “transgender trend”, just hard-beset trans people, whom the media accommodates partially, grudgingly, under popular pressure. (So while Red Flag opposed the silencing of Germaine Greer, particularly via recourse to a university administration, they still denounced her criticisms of trans ideology.)

Of course, the Left does attack sex stereotypes and oppressive female socialisation outside the context of transgender. But for every person who reads a Left newspaper, how many thousands receive sexist-but-unchallengeable ideas via the mass media’s framing of trans? By taking a stand against this sexism the Left could have real influence far above the odd article in support of women’s liberation.


Defend trans people without taking sexist ideas on board

Challenging conservative trans ideas does not mean any reduction whatsoever in support for trans people (actual trans people, not their neoliberal propagandists) against the religious Right or discrimination or persecution in daily life. In fact this will become more important than ever after Trump’s election victory. But it does mean accepting the need to fight on two fronts at once, just as, during the Brexit campaign, the far Left has fought to expose the EU as a neoliberal austerity machine while also attacking the racist Tories and Little Englanders.

At present trans-critical feminists must choose between bitter isolation and accommodation to the Right. They deserve more. They are natural allies for the Left.

Trumpland: white women, why, and where to 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.

Who Trump Respects and Why

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.)

Are all trans critics right wingers or rad fems?

The far Left has a tradition of consistently opposing sex role stereotyping and oppressive female socialisation. But when transgender advocates celebrate stereotypes and deny the importance of socialisation, the Left turns the other way. In a series of posts I want to look at why the far Left so often treats transgender as off-limits to criticism, and sides against trans-critical feminists. The Left’s excuses are: it is just a rad fem thing; the trans trend is not really harming women (or splitting the working class); trans critics are only helping the Right and the violent haters; you should deal with any differences by working with trans people not against them. Then there are the material reasons for the Left’s position. These issues will be discussed in turn.

 

There is a common reason advanced for uncritical support of the trans trend: look at who opposes it! Only the Right and “terfs”, who both have very different agendas to ours. In fact, a wide spectrum of feminists and liberals are worried about the trans phenomenon (eg here and here), for reasons including child sterilisation, the erasure of lesbians and gay men, and the erasure of strong female role models from the past. But it’s true that these are a small minority of feminists, and an even smaller minority of liberals. It’s also true that radical feminism is the only cohered political current challenging transgender ideology at present. So it’s easy for Left commentators to pass off any criticisms of trans as something distinctive to radical feminism (usually some kind of determinism). So for example Alison Thorne of the Freedom Socialist Party says “Sections of the feminist movement hostile to transgender people came from the radical feminist, biological determinist tradition.” In Marxism and Women’s Liberation Judith Orr says:

The rejection of trans women because they are not “born as women” flows from the weakness of a theory of women’s oppression rooted in patriarchy theory. So some radical feminists justify discrimination against trans women because they claim there is something intrinsically oppressive, either biologically or culturally, in maleness. (78-9)

These sweeping dismissals may sound plausible to many socialists, who have fought rad fems on other issues like the use of police and the law against porn and clients of sex workers.

But the truth is that socialists and trans-critical feminists share very important ideas that are of key relevance to understanding the impact of the trans trend. The difference is that these feminists actually apply such ideas to the trans phenomenon, while most socialists are, for now, in denial.


The Left on female socialisation and sex role stereotypes

Once again Judith Orr sums up ideas held widely on the far Left. She points out that capitalist society “crushes us into boxes labelled girl and boy” (92) and describes a feminist cartoon from the mid-1970s showing “a boy and a girl getting gradually boarded into coffin-shaped boxes of gender expectations”. (128) She says:

The process of socialisation shapes expectations of what is “normal” behaviour for women and men, and its internalisation means sexist mores are absorbed into our day-to-day lives and become part of the society’s “commonsense”. A recognition of such a process contributed to one of the initiatives of the 1960s – “consciousness raising” groups… Building women’s confidence and encouraging women to reject the limits of roles society has socialised them to expect is a positive thing. (27)

She warns that consciousness-raising can become inward-looking and unhelpful if counter-posed to social activism, which is the main vehicle of social change. (27) But she does not dismiss it for that reason, nor does she suggest that the value of consciousness-raising is diminished just because the stiff post-war years have been replaced by the slime and hypocrisy of neoliberalism. “We have to expose the terrible pressures put on women to fit unattainable expectations”, Orr says: “just because they can become internalised does not mean that they are less the product of a sexist society.” (172)


Trans critical feminists

How does this compare to trans-critical feminists? Naturally, their statements on trans are often framed within their broader understanding of women’s oppression, which is not a Marxist one. Some of their arguments I do not support. But the common ground stares you in the face.

In an article on transgender (May 2016) Sarah Ditum refers to myths about “brainsex”, the supposed differences of the female and male brains:

Feminist analysis has vigorously challenged that view. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that “one is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman”, stressing that gender (one’s social role as a woman or man) is something that must be learned – and that this learning process is enforced on the basis of sex… The qualities of femininity (for example, gentleness, demureness, motherliness) are not inherent properties of female humans, according to the feminist critique of gender, but ones that female humans are socialised to develop…

In fact, it seems unlikely that “gender identity disorder” – the current diagnostic term – describes one coherent phenomenon at all. In the absence of compelling evidence for brainsex, what we appear to be looking at is a variety of conditions…. But at the moment, all are being treated as though they originated from a mismatch between brain and body which prevents a person from being recognised in their correct social role. The implication of that being that anyone who isn’t transgender has the converse experience – of a match between brain and body and a natural affinity with their social role of man or women.

Elinor Burkett, in a much-reviled challenge to transgender ideology, says:

I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper points out that the concept of innate gender identity is incompatible with the view of gender as the product of socialisation.

Sheila Jeffreys addresses these issues in Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism (2014). She argues the radical feminist position that the very concept of gender embodies sex stereotypes. In the Introduction to Jeffreys states:

‘Gender’… ascribes skirts, high heels and a love of unpaid domestic labour to those with female biology, and comfortable clothing, enterprise and initiative to those with male biology. In the practice of transgenderism, traditional gender is seen to lose its sense of direction and end up in the minds and bodies of persons with inappropriate body parts that need to be corrected. But without ‘gender’, transgenderism could not exist…

Transgenderism depends for its very existence on the idea that there is an ‘essence’ of gender, a psychology and pattern of behaviour, which is suited to persons with particular bodies and identities…

Feminist critics argue that the concept of ‘gender identity’ is founded upon stereotypes of gender, and, in international law, gender stereotypes are recognised as being in contradiction to the interests of women…

The Left needs to acknowledge the real case being argued by trans-critical feminists. Their arguments cannot be dismissed as anti-male determinism.

 

 

 

A Gay Man Writes About Medicalized Childhood

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.