The capitalist class has mainstreamed gender ideology because it helps to oppress women and thereby aids the bosses interests; the corporate mass media, conservative and liberal, near-unanimously promotes and normalizes “gender identity” mysticism. But the bosses are not committed to every twist and turn of gender ideology, and this creates space for limited opposition from liberal and conservative supporters of the system. Many conservative media outlets oppose some secondary features of the trans trend. Right-of-centre liberals are increasingly critical. In the USA social conservatives have launched a powerful counter-attack. Meanwhile gender-critical women’s liberationists are challenging it from the left, particularly in Britain. Opponents of gender ideology on the right and left share a range of practical demands, but this surface unity conceals radically divergent agendas for women. We need to fight all sections of the right.
The story on transgender from most of the left describes a binary: progressives fighting traditionalists and bigots; embattled trans people challenging the might of the corporate media and right wing politicians. A lot of Freer Lives has been spent contesting this false binary, pointing out the vital support gender ideology has received from the capitalist class and the neoliberal right, support that has taken it from the margins to the mainstream.
The Caitlyn Jenner moment
Gender ideology originated in sections of the US medical profession, and was then taken under the wing of postmodern academia. From there its message was gigantically magnified by the corporate media, liberal and conservative (current examples here and here), throughout the western world, which began running supportive stories of kids born into the wrong body, evidenced by their yearnings for the stereotypes of the other sex. Doing so has allowed the bosses’ media to reassert the natural pinkness of girls and women in freshened-up, progressive-sounding form. It makes discontent with stereotypes a minority concern, and a matter of personal lifestyle, not social protest.
This right wing ideology was absorbed into identity politics, and from there it permeated the far left, weakened, split and demoralized by decades of neoliberalism and the political retreat of the working class. This wide right-to-left spectrum of support guaranteed that gender ideology would also be backed within the unions, including teacher unions. It also spread of course via social media, feeding back into more mass media coverage; celebrities were now disciplined into support, or at least silence.
In everyday life trans individuals remained at risk of ostracism, abuse and violence. But in the corporate media they were cheered on almost everywhere. Trans TV star Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time in 2014 and the year after Vanity Fair profiled Caitlyn Jenner. Apart from tiny groups of feminists, the only organized forces holding out were social conservatives, and even they were under siege.
In 2015 The Economist summed up all this as The Caitlyn Jenner moment, noting that gender ideology was now acceptable even to some senior US Republicans. “I can only imagine the torment that Bruce Jenner went through,” offered Lindsey Graham, now a leading Trump supporter. Graham affirmed that he was a “pro-life, traditional marriage kind of guy”, but said that Jenner was “welcome in my party.” Then there was Rick Santorum, on the hard right of the party and a former presidential contender. He had “once compared same-sex marriage to the union of a man and a dog”, but now he too supported Jenner. “The game isn’t over,” The Economist concluded, “but the outcome is not in doubt”:
The social forces that brought us to the Caitlyn Jenner moment are irreversibly ascendant… This is not to say that conservatives are being bullied by cultural liberals or are ashamed of their deepest beliefs…. Rather… [their leaders’ support for transgender] may reflect a dawning realisation that “our deepest beliefs” are not quite what we thought they were.
In the following year over 100 top CEOs campaigned against North Carolina’s bathroom law designed to force transgender people to use the public facilities of their birth sex. In South Dakota the Republican Governor vetoed a similar attempt to restrict tranwomen’s access to women’s rooms. One Reuters correspondent described bathroom legislation as “a wedge issue for Republicans, pitting the party’s pro-business branch against social conservatives”.
Support for gender ideology sails on today. National Geographic featured The Gender Revolution on its front cover in early 2017 (its group photo illustrating the “gender spectrum” included a “cis” man but no cis woman). In some US states natal males who self-id as women can access female-only amenities. Even Teen Vogue plays its part with an inane challenge to the sexual binary.
Over the last 15-20 years, then, western ruling classes have endorsed and encouraged a truly extraordinary social shift. They have broken with centuries of propaganda declaring biology as the natural basis for sex stereotypes. Sections of the corporate media have thrown their weight behind a bizarre postmodernist challenge to the material reality of the sexual binary. Healthy teens and children can now legally undergo surgical and chemical violations of their bodies, sometimes leading to sterilization. Women’s private spaces are being undermined. These are radical changes. It is hardly surprising that the mass of the working people have not kept up, and still require much “education” from the tabloids, TV, and celebrity-worshipping websites.
The limits of bosses’ support for gender ideology
This does not mean, however, that western capitalist classes have committed themselves to every twist and turn of gender ideology and trans activists.
The bosses get all the sexist propaganda material they need from having small numbers of individuals “born into the wrong body”. They show little desire for governments to subsidise surgery on healthy teenagers, certainly not on a large scale. Yet the risk of this surfaces with the surge in numbers of youth seeking physical transition. Trans activists are entangled with the despised political left; school programs now encourage needlessly wide numbers of kids to question their “gender”, and probably add radical nonsense into the mix. The trans movement gets into fights; the bosses like order and stability.
Some bosses may also fear that overreach from the trans movement will generate significant unease among sections of the broader population. In a worst-case scenario, this overreach could stir masses of working women into action to defend themselves: that would defeat the one and only purpose gender ideology has from an elite point of view. Yet that is just where the logic of gender ideology leads, with its demands for transwomen to enter women’s spaces and sports events, and its censoring and harassment of opponents.
The divergence of interests between the bosses and the gender ideologists should not be exaggerated. But it has translated into, or encouraged, four significant developments.
Firstly, the conservative mass-circulation newspapers that continue to serve up “born into the wrong body” stories have simultaneously opposed other aspects of the trans trend, and sometimes they cover their right flank with opinion articles from bigots opposed to all aspects of gender ideology (eg here). Secondly, while Britain’s Tories have clearly embraced gender ideology this is not true of all their backward overseas cousins, eg Australia’s Liberals.
Thirdly, the limits of bosses support for the transgender trend has given space for social conservatives to regroup, particularly in the USA. The 2016 Republican Party nationally adopted its “most conservative platform ever”, applying pressure on presidential contender Trump who was still vaguely supportive of trans demands. The Party convention endorsed language
that attacks the Obama administration for directing schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identities. “Their edict to the states concerning restrooms, locker rooms and other facilities is at once illegal, dangerous and ignores privacy issues. We salute the several states which have filed suit against it,” reads the platform. (New York Post 18 July 2016)
By September of that year, 16 US states had asked the Supreme Court to to reverse a lower court’s judgement that transgender people are covered by the Civil Rights Act. (Anglican Mainstream, 2 September 2018) In February 2018 the Republican National Committee endorsed a ban on transgender military service. Trump’s opportunistic implementation of this policy was provisionally affirmed in a 5-4 decision in the Supreme Court, which split along liberal-conservative lines. This social conservative attack on gender ideology is part of a wave of attacks on women, gays and workers.
Fourthly, the space created by the bosses’ reservations has also begun to generate questioning of gender ideology among right-of-centre liberals. That will be discussed in the next section of this article.