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.