Here is a welcome piece from the New Zealand Marxist website Redline, discussing the left’s capitulation to gender ideology. It points out that this is effectively a collapse into the subjectivist element of postmodernism, and abandons a materialist understanding of the world. And, again very welcome, the article reminds us that progressives used to support women-only spaces until the onset of gender ideology.
There is a contradiction at the heart of the trans phenomenon. On one hand it challenges traditional sexism, the centuries-old idea that sexual biology destines women and men to particular roles, competencies and attitudes – an idea that still dominates much of the world and ordinary people’s thinking. In making this challenge, individual trans people face discrimination and sometimes violence, and attacks from social conservatives who also attack same-sex people and abortion rights. Looked at this way it seems obvious to most leftists and liberal feminists that they should simply embrace and defend trans people, and, as part of this, accept ideas of “gender identity” used to define them.
On the other hand, gender identity theory, the core of gender ideology, redefines women in sexist terms, and, like traditional sexism, naturalises the traits traditionally foisted on women, this time under a “progressive” banner. Discontent with sex stereotypes is now framed as a minority issue, to be solved individually not collectively. These ideas have made gender identity theory very appealing to the ruling capitalist class, which has used its corporate media, conservative as well as liberal, to mainstream it.
The ideology has been applied in many practical ways, such as the intrusion of male-bodied people into women-only spaces, organisations and sporting contests; “educational” programs for children that encourage mind-body dissociation and track kids into drug dependency and surgery; the censorship and sacking of dissident academics and physicians; and the no-platforming and harassment of women’s liberationists. These practical applications of the ideology are only possible thanks to the backing it has received from the ruling class. But in themselves these applications are of less interest to the bosses, and indeed sometimes irritate them, and this has created space for opposition to transgender demands to strengthen and grow among sections of the right. This in turn reinforces support for gender ideology among leftists.
How should gender critical leftists deal with this mess?
Separate trans people from sexist gender ideology
One answer is to separate trans people from sexist gender ideology, defending the first and attacking the second. Stripped of gender ideology’s packaging, trans people are simply people who choose to adopt the conventional appearance, and some of the conventional roles and habits, of the other sex. Such people have existed since confining sex roles first emerged in the remote past. It is true that these people rely on the trappings of oppressive sex roles to make this swap, but this can be used to highlight the artificiality of these roles, and they certainly challenge the traditional biology-is-destiny form of sexism. Seen in these terms, there is nothing in principle to stop such people making common cause with women’s liberationists.
Two factors blur the neat division between defending trans people and attacking gender ideology. One is terminology. The term “transgender” became popularised through the rise of gender ideology, so using the term automatically implies acceptance of the gender sexism. Secondly, the corporate media’s evangelism for gender ideology has massively increased the number of people identifying as trans, fluid or queer: many of these recruits might otherwise have identified as lesbian or gay, or else adopted woman-friendly ways to challenge sex stereotyping.
Neither of these factors, however, changes the underlying need to distinguish between an oppressed group and the conservative, sexist ideas used to defend that group. When a trans person is bashed, sacked or ostracised it is because they have defied the traditional form of sexism, not because they have embraced a new one.
Using victims to maintain oppression
There is a long history of the capitalist class using victimised or endangered peoples for their own benefit. World War One, a grotesque mass slaughter to defend western imperialism from upstart Germany, was often portrayed as the defence of little Belgium against the Hun; the first Gulf War against Iraq, a monstrous mass killing to maintain western imperialism’s hold over the Middle East, was described as the defense of Kuwait. More recently, crocodile tears are wept for the plight of women and gays in North Africa and the Middle East whenever western rulers want to blow them up and burn their cities.
But one of the most important examples today concerns Jews and Zionism. Jews were subject to the worst act of racism in human history. That racism never disappeared and is currently on the rise once more. Zionism, however, is a racist ideology which declares that Jews are inherently different to other people and for this reason can never live at peace alongside gentiles; it gives Israelis the right to dispossess Palestinians of their land and lock them up in Gaza and the West Bank. Strenuous efforts are made to link Jewishness and Zionism by Israel and its supporters: denunciations of Zionism, we’re told, are just dogwhistle code for hatred of Jews, you don’t “really” support Jews unless you also support concentration camps for the Palestinians. This lie is perpetuated because Israel polices the Middle East for Western powers. The point, however, is not to compare the actual ground-level persecution of Palestinians with the oppression of women, but to see how victims are sometimes used to disguise oppression, and how gender ideology fits into this pattern.
Unconditional but critical support
How do you support the struggle of an oppressed group when you disagree with – or even loathe – the ideology that prevails within its ranks? In these situations Marxists employ the formula of “unconditional but critical support”. The unconditional part means that your support is not conditional on the oppressed group adopting the ideology that you think will advance their cause. But (presuming you are correct) you can and should criticise that ideology, even while you back the oppressed people who currently endorse it. (The formula of unconditional but critical support can also be used when you oppose an oppressed group’s current leaders, and/or the current tactics or strategy that they follow. For further illustrations of the concept see here, here and here.)
So for example if a business sacks a trans person due to their management’s “Christian conscience” we would be right to join a trans activist picket against the firm. Or if a trans person is bashed outside a pub we might rally outside that pub alongside trans activists, even the most rabid gender ideologists, demanding that the management take a stand against violent bigots: rally with them, and defend them physically if need be. But at the same time we could have our own slogans, banners and leaflets which explain our differences to the gender ideologists. Joining that fight is right because a principle is involved: the struggle against oppression. But tactically it is also right, because it would put us alongside other people at the rally who are not hardened gender ideologists and could potentially be influenced by our arguments. They are much more likely to listen or read our pamphlets when they see us pitching into the struggle against bigotry.
At a later date, if trans activists had a second rally demanding the pub give transwomen access to women’s toilets, or install unisex ones, we could be counter-demonstrating against the trans activists, because the issue would be different. In that case the people who had fought alongside us the first time might be less quick to accept the vitriol we now received from the hardened TRAs.
Issues where the right and gender critical progressives seem to align
In most cases, though, right and left wing critics of gender ideology call for the same things: for transwomen to be excluded from women-only spaces, organisations and sports competitions, freedom for academics, psychologists and physicians to challenge gender ideology, and so on.
It happens now and then that some leftists and right wingers do share immediate concrete demands – eg an end to Russia’s bombing of Syria and support for Brexit. This creates problems. Your position can be used to discredit you by left wing opponents, who say you are lining up with the USA/Brexiteer racists. There is also a danger of leftists being pulled to the right by their new “allies”.
So it is vital from the start to articulate the distinctive reasons for your positions, and denounce your “friends” as well as your enemies. While the immediate demands are the same, the premises are entirely different, and these underlying assumptions lead off in different directions until they are diametrically opposed. For example, the left can defend women’s spaces as a partial defense against women’s oppression, and a way of highlighting it. But right wingers’ defense of women’s spaces is different: it ultimately falls back on notions that women are inherently frail and in need of protection, and/or have timeless, sacrosanct feminine rituals to enshroud; that biology is destiny. Social conservatives will then call for a return to traditional values, and opposition to gay rights and abortion. Right-of-centre liberals will want to use the women’s-spaces issue to discredit socialists and indeed any resistance to neoliberalism (the very thing that spawned gender ideology).
The centrality of class
Most of the struggle waged by gender critical progressives seems to be directed against transactivists. In my opinion this disguises the fundamental battle taking place and sets up a roadblock to further progress.
Continuing support from the capitalist class is absolutely essential to the gender ideologists. It is the corporate media, mainstream politicians, and high level institutions of neoliberalism that allow the emperor to wear no clothes – to conceal the emptiness of “gender identity”, the unscientific absurdity of denying the sexual binary, and above all, the attack on women that underlies them. If the bosses pulled their support for gender ideology, then its right wing liberal critics such as Helen Joyce, Janice Turner and Andrew Gilligan would quickly move to centre stage and they would be joined by a host of other mainstream commentators. Trans activists would cease to be celebrated in the media. But that is far from happening because gender ideology is the gift that keeps giving for the bosses.
The reasons for the bosses’ support, and the reasons why most of the left has capitulated to gender sexism, have been extensively discussed on this blog and elsewhere. The point to make here is that bosses support for gender ideology is part of its attack on working women and that in turn is part of its ongoing attack on the whole working class. The way forward is not overheated harangues with entitled, sexist trans activists but sober and steady argument with all those leftists and other working class people fighting neoliberalism.
Trans, fluid, queer people are oppressed under capitalism, so they need to be defended; any if buts or maybes is a concession to bigotry. That in essence is the position of most socialists. But it does in fact need to be qualified, because the ideas used to defend trans people are saturated in sexism. This has made the trans cause very attractive to the bosses, and it is for this reason that the corporate media have mainstreamed the trans phenomenon.
This does not mean trans individuals have it easy. Centuries of tradition have defined women and men by their sex and then attached stereotypical demands and expectations to both sexes. These traditions remain unchallenged in many parts of the world and continue to shape the views of most people in the west. Trans people suffer violence, abuse or discrimination because they transgress these old rules. They are oppressed. But the gender ideology used to define them is nonetheless applied by the bosses to help maintain the oppression of women.
The position of the capitalist class
The notion that the elite have driven the trans trend would be surprising and probably offensive to most leftists and liberals; any elite support is usually passed off as the result of changing social values in society as a whole, or due to pressure from below, or else people see the elite itself as divided along liberal-conservative lines, part of the so-called culture wars.
So it is important to look at the actual coverage of trans issues in the conservative sections of the corporate media. Take the Herald Sun, the Murdoch newspaper in the Australian state of Victoria, with the largest circulation paper of any daily in the country. On 29 May 2015 it ran an article called The transgender conversation we had to have (paywall, title slightly changed online). Transwoman Marco Fink, it tells us, “used to envy the girls at primary school, their freedom to wear dresses and express their femininity”. It approvingly cited Roz Ward, at that time a co-ordinator of Safe Schools Victoria, who “says transgender adults recall childhood experiences of being forced to wear a dress or of having all their sister’s dolls removed from the house to stop them playing with them. ‘Now if you ask any specialist in the transgender field they would say that is really damaging to a child’s health and wellbeing,’ she says.” So as well as handcuffing femaleness to femininity, the article positions trans specialists as the definitive or only people with something to say on the issue of discontent with sex stereotypes.
This political line is reflected on www.news.com.au, Murdoch’s free-access Australian website, which provides articles that also appear in the News, Lifestyle etc sections of Murdoch papers in different Australian states. I did a quick scan of its trans coverage in 2016 and came up with articles like these:
- Warren Beatty: ‘My transgender son Stephen Ira is my hero’
WARREN Beatty has given his first in-depth interview in 25 years to praise his transgender son…
- The mums pushing for change for their transgender children
(Led by photo of the mothers with Federal Labor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten)
RIGHT now, in homes all over Australia suburban mums are waging an almighty street fight. One day, someone will probably make a feature film about it. But for now, they are fighting in schools, courts, medical clinics, sporting clubs and even in the corridors of power in Canberra. These are the mothers of transgender children.
- $700 million basketball stadium’s bold new feature
A $700 million sports stadium’s fitout has ensured the Sacramento Kings basketball team’s arena toilets are open for use to all fans: kings, queens and anything in between…
- Transparent: The most important TV show you should be watching
JEFFREY Tambor has earned deep respect for being one of the most versatile and accomplished character actors in film and television. On Sunday night, he stood on the Emmys stage and made an impassioned plea to Hollywood…. “Please give transgender talent a chance…”
So the truth is that, like the liberal mass media, these conservative News Corporation papers have normalised trans ideology and even evangelised for it. They educate their readers that anatomy is no longer destiny – while sustaining the crucial idea of an inherent femininity and masculinity, so important to preserving the notions of female inferiority and natural servitude.
More rigorous research from Transgender Trend has demonstrated that the print media in Britain consistently popularised the idea that children could be born into the wrong body and used this to explain their discontent with sex stereotypes:
It is the media which has facilitated the speedy public “acceptance and recognition” of not just “transgender and gender diverse people” but the completely new belief that children are “transgender,” together with the idea that invasive medical intervention is a necessity. The press has a big influence on people’s views, including parents, teachers and all adults in a child’s life, and it plays a pivotal role in normalising and creating acceptance of ideas within society as a whole. Whether individual people believe that some children are “transgender” and that “physical treatments for younger adolescents” is a good idea is largely dependent on a societal consensus created in large part by the way the media reports it.
In other words the capitalist class as a whole has used its media, liberal and conservative, not to respond to pressure but to intervene in public thinking: to educate its readers to accept gender ideology.
Why the bosses drive support for gender identity theory
Gender ideology helps the capitalist class address a key dilemma concerning the place of women. The bosses want women as wage workers, but women’s mass entry into the paid workforce has given them greater confidence and a day-to-way awareness that they are very similar to men and in no way inferior. This is a major headache because the capitalist class needs women to retain a sense of their otherness and inferiority so that they will keep slaving away free of charge in the home, raising and maintaining today’s, tomorrow’s and yesterday’s wage slaves for the employer class. The bosses have no complete answer to this contradiction but address it as best they can, piecemeal, through selective endorsement of the least threatening elements of feminism: high-merit women should be able to rise into the elite, we love kick-ass females as long as they’re in heels, etc. Gender ideology provides a much-needed additional prop to this flimsy structure: it declares that the vast majority of natal females have a feminine gender identity, so it is natural that they love dressing up, gossiping, caring and nurturing. This is the message now being pumped into working class women and girls via the media, “progressive” school programs and other propaganda.
The limits of bosses’ support
Supercharged by this elite support, trans activists have naturally campaigned to put these ideas into practice. Transwomen, the say, are women because gender identity trumps sex, so they have the right to access woman-only spaces, and represent women in sports and other areas. Children’s resistance to the stereotypes they were born to shows the need to track them into trans identity. Opponents, critics or questioners in academia and the medical profession are simply bigots who should lose their jobs. Oppositional feminists are also bigots who should be censored and no-platformed.
The capitalist class does not have a strong interest in supporting these practical applications of gender identity theory, except insofar as they buttress the sexist belief-system underlying them. In fact, these practical issues sometimes create irritants for the bosses. These have been previously discussed on this blog, but in sum, they align the movement with the much-despised political left; they generate calls to subsidise costly surgery; they cause fights, where the bosses want order and stability; and above all, the attacks that the trans movement makes on women risk arousing widespread opposition from women themselves, defeating the whole point of it from an elite perspective.
The result is that the corporate media has, on the practical issues, divided along liberal-conservative lines, with the more conservative outlets criticizing aspects of trans demands, all the while maintaining support for the core concept of innate gender identity. (One Australian Murdoch paper has made half-hearted attempts to separate gender ideology from identity politics, highlighting the attack on queer theory by a prominent conservative transwoman, Catherine McGregor.)
The middle class and commentariat
Following the lead of the conservative media barons, many right wing commentators and right-of-centre liberals are now also opposing or questioning trans demands. In doing so they draw on traditional ideas of conservativism and classical liberalism. Women need separate spaces due to their inherent natural frailties, not because they are oppressed by the social system. Children’s asexual innocence should be protected. Freedom of speech is sacrosanct, and so on. These right wingers occupy a range of political positions, from a form of liberal feminism through to redneck intolerance. What unites them is a delight in using gender ideology to hammer the left and extend the hand of friendship to formerly left-leaning gender-critics. In Britain this has been used as one element in the campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, to try to crush the message of hope he brought to working people.
The response from gender critical feminists
Gender critical feminists are of course aware that the elite has championed gender ideology, but their primary concern is usually to defend women, children, principled professionals and feminists themselves from this ideology’s practical effects. This focus is reinforced by their support for patriarchy theory, which leads them to see trans activists rather than capitalism as the central enemy: trans activists being defenders of male privilege and a kind of advance guard for the oppressive male “sex class” as a whole.
The response from the left
The left has largely ignored the attack on women launched by gender ideologists, massively amplified though it is through the corporate media. They focus entirely on the fact that trans identity challenges traditional, biology-is-destiny forms of sexism, and buy into the idea that women and men are defined instead by the stereotypes they have internalised as inner feelings about themselves, as though this is somehow less sexist. The mystical notion of gender identity has been equated to the material realities of being gay, black, or disabled.
This seems to have hit the Trotskyist sections of the left harder than those in the Stalinist tradition. I think there are two connected reasons for this. One relates to the state of the western workers’ movement. The Trotskyists, particularly those in the International Socialist Tendency, take seriously the notion of workers’ self-emancipation: to liberate the world they look to the actual working class, rather than to left wing MPs, union bureaucrats or “radical” dictators. So they have been particularly hard hit by the sustained quiescence of the working class during the neoliberal era. Strikes are the key driver of workers’ radicalisation, but strike figures have been not only extraordinarily low by historical standards, these incredibly low figures have been sustained for an extraordinarily long time. While the Stalinists were immensely damaged by the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the period since then has probably done even more harm to the Trotskyists. They are demoralised and weakened.
This has led to the second reason for the capitulation to gender sexism: the Trotskyists’ greater dependency on the identity politics milieu, with its while-hot support for gender ideology, for influence, recruitment, and cadre.
The current mess
The result is a disastrous polarisation dominated by right wing ideas on both sides of the debate. On one side, a slimy neoliberal attack on women, using fake progressivism to keep women harnessed to unpaid work, and on the other, a resistance dominated by conservative and classical liberal ideas but shading through to the bigotry of the populist right – a coalition that is diverse in its attitudes to feminism but united by hostility to the working class and therefore to the interests of working women as a whole.
The next post will make a case for how socialists should respond to this mess.
How does the issue of transgender rights relate to the wider fight against oppression? How do we defend trans people’s rights without undermining those of women? These questions come out in a recent exchange in the Irish Marxist Review (IMR), which might therefore be of interest to other gender critical progressives.
The IMR recently published a letter by Orla Ní Chomhraí, a gender-critical member of the Socialist Workers’ Network and the broader group People Before Profit. Orla challenged the pro-gender line of her groups and in particular criticized a recent article in the IMR on trans issues (previously discussed on Freer Lives here and here). Under her letter is a reply from John Molyneux, editor of the IMR and a prominent theoretician within the International Socialist Tendency (IST), of which the SWN is part.
Elite and institutional support for transgender demands
In her letter Ní Chomhraí attacked the use of sex stereotypes by trans individuals and public advocates for gender ideology. Molyneux presents this as purism:
Has it not been the case that conservative gender stereotypes also reproduced themselves to some extent within the lesbian and gay community? Of course it has, because neither oppressed groups nor workers break all at once and completely from the dominance of all aspects of bourgeois ideology. In every group we will find elements of contradictory consciousness. Indeed a purist could argue that the very demand for marriage equality was reflective of bourgeois gender stereotyping. But obviously any socialist who didn’t vote yes in the [same-sex marriage] referendum would have been spectacularly missing the point. Then again Ní Chomhraí may have forgotten this but elements within the feminist movement itself have been known to embrace essentialist gender stereotypes as in the idea that women are inherently kinder, more caring than men…
This completely misrepresents Ní Chomhraí’s concerns and ignores the central point she is making. In her letter she says:
the main problem is not that some individual trans people, or their advocates, might express some sexist ideas. The internalising of sexist ideas in our current social environment is to be expected. The most worrying issue is that institutions and the press are promoting these sexist ideas, and undermining women’s rights, under the banner of being trans inclusive.
These institutions include Britain’s NHS and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. She also notes that, through trans awareness programs, the police force is being trained to enforce the application of these stereotypes, which also play a growing role in school sex ed programs.
Molyneux addresses this only in relation to the police. He blames their sexist interpretation of gender issues on their inherent conservatism (even though British police are drawing on material supplied to them from a trans advocacy organization). Otherwise, silence. This is extraordinary, given the corporate media’s clear support for gender identity theory, the importance of this support in defining the transgender phenomenon, and the attention Orla gives to this point in her letter. Molyneux avoids the point presumably because he has no answer to it.
The pink and blue flag
It might also be pointed out that sex stereotypes are essential to trans identity in a way that is not true for other groups. A lesbian, for example, may or may not adopt a butch or a feminine image; a transwoman can express “womanliness” only via the trappings and mannerisms of oppressive femininity – apart from surgery, which is not a requirement for trans identity and, unlike stereotypes, is taken up only by a minority of trans individuals. The centrality of stereotyping to trans identity is what has made it so attractive to the corporate media.
This reliance on stereotypes is concealed by the concept of “gender identity”: this, not stereotypes, is said to be the real foundation of a transwoman’s womanhood. Yet gender identity is nothing more than the internalization of sex stereotypes. It is usually understood as some kind of personal communion with an inner truth about oneself, a mystical concept; the IST’s strained, desperate efforts to create a material-world basis for gender identity come apart at the first touch, as previously discussed. It is no coincidence that the trans flag is pink and blue.
The practical implications of gender ideology
Later Ní Chomhraí notes some of the spin-offs of gender ideology: the loss of women’s spaces as male-bodied people gain access to them, and the erosion of women’s sport as transwomen are allowed to compete against natal women. Orla points out that women need to be able to “set boundaries in terms of privacy, safety and sexual partners… Refusing to allow women and girls to have some sex-segregated spaces where women are vulnerable (e.g. changing rooms, shelters and prisons) will put women at greater risk of violence”.
Molyneux replies that support for sex segregation “has usually been associated with conservatism and sexism even though ‘defence of women’ against predatory men and boys often played a role in the justification of this separation.” The logic of this line is to endorse the current trend toward unisex facilities as the norm, which the trans trend is spearheading. But what does “usually” mean? Could there be progressive case for women-only facilities, a case we can’t deny outright but would rather keep in the shade? During my years of activism within the IS Tendency, prior to the rise of gender ideology, it was clear that we defended women-only spaces in public life as a partial defense against women’s oppression, and a way of highlighting its existence.
In forthcoming posts I want to look in more detail at four issues arising from this exchange. The first is the overall class politics of the transgender trend. The second is the political battle lines drawn around transgender demands, such as access women-only spaces. The third issue is the need to distinguish transsexuals from the gender ideology that defines these people in as “transgender” and thereby reinforces women’s oppression. The fourth issue is how socialists should defend both women and transsexuals from oppression under capitalism.
The last article described the reasons why the capitalist class supports the core ideas of gender ideology, particularly the central, mystical concept of gender identity; but it also discussed points of potential divergence between gender ideology and the bosses’ interests, which have created space for opposition from some sections of the right. The current article looks at the rise of right-of-centre liberal opposition.
Almost all liberal criticism of gender ideology has come from the right of centre. A notable example is The Economist. Its breezy endorsement of the trans trend in 2015 (see previous post) has been replaced by well-articulated concerns. These were expressed in a lead article 27 October 2018 (paywall) and the more detailed briefing 25 October 2018 (paywall). Two months later the journal’s finance editor, Helen Joyce, wrote a piece about gender ideology in the right wing website Quillette covering much the same ground. All this follows a series of invited essays in The Economist earlier in the year, where views considered transphobic by gender ideologists were included. The journal also raised some concerns the year before: see leader (paywall, full text here) and briefing (paywall, full text here) both 16 November 17.
Stereotypes have come roaring back
The Economist points out that “outdated gender stereotypes have come roaring back under self-id” (leader 2018); “once you abandon anatomy, attempts to help children determine for themselves whether they are boys or girls soon fall back on stereotypes: if you’re a leader and planner you’re a boy; if you’re nurturing and a gossip you’re a girl” (briefing 2018). The surge in the number of girls visiting gender clinics may be “because some girls ‘seem unable to find a place for themselves in a sea of sparkly pink princess dresses, and then, after puberty, in a hypersexualised pop culture.’” (briefing 2017) Puberty blockers then “start a cascade of intervention, in which almost every child given them goes on to take cross-sex hormones… Advocacy groups commonly say that children asked to wait are likely to kill themselves. There is little or no evidence for this.” (briefing 2018).
In defence of women’s spaces, it points out that men “commit almost all sexual crimes… Were just 1% of the men in prison in Britain for sexual crimes to identify as women, it would double the number of women in prison for such offences…There is no reason to think that identifying as a woman makes a male any less dangerous (or any more)… By contrast, there is every reason to think that predatory males will claim to be trans in order to commit crimes more easily.” (briefing 2018) The magazine further points to the stifling of opposition views of academics and clinicians, to disguised homophobia as a motive for transitioning, and to the demoralising intrusion of male-bodies people into women’s and girls’ sport.
It adds that young girls are now taught to doubt their own judgement and instincts, eroding their resistance to molestation. “If one child queries the presence of another of the opposite sex in a single-sex space, it is the child with concerns, if anyone, who should be removed. This protects trans people, but it teaches children that they should remain silent if something makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. It flouts safeguards designed to stop paedophiles insinuating themselves into children’s confidence. These were put in place only recently, after society grasped the prevalence of child sexual abuse. It is odd to loosen them.” (briefing 2018)
These are precisely the sort of issues that you would expect to concern liberals, whether left or right of centre. The remarkable thing is how few liberals of either hue have been raising such issues until fairly recently. This almost complete silence reflects the fact that gender ideology has been supported on the one hand by the bosses, and on the other hand by the identity politics milieu, heavily influenced by postmodernism and the political retreat of the working class. The fact that a right wing liberal journal like The Economist can now express concerns like these underlines the space opening up for establishment criticism of gender ideology, or at least some elements of it.
Similarly, we see The Times and Sunday Times allowing space for journalists like Andrew Gilligan and Janice Turner to raise concerns around free speech, the surgical and chemical mutilation of healthy children, and the intrusion of male-bodied people into women’s sports. Turner makes telling points about the violation of women’s spaces and the privileging of trans concerns over those of young girls; the imposition of affirmation-only policies and the very effective pressure stopping professionals speaking out. See for example her article Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby, The Times 11 Nov 2017 (pay wall; full text is reproduced here, along with a religious blogger’s commentary).
Further to the right, The Spectator has also criticised trans ideology. When Janice Turner’s Times article was attacked by Labour MP Stephen Doughty, James Kirkup on the Spectator’s blog defended her robustly. (1 May 2018) Another Spectator critic of gender ideology is Brendan O’Neill, who has been glowingly compared to Dutch bigot Geert Wilders and to hardline conservatives in Australia (Truth from stones – non-Christians getting it right, CultureWatch 16 June 2017).
While right-of-centre liberal sources sometimes make powerful criticisms of the effects of gender ideology, they are much weaker in explaining the source of its current influence. The Economist, for instance, explains it in terms of social media, but why does it hold so much sway there? Unlike the campaigns for women’s or gay liberation, the trans trend has never been a mass movement on the ground; its social media base has been fed not by mass activism but by mainstream corporate outlets. Janice Turner suggests that suddenly-naïve politicians are simply “deluded” about this “craze”. The Economist and Turner both mention electoral opportunism, but this puts the cart before the horse – it is establishment forces which mainstreamed gender ideology in the first place; politicians have simply added to the deluge of “born-in-the-wrong-body” propaganda produced by the liberal and conservative media. A more likely explanation why so many politicians dote on the trans trend is that gender ideology aids the bosses by reinforcing the oppression of women, to which capitalism is addicted. But right wing commentators cannot articulate this fact, even to themselves.
So we face the bizarre, sickening situation where the sexism of gender ideology is challenged mainly from the right of centre: articles about its reinforcement of sex stereotypes, about its violation of women’s spaces, about the sterilisation of children, about the harassment and silencing of physicians, academics and women’s liberationists, are set amidst pieces attacking Corbyn, unions, indeed almost every progressive cause urging ordinary working people to get off their knees. Left wing gender ideologists naturally seize on this juxtaposition to discredit progressive opponents and justify their campaigns to silence, revile and intimidate feminist critics.
Resistance in Britain
Resistance to this situation is strongest in Britain, where an important minority of feminists and Marxists have held the line against gender ideology and are pushing back. The Marxists include the Morning Star and Weekly Worker newspapers (eg here) and Counterfire (eg here). The feminists include groups such as Women’s Place UK and the Socialist Feminist Network. These feminists have started to have an impact on the liberal left media. For example, The Guardian has finally drawn limits to its support for gender sexism (earning the ire of its counterpart in the USA, who do not as yet feel the same sort of heat).
A much sharper response has recently appeared in the liberal New Statesman (22 May 2019) where associate editor Helen Lewis has cheered on Women’s Place UK, as “a loose collection of volunteers with roots in the trade union movement… A Woman’s Place draws its organising strength from socialist women, but many feel rejected by their own side”.
Her article covers a meeting of WPUK on 20 May this year. Transgender activists have repeatedly tried to disrupt such meetings, she points out, “describing them as hate speech. Venues have cancelled Woman’s Place bookings because of protests (and their associated security costs). An event in Oxford last year attracted condemnation from the student union, which accused the group of being ‘at the centre of this past year’s violent anti-transgender rhetoric and media abuse’”. But things are changing:
Gender-critical feminism is gaining ground, after decades in the wilderness. I could feel the relief of women who are used to Twitter beastings and whispered conversations, who were now able to see there are others like them…
The most stirring speech of the night was from Selina Todd, a historian of the working class, who made the case that queer theory and the transgender movement represented a move away from collectivist politics towards individualism. “Gender was not, and is not, an identity freely chosen,” she said.
Gender critical feminists, Lewis points out, “see gender as a social force, imposed on women from outside: wear pink, do your hair, suck up all that unpaid caring labour.” By contrast, “’trans inclusive’” feminists “believe in ‘gender identity’ – an innate state of being. They use phrases such as ‘born in the wrong body’.”
No dalliance with the right
Lewis argues against the “extremists” on both sides of the trans-feminist debate, in a way that did not strike me as particularly clear or helpful. But she also makes very strong – indeed, absolutely vital – points, on the need for progressive gender critics to avoid dalliance with the right:
[Julie] Bindel has ended up writing for the Daily Mail and Unherd as much as the Guardian. Earlier this year, activists from radical feminist group the Women’s Liberation Front (unwisely, in my view) sat on a panel hosted by the US conservative Heritage Foundation, which opposes LGBT rights.
With no home on the left, gender-critical feminism must resist allying with right-wingers who share none of its wider goals.
Who share none of its wider goals, and often work actively against those goals. Social conservative bigots opposed to abortion and same-sex rights are not coming from a pro-woman place, but nor are those sections of the liberal right who are now stepping back a little from aspects of gender ideology. They are all committed to an economic agenda that has brought misery to working class women over the last four decades: more vulnerable than men in the jobs market but also suffering when their male partners face overwork or unemployment; much more heavily burdened than men with unpaid caring roles for children, for the elderly, for those with disabilities, roles which are ramping up with every new neoliberal cutback to the welfare state.
Most of the left has failed to support women’s liberationists’ battle against gender sexism. In many cases they have also supported no-platforming and gross abuse of such women. In response some feminists have developed a loathing of the left as a whole, sometimes also buying into the slander of Jeremy Corbyn as anti-semitic. But moving to the right simply aids a different and much more pervasive anti-woman agenda. It gives left-wing gender ideologists ammunition against progressive critics. It creates a roadblock to winning over large numbers of progressive women and men who are trying to make sense of the gender debate. I believe the only way ahead is to keep up the pressure on left organisations to revisit their support for gender ideology, until they too reject this slimy, neoliberal, pseudo-progressive attack on women.
The capitalist class has mainstreamed gender ideology because it helps to oppress women and thereby aids the bosses interests; the corporate mass media, conservative and liberal, near-unanimously promotes and normalizes “gender identity” mysticism. But the bosses are not committed to every twist and turn of gender ideology, and this creates space for limited opposition from liberal and conservative supporters of the system. Many conservative media outlets oppose some secondary features of the trans trend. Right-of-centre liberals are increasingly critical. In the USA social conservatives have launched a powerful counter-attack. Meanwhile gender-critical women’s liberationists are challenging it from the left, particularly in Britain. Opponents of gender ideology on the right and left share a range of practical demands, but this surface unity conceals radically divergent agendas for women. We need to fight all sections of the right.
The story on transgender from most of the left describes a binary: progressives fighting traditionalists and bigots; embattled trans people challenging the might of the corporate media and right wing politicians. A lot of Freer Lives has been spent contesting this false binary, pointing out the vital support gender ideology has received from the capitalist class and the neoliberal right, support that has taken it from the margins to the mainstream.
The Caitlyn Jenner moment
Gender ideology originated in sections of the US medical profession, and was then taken under the wing of postmodern academia. From there its message was gigantically magnified by the corporate media, liberal and conservative (current examples here and here), throughout the western world, which began running supportive stories of kids born into the wrong body, evidenced by their yearnings for the stereotypes of the other sex. Doing so has allowed the bosses’ media to reassert the natural pinkness of girls and women in freshened-up, progressive-sounding form. It makes discontent with stereotypes a minority concern, and a matter of personal lifestyle, not social protest.
This right wing ideology was absorbed into identity politics, and from there it permeated the far left, weakened, split and demoralized by decades of neoliberalism and the political retreat of the working class. This wide right-to-left spectrum of support guaranteed that gender ideology would also be backed within the unions, including teacher unions. It also spread of course via social media, feeding back into more mass media coverage; celebrities were now disciplined into support, or at least silence.
In everyday life trans individuals remained at risk of ostracism, abuse and violence. But in the corporate media they were cheered on almost everywhere. Trans TV star Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time in 2014 and the year after Vanity Fair profiled Caitlyn Jenner. Apart from tiny groups of feminists, the only organized forces holding out were social conservatives, and even they were under siege.
In 2015 The Economist summed up all this as The Caitlyn Jenner moment, noting that gender ideology was now acceptable even to some senior US Republicans. “I can only imagine the torment that Bruce Jenner went through,” offered Lindsey Graham, now a leading Trump supporter. Graham affirmed that he was a “pro-life, traditional marriage kind of guy”, but said that Jenner was “welcome in my party.” Then there was Rick Santorum, on the hard right of the party and a former presidential contender. He had “once compared same-sex marriage to the union of a man and a dog”, but now he too supported Jenner. “The game isn’t over,” The Economist concluded, “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 the following year over 100 top CEOs campaigned against North Carolina’s bathroom law designed to force transgender people to use the public facilities of their birth sex. In South Dakota the Republican Governor vetoed a similar attempt to restrict tranwomen’s access to women’s rooms. One Reuters correspondent described bathroom legislation as “a wedge issue for Republicans, pitting the party’s pro-business branch against social conservatives”.
Support for gender ideology sails on today. National Geographic featured The Gender Revolution on its front cover in early 2017 (its group photo illustrating the “gender spectrum” included a “cis” man but no cis woman). In some US states natal males who self-id as women can access female-only amenities. Even Teen Vogue plays its part with an inane challenge to the sexual binary.
Over the last 15-20 years, then, western ruling classes have endorsed and encouraged a truly extraordinary social shift. They have broken with centuries of propaganda declaring biology as the natural basis for sex stereotypes. Sections of the corporate media have thrown their weight behind a bizarre postmodernist challenge to the material reality of the sexual binary. Healthy teens and children can now legally undergo surgical and chemical violations of their bodies, sometimes leading to sterilization. Women’s private spaces are being undermined. These are radical changes. It is hardly surprising that the mass of the working people have not kept up, and still require much “education” from the tabloids, TV, and celebrity-worshipping websites.
The limits of bosses’ support for gender ideology
This does not mean, however, that western capitalist classes have committed themselves to every twist and turn of gender ideology and trans activists.
The bosses get all the sexist propaganda material they need from having small numbers of individuals “born into the wrong body”. They show little desire for governments to subsidise surgery on healthy teenagers, certainly not on a large scale. Yet the risk of this surfaces with the surge in numbers of youth seeking physical transition. Trans activists are entangled with the despised political left; school programs now encourage needlessly wide numbers of kids to question their “gender”, and probably add radical nonsense into the mix. The trans movement gets into fights; the bosses like order and stability.
Some bosses may also fear that overreach from the trans movement will generate significant unease among sections of the broader population. In a worst-case scenario, this overreach could stir masses of working women into action to defend themselves: that would defeat the one and only purpose gender ideology has from an elite point of view. Yet that is just where the logic of gender ideology leads, with its demands for transwomen to enter women’s spaces and sports events, and its censoring and harassment of opponents.
The divergence of interests between the bosses and the gender ideologists should not be exaggerated. But it has translated into, or encouraged, four significant developments.
Firstly, the conservative mass-circulation newspapers that continue to serve up “born into the wrong body” stories have simultaneously opposed other aspects of the trans trend, and sometimes they cover their right flank with opinion articles from bigots opposed to all aspects of gender ideology (eg here). Secondly, while Britain’s Tories have clearly embraced gender ideology this is not true of all their backward overseas cousins, eg Australia’s Liberals.
Thirdly, the limits of bosses support for the transgender trend has given space for social conservatives to regroup, particularly in the USA. The 2016 Republican Party nationally adopted its “most conservative platform ever”, applying pressure on presidential contender Trump who was still vaguely supportive of trans demands. The Party convention endorsed language
that attacks the Obama administration for directing schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identities. “Their edict to the states concerning restrooms, locker rooms and other facilities is at once illegal, dangerous and ignores privacy issues. We salute the several states which have filed suit against it,” reads the platform. (New York Post 18 July 2016)
By September of that year, 16 US states had asked the Supreme Court to to reverse a lower court’s judgement that transgender people are covered by the Civil Rights Act. (Anglican Mainstream, 2 September 2018) In February 2018 the Republican National Committee endorsed a ban on transgender military service. Trump’s opportunistic implementation of this policy was provisionally affirmed in a 5-4 decision in the Supreme Court, which split along liberal-conservative lines. This social conservative attack on gender ideology is part of a wave of attacks on women, gays and workers.
Fourthly, the space created by the bosses’ reservations has also begun to generate questioning of gender ideology among right-of-centre liberals. That will be discussed in the next section of this article.
This two-part post examines the article Socialism and the fight against Transphobia, by Stephanie Hanlon and Adrienne Wallace, which leads the most recent edition of the Irish Marxist Review (IMR vol 8 no 23). Part 1 of this post looked at the authors’ treatment of gender identity. Part 2 now examines the issue of sexual and gender binaries.
Many gender ideologists go on about pink and blue brains, men inside women’s bodies and vice versa, and these concepts are widely employed in the corporate mass media’s propagandising. These formulations retain the concept of a binary between women and men. But the IMR authors, like many other left-leaning gender ideologists, dispute the whole idea of a binary:
Gender Critical Feminism (GFC) is an alternative term for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism, as there is no major ideological difference between them. Both argue that because sex is a “natural binary”, trans people are always the sex they were assigned at birth. Intersex people either do not exist or are “anomalies” produced as a result of birth defects…
And they say the very idea of a sexual binary is politically conservative:
Transgenderism blows the typical and repressive gender binary that has concreted the oppressive family structure, which capitalism has reified, right out of the water. It points to a whole human mosaic of sexuality, genders and relationships that do not conform to any norms. And while there is no definite answer with regards what defines our gender Identity one thing is for sure – it rests on an array of complex social, biological and psychological forces and has the potential to challenge one of the oldest oppressions of women and the working class- the nuclear family.
This passage makes ridiculous claims. Women’s liberationists and Marxists have long called for a world where everyone is free to adopt whatever sexuality and personal relationships they choose, within a humanistic, mutually respectful and loving framework. These ideas are not innovations granted to us by gender ideology. The only new arguments here are false ones: that the concept of a female-male sexual binary is a mere ideological construct, which somehow contributes to the capitalist family unit, and women’s oppression.
Overwhelming evidence for the sexual binary
It is true that some (not all!) scientists are now supporting this claim. The frailty of their case is well summarised in Do women exist? a measured, carefully argued piece by James Robb. “Distinct sexes,” he points out, “arose in natural history as a condition of sexual reproduction… There is no form of sexual reproduction known which involves more or less than two sexes. Sexual reproduction is universally binary”.
Scientists who support gender ideology highlight the existence of chromosomal abnormalities: we are not all simply XX and XY. But Robb notes the distinction between “the genetic ‘information’ influencing sex and the actual physical form of sex.”
“Chromosome arrangement,” he points out, “is one of the primary mechanisms determining sex in an individual, but not the only one. Hormones also play a major role, and these are not all governed by genes on the X or Y chromosomes.” And importantly, the “outcome of sex determination, the sex of a human being, is the form of the reproductive tract. There are only male and female forms.”
As for intersex people: “even among the small percentage of the population who have atypical chromosome arrangements and intersex conditions, ambiguity of the reproductive organs is rare… many people born with sex chromosomes other than the typical XX or XY pattern have some kind of developmental and/or reproductive disability, and often lifelong health problems,” making them “the exceptions that prove the rule of two sexes”. In any case, the intersex argument is simply thrown in when convenient; it is not as though transgender identity relies on such a condition, or that intersex people in general identify as trans.
The only reason why the sexual binary is now challenged is to justify trans identity. The fact that this has been taken up by some scientists does not reflect scientific method, or the knowledge accumulated through it. Rather, it reflects the fact that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. That class is using gender ideology as a new way to hold down women. And as the capitalist system declines, its apologists veer further away from materialism toward idealist and irrationalist views of the world, and this impacts on science.
Traditionalism and the sexual binary
Traditional sexism links the materially-based sexual binary to an imaginary, ideologically-driven binary of feminine and masculine personality types, or ideals; feminine and masculine are said to be grounded in the sexual division itself. This is the age-old “common sense” that does not need to be articulated or argued for, but can be left unsaid, since the audience is assumed to share these prejudices.
Gender ideologists try to blur the distinction between traditionalist sexism and gender-critical progressivism, to tar us with the same brush. Some traditionalist sexists do this too, trying to work with or even win over gender critical feminists; they are happy with formulations such as “woman is biological” since, by itself, it can be understood as “woman is biological and therefore naturally feminine”. This is a problem, since gender critical feminists, censored by the left, sometimes resort to conservative platforms to have their voice heard. Traditionalists don’t like any alternative to the hetero-normative, traditional nuclear family, whether from feminists, Marxists, gay rights activists or gender ideologists. Their vision of women and the family is linked to nationalism, union-bashing, and old fashioned sexism. Traditionalists are gathering strength in many parts of the world, blurring with racists and a resurgent far right. For these reasons it is essential to differentiate ourselves from the conservatives at every possible opportunity – to reassert that our fight is also the fight for abortion rights, against lesbophobia and homophobia, and against sexism in all its forms.
Neither gender ideology nor social conservativism, but women’s liberation
Marxist organisations like the SWP have made a massive error in their failure to defend women from the neoliberal sexism of gender ideology. In the face of their hostility a great many feminists have turned to right wing platforms to have their concerns heard; some have cast aside many years of allegiance to the left.
When western working classes finally move back into large scale political strike activity, masses of working women will shake off both gender ideology and any new-found friends among anti-union conservatives. When that happens there will be an opportunity, and an urgent need, to win them to a revolutionary socialist workers party. But that same upturn of struggle will confront the SWP with its own monumental errors in supporting gender sexism, and that will generate a new internal crisis for it.