Transgender activists and supporters recently attacked a British trade union official Paula Lamont, driving her off a picket line on International Women’s Day. A report in the Morning Star describes the trans activists shouting ‘“Terf! Terf! Terf! Get her out of here, she’s a Terf.”… One activist can be heard to shout: “She’s not here in solidarity with anybody,” while another challenges her: “If you’re not here in solidarity with transwomen, then what are you doing here?”’
It will be interesting and instructive to see how many trans activists come forward to condemn this behaviour.
Some leftists will no doubt condemn the attack on Lamont while also attempting to separate it from the overall “progressive” tendency of trans politics. But since transgender ideology is founded on sex role stereotyping, misogynistic and right wing actions of this kind are not some unfortunate and avoidable accident. They emerge from the core politics of transgender, so they will keep appearing.
The Morning Star article reports that the picket line was part of the Bectu Picturehouse dispute, ‘part of a long-running campaign for the living wage and sick pay for staff. It has received widespread support, including from Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.’
The previous month Paula Lamont had attended a meeting about the planned changes to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act. “I was attacked purely for being identified as having attended A Woman’s Place UK meeting,” she said.
The attack was condemned by Prospect union general secretary Mike Clancy. LGBT secretary for London fire brigades union Lucy Masoud, who was one of the WPUK speakers, said: “I utterly condemn the attack on this female trade union member. The fact that it was an attack on a picket line while she was defending the rights of other workers is absolutely disgraceful… I call on other unions, specifically women’s sections, to come out and condemn this kind of behaviour towards our female members.”
The Morning Star reports: ‘RMT [union] executive member Eddie Dempsey and friend of the victim said the incident was “a complete disrespect to our movement. There are only two sides to a picket line… This sort of behaviour completely undermines the picket. If something like that happened on one of our pickets, the employers would be jumping for joy.”… Dempsey said that women in RMT, which has a 15 per cent female membership, had expressed concerns about changes to the GRA… Dempsey said he thought, “as a whole, the trade union movement has ducked the issue” of the GRA and that “people were afraid of speaking out.”
See full report from Ros Sitwell in the Morning Star 20 March 2018
This post looks at how gender identity is most commonly understood, and then at attempts by the British Socialist Workers Party to explain it in real-world materialist terms. After that the post looks at whether the term “gender” itself can be accepted as progressive.
Gender identity is, more or less, “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female” (Merriam-Webster). Wikipedia says “Gender identity is one’s personal experience of one’s own gender. Gender identity can correlate with assigned sex at birth, or can differ from it. All societies have a set of gender categories that can serve as the basis of the formation of a person’s social identity in relation to other members of society.”
Gender identity is not biologically determined, since it may differ from your sex of birth. Nor, we are told, is it socially derived, an internalisation of gender stereotypes about masculinity and femininity. It is said to come from deep inner feelings or inner knowledge, and, crucially, individual people are the authorities on their own gender identity.
A high stakes issue
Gender identity is a core concept in transgender politics and a high-stakes issue. Because gender identity exists, supporters say, therapists or clinicians who don’t automatically accept a child or teen’s declaration of being different from their sex of birth are engaging in conversion therapy, comparable to denying gay or lesbian sexuality – so it is right to get such harmful practitioners sacked, silenced or discredited in their professions. Because gender identity exists, it is right to redefine “woman” to include transwomen, and hateful to question their right to access woman-only spaces: any challenge will inflame prejudices to the point of violence or murder of trans people. Because it exists, activists have the right to censor or no-platform deniers, either by appeals to public authorities, or by direct and sometimes violent action.
Does it exist?
The rationale for gender identity
Attempts to identify pink and blue brains have been entirely discredited as both sexist and unscientific, eg in Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex (though this has not prevented the myth being widely disseminated, for example by the BBC). Today, gender identity is most commonly presented in mystical terms. It is said to be is found through a personal communion with inner truth, a deep, spiritual intuition not reliant on evidence from the material world. Some people born male simply “know” or “feel deeply” that they are female, so that’s it, they are.
Neither phony science nor mysticism will do for Marxists. So how do they deal with gender identity?
At this point three principles would normally come into play. One is that you don’t endorse fantasies, however oppressed the people who hold to them. The second is that you defend the oppressed wholeheartedly even if you think that some of the ideas used to support them are not realistic or helpful. This means you may set aside your disagreements with some of the beliefs of a political current that represents the oppressed group – as long as these beliefs don’t actively and seriously impede the overall struggle for a better world, for example by opposing the rights of another oppressed group. Which leads to the third principle: you need to look at the whole complex, messy picture of what is happening, decide the relative weight of different factors in a situation, and work out what intervention will be best for the working people as a whole, to advance the overall struggle for human liberation.
How does this apply to transgender? One approach would be to defend trans people from the social conservatives, individual haters, and all those still believe that XX and XY chromosomes translate naturally into femininity and masculinity – to demand separate safe spaces for trans and gender fluid people, and real protection by police and the courts. It would also mean defending the right of transwomen to publicly adopt the surface appearances and conventional behaviours of women. But you would stop short of endorsing mysticism. Above all you would avoid reinforcing sexist, superficial notions of what a woman is, which are poured forth every day by the neoliberal media, by the advertising industry, and by countless individual people who accept these sexist ideas.
So while defending trans people you would also stress that in our society, people with female biology are born into a lifetime of demands, restrictions and socialisation (notably in the early years of life) not experienced by males – that “woman” in our society equals biology of birth PLUS the oppression imposed inescapably on everyone born female. You would want to defend the rights of children and teens who wish to be gender non-conforming – while also emphasising that ALL people are socialised in a stereotypic way and that discontent with stereotypes is not a minority concern.
Above all, you would emphasise that the neoliberal capitalist class promotes the more right wing aspects of trans thinking to help keep women down (while doing little to protect actual trans people’s personal safety). You might point out that the powers-that-be sometimes collaborate to sanctify lies and empty formulations, letting them roll on and on in public life – like the supposed “peace process” and “two-state solution” for Palestine. You would point out that you defend transgender people on an entirely different basis than the capitalist class does.
That approach would involve a head-on clash with many trans activists and their supporters, whose fantasies and sexism are turbo-charged by support from the neoliberal media, public institutions, and indeed almost every political group from anarchists through to business wing of the US Republican Party. Any Marxist group that took this approach would delight their pro-trans rivals contesting for members and influence on the Left.
Another approach is to square the circle, to fake a material-world basis for gender identity. Sadly, this is the line taken in Marxism, feminism and transgender politics the lead article in of the SWP journal International Socialism issue 157. It is written by Sue Caldwell but is clearly a statement of party policy rather than an opinion piece.
The interplay of biological and social factors
The article states:
The formula often used to describe the difference between sex and gender is “Sex is biological and gender is socially constructed”. This differentiation highlights the profound social influences on the accepted norms for masculine and feminine behaviours. However, this formulation rests on a false separation between the biological and the social…. gender identity can exist without equating it to socialised gender norms or to a sexed brain…
Caldwell approvingly quotes transfeminist Sam Hope:
“Women and men are not that fundamentally different, although there are all sorts of complex nuances to our neurological, chromosomal, hormonal and social experiences that create variety in how we are embodied and how we experience and interact with the culture around us”. In other words, gender identity is not “entirely separate” from socialised gender roles, but neither is it reducible to them.
So gender identity is a bit biological, it is all very complex, and don’t worry, there is a materialist explanation in here somewhere. This is a vague grab-bag that can mean anything to anyone. Never until the advent of trans politics has the SWP engaged in such sophistry.
The author goes on:
One complicating factor is that external genitalia are not the only sex characteristics. There are chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics. Do these attributes always tie up neatly into a gender binary?…
Commenting on how sex should be defined when different characteristics clash, Eric Vilain, director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at UCLA, says: “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter…gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter.” In other words, concludes the author, if you want to know what gender someone is, just ask.
In these passages we are left to imagine that people with some secondary physical attribute of the other sex are more prone than most people to adopting trans or gender-fluid identities. Are they? Readers could also come away with the idea that a man born with some kind of womb, for example, might be more prone than other men to gossip with the girls or sit with legs crossed.
The closest the author comes to resolving this issue is here:
Fausto-Sterling quotes several studies that suggest “quite a number of environmental and cultural variations contribute to small individual differences in gender development. But the hard truth is that there are probably so many contributing streams, and they interact in so many different ways, that we will never have a single story to tell about gender development”… She urges more work to be done to “understand what happens when chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal and genital sex disagree with body image and gender identity”. For now it is important to note that such disagreement is a real and established fact, often referred to as gender dysphoria.
So the notion that biology contributes to gender identity (the crux of the whole issue, up to this point) is now passed off as something for future research, or else too complex to ever establish! We are asked instead to simply dwell on the very real anguish that some people experience as gender dysphoria, without any further questioning of transgender ideology’s rationale for it.
Yes the social and biological interact. By itself, this general truth provides no ground whatsoever for gender identity. The most it can do is rule out the crude biological determinism of some social conservatives who think chromosomes translate directly into femininity and masculinity.
The issue is in some ways comparable to the battle over the theory of evolution. Creationism and intelligent design are hocus pocus, but once you believe in them the position of God is clear and secure for you. But Christian theologians with a scientific world view have to rely on vague, abstract, fuzzy concepts of God, since He has no clear role in life, the universe or anything. Similarly, most trans ideologists stand proudly by their mysticism, while the SWP and similar-minded Marxists are forced back on the same kind of waffling as Anglican ministers.
A different justification is offered later. Caldwell quotes another SWP member Laura Miles, who says that “while gender identity may not be fixed and unchanging, it is deeply rooted in us; otherwise trans people could presumably be socialised out of our gender variant behaviour and identity” . Yes indeed people can and do resist their socialisation, to different degrees. But we are also taught to think of femininity and masculinity as a package of inherent qualities rather than as the internalisation of a social value system. If you hate the stereotypes you were born to it may be tempting to embrace to the other package, especially if that is the only escape on offer.
Is “gender” inherently sexist?
Of course it is, obviously it is, due to centuries of ruling class propaganda on the naturalness of femininity, which continues to this day. Because of this propaganda, sometimes crass, sometimes subtle, but ever-present, the great majority of people associate “gender” with the idea that men are masculine and women feminine. The legal and cultural adoption of “gender” instead of “sex” is therefore a huge step back for women.
The Left, along with many trans and LBG people, can decide to use “gender” in a new way within their own communities. Left groups, within their own periphery, can use someone’s rejection of their “gender” of birth as a starting point for rejecting all notions of gender, and draw individuals into struggles over other issues. But things look very different from the viewpoint of the capitalist class. They have no problem in letting a few malcontents have their gender-fluid playground. What matters to the bosses is what is in the heads of the vast mass of working women, from whom they want continued unpaid labour in the home, rearing and maintaining the current and future workforce. For them it is essential that these women continue to define themselves as born nurturers and in some sense inferior, so they put up with this burden. Then there are the secondary advantages of lower female pay, and profits for the beauty and fashion industries, and the obsession with body-image that feeds back into a sense of lowliness.
For the bosses, gender identity works very well indeed. Young women with girly-girl self-image have it affirmed as natural, their biology of birth being aligned to their innate gender identity. Meanwhile young women and girls who are discontented with stereotypes receive virtually no message of support or encouragement to explore new ways of looking or behaving, unless they are willing to adopt trans or gender-fluid identities – so once again, trans ideology works to stifle discontent among the majority of females. Political protest against sex stereotypes has come to mean supporting trans people, not women battling their own sexual oppression. These are the messages most commonly pumped into school via trans-awareness programs, which is why neoliberal politicians are so happy to fund them.
The SWP tradition
The SWP and its International Socialist Tendency have a very proud and inspiring tradition. They are committed to worker’s revolution, and a humanism mediated by the class struggle. They have always been committed to women’s liberation – as part of the overall struggle for a better world but as a cause in itself as well. This has been irrefutably demonstrated through their theoretical works and their support for women’s protests over decades, a tradition which continues, notably around their contribution to the abortion rights campaign in Ireland.
It is important to note that the SWP continues to attack sex role stereotyping, but alas, only so long as it does not impinge on core trans ideology. As Caldwell states:
Feminists who object to the existence of gender identity, admitting only the social construct meaning of gender, see gender variant behaviour, especially in young children, as simply that—forms of play, etc, that go against stereotypes. Behaviour in young children that challenges gender roles is quite common and all socialists would encourage it. Boys do play with dolls and some girls want to drive trucks. Despite the many societal pressures against them, some will have non-traditional careers and dress and act in non-stereotypical ways… Socialists support attempts to counter gender stereotypes and actively promote the reality that girls can be assertive and boys can be empathetic and so on. It is completely wrong, however, to imply from this that children who are experiencing distress because of their gender identity are not genuine.
The SWP’s terrible line on transgender politics shows how effectively the trans phenomenon works as a Trojan horse within the Left, as previously discussed on this blog.
A future post will look at how the SWP article explains the emergence of the transgender phenomenon, and will offer an alternative. Later posts will focus on the progressive side of trans politics, and toxic “support” that feminist trans-critics receive from the Right.
Last year saw growing unease in parts of the Left in Britain at the efforts of some trans activists to “no-platform” critics, to suppress debate on issues raised by women’s liberationists and other feminists. These trans activists have attempted to get critical articles removed or to stop their publication. They have pressured venues to cancel meetings held by women’s liberationists. A few of them have physically attacked these women. There was, for example, the attempt to prevent Julie Bindel from speaking at the Working Class Movement Library, and later the no-platforming of Linda Bellos at Cambridge University (see Judith Green’s report) Then there was the physical attack on Helen Steel at the Anarchist Bookfair (see statement from Steel and comment from the Freedom Co-op).
Across social media trans activists and supporters have normalised viciously abusive and threatening language against trans critics, so that many fear for their professional positions and standing, and sometimes their personal safety, if they speak out. Megan Murphy points out some examples.
Men with large platforms who are publicly associated with Antifa and groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have amplified the “punch TERFs” and “TERFs get the guillotine” message proudly, with the support of their comrades. In reference to The Handmaid’s Tale, many have taken to saying “TERFs get the wall.”
Individual women who might lift their heads to voice concerns are very often frightened into silence, which is plainly the point of these tirades. Jo Bartosch wrote in the Morning Star (“Women’s concerns should not be minimised”, 25/11/17) about the harassment within the Labour and Women’s Equality parties faced by feminists who consider “the sex-stereotypes that inform gender to be harmful to women…. As a feminist campaigner of many years, I know women who work in organisations from across the domestic and sexual violence sector; many are scared to openly raise questions about gender identity theory. Doing so could lose them their jobs, or worse, jeopardise the minimal funding that charities they work for depend upon….”
Transgender politics constitutes a great asset to neoliberal capitalism (as discussed earlier on this blog eg here and here), so it is hardly surprising that trans activists and their Left supporters have had great help from on high, notably from the Conservative Party. Helen Saxby notes some of this elite support:
In 2015 the [British parliament’s] Trans Inquiry, led by Maria Miller and the Women and Equalities Committee, invited contributions from trans groups and other interested parties to give evidence…. The Trans Inquiry legitimised the notion pushed by trans groups that only trans people should be allowed to speak on trans issues. Amongst the groups invited to give verbal evidence were Action for Trans Health, GIRES, Trans Media Watch, Gendered Intelligence, Mermaids and the Scottish Trans Alliance. Since then these same few groups have been allowed a near monopoly on trans discourse, consulted by everyone from the BBC to the NHS, the NSPCC, the EHRC, schools, prisons, the Girl Guides, universities, political parties and the media.
Left wing trans critics have pushed back, and are finally making headway. Kiri Tunks, National Union of Teachers Vice-President, has written in the Morning Star on “changes to law on gender identity, ‘sex’ and why women’s voices must be heard” (9 Aug 2017. See full text). “The government’s announcement that it will consult on a change in the law… means that a fierce debate that has, until now, been taking place off-stage is being thrust into the public arena.” The ability to define one’s own “gender”, she points out, “will undermine the legal characteristic of ‘sex’ and could lead to serious implications for women and their ability to fight sex discrimination and oppression… Gender roles are socially constructed and are commonly formed in stereotypical ways that reinforce discrimination.” She says that “women are being told they cannot talk about ‘a woman’s right to choose’ or refer to vaginas or ovaries because to do so is transphobic.” She also defends the need for single-sex spaces. Concerns to defend these spaces is “often dismissed as unjustified moral panic”, but they “exist to try to ameliorate the oppression women face.”
Also in the Morning Star Ruth Serwotka has written on the fight to open debate within the Labour Party on “women’s spaces, women’s and girls’ rights to privacy and safety and our right to define who we are”.
Prominent female trade unionists are beginning to understand the fundamental questions at stake and are furious to realise they have been blocked from consultation or meaningful discussions.
Where socialist feminists are involved in trying to reassure women that the party will come good, they are angrily dismissed because, quite rightly, women want to hear reassurance coming from the party leadership itself.
Simultaneously, vitriolic, misogynist language, such as the use of the acronym “Terf” and the insult “bigot” are being liberally sprinkled into the language of some party supporters and used against women with a long history of organisation within the movement, or to silence dissent among new party activists.
The wider Left
These women are drawing some support from sections of the wider Left. The Morning Star newspaper has led the way by allowing space for left wing trans critics. Elsewhere, Kevin Ovenden has strongly endorsed Helen Saxby’s above-mentioned post. Another left wing blogger writes that the trans-critical Socialist Feminist Network site “should be compulsory reading for those commenting on the subject [of gender identity and the Gender Recognition Act]… The comrades from the Socialist Feminist Network raise legitimate concerns”. This small-scale, scattered support is heartening, though there is a long way to go.
At the end of the year, when leftist criticism of trans politics had gained momentum, Britain’s Socialist Workers Party produced an article Marxism, feminism and transgender politics (International Socialism 157), the party’s clearest statement to date on the topic. Future posts will look more closely at this piece. For the moment it is worth noting that the article continues the SWP’s firm support for all the fundamentals of trans politics, but refuses support when this politics takes its most blatantly anti-worker and anti-woman forms:
It is a refreshing sign that young trans, queer and feminist people are discovering an activism that is more outward looking, joining demonstrations against Trump and in support of refugees and being part of the movement behind Corbyn, for example. But sometimes the tactics adopted in support of trans rights undermine such collectivity.
For example, when [trans critic Julie] Bindel was invited to speak at an event in Manchester in February 2017 the website of the venue, a well-known local resource for working class history and events, was bombarded with abuse and instructed not only to withdraw the invitation but to close down the venue itself. This is not a tactic likely to win wide support, as many activists use the centre. It is also mistaken in its aims of closing down the meeting, which had been scheduled as part of LGBT+ History Month.
No platform is a tactic developed by the working class movement as part of the fight against fascism… Fascism needs the oxygen of big rallies and demonstrations to grow, and anti-fascists are right to stop them… No platform is not a tactic to be applied willy-nilly to people whose views we do not like, however offensive they may be.
In the same vein the article takes up the issue of trans activists’ anti-woman stance on abortion.
It is true that abortion campaigns, especially in the US, have become the unfortunate site of polarised arguments on either side of this debate. Some trans activists have argued that such campaigns should drop the slogan “A woman’s right to choose” because it is exclusionary of trans or non-binary people who may get pregnant. This would be a mistake as fundamentally the attack on abortion rights is an attack on women and an attempt to reinforce their role in society as child bearers. In most major pro-choice organisations common sense has prevailed, and the slogan “A woman’s right to choose” remains in place while efforts have been made to ensure inclusivity. So the Irish Abortion Rights Campaign website includes the statement: “While the term ‘woman’ is used in this document, we are fighting for abortion access for any person who needs or wants one, including women, trans men and non-binary people”.
While making these arguments the article does all it can to appease trans supporters. For example the author says she “prefers” not to use the term “TERF” without saying that the term encourages physical harassment, no-platforming, and misogynistic abuse on social media.
Against immense pressure, progressive trans critics are finally forcing back some of the sexism of trans politics. Individual left wing women who felt demoralised and paralysed by the primacy of trans sexism now have points around which to rally, and many are doing so. Left wing trans critics are also offering a badly needed alternative to social conservatives and the alt-Right who oppose trans politics with their own sexist and homophobic agendas.
The wider Left’s failure to defend women’s rights on the trans issue is now coming back to haunt it.
London Bookfair ‘won’t happen in 2018’ Freedom 10 November 2017
Jo Bartosch. Morning Star Women’s concerns should not be minimised. 25 November 17
Sue Caldwell. Marxism, feminism and transgender politics International Socialism 157
Andrew Coates. Culture Wars on the Left, The Gender Recognition Act, and Transphobia in the UK. 28 November 2017
Judith Green. Making sure A Woman’s Place is on the Platform. Socialist Feminist Network 29 November 2017
Rachel Loughran and Anne Menin. Linda Bellos ‘disappointed’ by Beard Society ban. Varsity 5 October 2017
Megan Murphy. Julie Bindel on growing up a working class lesbian (podcast). Feminist Current 14 February 2017
Megan Murphy. ‘TERF’ isn’t just a slur, it’s hate speech. Feminist Current 21 September 2017
Kevin Ovenden. When Women’s Rights Are #NotaDebate. 26 November 2017
Helen Saxby. When Women’s Rights Are #NotaDebate. 26 November 2017
Ruth Serwotka. Women are a vital part of the socialist movement – they must be consulted over changes to the Gender Recognition Act Morning Star 23 February 2017
Helen Steel. Statement on events at Anarchist Bookfair 2017. 3 November 2017
Kiri Tunks. Sex Matters – Law, terms, definitions, gender self-identity and woman’s rights. Europe Solidaire Sans Frontiers 9 August 2017.
Originally published Morning Star 8 August 2017