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Transgender and oppression (part 1)

How does the issue of transgender rights relate to the wider fight against oppression? How do we defend trans people’s rights without undermining those of women? These questions come out in a recent exchange in the Irish Marxist Review (IMR), which might therefore be of interest to other gender critical progressives.

The IMR recently published a letter by Orla Ní Chomhraí, a gender-critical member of the Socialist Workers’ Network and the broader group People Before Profit. Orla challenged the pro-gender line of her groups and in particular criticized a recent article in the IMR on trans issues (previously discussed on Freer Lives here and here). Under her letter is a reply from John Molyneux, editor of the IMR and a prominent theoretician within the International Socialist Tendency (IST), of which the SWN is part.


Elite and institutional support for transgender demands

In her letter Ní Chomhraí attacked the use of sex stereotypes by trans individuals and public advocates for gender ideology. Molyneux presents this as purism:

Has it not been the case that conservative gender stereotypes also reproduced themselves to some extent within the lesbian and gay community? Of course it has, because neither oppressed groups nor workers break all at once and completely from the dominance of all aspects of bourgeois ideology. In every group we will find elements of contradictory consciousness. Indeed a purist could argue that the very demand for marriage equality was reflective of bourgeois gender stereotyping. But obviously any socialist who didn’t vote yes in the [same-sex marriage] referendum would have been spectacularly missing the point. Then again Ní Chomhraí may have forgotten this but elements within the feminist movement itself have been known to embrace essentialist gender stereotypes as in the idea that women are inherently kinder, more caring than men…

This completely misrepresents Ní Chomhraí’s concerns and ignores the central point she is making. In her letter she says:

the main problem is not that some individual trans people, or their advocates, might express some sexist ideas. The internalising of sexist ideas in our current social environment is to be expected. The most worrying issue is that institutions and the press are promoting these sexist ideas, and undermining women’s rights, under the banner of being trans inclusive.

These institutions include Britain’s NHS and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. She also notes that, through trans awareness programs, the police force is being trained to enforce the application of these stereotypes, which also play a growing role in school sex ed programs.

Molyneux addresses this only in relation to the police. He blames their sexist interpretation of gender issues on their inherent conservatism (even though British police are drawing on material supplied to them from a trans advocacy organization). Otherwise, silence. This is extraordinary, given the corporate media’s clear support for gender identity theory, the importance of this support in defining the transgender phenomenon, and the attention Orla gives to this point in her letter. Molyneux avoids the point presumably because he has no answer to it.


The pink and blue flag

It might also be pointed out that sex stereotypes are essential to trans identity in a way that is not true for other groups. A lesbian, for example, may or may not adopt a butch or a feminine image; a transwoman can express “womanliness” only via the trappings and mannerisms of oppressive femininity – apart from surgery, which is not a requirement for trans identity and, unlike stereotypes, is taken up only by a minority of trans individuals. The centrality of stereotyping to trans identity is what has made it so attractive to the corporate media.

This reliance on stereotypes is concealed by the concept of “gender identity”: this, not stereotypes, is said to be the real foundation of a transwoman’s womanhood. Yet gender identity is nothing more than the internalization of sex stereotypes. It is usually understood as some kind of personal communion with an inner truth about oneself, a mystical concept; the IST’s strained, desperate efforts to create a material-world basis for gender identity come apart at the first touch, as previously discussed. It is no coincidence that the trans flag is pink and blue.


The practical implications of gender ideology

Later Ní Chomhraí notes some of the spin-offs of gender ideology: the loss of women’s spaces as male-bodied people gain access to them, and the erosion of women’s sport as transwomen are allowed to compete against natal women. Orla points out that women need to be able to “set boundaries in terms of privacy, safety and sexual partners… Refusing to allow women and girls to have some sex-segregated spaces where women are vulnerable (e.g. changing rooms, shelters and prisons) will put women at greater risk of violence”.

Molyneux replies that support for sex segregation “has usually been associated with conservatism and sexism even though ‘defence of women’ against predatory men and boys often played a role in the justification of this separation.” The logic of this line is to endorse the current trend toward unisex facilities as the norm, which the trans trend is spearheading. But what does “usually” mean? Could there be progressive case for women-only facilities, a case we can’t deny outright but would rather keep in the shade? During my years of activism within the IS Tendency, prior to the rise of gender ideology, it was clear that we defended women-only spaces in public life as a partial defense against women’s oppression, and a way of highlighting its existence.

In forthcoming posts I want to look in more detail at four issues arising from this exchange. The first is the overall class politics of the transgender trend. The second is the political battle lines drawn around transgender demands, such as access women-only spaces. The third issue is the need to distinguish transsexuals from the gender ideology that defines these people in as “transgender” and thereby reinforces women’s oppression. The fourth issue is how socialists should defend both women and transsexuals from oppression under capitalism.