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.