A recent edition of the SWP’s Socialist Review (January 2019) led with the article The war on trans, written by Laura Miles. The article continues the SWP’s support for gender ideology. In the February edition, SR published a response from gender-critical socialist Sybil Cock, in the Letters section; under her letter was an editorial reply from SR. Among other things this editorial reply mentioned Women’s Place UK (WPUK), accusing it of having “helped fuel the rise in transphobia”, a claim which was then, understandably, contested by WPUK itself.
Considering the level of anger that exists around these issues, it is not surprising that these exchanges have been tense. But it is a great step forward for the SWP to begin to engage with left-wing gender critics within its media outlets, which much of the far left has so far refused to do.
This post picks up on some of the issues raised in the original Miles article, and links back to previous discussions of these issues on Freer Lives.
Gender-critical progressives defend the right of people to adopt the conventional appearance and behaviour of the opposite sex, and for adults to change their bodies along these lines if they choose to. It is one, valid, personal way to challenge the straitjacket of stereotypic expectations, and helps to show that these are not biologically ordained. Some people who identify as transgender are comfortable with this kind of formulation and have no conflict with feminists who defend women on the basis of their sex. But when gender ideologists talk of “gender identity” they mean something different: that transwoman are women in the full sense, and the whole category of “woman” must be redefined to accommodate this.
In the SR article Laura Miles claims:
Like sexuality, our gender identity is a deep-seated reality, not a “whim” or “a feeling”, emerging through complex interactions between our sense of self, our physical bodies and how we perceive them, the expectations of others, and our material circumstances.
This “deep seated reality” is given a simulacrum of truth by its regular endorsement from the corporate media (including the right wing media which attacks other aspects of the transgender phenomenon) and other neoliberal institutions, and also from the liberal and far left: since everyone agrees, it must be correct. And once this ideological construct is accepted as fact, then to challenge it automatically means attacking a core part of every vulnerable trans person, it is equivalent to denying the authenticity of someone’s same-sex attraction, and is just as oppressive as racism. Through this sleight-of-hand, gender critical leftists become instant bigots.
The corporate media has promoted the idea of gender identity because they want to mainstream its sexist definition of women, but it is the practical implications of this concept that have caused the most heated conflict on the left. One of the most contentious is the idea that male-bodied people, including those who make no attempt to change their bodies, can self-ID as women and therefore access women-only spaces (see previous discussions on this blog here and here). Gender-critical feminists oppose this. “For many trans people and trans rights supporters” that in itself is “evidence of transphobia”, according SR’s reply to Sybil Cock (do these “supporters” include the SWP? It appears so.) But to repeat, the claim of transphobia only stands up if you accept the existence of an innate gender identity.
Gender identity in this sense is not real. It is usually understood in mystical terms: something from “deep within”, but not based on either biology or the internalization of sex stereotypes, so effectively from the Beyond. Although the individual is said to be the supreme authority on their gender id, this only holds when they go with the flow; desisters, for example, can be dismissed as never “really” having had the gender identity they temporarily assumed.
Critics sometimes compare gender identity theory to the ethnically-white Rachel Dolezal’s claims to be a black person:
When asked… what being “black” means to her, Dolezal said that “sometimes how we feel is more powerful than how we’re born, and blackness can be defined as philosophical, cultural, biological, you know, it’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people.” (People 2 Nov 2015)
Gender ideologists can dismiss this view out of hand, on the grounds that racial identity doesn’t have the same mysterious inner truth about it as gender. They get away with this because gender identity mysticism is socially endorsed, ultimately via corporate support, while Dolezal’s racial identitarianism is not (see articles by Adolph Reed Jr in Common Dreams 15 June 2015 and Elaine Graham-Leigh in Counterfire 1 Mar 2018).
The SWP has strained to give gender identity a material foundation, as some kind of subtle interaction between body and society. But they end up arguing that this interaction is too varied and complex to understand, and fall back on nothing more than bald assertions of the “reality” of gender identity.
The tradition of debate
Socialists must unconditionally support the rights of oppressed people to express their sexuality and gender identity. So when the right attack identity theory by denying the legitimacy of anti-oppressive struggles, people on the left should never relay arguments against trans rights that open the door to the right’s attacks. Sadly that is what has been happening over trans rights in some cases recently.
This idea that leftists “should never relay arguments against trans rights” sounds very much like an attempt to shut down debate within the left. If so this would be an accommodation to the identity politics milieu, a move away from the SWP’s tradition of frank and fearless debate in pursuit of clarity, the underpinning of workers’ democratic decision making. So it is even more welcome to see the Socialist Review now beginning to “relay” such arguments itself, by giving space, however limited, to a gender-critical socialist.
Gender critical progressives are not “opening the doors to the right’s attacks”, but opposing an ideology that is backed by western capitalist classes, the Tories, US Democrats and the neoliberal right generally. The SWP avoids looking at the support given to gender ideology from the ruling class and the instruments of its rule. For example Miles’ article notes “the Women and Equalities Parliamentary Committee’s publication of 30 trans-supportive recommendations in January 2016”, without asking why a Tory-dominated committee would support this new ideology so wholeheartedly.
Certainly it is vital to distance ourselves from social conservatives and the far right. Their attack on gender ideology is driven by a reactionary wish to preserve traditional biology-based stereotyping, and is part of a wider, powerful and dangerous attack on workers, women, gays, immigrants and oppressed ethnic groups. It is also important to distance ourselves from right-of-centre liberals: despite agreement with us on concrete issues such as opposition to no-platforming and child sterilization they too have an anti-worker agenda and are no friends of women’s liberation. But if we held back from certain demands because they were also supported in some sense by sections of the right, we could not have opposed Russia’s bestial bombing of Syria lest we supported US neocons, nor could we support Britain leaving the EU lest we line up with racists.
We need to advance whatever demands are required, in ways that differentiate ourselves from right wingers who give the same demands or slogans a different content. So, for example, we support female-only spaces because females are oppressed by the social system, not out of some idea that females are inherently dainty or eternally vulnerable. We use the concept “woman is biological” because their biology marks females out for oppressive treatment from the moment of birth, and it is not a “performance” they can opt out of. But if conservatives use “woman is biological” to play to traditional sexism, to imply that the stereotypically feminine woman emerges naturally from female biology, we must explicitly oppose that, rather than letting left and right wing concepts flow together under the same formulation of words.
Does the link between gender-critical progressives and the right go beyond the superficial, the use of similar phrases? When the left does not take up the cause of the oppressed, the right will sometimes do so, in its own way, and so it is in this instance. Sections of the right have expressed sympathy with gender critical feminists on issues like free speech, and protecting children and teens from life-changing surgical and chemical procedures. Some right wing media outlets have given space to left-wing gender critics, pursuing their own agenda. Not all gender-critical feminists are leftists; some have responded to overtures from different sections of the right. But the great majority have felt driven to use the corporate media and right wing outlets by no-platforming and ferocious hostility from most of the left and the identity politics milieu (see eg here). “It is indeed unfortunate that it has been largely the right wing and liberal press that has enabled the views of gender critical socialists to be heard,” as Sybil Cock says. Left wing gender ideologists have used this to try to vindicate their claims against such progressives; instead, they should remove the beam in their own eye and start looking seriously at how their ideas abet women’s oppression.
The material bases of same-sex attraction and gender identity
Miles writes that
some trans critics are promoting double standards. Like the right, they deny the reality of gender identity (“identity is not material”, they claim). But they don’t deny the reality of sexual preferences, although they’ve not demonstrated any crucial differences between sexuality and gender identity.
There are certainly crucial differences between sexual preference and “gender identity”.
Same sex attraction must have arisen out of humanity’s break with the animal kingdom as we became laboring, speaking, conscious creatures. It is sometimes said that certain other animals with relatively complex social groups display same-sex attraction. Whether this is so or not, it is certainly true that when we became truly human the sexual impulse was no longer limited to a narrow unvarying routine; though still grounded in bodily biology, our sexuality was now decisively shaped by society and caught up in the immense complexity and thus variability of the socialized human being. Sexuality was freed up to go in all sorts of directions. And since variation of sexual preference is innately human, we can expect same sex attraction to persist in a future, truly free society, the communism envisioned by Marx.
However, the human drive to imagine and explore, and the inherent variability between human individuals, clashed with another aspect of early human society. Only women could bear and suckle young, and these roles also constrained them from certain types of work. So during pre-class societies there was a sexual division of labour, which was then, like everything else, codified in beliefs and rituals within each culture. Some people must have felt far better suited to the roles and attributes assigned to the other sex and forbidden to theirs. This clash was also bound to intensify when the division of sex roles deepened with the rise of class society. (While the constraint would have been felt by both women and men, women would have had less opportunity to present as a member of the other sex, because they had less opportunity for self-expression in almost every way. But individual women also had the added incentive to present as men, to escape their sexual oppression.)
The clash between these two elements of society explains the appearance of social groups outside the main female and male cultural categories, groups which here and there were given formal acknowledgment, such as the Two Spirit people noted by the SWP’s Sue Caldwell (see also this feminist critique of gender ideologists’ appropriation of the Two Spirit people). But unlike same-sex attraction, the drive to adopt the cultural attributes of the other sex can be expected to disappear under a truly free society, when sex roles themselves fall away, and you can be whatever sort of person you wish.
In any case, however, this wish to identify with the opposite sex, adopt its roles, or claim some kind of cultural membership within it, is very different to modern gender ideology, which with its explicit redefinition of women and men as a whole: this is very recent. The long history of resistance to sex roles does nothing at all to support the existence of an innate “gender identity”.
Wrong, and sexist…
Gender identity is an ideological concept, not a fact: its current popularity has other causes. The idea of innate gender identity is also sexist, chiefly because it defines females through sex stereotypes. These stereotypes are not emphasized among pro-gender leftists, but are precisely what the corporate mass media picks up on when it propagandizes about kids born into the wrong body and the brave mums supporting them – disseminated far beyond identity politics circles into working class suburbia. Left wing gender ideologues do not challenge the media on this – they cannot, without hacking into the core of gender ideology itself. The sexist definition of women also, inevitably, encourages misogynistic attitudes among some transwomen, examples of which gender critical progressives regularly cite on social media.
…but we need to debate it
Leftist supporters of gender ideology disagree: this should lead to debate. But there is of course a qualitative difference between tactical debates over “which way forward” and debates where one side is supporting oppression, eg via a government ban on Muslim headscarves in the name of feminism or secularism. The issue of gender causes particularly bitter fights because each side thinks the other is supporting oppression, and this has high-stakes practical consequences. Yet the only reason for thinking that gender-critical progressives support oppression lies in the idea of innate gender identity, and this too should be up for debate.