Cindy Sheehan is an anti-war activist, whose son was killed during the Iraq War in 2004. “Since then, she has traveled in the USA and abroad to speak out against US led wars and war time economics that fuel endless wars. In October 2019 Ms. Sheehan was dis-invited from speaking at an anti-war event in Carbondale Illinois due to trans activist pressure on the organizers of the event.” This interview on Women’s Liberation News radio “focuses on the story of her de-platforming at that event and also her thoughts and analysis of what trans activism is and the role it is playing in leftist movements.”
Astroturfing: “the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization… to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. It is a practice intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information about the source’s financial connection.” (Wikipedia)
The astroturf nature of the trans trend is discussed in the 2018 article Inauthentic selves: the modern LGBTQ+ movement is run by philanthropic astroturf and based on junk science – a tremendously useful if rather freewheeling piece, written by “Sue Donym”. Transgender organisations in the USA, the author says, operate not as grassroots bodies but top-down, funded and guided by major corporations and billionaires, usually connected to Big Pharma. Gender ideology thereby exerts a massive influence on academia and the health system, and on social media, all based on phony science. The effect of all this is to reinforce sex stereotypes, commit growing numbers of children to drug dependency, physical mutilation and sterilization, and drain the life from gay and lesbian communities.
Inauthentic selves is over 23,000 words. The current article attempts to summarise some of its main points, finishing with a slightly different take on some issues.
Philanthropy and trans
“The primary funders of the transgender movement,” the author tells us, “are large philanthropic foundations.” Often such donors are not disclosed on tax returns or annual reports. Also “a lot of money comes through the Tides Foundation,” a conduit for big donors’ contributions which “effectively anonymizes those donations.” Nevertheless a picture emerges. “Almost every philanthropist I investigated,” the author says, “had financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry”.
One key player is the Arcus Foundation. Its founder and president is Jon Stryker, an “heir to Stryker Corp, the medical supplies company…. His fingerprints are all over organizations… which advocate for the same pro-trans policies in unison.” Another major force is The Open Society Foundations (OSF), “the largest philanthropic organization in the world. Chaired and funded by hedge fund maestro George Soros…. Open Society Foundations are supposedly decentralized and the boards running operations are autonomous. This ignores the fact that all activities carried out by the OSF are funded by one man.” The OSF is prominent, the author says, in pushing “for gender markers on legal documentation” and “self-identification laws”.
A third contributor is “Jennifer Pritzker, (formerly Col. James Pritzker),” a trans lesbian. “Heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, Pritzker funds both transgender and far-right causes through their Tawani Foundation” and also “donated hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, to the Republican Party and its candidates in 2016.” Pritzker gave millions in start-up funding “to the Gender And Sex Development Program, a transgender youth clinic in Chicago launched in 2013,” and also helps to fund the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), GLAAD, and “other large LGBTQI+ organizations.” (This reflects divisions within the Republican Party over transgender. One Reuters correspondent has described bathroom legislation as “a wedge issue for Republicans, pitting the party’s pro-business branch against social conservatives”.)
Another billionaire Republican donor that funds trans causes is Paul Singer, “notorious for buying up Argentine debt and taking the country to court for a debt judgment” who also unsurprisingly “opposes raising taxes on the 1%”. And yet another billionaire donor is Daniel Loeb who “runs one of the largest hedge funds on Wall Street: Elliot Management.”
The largesse from these sources funds astroturfing. Astroturfing sometimes involves “the use of Twitter bots… on internet comment sections,” as well as “paid commenters who repeat the same message ad nauseam… posting under hundreds of different identities”, whose work is gradually concealed as the messages are then picked up and promulgated by real ordinary people. Mainly, however, transgender astroturfing takes place “through grants to existing non-profit organizations, or through creating new ones that look grassroots” but which “strangle any form of actual grassroots organization with ease.”
Inauthentic selves spells out the links between these funders and organisations officially or effectively focused on transgender issues. It indicates that they are not grassroots bodies topped up with token grants by companies after good PR, but creatures of the corporate world. They include:
- Global Action For Trans Equality (GATE), funded by The Open Society Foundation and The Arcus Foundation.
- GLAAD, formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation but which now “seems to have forgotten the ‘gay and lesbian’ part” and which “has been criticized for lacking members born and socialized as female.” Its funders “include the Tawani Foundation, Arcus, and a collection of Silicon Valley companies, such as Google, Salesforce, and Comcast.”
- The National LGBTQ Task Force, which has received donations in the hundreds of thousands from the Arcus Foundation, the Ford Foundation, major anonymous donors, the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences and “a gaggle of banks, cable channels or providers as well as Hilton Hotels.”
- The National Center For Transgender Equality (NCTE), “started with the aid of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force” and which received millions in corporate contributions and grants
- the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) which again receives “generous support” from corporate partners; a major one, the author tells us, is “Pfizer, which makes the estrogen drug Premarin”.
Such astroturf organisations “often train their own organizers: one such example on the left is the Equality Federation, which trains center-left LGBTQI+ ‘thought leaders’. It features six figure donations from the Gill Foundation and the Tides Foundation, among others. It is a name plucked out of a very large hat — there are dozens of other ‘Institutes’ and ‘Fellowships’ that train professional activists in professional Kool-Aid drinking across the political spectrum.”
Some of what do they do
The NCTE’s National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) “is forming the basis of transgender policy around the world.” It has been cited as authoritative by “the Human Rights Campaign, the Transgender Law Center, the National LGBTQ Task Force, a litany of other lobby groups and the Democratic Party.” Yet its sample “was built on self-selection…. the survey could have been taken over and over again by the same person…. It was also meant to provide US-based statistics, but had no restrictions on of which country the survey could be taken from… Supposedly NCTE cleaned the dataset, but I am not sure how you can clean a survey with such flaws.”
Another body, Freedom For All Americans “donated hundreds of thousands of dollars towards the bathroom fight in Anchorage [Alaska]… one of the catch-cries of the trans movement is that they are the most ignored and the most marginalized group in America,” yet they were “capable of outspending the Christian Right on an 8–1 basis” in that campaign. Freedom For All Americans is “run by Masen Davis, who used to be the Executive Director for the Transgender Law Center (an organization that is also funded by large philanthropic groups and corporates.)” It “lists some of its most prominent donors as Paul Singer, Tim Gill and Daniel Loeb,” mentioned above.
Funding dedicated to trans causes dwarfs that dedicated to LGB causes, and general LGBT funding goes mainly to trans issues.
The National Centre for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) was “one of the biggest receivers of philanthropic funding in 2016.” It “scarcely mentions lesbians on its home page… but has three different sections for transgender legal cases”. It did however focus on lesbians when it organized a boycott of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, intended for people with female anatomy (although not excluding transwomen). “After criticism from a range of lesbian sources, it backed down. But Michfest bowed to the pressure, and unable to continue, now no longer exists.”
Meanwhile The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has been renamed the National LGBTQ Task Force, “criticized for ignoring lesbian issues by lesbian commentators, including conferences with only few or no lesbian events — like the NCLR.” The schedule of the Task Force’s 2018 Creating Change conference offered “a total of four events for lesbian women… but twenty on the topic of ‘sexual freedom’” and “nine sessions for ‘Transgender Justice’ alone”.
The NCTE’s co-founder, transwoman Mara Keisling, led “a coalition of ‘400 LGBT rights organizations’, called ‘United ENDA’, which prominent transgender activist Dana Beyer, interviewed in the Washington Blade, credited with making sure ‘there have been with few exceptions […] no instances of any gay activism or legislation that did not include trans people.’”
Naturalising sex stereotypes
The author cites a definition of gender offered on the website of the trans-focused Human Rights Campaign: “Gender refers to the traditional or stereotypical roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society consider appropriate for men and women.” But as the author observes, gender ideology “presents gender stereotypes and gender as an innate thing”, corrected where necessary by medicalization or simply legal sex change. “If stereotypes are what the transgender movement is about, this is only going to harm women and gay and lesbian and bisexual people… who have the most to lose by gender stereotypes being encoded in the law.”
The impact on the health industry: pushing dangerous drugs
This ideology has implications for children. Sue Donym discusses three doctors – Diane Ehrensaft, Stephen Rosenthal, and Johanna Olson – who “have all had a financial relationship with AbbVie, maker of Androgel and Lupron, amongst other hormone replacement therapies and GnRH agonists. All three have gone on to promote the off-label use of AbbVie products to treat transgenderism.”
The author quotes this passage from Ehrensaft’s paper Gender nonconforming youth: current perspectives: “When it comes to knowing a child’s gender, it is not for us to tell, but for the children to say. In contrast to the watchful waiting model, once information is gathered to assess a child’s gender status, action is taken to allow that child to exercise that gender.” This is despite Ehrensaft’s admission that “at this point in history a child who begins puberty blockers at Tanner Stage 2 [ie the first stage of actual puberty, FL] and proceeds directly to cross-sex hormones will be rendered infertile”. The author also quotes from an interview with Psychology Art in which “Ehrensaft advocates taking away children if the parents believe in the concept of biological sex”.
Stephen Rosenthal has stated, in an Endocrine Today interview, that hormone-affecting GNRH agents “have been used for many years and have been found to be very effective and specific for blocking puberty in a completely reversible manner.” Sue Donym responds: “This is contradicted by the fact that GnRH agents are currently the subject of multiple investigations for causing irreversible bone health problems, something Rosenthal does not acknowledge in this interview, but does in his research.”
The work of such doctors dovetails, of course, with the purposes of the drug companies. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) “began its life being marketed as a cure-all, for the ills of menopause to the fountain of youth… Its most common use over the 20th century was to treat menopause.” In 2002 it was discovered that “HRT in women led to raised rates of strokes and breast cancer among other deleterious side effects. Lawsuits, particularly against the pharmaceutical company Wyeth (purchased by Pfizer in 2009), quickly followed, and the number of prescriptions of one of Wyeth’s most profitable medications dropped 66%… It later emerged that Wyeth and other drug companies marketing HRT had known about the risks but had deliberately concealed them to continue selling profitable drugs.” But now, of course, gender ideology has come to Big Pharma’s rescue.
The impact on academia: medical ghostwriting
All this is promoted through medical ghostwriting, which is, essentially, “a pharmaceutical company producing a peer-reviewed article promoting use of a drug it makes, often for off-label uses.” This is done “by hiring a commercial medical writing company to produce papers that can then be published in academic journals. An academic is attributed authorship, even though they have not written the paper. The paper contains conclusions that support the pharmaceutical company’s marketing desires for a particular drug.” (Sue Donym cites the case of the drug Prempro and the Wyeth corporation. See also article in Plos Medicine and news item in Nature.) “While medical ghostwriting is clearly unethical, it’s not illegal. Because academic publications aren’t considered promotional, it does not fall afoul of off-label marketing laws…. The New York Times estimated in 2009 that 5–11% of medical articles are ghostwritten, though this ultimately depends on the drug. With one drug (sertraline), between 18% and 44% of articles on the subject were funded and ghostwritten by Pfizer.”
Sue Donym has done us an immense service through this research. And it certainly aligns with many of the themes of Freer Lives, particularly in terms of the top down nature of the trans trend. I do however have three differences – perhaps just matters of emphasis – with the author.
Firstly, it’s important to see that gender ideology (my term, not one she uses) is not being pushed just by Big Pharma, but by the capitalist class as a whole, not for short term profits but to help it address a particular challenge posed by changing economic and social conditions. Women’s mass participation in the workforce has increasingly led them to see through old tropes that men are superior and very different to them. But the capitalist class needs women to keep seeing themselves as inferior and as natural nurturers so that they are willing to keep bearing the huge burden of unpaid work in the home, raising and maintaining today’s tomorrow’s and yesterday’s wage slaves free of charge for the bosses – a crucial underpinning to modern capitalism. Gender ideology answers this need: it is a cool updated sexism that bolsters tame liberal feminism and despicably affirms the naturalness of women’s submissive femininity.
This why we can see a trend toward simple, drug-free self-identification of adult trans people: this simple self-ID may not suit profit-greedy Big Pharma but works just as well as drug-dependency for the ruling class overall, because it sends out exactly the same sexist message about females’ natural femininity. It’s true that the power of Big Pharma, and a self-interested medical lobby, may partly explain why drugs are still pushed on children and teens, but even here it may not be the only factor at work. I suspect that the push for drug dependency is also driven by an awareness that kids, being truly “fluid”, might otherwise abandon trans identities before very long.
This leads to my second concern. The author heavily stresses the fact that kids who rebel against stereotypes would often grow up to be lesbians and gay men if not tracked into trans identities. But other rebels, as I think she would agree, are simply tomboy girls and “girlish” boys who go on to become heterosexual. And tomboys are the tip of the iceberg since all girls must to some extent resist confinement to femininity. This matters, because is vital to oppose the notion that resistance to sex stereotypes is a minority concern. That is one of the main police-work messages of gender ideology, which acts to prevent generalization of resistance to the female population at large. Girls are not only being taught that their femininity is natural, but also that rebellion against stereotypes means taking a drastic leap, joining the small minority of those other people over there – cool perhaps but very different – at a time when most kids are desperate to fit in.
The bosses’ use of gender ideology to attack working women as a whole is the ultimate driver of individual childhood transitioning, a sine qua non and essential backdrop. Lesbophobia and homophobia may drive transitioning at the family level, for people who have moved on from traditional biology-is-destiny prejudices yet remain anti-gay, but these people are working within a context they didn’t create.
Thirdly, left and liberal support for gender ideology, while disastrously wrong, is more than Kool Aid-drinking. These people are not passive dupes. They see that trans people get ostracized and sometimes attacked by bigots for adopting the cultural conventions of the opposite sex. They see that the gay-hating anti-abortion right also hates trans people, and that many right wing commentators attack some of the demands of the trans lobby. The social conservatives are not entirely a spent force, as we currently see in the US Supreme Court; true, the capitalist class has largely abandoned them, but under crisis conditions the bosses could swing back to them as part of an all-out assault on workers, women, LGB and ethnic minority scapegoats.
The very valuable material in Sue Donym’s piece should be used to aid our main task: winning the left and workers’ movement away from gender ideology.
(See also the article’s comments section.)
The US Supreme Court is hearing the case of a transwoman sacked by a social conservative employer. Aimee (formerly Anthony) Stephens was fired as funeral director by Harris Funeral Homes in 2013 after disclosing intentions to present at work as a woman. Stephens is represented by David Cole, national legal director of the ACLU, while the funeral home is represented by the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Trump, pandering to the bigots in his electoral base, supports the funeral home. Legal briefs can be viewed here.
The court is also hearing two cases involving gay men. Gerald Lynn Bostock is a former child welfare services coordinator, sacked after he joined a gay sports team. Donald Zarda, now deceased, was a New York skydiving instructor, fired after telling a client that he was same-sex attracted. His estate is pursuing his case. Hearings began on 8 October, but decisions are not expected until mid-2020.
Alongside the legal arguments a range of political issues are in play.
Sex and sex stereotypes
Trans people adopt some of the stereotypes of the opposite sex. But they defy those of their birth sex, which inflames social conservatives. In this instance the funeral home owner demanded compliance with a dress code “applicable to Stephens’ biological sex”. David Cole quotes the funeral home owner, Thomas Rost, as saying that “a male should look like a… man, and a woman should look like a woman.”
The Supreme Court (aka “SCOTUS”) has previously interpreted the US Civil Rights Act as banning discrimination based on sex stereotypes: in 1989 it “found for a woman who had not been promoted because her employers found her too aggressive and her manner of dress not feminine enough.” In the current case it will decide whether this decision can be applied to transgender people.
The right uses feminist arguments
During the court hearing, a lawyer for the funeral home argued that if we don’t let employers sack people for being trans, women will suffer. In doing so he played heavily on concerns raised by gender critical feminists:
Hypothetical questions about what the court’s eventual decision will mean for society featured prominently, particularly as it pertained to gender-specific restrooms and sports programs. John Bursch, an attorney for the funeral home… warned that transgender women will work at shelters for women.
Cole’s position “would mean that a women’s overnight shelter must hire a man who identifies as a woman to serve as a counsellor to women who have been raped, trafficked, and abused and also share restroom, shower, and locker room facilities with them,” Bursch said.
One brief supporting the funeral home argues that “Judicially rewriting sex discrimination in Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act] will spill over into other federal laws that prohibit sex discrimination… It will deny women and girls fair opportunities to compete in sports, to ascend to the winner’s podium, and to receive critical scholarships. It will also require domestic-abuse shelters to allow men to sleep in the same room as female survivors of rape and violence. And it may dictate that doctors and hospitals provide transition services even in violation of their religious beliefs.” (quoted by Business Insider)
Meanwhile the right wing New York Post recently ran an article from a woman complaining, quite correctly, that transwomen’s entry into female sports events undermines women.
Unfortunately, some gender critical feminists are allying with the right.
Some gender critical feminists collaborate with the right
The Stranger newspaper reports:
In August, the radical feminist group the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) filed an amicus brief in support of Harris Funeral Homes. “WoLF’s interest in this case stems from its interest in protecting the safety and privacy of women and girls and preserving women’s sex-based civil rights,” the brief reads. “Those rights have been threatened by recent court decisions and agency policies that embrace the vague concept of ‘gender identity’ in a manner that overrides statutory and Constitutional protections that are based explicitly on ‘sex,’ which is precisely what Respondents are asking the Court to do here.”
WoLF goes on to argue that Stephens is trying to redefine “female” from an immutable, biological category to, basically, a feeling: If you say you’re female, you are one. And if the court rules in her favor, according to WoLF, it will threaten the protection of females in all manner of ways, including in sex-segregated spaces like prisons, locker rooms, and shelters for abused women.
WoLF members demonstrated in support of their stand outside the Supreme Court at a rally “co-sponsored by Concerned Women of America, a homophobic and anti-feminist organisation”. Pinknews reported on this, adding that black British lesbian activist Linda Bellos was there supporting this rally, “backing the Trump administration’s efforts to make it legal to fire LGBT+ people.”
The Stranger notes that “the decision to work with ADF has not gone over well with other people who may agree with WoLF that the conflation of sex with gender identity is ultimately harmful for females.”
In 2017, for instance, a group of detransitioned women issued a statement after ADF started contacting detransitioners to participate in a potential malpractice suit against medical professionals.
“The ADF has fought against women’s reproductive rights, LGBT non-discrimination laws, LGBT anti-bullying campaigns in school, and same-sex marriage,” they wrote an open letter to detransitioners. “We ask you to think critically about this and reject any ‘support’ that would allow the ADF to treat our painful histories and financial vulnerability as an opportunity to promote their anti-LGBT and anti-woman agenda.”
Ruth Serwotka, a leading gender critical feminist in Britain, points out that WOLF have previously worked with the right wing Christian group Family Policy – “A more perverse or problematic alliance could not be imagined.” She adds:
The drift towards the narrative of acceptance of this alliance with hard right forces… is the start of a path towards the co-option of the growing women’s movement by the forces that exist to defeat us… Yes, it is an outrage that we are bullied and intimidated by sections of the left. But still we cannot make an alliance with people who would remove our bodily sovereignty, curtail our freedom to resist, enforce a sex-segregated family model, police compliance with subservient gender roles, remove rights from women of colour and prevent human rights for lesbians and gay men, and for transgender people.
Serwotka also provides some important historical context:
Often reflecting differences of class, some middle class suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst herself, had rather a soft spot for nationalism and war. Small but not insignificant elements within the militant [suffragette] WSPU bought into an ugly reactionary nationalism. A few allowed that internal logic to play out and became supporters of the British fascist Oswald Mosley in the 1930s.
The notion that women, simply by banding together, can be divorced from wider political and social forces, is reactionary nonsense.
Alliances with the right are always toxic
Conservatives can oppose gender ideology from the right, just as they could oppose Russia’s bombing of Syrian rebels as a challenge to US imperialism rather than as a means to crush a popular revolt; just as many right wingers have supported Brexit out of nationalism and racism rather than as a blow against the neoliberal, austerity-driving EU. But we cannot join forces with imperialists, racists or bigots without aiding them and undermining ourselves.
Alliances with the right always benefit the right, not our side. They have the weight of tradition behind them, the “common sense” inherited from the past. Right wingers usually have greater resources. Most importantly, our side relies on the ongoing, day-to-day commitment of ordinary people rather than bureaucracies or money machines, and support from ordinary working people melts away when they are confused or disillusioned by what we are saying and doing – and that’s just what happens when we cuddle up to known enemies.
Support Aimee Stephens, oppose gender ideology
We face a war on two fronts. Any victory for trans rights is likely to be exploited by the corporate mass media to reinforce gender ideology and the sexist redefinition of women. The neoliberal establishment is working hard to shift the “natural” foundation for women’s feminine inferiority from biology to a mystical inner essence known as gender identity. In official documents, this mystical notion is slowly replacing the material reality of sex; much of the scientific establishment has betrayed science by denying the sexual binary. A victory for Aimee Stephens in the Supreme Court may turn out to be one more milestone in the consolidation of gender ideology as the new orthodoxy.
However, gender ideology is not the same as transgender people. Stripped of this sexist wrapping, they are simply people who take up their right to live by the cultural conventions of the opposite sex, challenging traditional sexist beliefs as they do so. The sacking of Aimee Stephens was an attack on human rights and workers’ rights. And a clear-cut, wholesale victory for hardline social conservativism could also set up a broader attack on gays and women, as has been argued by Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager for the National Centre for Transgender Equality: “If it’s legal to fire Aimee Stephens for being transgender, it very likely becomes legal to fire a lot of people who aren’t transgender but who don’t conform to stereotypes.”
Progressives need to fight the sexist redefinition of women, fight intrusions into women’s spaces, sporting contests and organisations, fight the mutilation and sterilization of children, fight against gender ideologists’ campaigns to sack academic and medical critics and to silence progressive opponents. But the war against this new sexism is only set back by siding with old-guard bigotry. In the Supreme Court battle, the bigots are the main enemy.