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.