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Australian transwoman Cate McGregor – Order of Australia awardee, a significant military figure, and former cricket commentator – has written an article discussing “the trauma and challenge of gender transition” in The Weekend Australian Magazine (16-17 November 2019 p24-27; paywall access). McGregor talks for example of the “recurrence of my repressed gender dysphoria in late 2011,” and how “I have flirted with self-extinction” ever since.
The article mentions how, in 2018, McGregor was asked by shock-jock Alan Jones to deliver the Anzac commemorative address at a tiny town near McGregor’s birthplace in Queensland. Anzac Day celebrates the role of Australian and New Zealand soldiers in World War One and later conflicts. Their bravery and self-sacrifice is used in part to conceal the fact that these were grotesque wars waged for empire rather than freedom and democracy. But the key role of this special day is to build the myth of an “Anzac spirit” – courage and high ideals dashed with irreverence and “mateship” – as a core feature of Australian national identity.
McGregor’s speech was well received by the mixed crowd: “on this day Australia lived up to its spirit. Despite the detractors, Anzac still touches the hearts of the vast majority of us… In commemorating the dead of real wars, we transcend the arid, futile culture wars…. I suspect that every political view on the spectrum was represented in that crowd; from the rainbow flags I gleaned that most sexual preferences and gender identities were, too.” McGregor wants to incorporate transgender people within the Anzac spirit.
The Murdoch stable in Australia
Of special interest is the media platform for this tale: the weekend edition of Murdoch’s national flagship, The Australian. As previously discussed on this blog, the Murdoch media in Australia has had a particular role in the trans trend. This takes two forms: there is a rough division of labour between its national and state based newspapers. The latter, with huge circulations, present as the voice of the common person. Individual columnists may be right wing, others moderate, but overall they seek to connect with the mass of ordinary people around current issues, explaining them in conservative terms to pull readers rightwards. Occasionally this also means educating readers in new ideas they should absorb.
As part of this charter they have propagandized time and again for gender ideology, explaining to readers how some boy (and maybe his mother too) knew deep down that he was a girl, due to his love for all things girly (eg here, or this paywall article which tells us how a transwoman “used to envy the girls at primary school, their freedom to wear dresses and express their femininity”). I believe that the real underlying message in all these stories is the naturalization of female stereotypes. Women are being told that they have a feminine gender identity, aligned with their female bodies, and are therefore innately imbued with the tendencies to self-decorate, be charming, etc etc. Stale, confining typecasts are freshened up for the modern, critical world.
The Australian on the other hand plays to a constituency that is already firmly right wing, providing it with news and resources for arguments with liberals. It has denounced the trans trend’s entanglements with identity politics, political correctness, and the left. For these reasons it led an attack on Safe Schools, an anti-bullying program that brings gender ideology into the classroom (and which had been approvingly cited by Murdoch’s conservative Victorian paper, the Herald Sun). The Australian’s attacks have been worn as a badge of honour by the pro-gender left, using them to affirm gender ideology’s progressive credentials. To my knowledge, however, it has never attacked the central, sexist idea of gender identity.
Seemingly the Murdoch empire wants to separate the “good part” of the trans trend – its naturalization of oppressive female stereotypes – from its “bad” attachments to the left. McGregor is well placed to help here. The stable’s NSW paper, the Daily Telegraph, once quoted McGregor’s initial opposition to the Safe Schools program: “Safe Schools teaches a derivative of Queer Theory, which I believe leads trans people into a blind alley.” The recent piece in the Weekend Australian Magazine feels like a continuation of this approach, letting right wing readers know that gender ideology is something to embrace.
Cindy Sheehan is an anti-war activist, whose son was killed during the Iraq War in 2004. “Since then, she has traveled in the USA and abroad to speak out against US led wars and war time economics that fuel endless wars. In October 2019 Ms. Sheehan was dis-invited from speaking at an anti-war event in Carbondale Illinois due to trans activist pressure on the organizers of the event.” This interview on Women’s Liberation News radio “focuses on the story of her de-platforming at that event and also her thoughts and analysis of what trans activism is and the role it is playing in leftist movements.”
Astroturfing: “the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization… to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. It is a practice intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information about the source’s financial connection.” (Wikipedia)
The astroturf nature of the trans trend is discussed in the 2018 article Inauthentic selves: the modern LGBTQ+ movement is run by philanthropic astroturf and based on junk science – a tremendously useful if rather freewheeling piece, written by “Sue Donym”. Transgender organisations in the USA, the author says, operate not as grassroots bodies but top-down, funded and guided by major corporations and billionaires, usually connected to Big Pharma. Gender ideology thereby exerts a massive influence on academia and the health system, and on social media, all based on phony science. The effect of all this is to reinforce sex stereotypes, commit growing numbers of children to drug dependency, physical mutilation and sterilization, and drain the life from gay and lesbian communities.
Inauthentic selves is over 23,000 words. The current article attempts to summarise some of its main points, finishing with a slightly different take on some issues.
Philanthropy and trans
“The primary funders of the transgender movement,” the author tells us, “are large philanthropic foundations.” Often such donors are not disclosed on tax returns or annual reports. Also “a lot of money comes through the Tides Foundation,” a conduit for big donors’ contributions which “effectively anonymizes those donations.” Nevertheless a picture emerges. “Almost every philanthropist I investigated,” the author says, “had financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry”.
One key player is the Arcus Foundation. Its founder and president is Jon Stryker, an “heir to Stryker Corp, the medical supplies company…. His fingerprints are all over organizations… which advocate for the same pro-trans policies in unison.” Another major force is The Open Society Foundations (OSF), “the largest philanthropic organization in the world. Chaired and funded by hedge fund maestro George Soros…. Open Society Foundations are supposedly decentralized and the boards running operations are autonomous. This ignores the fact that all activities carried out by the OSF are funded by one man.” The OSF is prominent, the author says, in pushing “for gender markers on legal documentation” and “self-identification laws”.
A third contributor is “Jennifer Pritzker, (formerly Col. James Pritzker),” a trans lesbian. “Heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, Pritzker funds both transgender and far-right causes through their Tawani Foundation” and also “donated hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, to the Republican Party and its candidates in 2016.” Pritzker gave millions in start-up funding “to the Gender And Sex Development Program, a transgender youth clinic in Chicago launched in 2013,” and also helps to fund the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), GLAAD, and “other large LGBTQI+ organizations.” (This reflects divisions within the Republican Party over transgender. One Reuters correspondent has described bathroom legislation as “a wedge issue for Republicans, pitting the party’s pro-business branch against social conservatives”.)
Another billionaire Republican donor that funds trans causes is Paul Singer, “notorious for buying up Argentine debt and taking the country to court for a debt judgment” who also unsurprisingly “opposes raising taxes on the 1%”. And yet another billionaire donor is Daniel Loeb who “runs one of the largest hedge funds on Wall Street: Elliot Management.”
The largesse from these sources funds astroturfing. Astroturfing sometimes involves “the use of Twitter bots… on internet comment sections,” as well as “paid commenters who repeat the same message ad nauseam… posting under hundreds of different identities”, whose work is gradually concealed as the messages are then picked up and promulgated by real ordinary people. Mainly, however, transgender astroturfing takes place “through grants to existing non-profit organizations, or through creating new ones that look grassroots” but which “strangle any form of actual grassroots organization with ease.”
Inauthentic selves spells out the links between these funders and organisations officially or effectively focused on transgender issues. It indicates that they are not grassroots bodies topped up with token grants by companies after good PR, but creatures of the corporate world. They include:
- Global Action For Trans Equality (GATE), funded by The Open Society Foundation and The Arcus Foundation.
- GLAAD, formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation but which now “seems to have forgotten the ‘gay and lesbian’ part” and which “has been criticized for lacking members born and socialized as female.” Its funders “include the Tawani Foundation, Arcus, and a collection of Silicon Valley companies, such as Google, Salesforce, and Comcast.”
- The National LGBTQ Task Force, which has received donations in the hundreds of thousands from the Arcus Foundation, the Ford Foundation, major anonymous donors, the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences and “a gaggle of banks, cable channels or providers as well as Hilton Hotels.”
- The National Center For Transgender Equality (NCTE), “started with the aid of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force” and which received millions in corporate contributions and grants
- the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) which again receives “generous support” from corporate partners; a major one, the author tells us, is “Pfizer, which makes the estrogen drug Premarin”.
Such astroturf organisations “often train their own organizers: one such example on the left is the Equality Federation, which trains center-left LGBTQI+ ‘thought leaders’. It features six figure donations from the Gill Foundation and the Tides Foundation, among others. It is a name plucked out of a very large hat — there are dozens of other ‘Institutes’ and ‘Fellowships’ that train professional activists in professional Kool-Aid drinking across the political spectrum.”
Some of what do they do
The NCTE’s National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) “is forming the basis of transgender policy around the world.” It has been cited as authoritative by “the Human Rights Campaign, the Transgender Law Center, the National LGBTQ Task Force, a litany of other lobby groups and the Democratic Party.” Yet its sample “was built on self-selection…. the survey could have been taken over and over again by the same person…. It was also meant to provide US-based statistics, but had no restrictions on of which country the survey could be taken from… Supposedly NCTE cleaned the dataset, but I am not sure how you can clean a survey with such flaws.”
Another body, Freedom For All Americans “donated hundreds of thousands of dollars towards the bathroom fight in Anchorage [Alaska]… one of the catch-cries of the trans movement is that they are the most ignored and the most marginalized group in America,” yet they were “capable of outspending the Christian Right on an 8–1 basis” in that campaign. Freedom For All Americans is “run by Masen Davis, who used to be the Executive Director for the Transgender Law Center (an organization that is also funded by large philanthropic groups and corporates.)” It “lists some of its most prominent donors as Paul Singer, Tim Gill and Daniel Loeb,” mentioned above.
Funding dedicated to trans causes dwarfs that dedicated to LGB causes, and general LGBT funding goes mainly to trans issues.
The National Centre for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) was “one of the biggest receivers of philanthropic funding in 2016.” It “scarcely mentions lesbians on its home page… but has three different sections for transgender legal cases”. It did however focus on lesbians when it organized a boycott of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, intended for people with female anatomy (although not excluding transwomen). “After criticism from a range of lesbian sources, it backed down. But Michfest bowed to the pressure, and unable to continue, now no longer exists.”
Meanwhile The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has been renamed the National LGBTQ Task Force, “criticized for ignoring lesbian issues by lesbian commentators, including conferences with only few or no lesbian events — like the NCLR.” The schedule of the Task Force’s 2018 Creating Change conference offered “a total of four events for lesbian women… but twenty on the topic of ‘sexual freedom’” and “nine sessions for ‘Transgender Justice’ alone”.
The NCTE’s co-founder, transwoman Mara Keisling, led “a coalition of ‘400 LGBT rights organizations’, called ‘United ENDA’, which prominent transgender activist Dana Beyer, interviewed in the Washington Blade, credited with making sure ‘there have been with few exceptions […] no instances of any gay activism or legislation that did not include trans people.’”
Naturalising sex stereotypes
The author cites a definition of gender offered on the website of the trans-focused Human Rights Campaign: “Gender refers to the traditional or stereotypical roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society consider appropriate for men and women.” But as the author observes, gender ideology “presents gender stereotypes and gender as an innate thing”, corrected where necessary by medicalization or simply legal sex change. “If stereotypes are what the transgender movement is about, this is only going to harm women and gay and lesbian and bisexual people… who have the most to lose by gender stereotypes being encoded in the law.”
The impact on the health industry: pushing dangerous drugs
This ideology has implications for children. Sue Donym discusses three doctors – Diane Ehrensaft, Stephen Rosenthal, and Johanna Olson – who “have all had a financial relationship with AbbVie, maker of Androgel and Lupron, amongst other hormone replacement therapies and GnRH agonists. All three have gone on to promote the off-label use of AbbVie products to treat transgenderism.”
The author quotes this passage from Ehrensaft’s paper Gender nonconforming youth: current perspectives: “When it comes to knowing a child’s gender, it is not for us to tell, but for the children to say. In contrast to the watchful waiting model, once information is gathered to assess a child’s gender status, action is taken to allow that child to exercise that gender.” This is despite Ehrensaft’s admission that “at this point in history a child who begins puberty blockers at Tanner Stage 2 [ie the first stage of actual puberty, FL] and proceeds directly to cross-sex hormones will be rendered infertile”. The author also quotes from an interview with Psychology Art in which “Ehrensaft advocates taking away children if the parents believe in the concept of biological sex”.
Stephen Rosenthal has stated, in an Endocrine Today interview, that hormone-affecting GNRH agents “have been used for many years and have been found to be very effective and specific for blocking puberty in a completely reversible manner.” Sue Donym responds: “This is contradicted by the fact that GnRH agents are currently the subject of multiple investigations for causing irreversible bone health problems, something Rosenthal does not acknowledge in this interview, but does in his research.”
The work of such doctors dovetails, of course, with the purposes of the drug companies. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) “began its life being marketed as a cure-all, for the ills of menopause to the fountain of youth… Its most common use over the 20th century was to treat menopause.” In 2002 it was discovered that “HRT in women led to raised rates of strokes and breast cancer among other deleterious side effects. Lawsuits, particularly against the pharmaceutical company Wyeth (purchased by Pfizer in 2009), quickly followed, and the number of prescriptions of one of Wyeth’s most profitable medications dropped 66%… It later emerged that Wyeth and other drug companies marketing HRT had known about the risks but had deliberately concealed them to continue selling profitable drugs.” But now, of course, gender ideology has come to Big Pharma’s rescue.
The impact on academia: medical ghostwriting
All this is promoted through medical ghostwriting, which is, essentially, “a pharmaceutical company producing a peer-reviewed article promoting use of a drug it makes, often for off-label uses.” This is done “by hiring a commercial medical writing company to produce papers that can then be published in academic journals. An academic is attributed authorship, even though they have not written the paper. The paper contains conclusions that support the pharmaceutical company’s marketing desires for a particular drug.” (Sue Donym cites the case of the drug Prempro and the Wyeth corporation. See also article in Plos Medicine and news item in Nature.) “While medical ghostwriting is clearly unethical, it’s not illegal. Because academic publications aren’t considered promotional, it does not fall afoul of off-label marketing laws…. The New York Times estimated in 2009 that 5–11% of medical articles are ghostwritten, though this ultimately depends on the drug. With one drug (sertraline), between 18% and 44% of articles on the subject were funded and ghostwritten by Pfizer.”
Sue Donym has done us an immense service through this research. And it certainly aligns with many of the themes of Freer Lives, particularly in terms of the top down nature of the trans trend. I do however have three differences – perhaps just matters of emphasis – with the author.
Firstly, it’s important to see that gender ideology (my term, not one she uses) is not being pushed just by Big Pharma, but by the capitalist class as a whole, not for short term profits but to help it address a particular challenge posed by changing economic and social conditions. Women’s mass participation in the workforce has increasingly led them to see through old tropes that men are superior and very different to them. But the capitalist class needs women to keep seeing themselves as inferior and as natural nurturers so that they are willing to keep bearing the huge burden of unpaid work in the home, raising and maintaining today’s tomorrow’s and yesterday’s wage slaves free of charge for the bosses – a crucial underpinning to modern capitalism. Gender ideology answers this need: it is a cool updated sexism that bolsters tame liberal feminism and despicably affirms the naturalness of women’s submissive femininity.
This why we can see a trend toward simple, drug-free self-identification of adult trans people: this simple self-ID may not suit profit-greedy Big Pharma but works just as well as drug-dependency for the ruling class overall, because it sends out exactly the same sexist message about females’ natural femininity. It’s true that the power of Big Pharma, and a self-interested medical lobby, may partly explain why drugs are still pushed on children and teens, but even here it may not be the only factor at work. I suspect that the push for drug dependency is also driven by an awareness that kids, being truly “fluid”, might otherwise abandon trans identities before very long.
This leads to my second concern. The author heavily stresses the fact that kids who rebel against stereotypes would often grow up to be lesbians and gay men if not tracked into trans identities. But other rebels, as I think she would agree, are simply tomboy girls and “girlish” boys who go on to become heterosexual. And tomboys are the tip of the iceberg since all girls must to some extent resist confinement to femininity. This matters, because is vital to oppose the notion that resistance to sex stereotypes is a minority concern. That is one of the main police-work messages of gender ideology, which acts to prevent generalization of resistance to the female population at large. Girls are not only being taught that their femininity is natural, but also that rebellion against stereotypes means taking a drastic leap, joining the small minority of those other people over there – cool perhaps but very different – at a time when most kids are desperate to fit in.
The bosses’ use of gender ideology to attack working women as a whole is the ultimate driver of individual childhood transitioning, a sine qua non and essential backdrop. Lesbophobia and homophobia may drive transitioning at the family level, for people who have moved on from traditional biology-is-destiny prejudices yet remain anti-gay, but these people are working within a context they didn’t create.
Thirdly, left and liberal support for gender ideology, while disastrously wrong, is more than Kool Aid-drinking. These people are not passive dupes. They see that trans people get ostracized and sometimes attacked by bigots for adopting the cultural conventions of the opposite sex. They see that the gay-hating anti-abortion right also hates trans people, and that many right wing commentators attack some of the demands of the trans lobby. The social conservatives are not entirely a spent force, as we currently see in the US Supreme Court; true, the capitalist class has largely abandoned them, but under crisis conditions the bosses could swing back to them as part of an all-out assault on workers, women, LGB and ethnic minority scapegoats.
The very valuable material in Sue Donym’s piece should be used to aid our main task: winning the left and workers’ movement away from gender ideology.
(See also the article’s comments section.)
The US Supreme Court is hearing the case of a transwoman sacked by a social conservative employer. Aimee (formerly Anthony) Stephens was fired as funeral director by Harris Funeral Homes in 2013 after disclosing intentions to present at work as a woman. Stephens is represented by David Cole, national legal director of the ACLU, while the funeral home is represented by the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Trump, pandering to the bigots in his electoral base, supports the funeral home. Legal briefs can be viewed here.
The court is also hearing two cases involving gay men. Gerald Lynn Bostock is a former child welfare services coordinator, sacked after he joined a gay sports team. Donald Zarda, now deceased, was a New York skydiving instructor, fired after telling a client that he was same-sex attracted. His estate is pursuing his case. Hearings began on 8 October, but decisions are not expected until mid-2020.
Alongside the legal arguments a range of political issues are in play.
Sex and sex stereotypes
Trans people adopt some of the stereotypes of the opposite sex. But they defy those of their birth sex, which inflames social conservatives. In this instance the funeral home owner demanded compliance with a dress code “applicable to Stephens’ biological sex”. David Cole quotes the funeral home owner, Thomas Rost, as saying that “a male should look like a… man, and a woman should look like a woman.”
The Supreme Court (aka “SCOTUS”) has previously interpreted the US Civil Rights Act as banning discrimination based on sex stereotypes: in 1989 it “found for a woman who had not been promoted because her employers found her too aggressive and her manner of dress not feminine enough.” In the current case it will decide whether this decision can be applied to transgender people.
The right uses feminist arguments
During the court hearing, a lawyer for the funeral home argued that if we don’t let employers sack people for being trans, women will suffer. In doing so he played heavily on concerns raised by gender critical feminists:
Hypothetical questions about what the court’s eventual decision will mean for society featured prominently, particularly as it pertained to gender-specific restrooms and sports programs. John Bursch, an attorney for the funeral home… warned that transgender women will work at shelters for women.
Cole’s position “would mean that a women’s overnight shelter must hire a man who identifies as a woman to serve as a counsellor to women who have been raped, trafficked, and abused and also share restroom, shower, and locker room facilities with them,” Bursch said.
One brief supporting the funeral home argues that “Judicially rewriting sex discrimination in Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act] will spill over into other federal laws that prohibit sex discrimination… It will deny women and girls fair opportunities to compete in sports, to ascend to the winner’s podium, and to receive critical scholarships. It will also require domestic-abuse shelters to allow men to sleep in the same room as female survivors of rape and violence. And it may dictate that doctors and hospitals provide transition services even in violation of their religious beliefs.” (quoted by Business Insider)
Meanwhile the right wing New York Post recently ran an article from a woman complaining, quite correctly, that transwomen’s entry into female sports events undermines women.
Unfortunately, some gender critical feminists are allying with the right.
Some gender critical feminists collaborate with the right
The Stranger newspaper reports:
In August, the radical feminist group the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) filed an amicus brief in support of Harris Funeral Homes. “WoLF’s interest in this case stems from its interest in protecting the safety and privacy of women and girls and preserving women’s sex-based civil rights,” the brief reads. “Those rights have been threatened by recent court decisions and agency policies that embrace the vague concept of ‘gender identity’ in a manner that overrides statutory and Constitutional protections that are based explicitly on ‘sex,’ which is precisely what Respondents are asking the Court to do here.”
WoLF goes on to argue that Stephens is trying to redefine “female” from an immutable, biological category to, basically, a feeling: If you say you’re female, you are one. And if the court rules in her favor, according to WoLF, it will threaten the protection of females in all manner of ways, including in sex-segregated spaces like prisons, locker rooms, and shelters for abused women.
WoLF members demonstrated in support of their stand outside the Supreme Court at a rally “co-sponsored by Concerned Women of America, a homophobic and anti-feminist organisation”. Pinknews reported on this, adding that black British lesbian activist Linda Bellos was there supporting this rally, “backing the Trump administration’s efforts to make it legal to fire LGBT+ people.”
The Stranger notes that “the decision to work with ADF has not gone over well with other people who may agree with WoLF that the conflation of sex with gender identity is ultimately harmful for females.”
In 2017, for instance, a group of detransitioned women issued a statement after ADF started contacting detransitioners to participate in a potential malpractice suit against medical professionals.
“The ADF has fought against women’s reproductive rights, LGBT non-discrimination laws, LGBT anti-bullying campaigns in school, and same-sex marriage,” they wrote an open letter to detransitioners. “We ask you to think critically about this and reject any ‘support’ that would allow the ADF to treat our painful histories and financial vulnerability as an opportunity to promote their anti-LGBT and anti-woman agenda.”
Ruth Serwotka, a leading gender critical feminist in Britain, points out that WOLF have previously worked with the right wing Christian group Family Policy – “A more perverse or problematic alliance could not be imagined.” She adds:
The drift towards the narrative of acceptance of this alliance with hard right forces… is the start of a path towards the co-option of the growing women’s movement by the forces that exist to defeat us… Yes, it is an outrage that we are bullied and intimidated by sections of the left. But still we cannot make an alliance with people who would remove our bodily sovereignty, curtail our freedom to resist, enforce a sex-segregated family model, police compliance with subservient gender roles, remove rights from women of colour and prevent human rights for lesbians and gay men, and for transgender people.
Serwotka also provides some important historical context:
Often reflecting differences of class, some middle class suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst herself, had rather a soft spot for nationalism and war. Small but not insignificant elements within the militant [suffragette] WSPU bought into an ugly reactionary nationalism. A few allowed that internal logic to play out and became supporters of the British fascist Oswald Mosley in the 1930s.
The notion that women, simply by banding together, can be divorced from wider political and social forces, is reactionary nonsense.
Alliances with the right are always toxic
Conservatives can oppose gender ideology from the right, just as they could oppose Russia’s bombing of Syrian rebels as a challenge to US imperialism rather than as a means to crush a popular revolt; just as many right wingers have supported Brexit out of nationalism and racism rather than as a blow against the neoliberal, austerity-driving EU. But we cannot join forces with imperialists, racists or bigots without aiding them and undermining ourselves.
Alliances with the right always benefit the right, not our side. They have the weight of tradition behind them, the “common sense” inherited from the past. Right wingers usually have greater resources. Most importantly, our side relies on the ongoing, day-to-day commitment of ordinary people rather than bureaucracies or money machines, and support from ordinary working people melts away when they are confused or disillusioned by what we are saying and doing – and that’s just what happens when we cuddle up to known enemies.
Support Aimee Stephens, oppose gender ideology
We face a war on two fronts. Any victory for trans rights is likely to be exploited by the corporate mass media to reinforce gender ideology and the sexist redefinition of women. The neoliberal establishment is working hard to shift the “natural” foundation for women’s feminine inferiority from biology to a mystical inner essence known as gender identity. In official documents, this mystical notion is slowly replacing the material reality of sex; much of the scientific establishment has betrayed science by denying the sexual binary. A victory for Aimee Stephens in the Supreme Court may turn out to be one more milestone in the consolidation of gender ideology as the new orthodoxy.
However, gender ideology is not the same as transgender people. Stripped of this sexist wrapping, they are simply people who take up their right to live by the cultural conventions of the opposite sex, challenging traditional sexist beliefs as they do so. The sacking of Aimee Stephens was an attack on human rights and workers’ rights. And a clear-cut, wholesale victory for hardline social conservativism could also set up a broader attack on gays and women, as has been argued by Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager for the National Centre for Transgender Equality: “If it’s legal to fire Aimee Stephens for being transgender, it very likely becomes legal to fire a lot of people who aren’t transgender but who don’t conform to stereotypes.”
Progressives need to fight the sexist redefinition of women, fight intrusions into women’s spaces, sporting contests and organisations, fight the mutilation and sterilization of children, fight against gender ideologists’ campaigns to sack academic and medical critics and to silence progressive opponents. But the war against this new sexism is only set back by siding with old-guard bigotry. In the Supreme Court battle, the bigots are the main enemy.
Redline is a blog that aims “to use the tools of Marxism to provide analysis of what is going on and, where possible, give a positive lead”. It has no formal relations to any political group. Based in New Zealand, it provides excellent articles on a wide range of topics, and very importantly it defends women against gender ideology when so much of the far left has failed to do so. I strongly recommend it to everyone. Recently Redline published a piece from me summarising the arguments I have been making on Freer Lives. Here it is.
The Australian is Murdoch’s national, flagship newspaper where I live. Now and then it runs articles that criticise aspects of the transgender trend. A recent example is “About a girl” (paywall; originally in print edition 21-22 September 2019 p17), covering the de-transition of a young lesbian called Tracey. The article, by Bernard Lane, describes the cultish quality of her local trans group, and its ferocious hostility when she started to pull away, and when she said that lesbians have the right to skip sex with male-bodied people. The article also notes that the issue of de-transitioning is avoided by the country’s liberal ABC network, and by Australia’s leading gender clinic at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Themes like these are common in right wing attacks on the trans trend.
What might be more surprising is the article’s hard line against the sex role stereotyping of women. “I felt uncomfortable in my body and uncomfortable with the expectations that are put on teenage girls… I didn’t really feel feminine,” Tracey tells us. She relates that her parents urged her to “accept that you are a woman” but also “defy all the expectations put on women”, as an alternative to adopting a trans identity. Bernard Lane adds:
Now 23, she accepts her female sex and, much as her parents suggested, tries to loosen the social knot that ties women to narrow expectations… She feels for other teenage girls who wonder if trans will bring them the freedom denied by a constricting femininity… There has been a glut of celebratory media since Bruce Jenner changed his name to Caitlyn in 2015 and declared “figuring out what to wear” was the hardest thing about being a woman…
Five pages earlier we see some of The Australian’s routine catwalk coverage. Constricting femininity? Perhaps not if we accept the paper’s glass-ceiling feminism where empowerment means clearing individual routes into the middle class and elite circles, and women’s enforced focus on the body beautiful is just fine. But does it help us “defy all the expectations put on women”?
Still, this issue is worth a bit of hypocrisy. Gender ideology’s attack on women, and the left’s support for this attack, offer a golden opportunity – far too good to pass up – to tear progressive-minded women away from their historical attachments to the liberal left. This gift to the right will keep on giving as wider and wider layers of women discover the viciousness of gender ideology’s attack on them.
This issue also reflects a division of labour within Murdoch’s newspaper empire in this country. The Australian is pitched to a committed right wing readership; it works to harden existing prejudices and supplies arguments for readers to use against left-liberals. The state-based Murdoch papers, some with much larger circulations, are pitched to the mass of the population. Their role, apart from making money, is to win working class readers to right wing viewpoints topic by topic. So in contrast to their national flagship newspaper they have been very happy to push the sexist messages of gender ideology: article after article in these papers effectively say that the vast majority of women have a feminine gender identity and hence naturally love frills gossip and unpaid child care, and that discontent with such roles is “other”, the concern of a small minority very different to “us”. Whatever criticisms they may have of the trans trend, their support for the core idea of “gender identity” remains solid.
Of course The Australian too ultimately wants to keep the mass of working women handcuffed to femininity and unpaid caring servitude. But no damage is done to this purpose by shedding a few crocodile tears.
An open letter to Jan Thomas, Vice-chancellor of Massey University.
Massey University in Wellington is the venue for an event on 13 November called Feminism 2020, organised by Speak Up For Women (SU4W). The university has come under pressure from rightist forces masquerading under the banner of transgender rights to break its contract with the meeting organisers and cancel the booking. At the time of writing, the university has resisted the pressure to cancel the venue booking. However, on 27 September it released a statement which can only be read as paving the way for cancelling the meeting. This open letter was written response to that statement.
To Jan Thomas,
Dear Ms Thomas,
I commend Massey University’s stated commitment to free speech, and in particular, its decision to host the event Feminism 2020 in face of criticism and pressure to shut the meeting down.
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Here is a welcome piece from the New Zealand Marxist website Redline, discussing the left’s capitulation to gender ideology. It points out that this is effectively a collapse into the subjectivist element of postmodernism, and abandons a materialist understanding of the world. And, again very welcome, the article reminds us that progressives used to support women-only spaces until the onset of gender ideology.
There is a contradiction at the heart of the trans phenomenon. On one hand it challenges traditional sexism, the centuries-old idea that sexual biology destines women and men to particular roles, competencies and attitudes – an idea that still dominates much of the world and ordinary people’s thinking. In making this challenge, individual trans people face discrimination and sometimes violence, and attacks from social conservatives who also attack same-sex attracted people and abortion rights. Looked at this way it seems obvious to most leftists and liberal feminists that they should simply embrace and defend trans people, and, as part of this, accept ideas of “gender identity” used to define them.
On the other hand, gender identity theory, the core of gender ideology, redefines women in sexist terms, and, like traditional sexism, naturalises the traits traditionally foisted on women, this time under a “progressive” banner. Discontent with sex stereotypes is now framed as a minority issue, to be solved individually not collectively. These ideas have made gender identity theory very appealing to the ruling capitalist class, which has used its corporate media, conservative as well as liberal, to mainstream it.
The ideology has been applied in many practical ways, such as the intrusion of male-bodied people into women-only spaces, organisations and sporting contests; “educational” programs for children that encourage mind-body dissociation and track kids into drug dependency and surgery; the censorship and sacking of dissident academics and physicians; and the no-platforming and harassment of women’s liberationists. These practical applications of the ideology are only possible thanks to the backing it has received from the ruling class. But in themselves these applications are of less interest to the bosses, and indeed sometimes irritate them, and this has created space for opposition to transgender demands to strengthen and grow among sections of the right. This in turn reinforces support for gender ideology among leftists.
How should gender critical leftists deal with this mess?
Separate trans people from sexist gender ideology
One answer is to separate trans people from sexist gender ideology, defending the first and attacking the second. Stripped of gender ideology’s packaging, trans people are simply people who choose to adopt the conventional appearance, and some of the conventional roles and habits, of the other sex. Such people have existed since confining sex roles first emerged in the remote past. It is true that these people rely on the trappings of oppressive sex roles to make this swap, but this can be used to highlight the artificiality of these roles, and they certainly challenge the traditional biology-is-destiny form of sexism. Seen in these terms, there is nothing in principle to stop such people making common cause with women’s liberationists.
Two factors blur the neat division between defending trans people and attacking gender ideology. One is terminology. The term “transgender” became popularised through the rise of gender ideology, so using the term automatically implies acceptance of the gender sexism. Secondly, the corporate media’s evangelism for gender ideology has massively increased the number of people identifying as trans, fluid or queer: many of these recruits might otherwise have identified as lesbian or gay, or else adopted woman-friendly ways to challenge sex stereotyping.
Neither of these factors, however, changes the underlying need to distinguish between an oppressed group and the conservative, sexist ideas used to defend that group. When a trans person is bashed, sacked or ostracised it is because they have defied the traditional form of sexism, not because they have embraced a new one.
Using victims to maintain oppression
There is a long history of the capitalist class using victimised or endangered peoples for their own benefit. World War One, a grotesque mass slaughter to defend western imperialism from upstart Germany, was often portrayed as the defence of little Belgium against the Hun; the first Gulf War against Iraq, a monstrous mass killing to maintain western imperialism’s hold over the Middle East, was described as the defense of Kuwait. More recently, crocodile tears are wept for the plight of women and gays in North Africa and the Middle East whenever western rulers want to blow them up and burn their cities.
But one of the most important examples today concerns Jews and Zionism. Jews were subject to the worst act of racism in human history. That racism never disappeared and is currently on the rise once more. Zionism, however, is a racist ideology which declares that Jews are inherently different to other people and for this reason can never live at peace alongside gentiles; it gives Israelis the right to dispossess Palestinians of their land and lock them up in Gaza and the West Bank. Strenuous efforts are made to link Jewishness and Zionism by Israel and its supporters: denunciations of Zionism, we’re told, are just dogwhistle code for hatred of Jews, you don’t “really” support Jews unless you also support concentration camps for the Palestinians. This lie is perpetuated because Israel polices the Middle East for Western powers. The point, however, is not to compare the actual ground-level persecution of Palestinians with the oppression of women, but to see how victims are sometimes used to disguise oppression, and how gender ideology fits into this pattern.
Unconditional but critical support
How do you support the struggle of an oppressed group when you disagree with – or even loathe – the ideology that prevails within its ranks? In these situations Marxists employ the formula of “unconditional but critical support”. The unconditional part means that your support is not conditional on the oppressed group adopting the ideology that you think will advance their cause. But (presuming you are correct) you can and should criticise that ideology, even while you back the oppressed people who currently endorse it. (The formula of unconditional but critical support can also be used when you oppose an oppressed group’s current leaders, and/or the current tactics or strategy that they follow. For further illustrations of the concept see here, here and here.)
So for example if a business sacks a trans person due to their management’s “Christian conscience” we would be right to join a trans activist picket against the firm. Or if a trans person is bashed outside a pub we might rally outside that pub alongside trans activists, even the most rabid gender ideologists, demanding that the management take a stand against violent bigots: rally with them, and defend them physically if need be. But at the same time we could have our own slogans, banners and leaflets which explain our differences to the gender ideologists. Joining that fight is right because a principle is involved: the struggle against oppression. But tactically it is also right, because it would put us alongside other people at the rally who are not hardened gender ideologists and could potentially be influenced by our arguments. They are much more likely to listen or read our pamphlets when they see us pitching into the struggle against bigotry.
At a later date, if trans activists had a second rally demanding the pub give transwomen access to women’s toilets, or install unisex ones, we could be counter-demonstrating against the trans activists, because the issue would be different. In that case the people who had fought alongside us the first time might be less quick to accept the vitriol we now received from the hardened TRAs.
Issues where the right and gender critical progressives seem to align
In most cases, though, right and left wing critics of gender ideology call for the same things: for transwomen to be excluded from women-only spaces, organisations and sports competitions, freedom for academics, psychologists and physicians to challenge gender ideology, and so on.
It happens now and then that some leftists and right wingers do share immediate concrete demands – eg an end to Russia’s bombing of Syria and support for Brexit. This creates problems. Your position can be used to discredit you by left wing opponents, who say you are lining up with the USA/Brexiteer racists. There is also a danger of leftists being pulled to the right by their new “allies”.
So it is vital from the start to articulate the distinctive reasons for your positions, and denounce your “friends” as well as your enemies. While the immediate demands are the same, the premises are entirely different, and these underlying assumptions lead off in different directions until they are diametrically opposed. For example, the left can defend women’s spaces as a partial defense against women’s oppression, and a way of highlighting it. But right wingers’ defense of women’s spaces is different: it ultimately falls back on notions that women are inherently frail and in need of protection, and/or have timeless, sacrosanct feminine rituals to enshroud; that biology is destiny. Social conservatives will then call for a return to traditional values, and opposition to gay rights and abortion. Right-of-centre liberals will want to use the women’s-spaces issue to discredit socialists and indeed any resistance to neoliberalism (the very thing that spawned gender ideology).
The centrality of class
Most of the struggle waged by gender critical progressives seems to be directed against transactivists. In my opinion this disguises the fundamental battle taking place and sets up a roadblock to further progress.
Continuing support from the capitalist class is absolutely essential to the gender ideologists. It is the corporate media, mainstream politicians, and high level institutions of neoliberalism that allow the emperor to wear no clothes – to conceal the emptiness of “gender identity”, the unscientific absurdity of denying the sexual binary, and above all, the attack on women that underlies them. If the bosses pulled their support for gender ideology, then its right wing liberal critics such as Helen Joyce, Janice Turner and Andrew Gilligan would quickly move to centre stage and they would be joined by a host of other mainstream commentators. Trans activists would cease to be celebrated in the media. But that is far from happening because gender ideology is the gift that keeps giving for the bosses.
The reasons for the bosses’ support, and the reasons why most of the left has capitulated to gender sexism, have been extensively discussed on this blog and elsewhere. The point to make here is that bosses support for gender ideology is part of its attack on working women and that in turn is part of its ongoing attack on the whole working class. The way forward is not overheated harangues with entitled, sexist trans activists but sober and steady argument with all those leftists and other working class people fighting neoliberalism.
Trans, fluid, queer people are oppressed under capitalism, so they need to be defended; any if buts or maybes is a concession to bigotry. That in essence is the position of most socialists. But it does in fact need to be qualified, because the ideas used to defend trans people are saturated in sexism. This has made the trans cause very attractive to the bosses, and it is for this reason that the corporate media have mainstreamed the trans phenomenon.
This does not mean trans individuals have it easy. Centuries of tradition have defined women and men by their sex and then attached stereotypical demands and expectations to both sexes. These traditions remain unchallenged in many parts of the world and continue to shape the views of most people in the west. Trans people suffer violence, abuse or discrimination because they transgress these old rules. They are oppressed. But the gender ideology used to define them is nonetheless applied by the bosses to help maintain the oppression of women.
The position of the capitalist class
The notion that the elite have driven the trans trend would be surprising and probably offensive to most leftists and liberals; any elite support is usually passed off as the result of changing social values in society as a whole, or due to pressure from below, or else people see the elite itself as divided along liberal-conservative lines, part of the so-called culture wars.
So it is important to look at the actual coverage of trans issues in the conservative sections of the corporate media. Take the Herald Sun, the Murdoch newspaper in the Australian state of Victoria, with the largest circulation paper of any daily in the country. On 29 May 2015 it ran an article called The transgender conversation we had to have (paywall, title slightly changed online). Transwoman Marco Fink, it tells us, “used to envy the girls at primary school, their freedom to wear dresses and express their femininity”. It approvingly cited Roz Ward, at that time a co-ordinator of Safe Schools Victoria, who “says transgender adults recall childhood experiences of being forced to wear a dress or of having all their sister’s dolls removed from the house to stop them playing with them. ‘Now if you ask any specialist in the transgender field they would say that is really damaging to a child’s health and wellbeing,’ she says.” So as well as handcuffing femaleness to femininity, the article positions trans specialists as the definitive or only people with something to say on the issue of discontent with sex stereotypes.
This political line is reflected on www.news.com.au, Murdoch’s free-access Australian website, which provides articles that also appear in the News, Lifestyle etc sections of Murdoch papers in different Australian states. I did a quick scan of its trans coverage in 2016 and came up with articles like these:
- Warren Beatty: ‘My transgender son Stephen Ira is my hero’
WARREN Beatty has given his first in-depth interview in 25 years to praise his transgender son…
- The mums pushing for change for their transgender children
(Led by photo of the mothers with Federal Labor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten)
RIGHT now, in homes all over Australia suburban mums are waging an almighty street fight. One day, someone will probably make a feature film about it. But for now, they are fighting in schools, courts, medical clinics, sporting clubs and even in the corridors of power in Canberra. These are the mothers of transgender children.
- $700 million basketball stadium’s bold new feature
A $700 million sports stadium’s fitout has ensured the Sacramento Kings basketball team’s arena toilets are open for use to all fans: kings, queens and anything in between…
- Transparent: The most important TV show you should be watching
JEFFREY Tambor has earned deep respect for being one of the most versatile and accomplished character actors in film and television. On Sunday night, he stood on the Emmys stage and made an impassioned plea to Hollywood…. “Please give transgender talent a chance…”
So the truth is that, like the liberal mass media, these conservative News Corporation papers have normalised trans ideology and even evangelised for it. They educate their readers that anatomy is no longer destiny – while sustaining the crucial idea of an inherent femininity and masculinity, so important to preserving the notions of female inferiority and natural servitude.
More rigorous research from Transgender Trend has demonstrated that the print media in Britain consistently popularised the idea that children could be born into the wrong body and used this to explain their discontent with sex stereotypes:
It is the media which has facilitated the speedy public “acceptance and recognition” of not just “transgender and gender diverse people” but the completely new belief that children are “transgender,” together with the idea that invasive medical intervention is a necessity. The press has a big influence on people’s views, including parents, teachers and all adults in a child’s life, and it plays a pivotal role in normalising and creating acceptance of ideas within society as a whole. Whether individual people believe that some children are “transgender” and that “physical treatments for younger adolescents” is a good idea is largely dependent on a societal consensus created in large part by the way the media reports it.
In other words the capitalist class as a whole has used its media, liberal and conservative, not to respond to pressure but to intervene in public thinking: to educate its readers to accept gender ideology.
Why the bosses drive support for gender identity theory
Gender ideology helps the capitalist class address a key dilemma concerning the place of women. The bosses want women as wage workers, but women’s mass entry into the paid workforce has given them greater confidence and a day-to-way awareness that they are very similar to men and in no way inferior. This is a major headache because the capitalist class needs women to retain a sense of their otherness and inferiority so that they will keep slaving away free of charge in the home, raising and maintaining today’s, tomorrow’s and yesterday’s wage slaves for the employer class. The bosses have no complete answer to this contradiction but address it as best they can, piecemeal, through selective endorsement of the least threatening elements of feminism: high-merit women should be able to rise into the elite, we love kick-ass females as long as they’re in heels, etc. Gender ideology provides a much-needed additional prop to this flimsy structure: it declares that the vast majority of natal females have a feminine gender identity, so it is natural that they love dressing up, gossiping, caring and nurturing. This is the message now being pumped into working class women and girls via the media, “progressive” school programs and other propaganda.
The limits of bosses’ support
Supercharged by this elite support, trans activists have naturally campaigned to put these ideas into practice. Transwomen, the say, are women because gender identity trumps sex, so they have the right to access woman-only spaces, and represent women in sports and other areas. Children’s resistance to the stereotypes they were born to shows the need to track them into trans identity. Opponents, critics or questioners in academia and the medical profession are simply bigots who should lose their jobs. Oppositional feminists are also bigots who should be censored and no-platformed.
The capitalist class does not have a strong interest in supporting these practical applications of gender identity theory, except insofar as they buttress the sexist belief-system underlying them. In fact, these practical issues sometimes create irritants for the bosses. These have been previously discussed on this blog, but in sum, they align the movement with the much-despised political left; they generate calls to subsidise costly surgery; they cause fights, where the bosses want order and stability; and above all, the attacks that the trans movement makes on women risk arousing widespread opposition from women themselves, defeating the whole point of it from an elite perspective.
The result is that the corporate media has, on the practical issues, divided along liberal-conservative lines, with the more conservative outlets criticizing aspects of trans demands, all the while maintaining support for the core concept of innate gender identity. (One Australian Murdoch paper has made half-hearted attempts to separate gender ideology from identity politics, highlighting the attack on queer theory by a prominent conservative transwoman, Catherine McGregor.)
The middle class and commentariat
Following the lead of the conservative media barons, many right wing commentators and right-of-centre liberals are now also opposing or questioning trans demands. In doing so they draw on traditional ideas of conservativism and classical liberalism. Women need separate spaces due to their inherent natural frailties, not because they are oppressed by the social system. Children’s asexual innocence should be protected. Freedom of speech is sacrosanct, and so on. These right wingers occupy a range of political positions, from a form of liberal feminism through to redneck intolerance. What unites them is a delight in using gender ideology to hammer the left and extend the hand of friendship to formerly left-leaning gender-critics. In Britain this has been used as one element in the campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, to try to crush the message of hope he brought to working people.
The response from gender critical feminists
Gender critical feminists are of course aware that the elite has championed gender ideology, but their primary concern is usually to defend women, children, principled professionals and feminists themselves from this ideology’s practical effects. This focus is reinforced by their support for patriarchy theory, which leads them to see trans activists rather than capitalism as the central enemy: trans activists being defenders of male privilege and a kind of advance guard for the oppressive male “sex class” as a whole.
The response from the left
The left has largely ignored the attack on women launched by gender ideologists, massively amplified though it is through the corporate media. They focus entirely on the fact that trans identity challenges traditional, biology-is-destiny forms of sexism, and buy into the idea that women and men are defined instead by the stereotypes they have internalised as inner feelings about themselves, as though this is somehow less sexist. The mystical notion of gender identity has been equated to the material realities of being gay, black, or disabled.
This seems to have hit the Trotskyist sections of the left harder than those in the Stalinist tradition. I think there are two connected reasons for this. One relates to the state of the western workers’ movement. The Trotskyists, particularly those in the International Socialist Tendency, take seriously the notion of workers’ self-emancipation: to liberate the world they look to the actual working class, rather than to left wing MPs, union bureaucrats or “radical” dictators. So they have been particularly hard hit by the sustained quiescence of the working class during the neoliberal era. Strikes are the key driver of workers’ radicalisation, but strike figures have been not only extraordinarily low by historical standards, these incredibly low figures have been sustained for an extraordinarily long time. While the Stalinists were immensely damaged by the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the period since then has probably done even more harm to the Trotskyists. They are demoralised and weakened.
This has led to the second reason for the capitulation to gender sexism: the Trotskyists’ greater dependency on the identity politics milieu, with its while-hot support for gender ideology, for influence, recruitment, and cadre.
The current mess
The result is a disastrous polarisation dominated by right wing ideas on both sides of the debate. On one side, a slimy neoliberal attack on women, using fake progressivism to keep women harnessed to unpaid work, and on the other, a resistance dominated by conservative and classical liberal ideas but shading through to the bigotry of the populist right – a coalition that is diverse in its attitudes to feminism but united by hostility to the working class and therefore to the interests of working women as a whole.
The next post will make a case for how socialists should respond to this mess.