An article in the Socialist Review magazine (January 2017), put out by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), discusses the debate between trans-critical feminists and supporters of transgender people, and the issue of access to women-only areas. It also describes the author’s workplace experiences as a lecturer, dealing with discrimination and fighting for safe spaces for transgender people.
The piece acknowledges a “massive difference” between right wing bigots, who treat traditional gender roles as god-given, and Germaine Greer (used in the article to represent all trans-critical feminists) who challenges gender roles. The piece is less helpful in its explanation as to why feminists might criticise the trans trend.
Some comments could be read as a dogwhistle hint that trans-critical feminists are now just old and past it, whatever their previous achievements. On one hand we have the “veteran” Greer, on the other “a new generation” that “is growing up with more open attitudes to non-binary gender identities”. Online there is certainly an undercurrent of ageism in attacks on trans critics (eg the slagging off of Elinor Burkett in Jezebel as previously described). Ageism would be entirely out of keeping for the Socialist Review, but the wording of the article might have been better.
Beyond that, the article passes off trans-critical feminists as deterministic, something disputed by these feminists themselves. Greer’s argument “is underpinned by the pessimistic belief that all men are unbreakably wedded to sexism”, implying that deterministic views of males and females are standard among trans-critical feminists, and unknown among feminists friendly to trans ideology.
The most striking thing is what the article doesn’t say. As the SWP well knows, trans-critical feminists oppose the way trans ideology presents girlhood and womanhood in terms of stereotypical appearance and behaviour (apologies in advance for the number of links to other parts of my blog in this post).
Trans-critical feminists and Marxists actually agree that womanhood in our society is shaped by an oppressive socialisation that is inescapable for those born with female biology. For example, Marxists would endorse Germaine Greer’s 2013 article Guilt poisons women when Greer says that socialisation has been “relentlessly loading female humans with responsibility for other people’s behavior from their earliest childhood… Women feel more guilt than men, not because of some weird chromosomal issue but because they have a history of being blamed for other people’s behavior. You get hit, you must have annoyed someone; you get raped, you must have excited someone; your kid is a junkie, you must have brought him up wrong.” The difference is that these feminists apply such political ideas when considering the trans trend, while most Marxists just look the other way.
The sexist definition of womanhood, in terms of appearance not experience, is affirmed in practice when transwomen have access to female-only spaces. You might imagine trans spokespeople separating the two issues: demanding the right to be accepted as women in some sense, and have access to women’s spaces, while at the same time saying loud and clear that they do not wish to define femaleness in terms of stereotypes, or deny or conceal the oppressive socialisation that natal females go through. But I’ve never seen this done, even by leftist trans people/sympathisers, probably because it would run too deeply against trans ideology.
The article’s only reference to socialisation is via a caricature of trans-critical feminism: “a trans woman who has been socialised as a male is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and as such a danger to women-only spaces.”
The unity of working people is a cornerstone of Marxism, but one of the ways to achieve it is to acknowledge the oppression of particular parts of the working class. Marxists like the SWP urge oppressed groups to participate fully in the whole working class movement but they also support oppressed groups’ right to organise independently, and to take their own measures to protect themselves.
Supporting women’s right to their own physical spaces is one expression of this. For decades the Left has acknowledged women’s right to women’s rooms on campuses. It was taken for granted that this would also apply to washrooms, toilets, prisons, changing areas and so on. Supporting separate spaces for females acknowledges female oppression in concrete terms. It recognises, for example, that women are brought up in a way that gives them less confidence and sense of entitlement than men, and that they are often seen as irrational and over-emotional, givers of untrustworthy evidence. Above all oppression presents women and girls in dehumanised terms, as contemptible and/or fascinating objects. Capitalist alienation and women’s oppression distort male sexuality so that some men like to scare, humiliate or harm women and girls. Due to their musculature, males tend to be stronger and run faster than females, which in a sexist world can quickly become threatening.
In the odd thinking that currently dominates the Left, all the above issues are swept aside as entirely irrelevant to transwomen’s bathroom access. The issue is well summed up in this anonymous online comment (March 10, 2015):
Here’s the thing. I wouldn’t mind sharing a restroom with every transwoman I know. Heck, if you came to my gym and introduced yourself to me and tried to help me get to know you I might even go to bat for you with the other ladies in the locker room. But for all the fear you say you feel when entering the men’s, imagine how women feel when we [see] a non-passable male looking/bodied person WE DON’T KNOW in our most intimate and vulnerable places. Do you know how many of us are sexually assaulted, beaten murdered every year? Including in restrooms and other private facilities? Look it up. The numbers will astonish you… So please, stop thinking like an entitled man and consider that we don’t know the difference between you and any other person we perceive as male, and the seconds it takes to figure out could cost our lives. Men actually DO cross dress to commit crimes against women. It’s NOT a myth. Giving carte blanche access puts me at risk.
And why aren’t single user spaces ok? Unisex stalls don’t say TR*NNY in big bold letters. They say UNISEX. ANYONE.
As feminist blogger donesoverydone states, “Restroom predation is a small part of the trans problem – but it’s not nothing”. Her blog includes a list of links to cases where cross-dressing men have attacked women in women’s spaces.
Who are we with, and who are we against?
The issue of bathroom access needs to be dealt with as part of the wider issue of transgender politics, and that means coming to grips with the intensely contradictory nature of the trans trend. On the one hand, it became a mass phenomenon only when the corporate mass media and other neoliberal institutions began propagandising for it, realising that the sexist elements in its ideology make a new cool contribution to maintaining women’s oppression, and hence profitability. (“Last April Bruce Springsteen cancelled his show in North Carolina, in an act of solidarity with trans activists who were campaigning against the state’s law banning trans people from using the public toilet of their choice,” the article says. It does not say the trans campaign was largely carried by a strike from supportive bosses, and that the bathroom issue has divided the Republicans’ social-conservative and pro-business wings.)
On the other hand, trans people challenge the most traditional sex stereotyping. This gives an oppositional side to the trend, which has attracted many left wing people, who support many different struggles against discrimination. It also means trans individuals face serious dangers, from which the bosses will do little to protect them. (The article describes how one trans person did not report a brutal attack, fearing that self-defence might result in charges, and further dangers in a male jail.) Emotional turmoil, past and present, sometimes adds to their personal vulnerability.
The SWP, like most of the Left, has put on a pair of blinkers. It allows itself to see only one side of this contradiction: the left-leaning trans people who support a range of progressive causes including aspects of women’s rights. It does not allow itself to see how or why the the capitalist class has given huge backing to the trans trend.
The article states: “Socialists reject the idea that individual workers are eternally tied to particular systems of oppression, in the belief that the tendency towards solidarity within the working class can only be realised through challenging oppression.” This seems to be making the correct point that prejudices of individual workers – including sexism among male workers – can be overcome during the experience of common struggle. But the demand to give transwomen access to women’s spaces splits the working class, by failing to recognise it as an attack on working women.
Socialists, feminists, and working people generally, need to defend trans people from harassment and support safe spaces for them, eg through the provision of single-person unisex toilets. We should work with trans people whenever possible. But we must oppose the sexist elements in trans ideology and point out how they are used by capitalism.
Needless to say, I can’t speak on behalf of trans-critical feminists and I’m not trying to, but I am calling on other Marxists to open a more constructive dialogue with them.
The International Socialist Tendency
The SWP is a leading section of the International Socialist Tendency. The IST would not want any kind of endorsement from a trans-critical miscreant, but it will get one anyway.
The IST’s politics have always remained centred around the core Marxist ideas of workers’ revolution and socialism from the ground up. It does not tail “left wing” dictators, trade union bureaucrats, hip academics, it is free from the dogmatism of orthodox Trotskyists. The IST’s politics have steered it through very difficult times, allowing to grasp the nature of state capitalism in Stalinist Russia, and the nature of Russia today as part of world imperialism. It sees the strategies needed to get from the here and now to a free world. It has done all it can to support working class struggle again and again during decades of desperately low industrial activity. Again and again it has supported the struggle for women’s liberation in both theory and action.
The line of the IST on transgender, like that of the rest of the Left, reflects the damage dealt by 40 years of neoliberalism. It is likely to be corrected when a sustained rise in working class struggle finally throws off that legacy, and a new layer of activists, inside and outside the IST, look more critically at the sexism inherent in trans politics. That process will take time, but the worldwide anti-Trump protests are a great first step in that direction.