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.