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Brendan O’Neill writes on Grace Lavery

Brendan O’Neill is a gentlemanly class warrior for the other side. His politics float between right-of-centre liberalism and the slimy alt-right.

Progressives’ support for trans ideology gives O’Neill an easy way to take them down. All he has to do is display the extent of trans sexism. This he does in the Sp!ked piece How the trans ideology dehumanises women, which examines a recent book by transwoman Grace Lavery – Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis. Lavery, he tells us, is an associate professor of English at Berkeley in California. (Before looking at Lavery’s musings and anecdotes, it should be admitted that any one of them might be passed off as satire and parody, in the proper, murky, postmodern way.)

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Lavery and women

Lavery, O’Neill says, “tells his doctor he wants ‘titty skittles’ – that is, progesterone supplements to ‘enlarge one’s breasts’. Hot tip for Mr Lavery: women don’t refer to their breasts as titties.” Lavery “seems to have such a fetishised view of ‘womanhood’ – to the extent that when he first transitions he puts on a ‘slutty denim skirt’. Well, women are sluts, right?… That reductive view of women as holes that need filling? That he can have…”

Elsewhere:

Lavery writes about the ‘panic’ over trans women (ie, blokes) using women’s toilets, with gender-critical types pushing the bigoted idea that trans women are ‘erotically fixated on the idea of women urinating’. Then, literally in the next paragraph, he says: ‘[But] going to the bathroom is kind of sexy? At least, I have occasionally found it to be so.’ My man, this is why they don’t want you in their loos.

The book “has page after depressing page” on Lavery’s male member, and “an entire chapter on his ‘splooge’, as he calls it”. The “most disturbing part of the book,” O’Neill says, “is its mockery of gender-critical women”:

Lavery goes on to say that there is ‘something stranger’ underneath ‘the whole phenomenon of British gender-criticals’ – he calls it ‘the problem [of] leaky boobs and the school run, the revenge of feminist grievance against feminist pleasure’. The ‘sourness’ of these harridans who dare to say men aren’t women represents a ‘loathing of the trans woman as a figure of pleasure embodied’…

This is misogyny. On every level…. Lavery has said that ‘there is something about being treated like shit by men that feels like affirmation itself… to be the victim of honest, undisguised sexism possesses an exhilarating vitality.’

Transwomen vary. Some just want to live quiet lives by the social codes and rules for women in our society. Others are left wing activists who no doubt fight for abortion rights. But trans ideology has sex role stereotyping at its core, and this inevitably generates misogyny. Lavery is no outlier. Take for example transwoman Jacob Tobia, author of Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, who once said “Women around the world have been treated as sexual objects. Yet if sexual objectification is so categorically awful, then why do I want it so badly?” Or American trans-identifying academic Andrea Long Chu, whose 2019 book Females calls the anus “a universal vagina through which femaleness can always be accessed.” The briefest glance through social media will confirm all this more graphically.

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Against trans sexism and the right

“Freedom of speech,” Brendan O’Neill says, “must include the freedom to ridicule Islam.” That is to say, he punches down on bitterly oppressed people, and wants to knock away the beliefs that give them moral support. Like many on the right he says he is pro-worker. Meaning what? Not support for Jeremy Corbyn, who gave so much hope to working people forced to their knees by neoliberalism; he denounced Corbyn’s supporters for “mob-like authoritarianism”. True salt-of-the-earth types are found on a march of the Football Lads Alliance, “attended,” O’Neill says, “by working-class people” and “organised by working-class people” (meaning Nazi Tommy Robinson and his small-business-owning mates).

Yet it is easy to see why many gender critical feminists have been pulled toward O’Neill and his kind, as the Laverys and the left slag them off. Many GC feminists have moved right, but by no means all. As Ruth Serwotka says:

Feminism, women’s liberation and women’s rights activism, however we wish to brand it, has always been a movement for radical progress, against reaction and against the hard right. The increasing impoverishment of women and children in the UK cannot be, and is not, ignored by feminists. The loss of women’s services and the never-ending attack on occupations in the public sector, a majority held by women, cannot be ignored.

Such attacks are the very meat and bread of the anti-union Spectator, where O’Neill often writes. Those attacks are resisted by the Corbynite and far left, even as they side with trans sexism against women’s interests (why the left does this has been much discussed on Freer Lives, eg here and here).

Sailing this sea requires some tacking. There are far too few gender critical feminists to respond to all the trans sexism pouring out of the corporate and leftwing media, far too few leftists on their side. So our side needs to make use of the research undertaken by the right, and maybe some of their nice turns of phrase, when this is targeted against trans misogyny.

Yet one cannot forget three things about the right. First, they fight for the austerity policies that make working women’s lives miserable. Second, conservatives in the political establishment allied with its neoliberal wing to mainstream gender identity theory in the first place. Third, when they now oppose the consequences of that theory, they are playing a game of divide and rule. So I say, by all means quote O’Neill against trans sexism, but carefully and selectively, and always, explicitly, as an enemy.

Another socialist voice against trans ideology

The trans debate remains sunk in confusion, with this new sexist ideology presented as left wing and oppositional by both progressives and conservatives. So it’s important to highlight every left group that has held the line against it. One is the CPGB-ML, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist–Leninist).

Defending Kathleen Stock

Earlier this year this group’s website, The Communists, ran the article The tragic fall of Kathleen Stock: another voice silenced by trans extremism. Liberal feminist Kathleen Stock was forced from her academic post at Sussex University for holding gender-critical opinions.

While distancing themselves from her wider views, The Communists share her “concerns about the ramifications for women, when material realities such as sex are ignored,” and when “legislation endorsing self-identification was being rushed through in England without due consideration for its impact upon women in ‘medicine, sport, science and education’.” Those attacking Stock also attack “workers’ rights” and “the rights of women”; they “reinforce sexual stereotypes” and they “come to ideological and physical blows with lesbian and gay people.”

The article also points out the appalling role played by the Sussex chapter of University and College Union (UCU), through “its active participation in the witch hunt” against Stock. Rather than defend their harassed union member they “called for an investigation into ‘institutional transphobia’ at the university”; its local leader “boasted of installing ‘Terf-blocker software’ on her Twitter account”.

Material reality and the sexual binary

In 2019 The Communists ran a piece called The reactionary nightmare of ‘gender fluidity’. “Lenin,” they note, “told us that ‘if geometrical axioms affected human interests, attempts would certainly be made to refute them’.” And that is just what trans ideology gives us, an attempts to deny material reality in support of vested interests – for example via the notion that sex is assigned at birth.

They also defend the now-contested biological differentiation between male and female. This sexual binary is anchored in sexual reproduction, which “has persisted in nature due to the diversity it engenders.”

An “identity” mainstreamed by the bosses

The “capitalist class,” they point out, took trans ideology “from a group of academics” and propagated it “to the point where it’s on the lips of every prime minister; it’s on the lips of every banker; it’s on the lips of every capitalist.” From “being very marginal to certain academic institutions in the 1970s” it “became mainstream globally.”

Here they make an extremely valuable contribution to the discussion. The trans trend would indeed have remained on the margins without mass propaganda pumped out by the film industry, by liberal broadsheets and right wing gutter tabloids, all saying that boys who wish to play with dolls are really girls, all modernizing old sexist tropes. The role of the media, supported by the public and private institutions of neoliberalism, is the decisive feature of the trans trend.

Class power, trans ideology and identity politics: just divide-and-rule?

The Communists are firm opponents of the oppression of women, black people, and other groups. They argue for the working class and the revolutionary party to fight oppression in all its forms. But identity politics, they say, is no solution. It fragments the working class, leading workers to see themselves mainly via their identity – their ethnic group, for example – and the bosses then pit different identity groups against one another. The bosses, they imply, support trans ideology simply as one more form of identity politics.

Where did identity politics come from?

Reading these articles, you do get the feeling that identity politics has been spun out of nothing by the bosses, as a weapon against workers and socialists. The decline of the unions also seems to be a pure act of destruction by the capitalist class. In fact, identity politics has its origins in the long agonizing decline of the western workers movement, in which the bosses were only one factor.

The late 1960s and early 70s saw confident, radicalized workers win huge strikes, alongside campaigns by militant social movements. The political establishment was the enemy of all; the slogan one struggle one fight captured the mood. But the mass campaigns against the Vietnam War and conscription came to an end. Economic crisis set in; union leaders rallied behind the bosses “in the national interest” against their own members. Unemployment came with it, workers’ confidence fell, and they depended more on the very union leaders who now turned on them and broke down their spirit. The bosses launched savage new attacks against the weakening unions. Outsourcing turned yesterday’s union militant into today’s subcontractor. Strike levels almost flatlined in most western countries.

In this new climate workers no longer looked like a key force for change. One struggle one fight rang hollow. Movements against the system fragmented; identity replaced solidarity. In this demoralized climate, postmodernists opened a point by point attack on revolutionary politics, sometimes under a pseudo-radical veneer, pouring out poison that still flows in today’s political bloodstream. Trans ideology is perhaps the most important example of this. Finally, the neoliberal bosses opted to embrace identity politics in tokenistic ways, extending its reach but in shallow form.

The contradictions of identity politics

Identity politics has two sides to it. Certainly the bosses use it as a distraction from austerity policies. They prefer individual workers to think of themselves as women, black people, gays etc. rather than as workers. And the bosses pit these different identity groups against each other.

They use identity politics, but did not invent it, and would prefer a world without it where members of oppressed groups were utterly atomized with no sense of their oppression. Because, for all the bosses’ efforts at co-option, identity politics here and there generates organized resistance, sometimes very militant, if limited in scope.

The specifics of trans ideology

Trans ideology, however, offers the bosses a lot more than just another chance to divide-and-rule. As The Communists say it reinforces sex stereotypes, but it does so in very emphatic and destructive ways. First, gender identity theory naturalizes confining sex roles for women by declaring that deep inside they have feminine “gender identities” aligned to their female bodies. Secondly, women who rebel against confining female sex roles are now partitioned off as trans, nonbinary, fluid etc. with no message to spread to their “cis” sisters except to support trans rights. Thirdly, these attacks have been successfully passed off as progressive, and militantly defended by activists as well as by union bureaucrats, liberal academics and journalists, and most of the far left. All this makes trans ideology a real prize for the bosses and their political establishment. This is why gender identity theory is embraced by the conservative as well as the neoliberal media.

The bosses “divide and rule” only when it comes to the practical outcomes of gender identity theory: the attacks on women, children, clinicians, critical academics and other critics – and on liberal-democratic values such as free speech – which all flow from the theory. This is where the right wing media shifts ground and plays to the concerns of gender critical feminists, right wing liberals and social conservatives. These arguments have been discussed at great length on Freer Lives.

The Communists

The Communists are part of the Stalinist tradition, which makes their politics intensely contradictory. On one hand, Stalinists formed the backbone of the left within the western workers’ movement for decades, fighting attacks on the unions, and opposing Israel and western imperialism. On the other hand, they have long supported regimes that try to crush every particle of democratic self-organisation within their own working classes. The CPGBML are hardliners who support, for example, North Korea, and denounce the turn towards social democracy taken by western communist parties after Kruschev’s liberalization in Russia in the late 1950s. (The CPGBML was expelled from the Stop the War Coalition, apparently after disputes over what line to take on Libya and Syria.)

Major disagreements on the left are nothing new. Debate should not be stifled but nor should it interfere with unity in action around progressive goals. Stalinists’ residual presence within the union movement seems to have given them some insulation from trans ideology in the identity politics milieu. That is very welcome (though the CPGBML admit that the issue is “causing genuine confusion” in their party). All left wing critics of trans ideology should collaborate against it, however divergent their views on other matters. At the very least, they should know about each other.

Flailing about on trans

Politicians and bureaucrats are a having a hard time on trans issues. At present there is no reliable spiel for reporters, no sure line to take in parliament, in the party room or in the public eye.

What is a woman? A conservative Australian senator recently asked the country’s top health bureaucrat, who said, after some squirming, that he would have to take the question “on notice”. Britain’s Labour leader Keir Starmer has also felt discomfort. Asked whether a women could have a penis, he said “I’m not… I don’t think we can conduct this debate with… I don’t think that discussing this issue in this way helps anyone in the long run.” Labour frontbenchers Yvette Cooper and Anneliese Dodds, queried on International Women’s Day, both declined to define a woman.

Then there are the issues of women-only spaces and women’s sport. British Labour MP Rosie Duffield opposed the idea of “male-bodied biological men” self-identifying their way into women-only spaces; subsequent online threats kept her away from the Labour annual conference. In response Starmer declared he too was “an advocate of safe spaces for women,” but also said Duffield “had been wrong to say ‘only women have a cervix’”.

Should transwomen compete in women’s sport? Starmer feebly said that was “for the sporting bodies to decide for themselves”, adding that these were “difficult questions”. Boris Johnson has now spoken against it, but the Conservatives are divided. The leader of Australia’s right wing Liberal party, more backward than the Tories, has now explicitly opposed it, but his party too is split on the issue.

Further splits have emerged on the issues of gay conversion therapy and so-called trans “conversion therapy”. Boris Johnson’s government has for the last four years promised to ban “LGBT+” conversion therapy. Under pressure from the right it recently tried to backtrack, prompting fierce resistance within its own ranks. In response it opted for a ban on gay conversion therapy but not the trans pseudo-version; The Huffington Post describes “a noisy public and private backlash from Conservatives who want a full ban to be brought in,” they will lobby for it when the legislation comes before parliament.

Why is this happening?

This is generally explained on all sides as the culture war. The far left adds that the culture war is a divide-and-rule policy from the establishment: its neoliberal wing adopts identity politics in token terms to polish its tarnished credentials, the traditionalist conservative wing attacks it to harness popular anger against neoliberalism; both wings use it to divide the working class and neither has anything good to offer. Politicians and bureaucrats simply have to navigate this tricky, shifting terrain. This is all true to a point, and has been covered in more detail in recent posts on this blog.

Yet it is not quite correct to say that the conservative wing of the establishment opposes the trans phenomenon. Indeed this section of the elite, like the main neoliberal one, has firmly endorsed the core idea of trans ideology – gender identity theory. This says that men are actually women if, inside themselves, they have pink gender identities. And most importantly for the elite, it says that almost all women are naturally fitted to confining sex roles, because their female bodies come with pink gender identities. In the 2000s the establishment grabbed onto this hitherto-obscure ideology and began mainstreaming it in the mass media and in public and private institutions. The normalization of this radical, sexist ideology would have been impossible without help from the conservative wing of the establishment.

However, the logic of gender identity theory has opened a Pandora’s Box of claims and demands that disrupt society and often cut against liberal-democratic values. The theory sanctions attacks on liberal-minded public meetings. It sanctions the doxing, sacking and silencing of critics, surgical and chemical mutilation of healthy young bodies, and the invasion of women’s spaces and sports by men who self-identify as women. Once you sell the idea of an inner “gender identity”, the rest follows. For instance:

At the weekend Lorna Slater, the Green MSP and junior minister, said that critics of the Scottish government’s proposed [pro-trans] gender reforms were no better than, and really just the same as, racists and antisemites… Slater said it was “disgusting” that critics were allowed to raise concerns on the BBC and other media platforms. Such privileges would not be given to overt racists, climate-change deniers or antisemites, and “gender critical” feminists should be beyond the pale too.

Slater is entirely correct – as long as you think gender identity is real, not a sexist fantasy.

The establishment conservatives

The main, neoliberal wing of the establishment shrugs off such complications. But they are too much for the right wing of the elite. To take one example, the Scottish Sun came down hard on Slater and approvingly quoted a Tory MP who said there “should be no place in Government for this kind of radical extremism.” But this mass circulation tabloid is happy to support a trans beautician, who, they say, “has promised to ‘fly a flag of pride for my people’ after signing up to strip off on hit show Naked Attraction.” Callie Percival will “attempt to be a bad b***h and loud voice for those that need it,” and “is appearing on the show for all the right reasons.” Another trans performer promoted in The Sun gives thanks to Only Fans for “helping her to become her true self after years of trying.” Elsewhere it laments the death of an actress: trans, but this comes out only toward the end of the article – a standard way to normalize transwomen as women.

For The Scottish Sun and their ilk, then, transwomen are women, because women are defined by sexist tropes. Women are sex objects, and transwomen make this notion not only modern and cool, but dangerous to challenge. So far so good, but the gutter tabloids and more highbrow right wing cousins recoil when the trans crowd get above themselves with all their claptrap and disruptive ways, and their nasty links to the left. The right wing media must also feel a bit of heat from their audience. This is where the culture wars kick in. From this point on the right wing of the elite turns to divide-and-rule, gives the bigots their head, and tries to win over some liberal and feminist women whom the left has betrayed – all the while, maintaining their support for “gender identity” itself.

So for our lords and masters, the trickiness of the trans issue comes from two factors: the disruptive implications of gender identity theory and the to-and-fro of the culture wars. This produces contradictory tendencies.

The first factor leads towards a shoddy compromise, which would cement in place the sexism of “gender identity” but draw arbitrary, illogical limits to its practical applications: transwomen can intrude on women here but not there, trans activists may intrude only so far in the work of therapists, etc. A stable compromise would give politicians and bureaucrats the smooth talking points they crave.

The second factor might make it hard to bed down. The logic of the culture wars, even within the establishment, would work to sabotage any deal. Then there are the forces on the ground. Any arbitrary limits to trans demands would leave their activists and the pro-gender on the moral high ground, a base from which to push further. On the other side, those fighting for women’s rights won’t go away either.

The Disney walkout

A group of Disney workers have taken action around trans and gay issues. The protest has involved 15 minute daily walkouts with a full day walkout on 22 March, as well as a website and twitter hashtags promoted by the corporate media.

The background is the Parental Rights in Education or “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida which, Fox News says, “bans Florida school employees or third parties from giving classroom instruction on ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity’ in kindergarten through third grade.” The bill has been signed off by the right wing Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis, and is expected to come into effect on 1 July. Fox News says that “the White House has condemned the bill as ‘hateful,’ ‘horrific,’ and ‘a form of bullying.’ ‘Why are Florida leaders deciding they need to discriminate against kids who are members of the LGBTQI community?’ White House press secretary Jen Psaki said…. ‘What prompts them to do that? Is it meanness? Is it wanting to make kids have more difficult times in school, in their communities?’”

The staff walkouts are focused on Disney’s response to the bill.

It’s not that Disney bosses have shown any sympathy for it. Disney’s former CEO Bob Iger, who stepped down in 2020, “tweeted in support of President Joe Biden’s call against the bill in February. ‘I’m with the President on this! If passed, this bill will put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy’.” More generally, Disney has dropped its traditional “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” welcome phrase, to “promote inclusivity”. The Guardian mentions “growing LGBTQ portrayals in films and TV shows and the selling of LGBTQ pride-themed merchandise at Disney stores.”

What the protestors object to is Disney’s tactical response to the bill, which did not involve explicit public opposition. Disney CEO Chapek told Disney shareholders that “instead of making an early public statement against the legislation, company officials had been working behind the scenes with politicians ‘to achieve a better outcome’”. “For weeks,” the New York Times said, “Disney lobbyists in Florida had been pressing to soften the legislation.” And in a memo staff on 7 March, The Guardian says, Chapek “cited ‘diverse stories’ such as Black Panther, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the TV series Modern Family as ‘more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort’, implying that Disney’s content speaks for itself.”

The protests forced Chapek onto the defensive. At the company’s recent annual shareholder meeting, he announced that Disney would be donating $5 million to LGTBQ groups. “I understand that many are upset that we did not speak out against the bill,” he said. “I called Gov. DeSantis this morning to express our disappointment and concern that if the legislation becomes law, it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, non-binary, and transgender kids and families”. Disney itself has now formally expressed its opposition to the bill.

In ratty response Governor DeSantis said “Disney is in far too deep with the Communist Party of China and has lost any moral authority.” His press secretary Christina Pushaw tweeted that the bill “which liberals inaccurately call ‘don’t say gay’ would be more accurately described as an anti-grooming bill.’” But DeSantis has also portrayed his stand as a battle against the big end of town: “We will never allow corporate influence to repeal the substantive rights of parents in our state.” Meanwhile over 150 companies, including Marriott and American Airlines, have signed a Human Rights Campaign letter opposing the legislation.

The bosses and the establishment

Biden’s hostility to the Florida bill reflects the ruling class view that gender identity theory should be promoted not opposed, because it reinforces sexism and women’s oppression in the modern world. It should be inculcated early and often; the formative K-3 school years are ideal, presumably. Beyond that, the bosses and their neoliberal establishment give token support to identity politics in general, including gay rights, to relegitimise themselves in the era of austerity.

Governor DeSantis and his ilk represent the populist conservative wing of the establishment, whose leaders – like the Brexiteer media across the Atlantic – support capitalism to the hilt without endorsing all current views held by the actual capitalist class. They exploit and channel anger among ordinary people, linking identity politics to the neoliberal policies that have wrecked so many lives.

The conservative establishment has generally gone along with gender identity theory itself; its media have helped to normalize and mainstream it, for its value in helping to maintain sexism under modern conditions. But it has attacked the practical, logical extensions of this theory, including its dissemination in school programs: partly out of hostility to leftists involved in trans activism, partly to curry favour with conservative supporters who have never liked “gender identity”, and partly in the hope of winning feminists from their historical left or liberal allegiances. In the USA it has made more concessions to traditionalist forces than in Britain. It is of course contradictory to back the theory not the practice, but the conservative elite can live easily with such contradictions.

Disney is the biggest private sector employer in Florida and a not insignificant member of the ruling class. It fully supports big capital’s position on trans and on gays but has tried to accommodate the social conservative section of its audience, hence the preference for back-channel lobbying.

The protestors

The Disney protestors are, in part, defending lesbian and gay rights. There is ample scope for developmentally appropriate discussion of lesbian and gay issues among children in the early school years: people can kiss, love, partner, settle down and rear children with members of the same sex. The protestors also want to push Disney’s support for same-sex rights beyond tokenism. They complain for example that “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection [in the company’s media productions] is cut at Disney’s behest.”

Alas, they are also helping to propagate the sexism of gender identity theory in the mistaken belief that this too is progressive.

It would be very appropriate to campaign against sex stereotypes – with most emphasis on freedom for females as the oppressed sex, including freedom from body-image miseries. That can also be taught in age appropriate ways. As a small part of this, children might be taught that females and males can live by the traditional rules and codes of the other sex, if they wish, within a range of much wider options.

That is not what trans curriculum packages are about. They are a world of pink and blue, sometimes half-concealed by talk of “fluidity” and “spectrums”, sometimes not. At most they offer room for handfuls of “gender non-conforming” cis-females who gratefully find shelter under the trans umbrella. The end result is this: it’s just fine if you’re a natural girly-girl, your femininity comes from deep within; most girls are born that way and stay so; the few who don’t fit are different and divided off from the rest of you. That is the main message, a reinforcement of sexism and women’s oppression. As collateral damage in this war against women, young, developing kids are taught to doubt their mind-body link – you might be a girl in a boy body or vice versa – preparing them for later affirmation of surgical and chemical mutilation.

Trans ideology, then, is a world away from the defence of same sex attraction. But the two issues are brought together by identity politics, and jammed closer by the attacks both causes face from the bigots.

Missing from all this is a powerful left anchored in the labour movement. A left that offers an alternative to both neoliberal tokenism and traditionalist bigotry. A left that throws off the fake progressivism of gender ideology and defends women, lesbians and gay men, and all those fighting to be free of sex stereotypes.