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.