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Britain’s Communist Party has called for the protection of women’s spaces and preservation of “separate spaces and distinct services to protect women from violence and abuse”. An article in the Morning Star 18/11/2018 reports:
The party’s biennial congress said that women’s rights won over decades of struggle were “under sustained ideological attack,” thanks to the “growth and ascendancy of neoliberal philosophy across a range of intellectual fields… Delegates discussed the attacks on women who raised concerns about self-identification and attempts to no-platform or silence them, including attacks on the Morning Star for agreeing to publish articles on the subject.”
4thWaveNow reached out to Gallus Mag of GenderTrender after WordPress dumped the site yesterday. In her most recent post, Gallus Mag broke the full story of a Canadian MTF trans activist who has launched “human rights” complaints against a group of women’s salon workers who were unwilling to touch and wax male genitalia. GallusMag revealed other details about the activist’s prior social media activities, some of which pertained to underage girls.
GenderTrender’s importance as a groundbreaking investigative reporting outlet covering the excesses of transgender activism cannot be overestimated. The site has also served as an incubator and launching pad for many other bloggers and writers; 4thWaveNow’s founder counts herself among them. The loss of GenderTrender is a huge blow. It is also the latest casualty in a growing clash between–on one side, a loose coalition of feminists, parents, gay and lesbian people, detransitioners, free speech advocates, and many supporters; and…
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The previous post looked at how the Trades Union Congress (TUC) of England and Wales recently voted to support gender self-ID. That post described the destructive message that the TUC decision sends to working class women and girls, and the support it effectively provides for those who want to suppress discussion and debate with gender-critical progressives.
Yet gender ideology has strong support in the unions, not only among officials but also activists on the ground. The argument from a pro-trans, feminist, female trade unionist seems to go something like this. Supporting trans people is simply support for human rights and decency. Accepting transwomen as women does nothing to disrespect or erase women, it just widens “woman” a bit. Statistics show these people are no threat to women and girls in women-only spaces. No man would try to swap gender just to win at women’s sport, the personal exposure to discrimination would far outweigh any material gains. A bad feminist, am I? I actively oppose sexual harassment, domestic violence, and unequal pay and so do the trans sisters I come across at union and left meetings. Maybe some trans people refuse to accept abortion being called a “woman’s issue” – that’s wrong, but only a few hard liners say stuff like that. If they attack terfs it’s only because of the violence and suicide that you encourage against them through your hatred. Yes we denounced a billboard for displaying the dictionary definition of woman, but this was in the context of hate against trans people and the fact that it was instigated by a known transphobe. The entire left and union movement thinks like I do. You on the other hand have friends like The Sun, The Spectator, The Times, The Telegraph, not to mention Trump.
One of the most important issues facing gender-critical progressives is how to make headway among women like this, and their male comrades. Clearly these women will not be won over through sweeping statements that they are drinkers of Koolaid, handmaids to a men’s movement, or victims of a social contagion. I think it would be helpful to have more discussion as to why so many of our progressive sisters and brothers support gender ideology, and what can be done to win them over. Here is my contribution.
The left wing side of gender ideology
The first issue is to recognise that gender ideology faces two ways. While fundamentally conservative it also has a left wing side. It demands that people born with female genitalia have the right to live as males and vice versa, and in doing so it disrupts the centuries-old belief that stereotypic behaviour emerges naturally from one’s biological sex, a belief still very much alive, and championed by sections of the right. This demand for freedom to live as you wish is what leftists, LGB people and feminists are most fundamentally responding to.
There is actually little disagreement here. Gender critical feminists almost always accept people’s right to adopt the conventional appearance and behaviour of the other sex, in defiance of conservative prejudices – as one, particular personal option for dealing with the restrictive stereotypes they were born to.
But this is lost amid the furore over other aspects of the transgender issue. For gender ideology wraps a progressive demand within the sexist and conservative concept of “gender identity”.
Gender identity is the notion that people’s wish to live as a member of the other sex reflects an inherent femaleness or maleness independent of, and more fundamental than, sex of birth; a concept that requires us to redefine womanhood. This inner self is not, we are assured, simply the internalisation of stereotypes seen and experienced over a lifetime, yet it can only be expressed to the world by adopting sex-stereotypic appearance and behaviour.
Gender identity is usually described in mystical terms, as some kind of personal communion with a mysterious inner truth about oneself. Marxists and left-liberals embarrassed by this magical thinking have strained to provide a material foundation for this inner self, and/or proposed that a scientific understanding of gender identity is “in its infancy” but will surely come in time.
But ideas do not need a scientific grounding to achieve popularity, if there are powerful forces behind them. As an ideological tool gender identity has harnessed support from both left and right, and this in turn has shielded its nebulous core very effectively from challenge.
How gender identity harnesses support on the left
Gender identity explicitly connects the desire to live as a member of the opposite sex to the framework of identity politics. That is, it equates a mystical concept to the material realities faced by black people, gays and others, whose personal lives are deeply violated by political attacks on their ethnicity, same-sex attraction and so on. This is a false analogy, but drawing on the popular concept of “identity” has won acceptance for gender ideology among left-leaning youth.
That support burns white-hot because any challenge to gender ideology is seen as bigotry, as equivalent to racism or homophobia. For example, Australia’s liberal-minded Ethics Centre was denounced when it agreed to host a debate on the topic “A Trans Wo/man Can Never Be Fe/male”:
It’s a bit like debating whether fair-skinned Aboriginal people are really Aboriginal or not. Or asking why all Muslims are terrorists. It might work in an [aggressively right wing] Andrew Bolt column, but pretty much everybody else would accept that the offensive insinuations – even dressed-up as a civilised discussion – are unilluminating and unnecessary. (Max Chalmers, New Matilda 4 December 2015. For the record, attack-dog columnist Andrew Bolt has expressed support for gender identity, see eg here or here.)
The use of the concept of “identity” turns political criticism of an ideology into a damaging personal judgment. As Jane Clare Jones says, it means “collapsing the present ideology of the trans rights movement into the existence of trans people… presenting all critique of its ideology as an act of hatred directed at trans people”.
This ferocious support shields the sexism of the trans trend from criticism, or even scrutiny, on the left. Yet such scrutiny is badly needed. I argued above that the transgender phenomenon faces two ways, and talked about its left-wing side. But of course it has a right wing side too, because it challenges only the most traditionalist, biology-is-destiny form of sex stereotyping. In fact, gender ideologists agree with social conservatives that females are pink and males are blue, they simply relocate the basis of this division from biology to a mystical inner essence. Now any ideology based on sex stereotypes will, without fail, generate misogyny, and so it is with gender ideologists. The woman-hatred comes out in many ways, eg the description of women as non-men, the vagina as a front hole, the glorification of girlyness, and, in response to challenge, the calls to punch, rape or kill “terfs” and the actual use of violence against women’s liberationists.
If trans people were simply seen as people choosing to swap one set of sex roles for another, taking a brave personal strategy to escape the confining roles they were born to, the trans phenomenon would no longer be attempting to redefine femaleness along sexist lines, so the challenge from women’s liberationists would be less heated. There would still be issues to thrash out, but a much stronger basis would exist for an alliance against oppressive sex roles. At the same time, any criticism that was made of transgender would be less inflammatory since it would no longer be seen as attacking an essential quality of the people concerned.
Who is really challenging sex stereotypes?
Gender ideologists also tend to position trans/gender fluid/non-binary people as the key challengers of sex or “gender” stereotypes, the ones leading the way, another reason to support the trans trend. So for example Jay Maddock writes:
The current [Trump] administration’s move to define gender as simply male or female based on genitalia at birth, directly contradicts the recommendations of medical, scientific, and legal professionals. Society has outgrown binary gender roles and expectations. These rigid roles reinforce toxic masculinity and support the patriarchy… Trans people threaten the gender roles that keep them [Trump etc] in control.
When it comes to opposing stereotypes, the place of women is to cheer on transgender people, as the real ones challenging “rigid roles”. The way forward is to open up a spectrum of identities, in which trans people are once again are at the forefront. The notion that women as women can and should fight stereotypes is not actually denied, but it is certainly eclipsed.
The bosses increase left-wing support for gender ideology
In fact gender ideology goes a lot further than this. It says that the great mass of women and girls – the factory- and office-fodder trudging to work each day only to face a second burden of unpaid labour in their working class homes – have a “gender identity” aligned to their birth sex. And since gender identity can only be expressed by looking and behaving according to sex stereotypes, typecasting is naturalised: females self-decorate and notice household dirt due to their innate gender identity. The actual foundation of these traits in in a lifetime of socialisation is obscured – by an ideology with impeccable progressive credentials.
You might think this would challenge support for gender ideology on the liberal and feminist left. In fact, through indirect but very powerful channels, it ends up reinforcing it. Here a mediating role is played by the capitalist class. Gender ideology has proved seductive to the bosses. They have a deep interest in maintaining women’s oppression and have used the corporate media to mainstream this new cool sexism by pouring forth “born into the wrong body” stories: editors and tame journalists read the signals from their lords and masters and jump on board. This includes luminaries on the liberal left writing for The Guardian, The Independent, The Huffington Post, etc who are read and respected by progressive activists, including those in the labour movement. The fact that this “progressive” ideology receives so much support from the Tory party and individual bosses may here and there cause some unease, but it is explained away as a sign of pressure from below, or a recognition of obvious reality.
A further factor cementing progressive people’s loyalty to gender ideology has been the attacks it has received from sections of the political right.
Make no mistake, right wing tabloids have played a very important role in building support for born-into-the-wrong-body, we’re-all-pink-or-blue ideas, contrary to what most leftist seem to think. But there is no doubt that some elements of the right have also challenged aspects of gender ideology, and this opposition is gathering strength, from right-of-centre liberals, the alt-right and social conservatives.
While gender-critical women’s liberationists have been relentlessly attacked on the left, the right has reached out to them, and as a result of this push-and-pull some feminists are drawing closer to to the right, at least to the extent of using its media outlets to get their message across, and praising conservative politicians and other public figures who challenge gender ideology. Again this heavily reinforces support for transgender activists on the left. It will be discussed in the next post.
In September, the annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) covering England and Wales voted “for a simplified, free, statutory gender-recognition process based on self-declaration”. (Motion 41) This would allow people to declare themselves man or woman, and be legally taken as such, regardless of sex of birth. No unions voted against, and as far as I know only three abstained, the Fire Brigades Union, the National Union of Journalists and the Association of Educational Psychologists. Of these the FBU executive has now voted to support gender self-ID, despite resistance from some union members.
This post will discuss the broad impact of the TUC vote. Later posts will suggest some of the more general reasons why it happened and how class politics relates to gender ideology.
Gender identity and the attack on women
By approving Motion 41 the TUC has effectively endorsed the concept of gender identity, the mystical notion that we simply know whether we are man or woman based on some kind of deep personal communion with our inner selves, regardless of our sex of birth – an identity that only be expressed through stereotypically feminine or masculine appearance and behaviour. And in doing that the TUC has fallen in behind the corporate media and the institutions of neoliberalism, in delivering a series of damaging, sexist messages to working class women and girls. Almost all of you, the story goes, have a gender identity aligned to your female body. If you love self-adornment and display, notice dirt in the house more than the men do, love to keep everyone happy, apologise often, let your man run the TV remote, that doesn’t come from socialisation but from a natural, if mysterious, feminine essence, just as the social conservatives say. Discontent with sex stereotypes is now a minority concern, it’s not about querying you own life but about supporting “them” over “there”, unless of course you’re one of “them”, in which case you’re non-mainstream, other; defying convention means a sudden major rupture in your life and maybe your body too, so you might want to think again. If any of this makes you uneasy, watch yourself: one step out of line and you become a “hater”, and will be hated – and that might cost you your job, career, social circle.
Yet there are many reasons to be uneasy about self-ID, quite apart from these sexist messages. Gender self-ID means that natal females are now exposed to new risks in female-only spaces, as has been widely argued by gender-critical feminists and previously discussed on this blog. And as Fair Play for Women points out, self-ID policies also mean “that males who self-identify as women have gained access to schemes set-up to tackle under-representation of females in politics. Teenage males who identity as girls are also racing against girls, and beating them in sports.” There are also concerns that girls and young women may be transitioning as a way to escape the impact of a sexist society, and concerns that homophobia may be driving some people, or their parents, towards transition as a way to escape their same-sex attraction.
From open debate to violence and no-platforming
It is ironical that the union movement has endorsed an ideology so much at odds with its own traditions of dialogue, debate, and democratic decision making. For supporters of gender ideology have used the result of the TUC vote to try to silence further debate. Here are two small but symptomatic examples.
The Wales Equality Alliance tweeted “The TUC has carried a motion to support gender self-declaration. Hopefully Mark Serwotka and Len McCluskey who recently supported an anti trans campaign were paying attention”. The “campaign” they are talking about was a one-off open letter condemning violence against feminist critics by some transgender activists, to which these two union leaders added their names. Rather than being anti-trans, the 150-odd signatories of the letter took care to explain that they had a “range of views” on gender self-ID and the GRA (see earlier discussion here and here). So essentially the WEA is attacking them for defending open debate, free of the threat of violence and intimidation. By “paying attention” the WEA implies that any union leader who tries to resist further violence or intimidation towards left-wing gender critics might pay a high price.
The tension between the democratic traditions of the union movement and the anti-democratic instincts of gender ideologists also comes out in a minor intervention from Ian Murch, a senior official in the National Education Union. He is without doubt committed to free debate within the workers’ movement and the wider society, but when his support for trans self-id was condemned by gender-critical feminists his response (12/9/18) was to tweet a link to an article in the Huffington Post, an article that conveys no sense of that democratic tradition. It makes no attempt to take on the arguments of gender-critical feminists. It simply says opposition is driven by “hate”: that’s it. Opponents are placed beyond the bounds of dialogue, so once again it is right to close them down without discussion.
This is not the method used on other contentious issues within the labour movement. For instance, workers who fear that refugees will take jobs are not dismissed out of hand as haters (even though anti-refugee sentiment might indeed lead to bashings or killings); rather, concerns over jobs are acknowledged and the racist argument is refuted.
Why so much support
One obvious reason for the TUC’s support for gender self-ID was the motion’s progressive wrapping. It talked about equality, and protection of a vulnerable persecuted minority: the “current processes for gender recognition” are “lengthy, intrusive, humiliating, and not fit for purpose”. And this was aligned with fighting for women’s rights. As the official explanation of the motion says:
The fight for women’s rights is far from won. For too many women sexual harassment and domestic violence is a daily reality, alongside unequal pay and other forms of discrimination at work and in society. Unions will always campaign to protect the rights of working women…
One group’s gain need not be another’s loss. On the contrary, we must resist attempts to turn people against one another, and instead find common cause.
However, there is no point in denying the extensive support for gender ideology among women and men within the union movement. The next posts will discuss why gender ideology has so much backing within the western labour movement and the Left, and what this means for gender-critical progressives.
One socialist pushing back at the Trojan horse of gender ideology is Deirdre O’Neill. She has posted two recent articles on Medium.com: “Class, identity politics and transgender ideology” (26 August 2018) and “On not being allowed into leftist spaces” (28 Aug 2018, previously published via the Socialist Feminist Network 6 June 2018)
In the latter piece she describes the way her personal background has given her a lifelong commitment to the working class and to the overthrow of capitalism, and how it also led her to reject middle class feminism. “The essentialism I witnessed in the middle class version of feminism was simply a strategy that worked to denigrate or ignore the experiences and knowledge of working class women and exclude them from the public sphere… the only thing I had in common with middle class women was my biology.” But “precisely on these biological grounds I now find myself aligning with all women who are gender critical.”
In doing so, she also finds herself effectively excluded from most of the left:
It is becoming quite acceptable for certain sections of the left to declare that people like me – women who are ‘gender critical’ – should not be allowed in leftist or anarchist spaces… its lack of critical engagement… is the thing that astounds the most…
The issue here is that significant parts of the left have accepted without question and without debate the fundamental claim of trans activists that transwomen are women. And they have internalized transactivism’s immunization from rational dialogue by denouncing everyone who does not agree with this claim, as ‘bigot’, ‘terf’, full of ‘bile’ and ‘hatred’. The idea that trans rights as currently formulated may clash with women’s rights, seems inconceivable to those who have accepted what seems to me a pre-Enlightenment dogma, that transwomen are women. Is it too much to enquire, without being called a ‘bigot’, that maybe, just maybe, trans rights can be guaranteed on a different basis, without making the claim, trans women are women (or trans men are men)?
There are of course many socialists fighting gender ideology. The points O’Neill raises, however, go to the heart of the issues raised in Freer Lives. I won’t try to cover every topic she discusses, but I’d like to support some key points she makes, adding my own take (which she may or may not support), with some links to my earlier pieces on this blog. On some questions I have a different perspective to O’Neill. I apologise in advance for the length of this post.
The impact of neoliberalism
O’Neill points out how economic changes over the last few decades have laid the foundations for today’s politics, including the rise of transgenderism:
The change from an industrial society to a service society produced a marked shift in focus from the working class as the backbone of the county to the image of a feral underclass responsible for their own poverty. Correspondingly their collective struggle has been eroded and its place filled by the middle class adherence to the politics of identity –a concentration on single issues that celebrate difference and refuses to recognize or engage with the continuing injuries of class.
One of the consequences of the massive changes that have taken place in working class life over the last forty years of neo liberalism has been the erasure of class-consciousness and the loss of the language of class…
This is a crucial point. The erosion of collective working class struggle has reshaped daily life experience for millions of people, particularly in the English speaking west. In 1970 the slogan “one struggle, one fight” made perfect sense. Most working people were in unions, taking strike action for their rights. This underlay and unified the particular battles of women, blacks, and those fighting conscription and war. If you were a young woman who ran into trouble at work, your first go-person could well be a paunchy middle aged male shop steward. Sexism and other prejudices had to be fought within our side of the barricades, but there was a fundamental sense of unity against the System, the Establishment, etc.
By the mid-1970s class struggle was ebbing. A decade on, unions seemed increasingly remote and bureaucratic, the working class weak and politically almost irrelevant. Left wing people saw not “one struggle”, but many. To an extent this does reflect middle class individualism, but the absence of political strike action has given it resonance for millions of working class youth.
As for what has caused the ebb of working class struggle, O’Neill mentions the shift from an industrial to service economy. This is probably the most important underlying factor in the continuing passivity of western working classes, since service industries have historically been hardest to organize. I have discussed other causes elsewhere.
A “pseudo version of political radicalism”
O’Neill points out:
The growth of idealism and the denial of material reality have offered for some on the middle class left a pseudo version of political radicalism. For them the struggle for change is no longer grounded in the politics of class nor do they acknowledge the working class as the potential initiators of change…
There is something very terrifyingly fragile about our commitment to reasoned debate if we can so nonchalantly cast aside facts such as our biological constitution. If anyone can be anything they want just by saying it, where does that leave us? What kind of foundation is there to build on? If you #arewhatyousayyouare where does that leave those of us fighting for a better world? It leaves us nowhere- social, historical knowledge, institutional struggle and cultural experience becomes meaningless. The way in which our lives are shaped by structures over which we often have little control cannot be articulated or resisted. The propagation of the notion of a female essence renders at a stroke unnecessary the history of the struggles women have been involved in for their right to live independent autonomous lives –there’s no ‘wrong side of history’ when you can just ignore its existence.
Postmodernism, which I presume she is talking about, has certainly had a toxic effect on the left, as previously discussed on this blog. But its denial of material reality was just one part of the point-by-point attack on Marxism which it launched in the late 1970s. Its anti-humanism and focus on surface over depth denied any meaning to the concept of liberation. Its irrationalism sent a message that ordinary people could not act together to understand and change the world. Its celebration of localism and fragmented protest left people helpless against a world dominated by inter-locking central banks, global corporations and military alliances. All this paved the way for gender ideology.
Postmodernism was spearheaded by jaded ex-radicals who provided a theoretical polish for the prejudices of the rising new middle class and a rationale for despair and cynicism among youth.
The left’s capitulation, no-platforming, and the refusal to debate
O’Neill attacks the left for its “glaring refusal… to come to terms with the question of transgenderism and its impact on women”, meaning of course biological women. And she also attacks the “the self censorship, the intimidation, the blatant dishonesty, the denial of debate with howls of ‘transphobia’” from a left that has “abandoned its obligation to critically engage, to clarify and to lead on the political issues of the day. Instead it has simply accepted the terms of the debate put forward by the trans militants (including their really basic conflation of sex and gender)”. This is once again a pleasure and relief to read.
For her, these positions indicate a left “in deep crisis”. It is certainly a sign of alarming degeneration when the left not only supports gender sexism but abandons its long tradition of upholding free debate within the progressive side of politics. In Britain, as far as I am aware, the only honorable exceptions to this capitulation have been the Morning Star newspaper, which allows space to gender-critical feminists, and those individuals who have come out against no-platforming and violence against women’s liberationists (including Lindsey German of Counterfire and several union leaders). I have commented on this in earlier posts, in relation to current debates around the GRA and the stances taken by Britain’s Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party.
Transgender, the left and identity politics
This failure, O’Neill adds, “is rooted in the left’s acceptance of identity politics with its assumption that how a group (or the primary definers within a group) articulates its oppression is the last word in the matter.”
It is true that many if not most left wing individuals embrace some version of identity politics. But far left parties and grouplets often have a more balanced view, supporting identity politics insofar as it highlights oppression while also calling for unity around working class politics. The capitulation, I think, is specific to transgender issues.
As discussed earlier on this blog, I think the capitulation of left groups is a product of the decades-long withdrawal of the working class from the political stage. This has demoralized socialist groups, lost them many members, and produced damaging splits. And they now depend, for influence recruitment and new cadre, on a milieu which has not gone through the industrial struggles of earlier decades: the identity-politics milieu, where gender ideology reigns supreme.
The capitalist class, working women, and gender sexism
Femininity, O’Neill points out, is an aspect of women’s oppression that “fits well into the needs of a capitalist society for unpaid labour… gender relations have always played a role in the reproduction of capitalist society and capitalist reproduction has always depended on the oppression and exploitation of women.”
This, in my view, gets to the core of the trans trend. As previously discussed on this blog, there would be no mass transgender phenomenon without the huge and systematic support it has received from the capitalist class, via the corporate media and other institutions of neoliberalism. Even the right wing tabloids pump out “born-into-the-wrong-body” stories; even the business wing of the US Republican Party is onside.
Supporters of gender ideology don’t grasp this. They interpret neoliberal support for trans ideas as a natural acknowledgment of obvious reality, or they see it as the result of pressure from below. But it did not arise through pressure from below. Unlike the drives for women’s, black and gay rights, the trans trend emerged during a time of demoralization and social torpor, not mass activism. And corporate media support came before the trans trend really took off. It is the bosses who mainstreamed transgender ideas.
This support came because gender sexism is so valuable in the bosses’ ongoing war against working class women.
A new, cool sexism for new times
As O’Neill says:
Rather than fight to create something new, trans ideology recycles old tropes of femininity (‘lady brains’ – really?) and claims them as progressive. Rather than considering ways of radically changing the roles of both men and women, we are being told that the stereotypes women have fought against are actually real and can be appropriated by men to ‘prove’ they are women.
The need for this progressive veneer, I believe, reflects the changing situation faced by the capitalist class. In today’s world women participate massively in the workforce, and see every day that they are equal to men and not so very different. This breeds discontent with sex stereotypes and resistance to women’s inferior status. Traditional femininity – where XX chromosomes are seen to lead directly to ironing and lipstick – is too naïve a notion to deal with this unrest. This is a huge headache for the bosses. They need and want to keep exploiting women’s wage labour, but they also need women to keep accepting their status as inferior, self-decorating natural nurturers who maintain today’s and tomorrow’s wage slaves free of charge in the home.
Transgender ideology helps solve this dilemma for the bosses. Unlike traditional stereotyping it can assume progressive, oppositional or even radical appearance, because it attracts hostility from social conservatives, because trans individuals are vulnerable to personal attack, and because it is supported by most of the left and LGB people. But from this protected position it sends out a number of interlinked, anti-woman messages.
Firstly, it restores the idea of a “female essence”, as O’Neill calls it. Sometimes this takes the form of crude biological determinism of pink/blue brains. Often, though, our inner femininity or masculinity is simply said to be something we “know” or “feel” about ourselves. Stripped of its mysticism (and the strained efforts by some Marxists to give it a material foundation), this “gender identity” is simply the internalization of stereotypes that everyone has experienced or observed throughout their lives, including their very early lives. Most importantly, gender ideology says that the vast majority of women have a feminine gender identity, smoothly matching female stereotypes. It’s all natural and for the best.
Secondly, this “gender identity” allows any challenge to gender ideology to be equated with gay conversion therapy, thus justifying no-platforming, silencing, and a climate of fear among critics, whether in the fields of politics, psychotherapy, academia, the entertainment industry or in everyday life.
Thirdly, discontent with such stereotypes becomes a minority concern: it means being trans, or gender-fluid, being “other” – an issue for them over there, not for us ordinary people. Our role is just to respect and support them.
This surely has a disciplining effect on the majority of women, especially teens and young adults. To protest at female stereotyping becomes a high stakes decision to stand out radically, at time when many teens are desperate to fit in. And somewhere down the track it is known to lead to major violation of your body.
Fifthly: to understand their womanhood, women must not look at their socialization because that would exclude transwomen. They should understand themselves by their appearance and habits of mind, their “performance”.
There is one further benefit to the bosses, I think. Confusion has replaced clarity. In the early 1970s the issue was clear: we all suffer from sex stereotyping, in women’s case this aids and abets their oppression. Those born female undergo sexist conditioning. This is a direct issue for everyone, women most of all. But now that gender is replacing sex, those trying to make sense of the issue walk into in an almost impenetrable fog: what the hell does gender mean? For most people, it links maleness to masculinity and femaleness to femininity. But on the left “gender” is wrapped in a swirling phantasmagoria of meanings and half-meanings. As always, clarity empowers democratic debate and grass roots struggle, while confusion disempowers us, it helps to close down resistance.
The overall effect of these sexist ideas is to bury the concept of women’s oppression. It is hardly a surprise, then, that the Financial Times HERoes in Business list of top female executives now includes Pip Bunce, someone born male who swaps sexual identities during the course of each week.
I have points of difference with O’Neill (and the majority gender critical progressives): I think women are best understood not as a sex class, but simply as the oppressed sex; I think women are oppressed only by capitalism, not by a patriarchy; I don’t believe transgender is best understood as a men’s rights movement, however sexist some transwomen might be. Perhaps these issues can be discussed at a later date.
The previous post on Freer Lives hailed the leadership shown by union officials and leftists in Britain who signed an open letter in the Morning Star condemning violence, and other measures to stifle debate, used by some trans activists against feminist critics. The immediate context was the current debate over proposed changes to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Those signing the letter made it clear that they have “a variety of positions” on the proposed GRA changes; the letter was simply a call for “action within our movement to allow debate to take place”. Prominent among those signing the letter was Mark Serwotka, leftist leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).
As also discussed last post, the letter was attacked by three members of the Socialist Party who hold lead leadership positions in the PCS. The SP members could not very well oppose the principle of free discussion and debate within the workers’ movement, but neither did they want to do or say anything to offend trans activists. They squirmed out of this tricky place by conflating the issue of violence as a tool against left wing opponents with the issue of violence as experienced by transgender people within the general population – ignoring the fact that women, black people and other groups also regularly experience violence and belittlement without using this as a manipulative device to stifle debate among progressives.
The SP and the Socialist Workers Party
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is a long-standing and sometimes bitter rival to the SP on the British Left, but on gender politics, alas, they seem to see eye to eye. An article in the SWP paper Socialist Worker 19/8/18 backed up the SP. Commenting on politics inside the PCS, it stated:
We do not agree with Mark [Serwotka] over the Gender Recognition Act over which we have taken a consistent position, with one of our members seconding Motion A18 at PCS conference this year [supporting changes to the Act]. We believe that Mark was mistaken to sign the recent letter in the Morning Star.
If the SWP’s support for gender ideology is seriously wrong, its opposition to the Morning Star letter is disgraceful.
By supporting gender ideology the SWP is supporting women’s oppression – even while the party continues to fight that oppression in other fields. This is of course very much a class issue. The sexism of trans activists is massively amplified by the corporate media and the institutions of neoliberalism (including right wing tabloids that regularly promote born-into-the-wrong-body mysticism). Gender ideology is now being pumped into schoolgirls en masse (see eg here and here): they are being told that females have “pink brains” and/or an inner essence that forms their “gender identity”, and that for the vast majority this mysterious essence aligns with the sex stereotypes foisted on females from birth. In other words, when girls love girly things and accept second rate status it is not because they have internalised messages from a sexist society, but because of their mystical inner “identity” as feminine females. Only in the case of trans people does biology diverge from one’s feminine or masculine essence. In this way a new generation of young women is being primed for roles as unpaid carers in the home, one of the underpinnings of capitalism. Gender ideology is therefore allowing the bosses to make real headway against working class women, and this overshadows the secondary, progressive element of transgenderism that brings it into conflict with social conservatives.
Debate and no-platforming
The Morning Star letter, however, was not an attack on gender ideology, but a defense of free and open debate within the workers’ movement. It was directed at certain trans activists because they were undermining that free and open debate, not because of their positions on gender or the GRA. The only sense in which the letter implicitly challenges gender ideology is in the extent to which this ideology in itself opposes free and open debate in the workers’ movement: only to the extent that the suffering of trans people is used manipulatively to assign trans activists the right to suppress questioning. And as mentioned above, this entitlement is not demanded for women, black people, Muslim immigrants, Palestinians or any other group whose members suffer or die due to discrimination and persecution.
In principle the SWP opposes no-platforming. For example in a theoretical article late last year they stated (rather apologetically): “No platform is a tactic developed by the working class movement as part of the fight against fascism… No platform is not a tactic to be applied willy-nilly to people whose views we do not like, however offensive they may be.” (See earlier discussion on this blog.) The Morning Star letter provided a chance to commit to this principle clearly in front of the workers’ movement, under the spotlight of a hot issue. The letter was signed by their former comrade Lindsey German, now in Counterfire. It is terrible to see that the SWP failed to sign, or support, the letter.
The SWP tradition
Terrible, and rather alarming, because the SWP and its International Socialist Tendency are not just one more faction competing on the far Left. They offer the best spearhead available to advance the struggle for a better world. For the SWP places the working class at the centre of its politics in a way that is now rare. For most of the last century the Left has been littered with groups who talk about the working class but in reality look to police states, romantic guerrillas or left-wing union officials and parliamentarians. The SWP by contrast has always focused on actual workers in offices, factories, mines, transport systems and so on. In this sense they follow the politics of Marx and Engels in a way almost all other groups have not. This approach allowed them to go on developing their ideas as world events unfolded, escaping the ossified dogmatism of some Trotskyist sects. It meant they gave zero support to Stalinist regimes that crushed their own working classes. The SWP sees the “vanguard party” not as some detached all-knowing elite but as a section of the working class itself, which must continuously prove its claim to leadership (and it realises that such a party has not really existed since the 1920s, but must be recreated). In this sense the SWP is following the politics of Lenin and Trotsky in a way most other claimants do not.
The SWP has worked tirelessly, during the difficult and demoralising decades on neoliberalism, to nurture every spark of working class resistance they can. This approach remains evident in the article on the PCS quoted above, which offers a sober assessment of workplace organisation and carefully thought-out, concrete steps for how the rank and file can advance.
Is there any dissent within the SWP membership on gender ideology? I know of at least one current member of the IS Tendency who has submitted critical letters to SWP publications that were not published. Socialist Worker has published three letters supporting the current party line on the Morning Star letter, and none opposing it, that I am aware of. It is time for the SWP to reconsider this issue, and acknowledge and debate with left-wing critics.
The punch-a-terf, kill-a-terf message pervades social media, always righteously delivered, chin held high. By contrast, the dehumanised “terfs” themselves, that is gender-critical feminists, rarely if ever urge violence against opponents either literally or figuratively. The talk of violence is all on one side. In this as in other ways, gender ideology has introduced new, alien elements into progressive politics.
In Britain this year the talk of violence has turned into action: there have been a series of physical attacks on gender critical feminists from transgender activists (and no physical attacks on trans activists by feminists). The immediate context is the current debate over proposed changes to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which would make it easier for people born as males to be legally acknowledged as females and thus, critics fear, have readier access to female-only spaces.
In early July The Morning Star published a letter headed “Improving the climate of debate around proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act”. Those signing the letter make it clear that they have “a variety of positions” on the proposed GRA changes; the letter was simply a call for “action within our movement to allow debate to take place”. It was signed by a long list of people including union leaders Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka, Fire Brigade Union official Paul Embery, and Kiri Tunks, Nation Union of Teachers Vice-President. It was also signed by Lindsey German, a leading member of the Left group Counterfire. The letter states in part:
You may be aware that on April 13 this year, an activist, Tara Wood was convicted of the assault by beating of Maria MacLachlan, a 60-year-old woman who had gathered with others in order to attend a meeting at which they could discuss the potential impact on women and girls of such a change to the law.
On March 8, an incident also occurred on a Bectu picket line in which trans activists, with no connection to the industrial dispute itself, mobbed and verbally attacked a female trade union member on the basis of having recognised her as an attendee at a similar meeting.
And in late April women in Bristol looking to meet and discuss changes to the Gender Recognition Act were met with masked activists blocking entrances to the venue, and deliberately intimidating those wishing to go inside.
More recently, a meeting organised by Woman’s Place UK was targeted with a bomb threat which Hastings Police are investigating as a serious incident.
These cases are part of systematic attempts to shut down meetings organised by women at which they can discuss potential legislative changes and the impact these may have on any sex-based rights already enshrined in law.
They draw the whole of our progressive movement into disrepute.
Some trans rights activists even continue to justify the use of violence, meaning that many women are simply too frightened to attend meetings that are both public and lawful in order that they may discuss their own rights.
Other women, including ordinary women concerned for their rights, as well as those active within the trade union movement and other political campaigns, are also now anxious and fearful that they will be subjected to such attacks when engaging in any political activity, meetings, or protests.
Those who signed the letter have provided much needed leadership. They’ve not only condemned violence within the workers’ and wider progressive movement, they’ve also made that condemnation more meaningful by saying who carried out the attacks.
However, a week later the Socialist Party website published an angry response from three party members who hold leadership positions in Mark Serwotka’s union, the PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union). They argue that “the letter seems to do precisely the opposite to that alluded to in its title”.
The SP statement opposes political violence around the GRA in general terms, without saying who was actually being violent, or that the violence was carried out entirely from one side. Later it complains that the Morning Star letter is “listing only a series of incidents without any attempt to balance them… At no point does the letter acknowledge that, when it comes to violent and threatening behaviour, the vast majority of trans people are unquestionably the victims, not the perpetrators of this kind of behaviour.” In other words, the issue of violence as a political tool against progressive opponents is blurred with, and subordinated to, the issue of violence suffered by transgender people in the general population.
Trans people certainly suffer from discrimination, ranging from vile personal put-downs through to beatings and murder (stemming from their defiance of the most traditional form of sex stereotyping, based on the view that sex of birth should naturally produce feminine behaviour in females and masculinity in males). In this respect they are similar to most if not all oppressed groups, including women (and as the SP statement says, it’s unhelpful to have “different interest groups competing for who is ‘most oppressed'”). But only transgender suffering is routinely used as a manipulative device to silence debate.
Debate between transgender activists and gender-feminists is not entirely absent (see eg The Economist‘s current online forum on transgender). Nevertheless, trans activists have devoted a lot of energy and resources to suppressing debate, by trying to shut down meetings organised by feminist critics, as the Morning Star letter also points out. This involves a range of tactics, such as threatening venues with adverse publicity for hosting gender-critical feminist events, or flooding the organisers with fake bookings (see for example Making sure a woman’s place is on the platform, Socialist Feminist Network 29 Nov 2017).
The silencing spreads to the far Left itself in a more subtle way. When there is a dispute between gender-critical feminists and gender ideologists, a great many articles in the Left media (the vast majority, as far as I can see) simply refuse to articulate the concerns of the feminists. Many Left groups loudly defend women’s rights around most issues, but go as quiet as mice as soon as transgender enters the frame. The SP statement offers an example. “Unfortunately,” it says, “the first signatories to the Morning Star letter, Judith Green and Ruth Serwotka, are among those who argue that GRA reform itself is an attack on women. We do not believe it is.” End of story: no articulation of left wing feminists’ concerns around transgender or the GRA, not even to rebut those concerns. The SP statement then devotes space to other topics, voicing progressive positions on women at work, rape, childcare, women’s refuges and so on.
Are there really no legitimate issues of concern to women around transgender? None at all? Take the question of women-only spaces. For the sake of argument let’s say it’s fine for a self-ID’d, burly bearded male-bodied “woman” to walk in on a 14 year old “cis-privileged” girl getting changed. But at the very least, shouldn’t we give some space to acknowledge why some feminists might be worried – eg by noting that females have to fight a lifetime of social conditioning to be passive, nice and uncomplaining; that they live their lives aware of violence against women; that in the event of an attack the woman’s version of events is often doubted? On other issues that divide progressives, eg Brexit, the far Left media is usually careful to acknowledge the concerns of each side. On issues like sex work they often take a nuanced view. The silence is specific to transgender politics.
Behind the silence on the Left is the fear of antagonising transgender activists and their huge support base among progressive-minded youth (a crucial part of which comes from the mainstreaming of gender ideology by the bosses’ media). As for the silence of trans activists themselves on feminist concerns, it seems to come partly from sexism but also from the weak theoretical foundations of their own belief system, and the contradiction between its progressive and conservative elements. A movement that sees itself as progressive, but which relies fundamentally on sex stereotyping, cannot afford to look at itself too closely. Hence the constant push away from political dialogue with progressive opponents, towards manipulative appeals around transgender suffering and organisational moves to close down debate.
Unity in struggle
The SP statement says that the viewpoint of feminists Judith Green and Ruth Serwotka “detracts from the struggle against the real enemy – capitalism and a society run by and for the 1% – and puts up barriers to the kind of united struggle that we need.” But unity is built by acknowledging the needs and concerns of oppressed groups, not papering them over. The document says:
We live in a capitalist society where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a tiny few; to change that requires a powerful united movement of all the oppressed; with the organised working class at its core.
Yes indeed. But the SP statement discredits Marxism by using its language to bury the issues around women’s oppression that gender-critical feminists try to raise. Unfortunately this approach currently prevails on the Left and has succeeded in alienating many left wing feminists. (It is therefore a great relief that at least some sections of the Left take a better line, with the Morning Star allowing space to gender-critical progressives, and Lindsey German putting her name to the call for open debate around the GRA.)
When workers do finally go back onto the political offensive, more and more working class women will challenge all forms of their oppression, including sex-stereotyping, and including the specific form of sex-stereotyping on which gender ideology is founded. That reliance on stereotyping inevitably generates misogyny within the transgender camp, in a range of forms. Newly politicised women, and many men, will recognise gender sexism as a hostile force, and fight it. But it looks like they’ll find most Marxists on the other side of that battle. In doing so those socialists will be setting back the essential task of building a revolutionary workers’ party.
There is a real basis for unity, but involves challenging the dominant, conservative elements of transgender thinking. We need to support people’s right to live as a member of the opposite sex, with security and dignity, but without endorsing the sexist redefinition of womanhood that is being mainstreamed by neoliberalism and its corporate media.