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A top-down trend

Conservatives are split, but the elite supports the trans lobby.

Transgender rights are opposed by Christian Right. In the USA this takes place around the issue of m2f transitioners’ access to women’s bathrooms, and in Australia it is around the pro-trans campaign of the Safe Schools Coalition. But most of the elite in western countries is now backing the trans trend, which is supported, for example, by US Democrats, “moderate” Republicans, the British Government (see here, here and here), and the Murdoch media empire. The Pentagon is moving to lift the ban on transgender people joining the military, backed by a RAND Corporation report (it is “imperative that Mr. Carter complete this process in a matter of weeks”: NY Times editorial board 6 April 2016). The White House has begun hiring transgender staff and is “aggressively engaged” in supporting transgender rights. And Obama now insists that schools give transgender students access to bathrooms corresponding to their chosen gender identity – with an implicit threat that schools which do not abide by the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law “could face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid”.

Elite support for the trans lobby reached a high point in 2015 around celebrity transitioner Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner. The Economist ran an article called The Caitlyn Jenner moment. It said (i) conservatives are split on the issue of transgender (ii) their leaders are coming round to support it, disorienting and demoralising their followers (iii) the elite itself has swung behind the transgender trend.

 “I can only imagine the torment that Bruce Jenner went through,” offered Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina. Though Mr Graham affirmed that he is a “pro-life, traditional marriage kind of guy”, he added that “If Caitlyn Jenner wants to be a Republican, she is welcome in my party.” Former Presidential contender Rick Santorum “once compared same-sex marriage to the union of a man and a dog”, but now supports Jenner. The Economist continues:

the game isn’t over, but the outcome is not in doubt. The social forces that brought us to the Caitlyn Jenner moment are irreversibly ascendant… This is not to say that conservatives are being bullied by cultural liberals or are ashamed of their deepest beliefs…. Rather… [their leaders’ support for transgender] may reflect a dawning realisation that “our deepest beliefs” are not quite what we thought they were.

In 2016 the Republican governor of South Dakota vetoed an attempt to restrict m2f transitioners’ access to women’s bathrooms. Other conservatives have also sided with the transgender rights campaign. Over 100 top CEOs have campaigned against North Carolina’s bathroom law (a law enacted by the Republican Right for its own reasons, which incorporates anti-worker clauses).

Why elite support? Vested interests may play some role. One is Big Pharma, for which a bonanza beckons: full transitioning means a lifetime on costly drugs. Another is the entire industry devoted to the pinkification of girlhood and womanhood, living off females’ anxiety about their appearance, which the trans trend reinforces through its off-limits-to-criticism support for sex stereotypes. But the key value of trans ideology to the elite – the entire elite – lies elsewhere. Sex role stereotyping helps to reconcile women to mountains of unpaid labour in the family home: a central pillar of capitalism and something the capitalist class will simply not let go of. Campaigns to close down beauty contests, for example, are blows, however small, against stereotyping. Far better if the “radical alternative” to Miss Great Britain is Miss Transgender UK.

The elite did not initiate the transgender trend, but is accommodating it and turning it to advantage. This reflects a broad, ongoing strategic division in elite circles as to whether to hold the line against new social trends, or incorporate them. For example, while die-hards rail against gay marriage more forward looking sections of the elite see it as a way to cement the loyalty of lesbians and gays. But the analogy between LGB and trans is limited.

 

A top-down “struggle”

The demand for gay and lesbian rights emerged through real on the ground struggles such as Stonewall. The “struggle” for trans rights has always been primarily waged top-down. This is evident in the tremendously rapid lift-off of the trans trend, despite the absence of a mass movement on the ground, and the incredible amount of media coverage given to a phenomenon involving miniscule numbers of people (though this fact is quickly being covered up as media and institutional support swell the transgender ranks).

In 1982, sociologists Dwight Billings and Thomas Urban

engaged in a thoroughgoing critique of the medical practice of transgenderism. They argued that physicians created and promoted sex-change surgery, which would heal “neither the body nor the mind, but perform a moral function instead’ and that the surgery ‘privatizes and depoliticizes individual experience of gender-role distress” (Sheila Jeffreys, Gender Hurts Chapter 2; Billings and Urban 266).

The research undertaken by Billings and Urban is worth considering at length. During the 1950s, they found, a section of medical professionals started to pathologise a desire, or form of behaviour, that was, ultimately, a particular response to sex stereotyping.

Surgery on hermaphrodites played a significant role in the early development of the concept of transsexuals. Operations led to improved surgical procedures for genital reconstruction. Sympathetic studies helped to establish the concept of gender role as something separate from physical anatomy. Importantly, this came to be seen as something fixed, “virtually ineradicable”, by the age of 2 and a half years (Billings and Urban 270).

Another contribution was made by plastic surgery, “an established field of medicine where doctors performed operations on demand without medical justification.” Plastic surgeons “found sex change surgery strategically important for expanding their disciplinary jurisdiction” vis a vis urologists and gynaecologists. Besides which, reassignment surgery was profitable, especially when follow-up surgery, consultations and medications were factored in (269).

In the second half of the 1960s reassignment surgery became much more common. The Erikson Educational Foundation funded sympathetic symposia and speaking tours, sponsored workshops at medical schools and national professional gatherings, and disseminated films and pamphlets to “physicians, psychologists, lawyers, police, clergy, and social workers” (271). It gave grants to researchers and gender clinics. It also coached candidates in what to say to doctors to pass as candidates for reassignment. Glowing accounts from physicians described blissful results for patients, and for male transitioners, the full experience of female sexuality, barring only childbirth. “Human experiences such as sexual fulfilment and gender role comfort were thus transformed into luxury commodities” available from physicians (272).

The change in terminology from transsexual to “gender dysphoria syndrome” turned attention away from “conceptual, clinical and diagnostic” issues when identifying candidates for surgery. Billings and Urban report on their interviews with practitioners.

One physician who had performed approximately 100 sex-change operations in private practice told us that he diagnosed male-to-female transsexuals by bullying them. “The ‘girls’ cry, the gays get aggressive.” He also asked his female receptionist to interview candidates, since “a woman also knows a woman” (275).

The authors also observed the heavy use of ritualised expressions and formulae, eg “I always played with dolls as a child”; in fact these were often elicited by prompts from the physician (275). Stereotypic appearance as women was seen to smooth the diagnosis.

The transsexual patients they interviewed sometimes voiced the motivations of wishing to avoid the stigmas of homosexuality or cross-dressing (275).

The task of therapy, Billings and Urban conclude, is not to provide “easily commodifiable solutions to personal troubles”, but to help the patient to see the social and political processes that have led to their current experiences, feelings and wishes. “Medicine brushes aside the politics of gender to welcome suffering patient… into pseudo-tolerant gender-identity clinics. Yet these clinics are implicitly political, and indirectly, intolerant” (277).

 

Postmodernism and queer theory

The trans trend gathered strength in the 1990s not as a result of struggle but during a period of retreat, and the rise of queer theory, which was informed by postmodernism’s political passivity and contempt for liberation politics. During this period, as Sheila Jeffreys states:

individual bodies were challenged rather than the body politic, such that body modification, branding, cutting and tattooing came to be seen as progressive practices…. Even the cutting of other body parts, or placing objects under the skin, and brutal forms of branding in different forms of ‘body modification’ were somehow given queer credentials (Gender Hurts Chapter 1).

Jeffreys notes the top-down nature of this development while drawing on the work of David Valentine (Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category 2007). The state, Jeffreys writes,

invested heavily in the concept with funding to social service agencies and centres designed to cater to the ‘transgender’ community. The concept was developed in the academy, with transgender studies and transgender publishing. Despite these developments, Valentine argues that when he did his research in the late 1990s in New York, he found, much to his surprise, that there was no transgender community (Gender Hurts chapter 1).

The “struggle” is very often waged against feminist critics, or prominent individual women who challenge the trans agenda, and expresses itself in an extreme unwillingness to engage in any genuine dialogue or debate, to the extent of preventing critics from speaking at public meetings.

Even if it turns out that critics are wrong – that it’s OK, for example, to say abortion is not a woman’s issue, that female socialisation is not part of being a woman – even if so, these are surely concerns worth acknowledging, as legitimate mistakes that might be made by someone who is basically on our side. But I have not come across any acknowledgement whatsoever that any part of trans ideology, or even media popularisations of it, might raise genuine concerns for women, or for anyone concerned to challenge sex role stereotyping.

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3 Comments

  1. Laura Miles says:

    This is nonsense. The struggle for trans rights has never been top down – Stonewall involved trans people, as did the GLF, as did the fight for AIDS research and medical funding. When you side with the so-called trans trend you are erasing transphobia and siding with the trans critics and the Right. That is no way a progressive position for any socialist. Both trans people and women suffer appalling oppression in capitalism and any socialist worthy of the name should be trying to promote solidarity between oppressed groups, not undermine and deny one at the expense of the other. The key to that is class analysis, not collapsing into trans exclusionary positions as you do.

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    • freerlives says:

      Promoting solidarity between oppressed groups involves acknowledging the oppression of each group, and how it is manifested. The oppression of transgender people has been acknowledged many times in this blog, but it is also widely acknowledged elsewhere by trans-critical feminists. These feminists ask in turn that transgender people acknowledge issues surrounding women’s oppression. Elinor Burkett put it this way: “The insult and outright fear that trans men and women live with is all too familiar to us [women], and a cruelly marginalized group’s battle for justice is something we instinctively want to rally behind.” But when transgender public figures like Caitlyn Jenner talk to the mass media about female and male brains they “undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us.” The point here is not Jenner’s wealth or Republicanism but the media’s use of Jenner to celebrate sex role stereotyping, and to deny the reality of oppressive female socialisation, and to have this new variety of sexism all made cool and unchallengeable. Instead of acknowledging these concerns, transgender activists have attempted, online and offline, to silence feminist criticism, confident in the knowledge that they have the force of the neoliberal media behind them. By and large socialists have capitulated to this. “Any socialist worthy of the name should be trying to promote solidarity between oppressed groups,” you say. As a criticism of this blog, that is pretty rich.

      Not a top-down trend? You have ignored almost everything written on this page.

      Siding with the Right, am I? Have you looked at the rest of this blog? Time after time it points out the contradictory nature of the transgender phenomenon, and the need to defend trans people from discrimination, physical attacks, and from the Right. The most recent post (17 November) explicitly addresses this issue.

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  2. Judita says:

    Sorry this is a bit rushed ….
    As a socialist I understand that all sex stereotyping has a basis in capitalist oppression of women. Also I recognise in this specific situation trans people have used the avenue of trans to escape stereotyping that they feel harmed by. Available avenues under capitalism are not limited to trans, but it is favoured more and more. However this itself is a form of sex stereotyping.

    What this blog has identified is that sections of the elite see something positive in this phenomenon for manipulation of the situation to build solid support for the use of stereotyping to reinforce women’s role in the capitalist family. This can reinforce women’s oppression.

    Why don’t this elite support making gender neutral the avenue of choice? Or at least support neutrality as a ‘respectable’ choice.

    The trans phenomenon is making it easier, less risky and a defensible action for those facing the effects of oppression because they can’t identify with the gender designated by their birth sex. We must defend these individuals. This blog does argue for unconditional support for the struggle against transphobia.

    However, the best defence is always based on genuine analysis of accurate use of the facts and ideas. Not avoiding inconvenient facts.

    This blog has provided some suggestions of how we can fight transphobia and women’s oppression. Unfortunately it cannot provide a blueprint for a world without oppression. For that we need a united struggle for socialism. However, I think revealing more about this phenomenon has allowed us to take a step toward that struggle not away from it.

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