This two-part post examines the article Socialism and the fight against Transphobia, by Stephanie Hanlon and Adrienne Wallace, which leads the most recent edition of the Irish Marxist Review (IMR vol 8 no 23). Part 1 of this post looked at the authors’ treatment of gender identity. Part 2 now examines the issue of sexual and gender binaries.
Many gender ideologists go on about pink and blue brains, men inside women’s bodies and vice versa, and these concepts are widely employed in the corporate mass media’s propagandising. These formulations retain the concept of a binary between women and men. But the IMR authors, like many other left-leaning gender ideologists, dispute the whole idea of a binary:
Gender Critical Feminism (GFC) is an alternative term for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism, as there is no major ideological difference between them. Both argue that because sex is a “natural binary”, trans people are always the sex they were assigned at birth. Intersex people either do not exist or are “anomalies” produced as a result of birth defects…
And they say the very idea of a sexual binary is politically conservative:
Transgenderism blows the typical and repressive gender binary that has concreted the oppressive family structure, which capitalism has reified, right out of the water. It points to a whole human mosaic of sexuality, genders and relationships that do not conform to any norms. And while there is no definite answer with regards what defines our gender Identity one thing is for sure – it rests on an array of complex social, biological and psychological forces and has the potential to challenge one of the oldest oppressions of women and the working class- the nuclear family.
This passage makes ridiculous claims. Women’s liberationists and Marxists have long called for a world where everyone is free to adopt whatever sexuality and personal relationships they choose, within a humanistic, mutually respectful and loving framework. These ideas are not innovations granted to us by gender ideology. The only new arguments here are false ones: that the concept of a female-male sexual binary is a mere ideological construct, which somehow contributes to the capitalist family unit, and women’s oppression.
Overwhelming evidence for the sexual binary
It is true that some (not all!) scientists are now supporting this claim. The frailty of their case is well summarised in Do women exist? a measured, carefully argued piece by James Robb. “Distinct sexes,” he points out, “arose in natural history as a condition of sexual reproduction… There is no form of sexual reproduction known which involves more or less than two sexes. Sexual reproduction is universally binary”.
Scientists who support gender ideology highlight the existence of chromosomal abnormalities: we are not all simply XX and XY. But Robb notes the distinction between “the genetic ‘information’ influencing sex and the actual physical form of sex.”
“Chromosome arrangement,” he points out, “is one of the primary mechanisms determining sex in an individual, but not the only one. Hormones also play a major role, and these are not all governed by genes on the X or Y chromosomes.” And importantly, the “outcome of sex determination, the sex of a human being, is the form of the reproductive tract. There are only male and female forms.”
As for intersex people: “even among the small percentage of the population who have atypical chromosome arrangements and intersex conditions, ambiguity of the reproductive organs is rare… many people born with sex chromosomes other than the typical XX or XY pattern have some kind of developmental and/or reproductive disability, and often lifelong health problems,” making them “the exceptions that prove the rule of two sexes”. In any case, the intersex argument is simply thrown in when convenient; it is not as though transgender identity relies on such a condition, or that intersex people in general identify as trans.
The only reason why the sexual binary is now challenged is to justify trans identity. The fact that this has been taken up by some scientists does not reflect scientific method, or the knowledge accumulated through it. Rather, it reflects the fact that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. That class is using gender ideology as a new way to hold down women. And as the capitalist system declines, its apologists veer further away from materialism toward idealist and irrationalist views of the world, and this impacts on science.
Traditionalism and the sexual binary
Traditional sexism links the materially-based sexual binary to an imaginary, ideologically-driven binary of feminine and masculine personality types, or ideals; feminine and masculine are said to be grounded in the sexual division itself. This is the age-old “common sense” that does not need to be articulated or argued for, but can be left unsaid, since the audience is assumed to share these prejudices.
Gender ideologists try to blur the distinction between traditionalist sexism and gender-critical progressivism, to tar us with the same brush. Some traditionalist sexists do this too, trying to work with or even win over gender critical feminists; they are happy with formulations such as “woman is biological” since, by itself, it can be understood as “woman is biological and therefore naturally feminine”. This is a problem, since gender critical feminists, censored by the left, sometimes resort to conservative platforms to have their voice heard. Traditionalists don’t like any alternative to the hetero-normative, traditional nuclear family, whether from feminists, Marxists, gay rights activists or gender ideologists. Their vision of women and the family is linked to nationalism, union-bashing, and old fashioned sexism. Traditionalists are gathering strength in many parts of the world, blurring with racists and a resurgent far right. For these reasons it is essential to differentiate ourselves from the conservatives at every possible opportunity – to reassert that our fight is also the fight for abortion rights, against lesbophobia and homophobia, and against sexism in all its forms.
Neither gender ideology nor social conservativism, but women’s liberation
Marxist organisations like the SWP have made a massive error in their failure to defend women from the neoliberal sexism of gender ideology. In the face of their hostility a great many feminists have turned to right wing platforms to have their concerns heard; some have cast aside many years of allegiance to the left.
When western working classes finally move back into large scale political strike activity, masses of working women will shake off both gender ideology and any new-found friends among anti-union conservatives. When that happens there will be an opportunity, and an urgent need, to win them to a revolutionary socialist workers party. But that same upturn of struggle will confront the SWP with its own monumental errors in supporting gender sexism, and that will generate a new internal crisis for it.
The article Socialism and the fight against Transphobia, by Stephanie Hanlon and Adrienne Wallace, leads the most recent edition of the Irish Marxist Review, (vol 8 no 23) and is the latest defense of gender ideology in the SWP’s international tendency. This post takes up some of the main arguments in the IMR piece, which are shared with the broader tendency and other parts of the far left.
The two IMR authors present their case as anti-sexist:
The rigid gender stereotypes used as the bedrock for the nuclear family have transformed into a shower of pink and blue toys, acceptable clothing and deeply socialized norms in 21st Century capitalism. Women’s oppression is the oldest oppression and will be the most difficult to overcome as the roots are located in an institution that shapes the most intimate sphere of human life, in relationships between men, women and children in the family. As Sue Caldwell argues; “These gender stereotypes have remained a powerful force despite the many changes in women’s lives, opportunities and expectations, especially over the last 50 years.”
From a passage like this you might imagine that the IMR authors, and the SWP generally, would make a sharp distinction between biological females and the feminine gender roles despicably imposed on them. But gender ideologists, even the Marxist kind, argue that female is joined at the hip with feminine, and male with masculine, so much so that “gender” can replace “sex” as the way to distinguish men and women. This sounds very much like social conservatism. Not so, the authors say: “The trans community reshapes and challenges our perceptions of gender and sex, rather than as some claim, reinforcing it. Gender identity can exist without equating it to socialised gender norms or to a sexed brain.” We leftist critics, on the other hand, suffer from “oppositional sexism”, which, “as put forward by [Julie] Serano is the belief that the masculine and the feminine are; ‘…rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities and desires’.”
Gender and gender identity
If “gender” does not mean traditional femininity and masculinity, what does it mean? Its ideologists are remarkably vague on this central question. What does it mean to be a woman when this category no longer defined by biology, the lifetime experience of female socialisation, or even sex stereotypes? Just a mysterious, nebulous, immaterial something. The notion is nevertheless put to use: male-bodied people with no pretensions to conventional female appearance can simply self-ID as a women and use women-only spaces, if they identify as a woman. Those who desist from transgender identification can be dismissed out of hand, by the various pontiffs of gender ideology, as never having “really” had the gender identity they once claimed. Gender identity is real, the black racial identity claimed by a white person like Rachel Dolezal is not – again, simply because the gender pontiffs declare it to be so. All these claims rely on the coalition of unquestioning political support for gender identity stretching from the far left to the Tories and the warmongering leaders of the US Democrats: the case only holds up, that is, if nobody points out that the emperor has no clothes.
The SWP has previously tried to squirm free of this central dilemma by declaring that gender identity has a material basis in some kind of subtle and complex interaction between the biological and the social. But they add that this is so complex and subtle that its definitive nature can be established only through future research, or else given up on as too complex to ever establish. The IMR authors now repeat this line: “while there is no definite answer with regards what defines our gender Identity one thing is for sure – it rests on an array of complex social, biological and psychological forces…”. The SWP’s whole case for accepting gender identity is grounded on this quicksand. If we have not established the theoretical basis for gender identity, and may never do so, how can the concept provide a principled way to guide current political work?
Since there is no material basis for “gender identity” the vacuum is filled, in practice, by sex stereotypes, precisely the “socialised gender norms” that the authors claim to have moved on from. Feminine continues to mean self-decorating, nurturing, narrowly channelled in mind and habits: that is the feminine inherited from centuries of women’s oppression, the feminine still poured forth every day by the corporate media and entertainment industries, the concept of feminine taken for granted among the mass of working class people, whatever else it may mean within the identity-politics milieu.
Squaring the circle
As Marxists, the authors keep trying to separate themselves from sexist tropes used to attack women, but are held back at every turn by their support for gender ideology. They make another attempt to square the circle here:
Feminists are right to critique the highly socialised gender norms women and men are forced into as a form of oppression, and they are right to challenge their dominance within society. The distinction we must make however is that gendered roles are an expression of oppression and not the root of the problem. As previously discussed in this article, the roots of oppression can be located in the rise of class society. The trans community have wrongly been accused of reinforcing these rigid gender roles and it has been claimed that “accepting” the existence of Trans people reinforces gender stereotyping and the oppressive ideology it begets. For example, Trans-women who choose to wear make-up, shave body hair and wear dresses have been seen by some as further perpetuating the beauty standards that capitalism imposes on us and upholding an idealized version of femininity. There is, however, a clear difference between socialized gender norms and Gender Identity. Gender Identity is the personal sense of one’s own gender – it can correlate with assigned sex at birth, or can differ from it. To assert one’s sense of gender identity can often overlap with the desire to conform to the prevailing gender norms and to be accepted by wider society as your gender identity. It is deeply unfair to heap the responsibility of countering regressive gender stereotypes onto the trans-community.
This seems to be saying: all sorts of people, trans and “cis”, give in to sex stereotypes in their personal lives; we should focus instead on the real problem – class, and the underlying structural causes of women’s oppression.
This red-herring reference to class is the sort of thing that discredits Marxism among women’s liberationists. Yes women’s oppression has deep roots in class society, but one of the ways it is perpetuated is via sex stereotyping. The fight against stereotypes is a step toward addressing the deep structural issues.
In personal life, yes, people of all sorts accommodate to sex stereotypes, including “cis” folk. It would be unfair to single out trans people for blame if this was the issue. But it’s not, for two reasons. The first is that lesbians, gay men and heterosexuals are not defined by stereotypes, whereas trans people are: only through stereotypes can they externalise their “gender identity”. This does not preclude people from living as a member of the opposite sex, but it does make it politically important for them to distance themselves from the use of transgender identity for sexist typecasting. Which leads to the second, and I think far more important issue: transgenderism has been mainstreamed by the corporate media precisely because of its stereotypic presentation of girls and women, which helps to entrench women’s oppression, on which the bosses rely.
Not in our name? Why gender ideologists don’t confront their sexism
The IMR authors tell us that they are eager for solidarity between women and the trans cause: “socialists, while being clear in their support for trans rights, should strive for unity and comradely engagement”. Does that involve socialists and left wing trans activists attacking the corporate media’s use of born-into-the-wrong-body stories to reassert stereotypes? Does it mean trans activists publishing articles and running up petitions declaring “Not in our name! Stop using trans people as sexist tropes for your attack on our cis-women comrades!” Alas no. When they attack Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner, for example, it is for being a rich right wing Republican, not for sexist caricatures. Left-wing transwomen may personally prefer quieter stereotypes than heels, lingerie and girls-night gossip. But they cannot challenge the corporate world’s sexist portrayals of trans identity without hacking away at the roots of gender ideology. And they take the SWP in tow. The issue is addressed by transgender activists like Kristina Harrison (@KJ_Harrison) and Debbie Hayton (@DebbieHayton) who sharply reject the sexist typecasts. But they can only do this because they reject the sexism of gender ideology itself.
The next part of this article will discuss the politics surrounding the sexual and gender binaries.