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