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 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.