Katherine Deves has emerged as Australia’s most prominent critic of trans demands, applauded by some feminists. She was a candidate for the Liberal Party in the country’s recent federal elections.
Australia’s Liberal Party
The Liberals are Australia’s Tories. The outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a Pentecostalist. The party’s vicious anti-refugee policies serve as a model for racists in Britain and continental Europe. The Liberals are in permanent coalition with the National Party, the voice of mining magnates and agribusiness.
The Liberal-National Government nose-dived in the recent federal election, losing power to the neoliberal Labor Party (though its vote also fell). One issue was the Liberals’ ham-fisted response to Covid. Another was their contempt for climate concerns, when masses of voters had recently seen their houses ruined in historically severe floods. But also, many otherwise-sympathetic women were appalled by the Liberals’ misogynistic internal culture (see e.g. here, here and here). The Government also evaded even minor measures against political corruption.
The party lost a swathe of traditionally safe seats in wealthy inner suburbs, mostly held by Liberal moderates. The seats fell mainly to a group of independents, almost all women, labelled “teal” (tory blue dashed with progressive green), standing on women’s issues, environment, and political integrity, and linked to important sections of business and the political establishment.
Deves stood in one of these formerly safe Liberal seats, Warringah, against a sitting teal independent – a woman with star status, who in the 2019 poll had defeated a former Liberal Prime Minister.
Deves on transgender issues
During the campaign Deves said that there is “no place” for “gender identity… in schools”. She is the co-founder of Save Women’s Sport Australasia, and here her views received an articulate defence from an up-and-coming right wing celebrity. But Deves also accepted that women’s sport “was only a minor issue” in the election “compared to those raised with her on the hustings such as the cost of living, housing affordability, climate change and national security”. At the same time she distanced herself from bigotry:
Describing herself as neither conservative nor moderate, Deves said she voted for same-sex marriage. She said she was distressed Roe v Wade was under threat in the US because marginalised women would be most affected by the loss of their reproductive rights.
However, her challenge to trans ideology was instantly seized on by the corporate media.
Deves referred to trans children being “surgically mutilated and sterilised” through so-called gender reassignment operations, declaring that mutilation was “the correct medico-legal term”, contained “in the Crimes Act of NSW.” The Guardian pointed out that such surgery is not an offence when driven by gender ideology (NSW Crimes Act 45 (3) (c)). The media also said that under-age people in Australia cannot consent to such operations (dodging the issue of their validity overseas). But as Deves noted:
“We know the risk is, if they start declaring that they are trans or non-binary, they might be pushed on to that medicalised pathway and irreversible surgeries that there are many clinicians and doctors trying to warn everyone about, because we are going to be left with a cohort of children, who have been experimented on, who are going to be left as lifelong medical patients.”
Her political background
The media dredged up a range of unguarded comments she’d made before she’d contemplated parliament or even joined the Liberal Party – most of them tweets she’d deleted before her candidature. In one she said she was “triggered” by the Rainbow flag: growing up, she’d had “lots of LGB family and friends,” but since then “their movement has been destroyed.” The media, of course, usually cited the trigger comment in isolation.
Her support for gays, however, seems to have been over-ridden by a fierce hostility to surrogacy, even when used as a means to let gay men rear children. She also linked cross-dressing to serial killers; the media implied this was taken from Psycho and other films rather than real-world evidence.
She came to the Liberal Party late in the piece. Only last year her politics seemed very different:
“Who does capitalism REALLY benefit? Could it be that unbridled, rampant capitalism only benefits … the capitalists, and “trickle-down economics” is nothing but a fallacy?” Ms Deves tweeted in 2021. Ms Deves said the US decline began in the early 1980s – when Ronald Reagan was president – when “the social democratic model” was scrapped to favour “free market capitalism”.
It is tempting to say she might have gone decisively to the left at this stage, had the left itself been defending women against trans sexism. Perhaps. But as previously discussed, some social conservatives are markedly hostile to capitalism, without grasping that it underpins our whole society. Whatever the case, this early, confused, private individual soon gave way to a Liberal candidate hand-picked by the right wing leader of the party.
A divided response from the right
Katherine Deves rejects “gender identity”, but – as often noted on this blog –the conservative media is right behind this theory, which re-naturalises sexist stereotypes for women and corrals malcontents into a small, set-apart category. In Australia Andrew Bolt, lead commentator for the bare-knuckled right on Sky News, has firmly endorsed “gender identity”.
The right wing corporate media splits from liberal outlets over the disruptive social impact of the theory, where it transforms into a culture war issue. Even here the conservatives move cautiously, though, aware that right wing opinion is divided, and in Australia it took a “balanced” view on Deves. Her strongest backers were on the hard right: two ex-Prime Ministers famed for their cruelty to refugees, along with Bolt and his crew at Sky News, and Islamophobe Kirralie Smith (the instigator of binary.com.au).
The electoral outcome, and its distortion
When it came to the vote, the media failed to harm Deves. But this did not stop it saying otherwise. One report on Murdoch’s news.com.au site spoke of an “embarrassing loss” for her in the seat of Warringah. A range of outlets eagerly quoted a leading Liberal moderate, Simon Birmingham, who denounced her as the votes came in on election night.
“To see the Liberal vote appear to be going backwards to the tune of 7 per cent, I think, sends a clear message,” he said. “I fear that the impact in Warringah may have had something of a contagion effect on adjacent Liberal seats [held by Liberal moderates]. (Candidates) that actually do hold the right values, but may be paying a very high price.”
(Not to be out-done, Britain’s Socialist Worker had its own election report, declaring, in the lead paragraph, that the Australian poll result was a “repudiation” of the government’s “anti-trans bigotry”.)
Well, no. In the final vote, the swing against the Liberals in Deves’ Warringah seat was only 3.7%, less than the 4.3% swing against the Liberals nationally.* And while there is no exact comparison, Deves seems to have done better than “moderate” Liberals in the nearby seats of Wentworth and North Sydney. As for Deves herself, she is far from cowed: “I would like to say to my detractors that when they thought I could not withstand the storm, that I am the storm.”
How to respond?
Sometimes a layer of social conservatives end up opposing capitalist interests. Catholics hostile to abortion or even divorce long led the fight against British rule in Ireland. Social conservative Arabs and Muslims are prominent amongst those defying imperialism in the Middle East. It has always been important to support their challenge to capitalist interests without endorsing their conservatism.
The capitalist class internationally wants to entrench the sexism of gender identity theory as one means to maintain women’s oppression in the modern world. It does not seem especially bothered by collateral damage such as child mutilation, intrusions into free speech, or intimidation of therapists trying to do their job. The bosses are served by a political establishment of politicians, media barons, senior bureaucrats, and a host of privileged, loyal underlings. The liberal wing of the establishment defends all the attacks launched in the cause of “gender identity” sexism.
The other, conservative wing of the establishment also supports gender identity theory and was crucial in its mainstreaming. But it has also exploited public unease over the theory’s practical impact on sport, women’s spaces, schools etc. It does this to keep onside with its conservative base, to try to win progressive women from their old allegiances – with some success – and to divide working people.
Katherine Deves has signed up to serve these latter forces. Whatever her past confusions, she has become a class warrior for the main bosses’ party in Australia, renowned for the sexism of its internal culture and for policies that distinctively harm working women. We can and should defend individual actions and statements from Deves, and make use of her challenge to trans sexism. But that does not mean declaring solidarity or unity with her, or tweeting #IstandwithKatherineDeves.
The basis for unity
I think we should follow the example of Women’s Place UK when they say that “women’s liberation cannot be won by aligning with reactionary or oppressive groups or individuals who would deny women our rights and increase division and injustice.” On this basis they have denounced some gender-critical feminists’ alliances with the right in the USA. They have also refused to share a platform with a gender critical feminist in Britain known for her “perjorative comments about Muslim communities”, while defending this same woman from attacks on her gender-critical views.
Gender ideology and its activists threaten women, children’s well-being, academics, mental health professionals and democratic rights. In resisting all this there is a basis for unity in action between liberals like Transgender Trend, radical feminists and socialists of all hues. There is no basis for unity with social conservatives, even those who denounce capitalism or the big end of town; nor with the slimy alt-right, nor with neoliberal, anti-union journalists and their media lords. They are no friends of women, however loudly they weep for them.
*This 3.7% figure was the Warringah tally after the votes of minor parties were redistributed to the two main candidates, in line with Australia’s preferential voting system. In the initial Warringah vote, the swing against the Liberals was 5.7%, but here some of their support drained off to tiny right wing parties: more of them contested the seat than in the previous poll and their combined tally went up over 3.5%.