There is a contradiction at the heart of the trans phenomenon. On one hand it challenges traditional sexism, the centuries-old idea that sexual biology destines women and men to particular roles, competencies and attitudes – an idea that still dominates much of the world and ordinary people’s thinking. In making this challenge, individual trans people face discrimination and sometimes violence, and attacks from social conservatives who also attack same-sex attracted people and abortion rights. Looked at this way it seems obvious to most leftists and liberal feminists that they should simply embrace and defend trans people, and, as part of this, accept ideas of “gender identity” used to define them.
On the other hand, gender identity theory, the core of gender ideology, redefines women in sexist terms, and, like traditional sexism, naturalises the traits traditionally foisted on women, this time under a “progressive” banner. Discontent with sex stereotypes is now framed as a minority issue, to be solved individually not collectively. These ideas have made gender identity theory very appealing to the ruling capitalist class, which has used its corporate media, conservative as well as liberal, to mainstream it.
The ideology has been applied in many practical ways, such as the intrusion of male-bodied people into women-only spaces, organisations and sporting contests; “educational” programs for children that encourage mind-body dissociation and track kids into drug dependency and surgery; the censorship and sacking of dissident academics and physicians; and the no-platforming and harassment of women’s liberationists. These practical applications of the ideology are only possible thanks to the backing it has received from the ruling class. But in themselves these applications are of less interest to the bosses, and indeed sometimes irritate them, and this has created space for opposition to transgender demands to strengthen and grow among sections of the right. This in turn reinforces support for gender ideology among leftists.
How should gender critical leftists deal with this mess?
Separate trans people from sexist gender ideology
One answer is to separate trans people from sexist gender ideology, defending the first and attacking the second. Stripped of gender ideology’s packaging, trans people are simply people who choose to adopt the conventional appearance, and some of the conventional roles and habits, of the other sex. Such people have existed since confining sex roles first emerged in the remote past. It is true that these people rely on the trappings of oppressive sex roles to make this swap, but this can be used to highlight the artificiality of these roles, and they certainly challenge the traditional biology-is-destiny form of sexism. Seen in these terms, there is nothing in principle to stop such people making common cause with women’s liberationists.
Two factors blur the neat division between defending trans people and attacking gender ideology. One is terminology. The term “transgender” became popularised through the rise of gender ideology, so using the term automatically implies acceptance of the gender sexism. Secondly, the corporate media’s evangelism for gender ideology has massively increased the number of people identifying as trans, fluid or queer: many of these recruits might otherwise have identified as lesbian or gay, or else adopted woman-friendly ways to challenge sex stereotyping.
Neither of these factors, however, changes the underlying need to distinguish between an oppressed group and the conservative, sexist ideas used to defend that group. When a trans person is bashed, sacked or ostracised it is because they have defied the traditional form of sexism, not because they have embraced a new one.
Using victims to maintain oppression
There is a long history of the capitalist class using victimised or endangered peoples for their own benefit. World War One, a grotesque mass slaughter to defend western imperialism from upstart Germany, was often portrayed as the defence of little Belgium against the Hun; the first Gulf War against Iraq, a monstrous mass killing to maintain western imperialism’s hold over the Middle East, was described as the defense of Kuwait. More recently, crocodile tears are wept for the plight of women and gays in North Africa and the Middle East whenever western rulers want to blow them up and burn their cities.
But one of the most important examples today concerns Jews and Zionism. Jews were subject to the worst act of racism in human history. That racism never disappeared and is currently on the rise once more. Zionism, however, is a racist ideology which declares that Jews are inherently different to other people and for this reason can never live at peace alongside gentiles; it gives Israelis the right to dispossess Palestinians of their land and lock them up in Gaza and the West Bank. Strenuous efforts are made to link Jewishness and Zionism by Israel and its supporters: denunciations of Zionism, we’re told, are just dogwhistle code for hatred of Jews, you don’t “really” support Jews unless you also support concentration camps for the Palestinians. This lie is perpetuated because Israel polices the Middle East for Western powers. The point, however, is not to compare the actual ground-level persecution of Palestinians with the oppression of women, but to see how victims are sometimes used to disguise oppression, and how gender ideology fits into this pattern.
Unconditional but critical support
How do you support the struggle of an oppressed group when you disagree with – or even loathe – the ideology that prevails within its ranks? In these situations Marxists employ the formula of “unconditional but critical support”. The unconditional part means that your support is not conditional on the oppressed group adopting the ideology that you think will advance their cause. But (presuming you are correct) you can and should criticise that ideology, even while you back the oppressed people who currently endorse it. (The formula of unconditional but critical support can also be used when you oppose an oppressed group’s current leaders, and/or the current tactics or strategy that they follow. For further illustrations of the concept see here, here and here.)
So for example if a business sacks a trans person due to their management’s “Christian conscience” we would be right to join a trans activist picket against the firm. Or if a trans person is bashed outside a pub we might rally outside that pub alongside trans activists, even the most rabid gender ideologists, demanding that the management take a stand against violent bigots: rally with them, and defend them physically if need be. But at the same time we could have our own slogans, banners and leaflets which explain our differences to the gender ideologists. Joining that fight is right because a principle is involved: the struggle against oppression. But tactically it is also right, because it would put us alongside other people at the rally who are not hardened gender ideologists and could potentially be influenced by our arguments. They are much more likely to listen or read our pamphlets when they see us pitching into the struggle against bigotry.
At a later date, if trans activists had a second rally demanding the pub give transwomen access to women’s toilets, or install unisex ones, we could be counter-demonstrating against the trans activists, because the issue would be different. In that case the people who had fought alongside us the first time might be less quick to accept the vitriol we now received from the hardened TRAs.
Issues where the right and gender critical progressives seem to align
In most cases, though, right and left wing critics of gender ideology call for the same things: for transwomen to be excluded from women-only spaces, organisations and sports competitions, freedom for academics, psychologists and physicians to challenge gender ideology, and so on.
It happens now and then that some leftists and right wingers do share immediate concrete demands – eg an end to Russia’s bombing of Syria and support for Brexit. This creates problems. Your position can be used to discredit you by left wing opponents, who say you are lining up with the USA/Brexiteer racists. There is also a danger of leftists being pulled to the right by their new “allies”.
So it is vital from the start to articulate the distinctive reasons for your positions, and denounce your “friends” as well as your enemies. While the immediate demands are the same, the premises are entirely different, and these underlying assumptions lead off in different directions until they are diametrically opposed. For example, the left can defend women’s spaces as a partial defense against women’s oppression, and a way of highlighting it. But right wingers’ defense of women’s spaces is different: it ultimately falls back on notions that women are inherently frail and in need of protection, and/or have timeless, sacrosanct feminine rituals to enshroud; that biology is destiny. Social conservatives will then call for a return to traditional values, and opposition to gay rights and abortion. Right-of-centre liberals will want to use the women’s-spaces issue to discredit socialists and indeed any resistance to neoliberalism (the very thing that spawned gender ideology).
The centrality of class
Most of the struggle waged by gender critical progressives seems to be directed against transactivists. In my opinion this disguises the fundamental battle taking place and sets up a roadblock to further progress.
Continuing support from the capitalist class is absolutely essential to the gender ideologists. It is the corporate media, mainstream politicians, and high level institutions of neoliberalism that allow the emperor to wear no clothes – to conceal the emptiness of “gender identity”, the unscientific absurdity of denying the sexual binary, and above all, the attack on women that underlies them. If the bosses pulled their support for gender ideology, then its right wing liberal critics such as Helen Joyce, Janice Turner and Andrew Gilligan would quickly move to centre stage and they would be joined by a host of other mainstream commentators. Trans activists would cease to be celebrated in the media. But that is far from happening because gender ideology is the gift that keeps giving for the bosses.
The reasons for the bosses’ support, and the reasons why most of the left has capitulated to gender sexism, have been extensively discussed on this blog and elsewhere. The point to make here is that bosses support for gender ideology is part of its attack on working women and that in turn is part of its ongoing attack on the whole working class. The way forward is not overheated harangues with entitled, sexist trans activists but sober and steady argument with all those leftists and other working class people fighting neoliberalism.