An interesting discussion on transgender issues recently took place at the annual conference of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party. It was described in the party’s weekly Socialist Worker, at the end of a report on the conference.
The SWP restated its support for gender self-id in the Gender Recognition Act. During the discussion Sally Campbell, editor of the party’s magazine Socialist Review, said “The starting point is we stand in solidarity with trans people. Being inclusive doesn’t erase anyone.” Feminist opponents of self-id, she said, see “biology as the roots of women’s oppression”. She also implied that the corporate media was hostile to the trans cause. Freer Lives has previously discussed the politics of sexual biology, the emptiness of gender identity theory, and the corporate media’s fulsome support for this theory. Most interesting in the current context is that the party line came under challenge from two directions, and that these challenges were both given space in Socialist Worker.
One member, Moyra, suggested that “socialists should adopt a broadly gender critical approach as the best way to support both trans’ rights and women’s rights.”
She said the SWP should oppose tactics such as no-platforming “gender-critical voices” and using the term “Terf”. She said belligerence around the debate was unhelpful in “trying to understand the complexities of the arguments around biology and gender”. She said, “There is an objective basis to build a unity of the oppressed between women and trans people because both groups are oppressed by the ideology of gender stereotypes.”
Moyra might reflect a wider current within the SWP, which it feels the need to acknowledge. But the party might also want to publicise her views as a way to help it balance and push back against its most hardline gender ideologists, who want to picket meetings of the women’s liberationist group Women’s Place UK.
Sally [Campbell] argued against going to the protests. “Going along to WPUK is not where we should be putting our energy,” she said. A commission laying out the SWP’s support for trans rights and backing the right to self-declare gender said “neither should we organise or encourage participation in protests outside Women’s Place UK meetings.”
Traditionally the SWP saw the picketing of progressive groups as a marker of nutty sectarian outfits. Even today, the notion of picketing a conference called Women’s Liberation 2020 must embarrass its leadership. Trying to overcome this healthy tradition, the party’s hardline gender ideologists have sought to put WPUK beyond the pale, presenting it not as a progressive group with some wrong ideas but as a bunch of bigots masquerading as progressives.
Another delegate, Kate, said groups such as Women’s Place UK (WPUK) were “giving a left face to transphobia.” She said that the group had spread “misinformation about the Gender Recognition Act” and that it only offered “criticism of trans people,” not criticism of gender. She also said it was right to join protests outside of WPUK meetings…. Laura Miles said there’s a difference between people raising legitimate questions about trans rights and “where people retail what are clearly transphobic positions”.
To see the fraudulence of the “left face” position you only have to glance through the WPUK website, carrying articles such as this denunciation of alliances with the right, written by one of the group’s founders. The WPUK approach trans activists’ demands and ideas on the basis of their impact on women, and sometimes children. They never attack trans people as such, or challenge the right of people to live by the cultural conventions of the other sex. The SWP’s hardline gender ideologists are straining to present WPUK as something it is not.
The contradictions of the SWP’s gender ideologists
Presumably, the hardline gender ideologists in the party still think of themselves working in the SWP tradition, but in practice they have broken with it. The tradition of the SWP calls for unity in action with other progressive groups, and dealing with differences through clear, consistent, sharp arguments. The politics of gender ideology calls for silencing progressive opponents through physical pressure and organizational manoeuvres and through pragmatic, manipulative arguments where ideas are picked up or abandoned case by case, according to whatever works at any given moment. The tradition of the SWP calls for a commitment to women’s liberation, expressed, for example, in Judith Orr’s Marxism and Women’s Liberation. Gender ideology redefines women in terms of what they can share with transwomen, that is, in terms of stereotypes – eroding women’s safety, dignity, and public participation, and creating a roadblock to women’s understanding of their sexual oppression.
The contradiction in the SWP as a whole
This alien presence has gained a hold in the party through the impact of neoliberalism. The SWP does not look for guidance to left wing MPs, nor to left union officials and their machines, nor to radical dictators. Nor is it caught up in ossified dogmas of Trotskyist sects. It looks to the real live working class as the way forward for the world, and to the potential of the working to class to cohere into a force that draws all the oppressed behind it for the overthrow of capitalism. But its very adherence to this tradition has exposed it more than most left groups to damage from the deep and sustained ebb in western workers’ self-activity over the last four decades. One of the ways it has tried to survive is by looking to the identity-politics milieu for influence, members, and cadre. But this has brought serious new problems.
At times this contradiction in the SWP produces feeble compromises. It is notable, for example, that Sally Campbell presented her opposition to the picketing of WPUK as a mere tactical decision: “not where we should be putting our energy”. At other times the contradiction produces vacillations.
So the SWP sometimes holds to its traditions, as in this statement in the party’s theoretical journal, condemning the no-platforming of feminists (Marxism, feminism and transgender politics December 2017):
For example, when [Julie] Bindel was invited to speak at an event in Manchester in February 2017 the website of the venue, a well-known local resource for working class history and events, was bombarded with abuse and instructed not only to withdraw the invitation but to close down the venue itself. This is not a tactic likely to win wide support, as many activists use the centre. It is also mistaken in its aims of closing down the meeting, which had been scheduled as part of LGBT+ History Month… No platform is not a tactic to be applied willy-nilly to people whose views we do not like, however offensive they may be.
At other times, the party has capitulated. The following year the SWP opposed an open letter in The Morning Star that denounced trans activists’ attempts to silence gender critical feminists. Signatories to the letter included union leaders Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka, and Kiri Tunks, Nation Union of Teachers Vice-President. It was also signed by Lindsey German, a leading member of the Marxist group Counterfire. Those signing it made it clear that they had “a variety of positions” on the proposed GRA changes; the letter was simply a call for “action within our movement to allow debate to take place” (discussed in a previous post). The letter describes the beating of 60-year-old woman Maria MacLachlan at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park; “an incident… on a Bectu picket line in which trans activists, with no connection to the industrial dispute itself, mobbed and verbally attacked a female trade union member on the basis of having recognised her as an attendee at a similar meeting”; “masked activists blocking entrances” at a venue in Bristol and “deliberately intimidating those wishing to go inside”; and a “meeting organised by Woman’s Place UK targeted with a bomb threat which Hastings Police are investigating as a serious incident”.
These cases are part of systematic attempts to shut down meetings organised by women at which they can discuss potential legislative changes and the impact these may have on any sex-based rights already enshrined in law.
They draw the whole of our progressive movement into disrepute.
Some trans rights activists even continue to justify the use of violence, meaning that many women are simply too frightened to attend meetings that are both public and lawful in order that they may discuss their own rights.
Other women, including ordinary women concerned for their rights, as well as those active within the trade union movement and other political campaigns, are also now anxious and fearful that they will be subjected to such attacks when engaging in any political activity, meetings, or protests.
Disgracefully, Socialist Worker stated “We believe that Mark [Serwotka] was mistaken to sign the recent letter in the Morning Star.”
This contradiction within the SWP was more or less buried during the first huge wave of support for gender ideology, which swamped both liberal and radical politics. But the Trojan-horse nature of gender ideology is increasingly exposed now, as women’s liberationists have slowly pulled together an opposition to it. They are supported by some Marxist groups and individuals, but the spearhead for the resistance is Women’s Place UK.
WPUK sent a letter to Socialist Worker responding to its conference report. This response was published in SW’s Letters section in the online version of the paper. It reads in part:
We note that the only reference to women’s rights is in the session on defending trans rights – a glaring omission such as this is precisely why Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) was set up, to make sure that women’s voices will be heard.
Your report refers to WPUK “spreading misinformation about the GRA” and “only offering criticisms of trans people”. Both these allegations are false, as the thousands of people who have attended our meetings or who have endorsed our five demands could tell you. We have never “criticised” trans people and are pleased to have had trans people attend our meetings and speak on our platforms…
We welcome the fact that you will not organise or support protests outside our meetings, but you should go further and condemn attempts to stop us meeting as having no place in our movement.
The WPUK letter notes that tickets for its upcoming London conference have already sold out: “Anyone on the left who ignores this is isolating themselves from a growing movement.”
Where next for the SWP
I think the SWP can go one of two ways. It can continue to let gender ideology eat away at its politics and traditions, and leave Britain’s new flourishing women’s movement to feminists guided by patriarchy theory, and to other Marxist groups, mainly from the Communist Party tradition. Or it can oppose the sexism of gender identity theory and the erosion of women’s rights that flows from it, and at the same time support the right of trans people to live according to the cultural conventions of the opposite sex, and defend them against the real bigots on the right, who think sex-stereotypical behaviour emerges naturally from our biology of birth. This would mean giving unconditional but critical support: defending trans people as an oppressed group without endorsing anti-woman ideas and demands that currently dominate trans thinking. I think that is the real basis for unity between women and trans people, and the way forward for the left.
In Britain a high-profile court ruling has just made it harder to speak out against the sexism of gender ideology.
Maya Forstater worked as a researcher at a think tank called the Centre for Global Development (CGD). She lost her job in 2019 after tweeting a range of gender-critical comments, which included an insistence that transwomen are men.
In her own summary of events leading up to the court’s decision, Forstater discusses her long term opposition to sex stereotyping (she was co-founder of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign) and how this eventually led her to the fact that stereotypes are now “being repackaged into the new idea of ‘gender identity’ — that if a girl child doesn’t conform to gender norms she might actually ‘be a boy’ (and vice versa).” She became increasingly concerned at the “impact of transgender ideology on women’s rights, on lesbians, on vulnerable young people being told they are born in the wrong body and on freedom of speech.” She eventually put these views into a series of gender critical tweets, causing her unexpected trouble with her boss.
At the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) she said that the CGD had not continued her employment because of these comments, and had therefore discriminated against her. She asserted that her statements expressed philosophical beliefs of the kind protected under Britain’s Equality Act 2010.
Prior to the decision she noted the high stakes involved in the case:
If we can establish this point in law it would help people who are currently afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs or being treated differently by their employer. It would also help people facing discrimination outside of work. For example political parties and membership organisations that suspend people for expressing such beliefs, venues that refuse to host public meetings and social media platforms that discriminate against gender critical feminists would need to re-think their policies or they too would face claims for discrimination.
In deciding against her, the EAT was guided by an earlier case which set out five criteria for determining whether the beliefs expressed in contentious comments are genuinely “philosophical”, and therefore protected. It found that Forstater’s comments met four of these criteria, but not the last one: “It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.”
The judge said (para 90 of the decision) that Forstater was
absolutist in her view of sex, and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society. (access via Google drive)
Louise Rea, a solicitor advising the CGD in the case, hammered home the key point:
Employment Judge Tayler acknowledged that there is nothing to stop the claimant campaigning against the proposed revisions to the Gender Recognition Act or, expressing her opinion that there should be some spaces that are restricted to women assigned female at birth. However, she can do so without insisting on calling transwomen men. It is the fact that her belief necessarily involves violating the dignity of others which means it is not protected under the Equality Act 2010.
British law and gender identity theory
Writing about the Forstater case, legal commentator Darren Newman notes the context of existing law in Britain: “importantly, the right of a trans person to have their acquired gender fully recognised in law was established by that Court in Goodwin v United Kingdom. It was as a result of that case that the UK Government introduced the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the concept of a Gender Recognition Certificate – the effect of which is that:
…the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender (so that, if the acquired gender is the male gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a man and, if it is the female gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a woman).
(S.9(1) GRA 2004)”
In an excellent defense of Forstater, Ruth Serwotka points out that the Gender Recognition Act’s “legal fiction of changing one’s sex” exists in tension with elements of the Equality Act that maintain the right of women-only facilities to exclude transwomen in certain circumstances, “known as exemptions”. But it is hard to deny the degree of support that gender ideology, and in particular gender identity theory, now receives in British law.
As previously discussed, this support extends more generally throughout the institutions of neoliberalism, reflecting the new norms of official society, that is, the norms set or tolerated by the capitalist class, and articulated by the intellectuals, commentators etc. who consciously or unconsciously shape their thinking to the current needs of capitalism.
Gender identity and the material world
Does elite support mean that gender identity is real? For only if it is real can challenging it be seen as an affront to trans people’s dignity.
The reality of gender identity is usually advanced as a mystical/magical inner truth known to the individuals concerned. And this is usually defended by a circular argument: this inner “knowledge” is real because saying anything else is a horrible violation of trans people’s innate gender identity. The circularity of the argument is protected from scrutiny by three things. First and foremost is the support the theory receives from the conservative and liberal corporate media, and from neoliberal institutions more generally. Another factor is the sheer breadth of support for gender ideology: it must be true if it’s endorsed by everyone from Tories to Trotskyists (the strained attempts by pro-gender Marxists to establish a materialist basis for gender identity have been previously discussed in Freer Lives). The other protective factor is people’s understandable reluctance to challenge the heartfelt belief of a group of people facing hostility from social conservatives and violent haters, and rejection from many ordinary people. But none of these factors remove the mysticism, circularity, or sexism of the argument. Gender identity is a fiction.
The sexual binary
Paragraph 41 of the EAT’s decision states:
On the totality of the Claimant’s evidence it was clear that she considers there are two sexes, male and female, there is no spectrum in sex and there are no circumstances whatsoever in which a person can change from one sex to another, or to being of neither sex… If a person has a Gender Recognition Certificate this would not alter the Claimant’s position. (access via Google drive)
The judge described such as view as “absolutist” at a time when “biological opinion is increasingly moving away from a[n] absolutist approach”.
Is there really no sexual binary? Sexes arose as the key condition for sexual reproduction, which involves guess how many sexes. The reproductive tract takes a male form, a female form and… not many others. True, for human beings sexuality can no longer be reduced to biology; here as in other areas, humans broke through the fixed, narrow routines of animal life, making sexual life varied, and enriched by deep personal interactions. But this does not alter the binary nature of the sexes themselves (see earlier discussion in Freer Lives and Do women exist? by James Robb).
When gender ideologues tell us that sex is a spectrum, and speak of people with chromosomal or other irregularities, we are left to assume that such people are trans or fluid, or more likely to be; left to assume that the men with these irregularities are more likely to be “feminine”. Left to assume, for nothing is ever made clear. Like so many anti-working class theorists, gender ideologues despise clarity. Ideas are to be picked up or discarded on pragmatic grounds. Whenever it suits, these same ideologues indignantly dismiss all biological considerations in favour of the mystical/magical inner truth of gender identity.
The fact that some scientists now deny the sexual binary does not reflect scientific method, or the knowledge accumulated through it. It reflects the changing needs of our rulers, and the way they shape public thinking.
The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class
The capitalist class has adopted gender ideology so that they can use its sexism to help maintain the oppression of women, to which the bosses are addicted. The whole point of attacking the sexual binary is to cast doubt on sex itself as an alternative to “gender”, that is, to sexist social convention, as a way of defining women. Transwomen can only express their womanhood through the cultural conventions of femininity (apart from the optional extra of body modification). But crucially gender ideology also applies this thinking to natal women: their womanhood can no longer be defined by their biology and a lifetime of female socialisation – that is exclusionary hate talk which, as Maya Forstater discovered, can get you into real trouble. Natal women, as a category, can only be women on grounds they share, or are said to share, with transwomen – only because they gossip, gush, do their hair; only because as kids they played with dolls, loved pink, and wore frilly dresses, as so many transwomen longed to do.
Such a huge change in public thinking inevitably provokes resistance from sections of the right. Some right wingers want to return to traditional stereotypes, where female biology is the natural source of femininity. Others are simply overwhelmed by the suddenness and enormity of the claims and demands now being made by gender ideology, and the challenges they raise to children, to free speech, and to the dignity of women, seen through a conservative lens. More politically minded right wingers, including some right-of-centre feminists, want to use the trans issue to discredit the left and win progressive women to neoliberalism. But all this is secondary.
Gender ideology is in essence an attack by the bosses on working women. This has an impact on all women since it redefines them in sexist stereotypic terms and in doing so unleashes a series of consequent practical attacks on women’s rights. But the target is working women since the bosses need them to continue to perform unpaid labour raising today’s tomorrow’s and yesterday’s wage slaves: gender ideology is just one more form of sexism designed to reconcile women to this role. But an attack on working women is also an attack on the working class as a whole. This is a fight for women’s liberation, but also a class battle of workers against bosses.
Every socialist should be supporting the efforts of feminists such as Woman’s Place UK, Fair Play for Women and Feminist Current to oppose gender sexism. Marxist groups and journals such as the Morning Star, Redline and Counterfire have led the way in doing that. Pro-gender Marxists are on the wrong side of the barricades, they have lost their way. We should all be standing with Maya Forstater.