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.