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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%.
Brendan O’Neill is a gentlemanly class warrior for the other side. His politics float between right-of-centre liberalism and the slimy alt-right.
Progressives’ support for trans ideology gives O’Neill an easy way to take them down. All he has to do is display the extent of trans sexism. This he does in the Sp!ked piece How the trans ideology dehumanises women, which examines a recent book by transwoman Grace Lavery – Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis. Lavery, he tells us, is an associate professor of English at Berkeley in California. (Before looking at Lavery’s musings and anecdotes, it should be admitted that any one of them might be passed off as satire and parody, in the proper, murky, postmodern way.)
Lavery and women
Lavery, O’Neill says, “tells his doctor he wants ‘titty skittles’ – that is, progesterone supplements to ‘enlarge one’s breasts’. Hot tip for Mr Lavery: women don’t refer to their breasts as titties.” Lavery “seems to have such a fetishised view of ‘womanhood’ – to the extent that when he first transitions he puts on a ‘slutty denim skirt’. Well, women are sluts, right?… That reductive view of women as holes that need filling? That he can have…”
Lavery writes about the ‘panic’ over trans women (ie, blokes) using women’s toilets, with gender-critical types pushing the bigoted idea that trans women are ‘erotically fixated on the idea of women urinating’. Then, literally in the next paragraph, he says: ‘[But] going to the bathroom is kind of sexy? At least, I have occasionally found it to be so.’ My man, this is why they don’t want you in their loos.
The book “has page after depressing page” on Lavery’s male member, and “an entire chapter on his ‘splooge’, as he calls it”. The “most disturbing part of the book,” O’Neill says, “is its mockery of gender-critical women”:
Lavery goes on to say that there is ‘something stranger’ underneath ‘the whole phenomenon of British gender-criticals’ – he calls it ‘the problem [of] leaky boobs and the school run, the revenge of feminist grievance against feminist pleasure’. The ‘sourness’ of these harridans who dare to say men aren’t women represents a ‘loathing of the trans woman as a figure of pleasure embodied’…
This is misogyny. On every level…. Lavery has said that ‘there is something about being treated like shit by men that feels like affirmation itself… to be the victim of honest, undisguised sexism possesses an exhilarating vitality.’
Transwomen vary. Some just want to live quiet lives by the social codes and rules for women in our society. Others are left wing activists who no doubt fight for abortion rights. But trans ideology has sex role stereotyping at its core, and this inevitably generates misogyny. Lavery is no outlier. Take for example transwoman Jacob Tobia, author of Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, who once said “Women around the world have been treated as sexual objects. Yet if sexual objectification is so categorically awful, then why do I want it so badly?” Or American trans-identifying academic Andrea Long Chu, whose 2019 book Females calls the anus “a universal vagina through which femaleness can always be accessed.” The briefest glance through social media will confirm all this more graphically.
Against trans sexism and the right
“Freedom of speech,” Brendan O’Neill says, “must include the freedom to ridicule Islam.” That is to say, he punches down on bitterly oppressed people, and wants to knock away the beliefs that give them moral support. Like many on the right he says he is pro-worker. Meaning what? Not support for Jeremy Corbyn, who gave so much hope to working people forced to their knees by neoliberalism; he denounced Corbyn’s supporters for “mob-like authoritarianism”. True salt-of-the-earth types are found on a march of the Football Lads Alliance, “attended,” O’Neill says, “by working-class people” and “organised by working-class people” (meaning Nazi Tommy Robinson and his small-business-owning mates).
Yet it is easy to see why many gender critical feminists have been pulled toward O’Neill and his kind, as the Laverys and the left slag them off. Many GC feminists have moved right, but by no means all. As Ruth Serwotka says:
Feminism, women’s liberation and women’s rights activism, however we wish to brand it, has always been a movement for radical progress, against reaction and against the hard right. The increasing impoverishment of women and children in the UK cannot be, and is not, ignored by feminists. The loss of women’s services and the never-ending attack on occupations in the public sector, a majority held by women, cannot be ignored.
Such attacks are the very meat and bread of the anti-union Spectator, where O’Neill often writes. Those attacks are resisted by the Corbynite and far left, even as they side with trans sexism against women’s interests (why the left does this has been much discussed on Freer Lives, eg here and here).
Sailing this sea requires some tacking. There are far too few gender critical feminists to respond to all the trans sexism pouring out of the corporate and leftwing media, far too few leftists on their side. So our side needs to make use of the research undertaken by the right, and maybe some of their nice turns of phrase, when this is targeted against trans misogyny.
Yet one cannot forget three things about the right. First, they fight for the austerity policies that make working women’s lives miserable. Second, conservatives in the political establishment allied with its neoliberal wing to mainstream gender identity theory in the first place. Third, when they now oppose the consequences of that theory, they are playing a game of divide and rule. So I say, by all means quote O’Neill against trans sexism, but carefully and selectively, and always, explicitly, as an enemy.
The trans debate remains sunk in confusion, with this new sexist ideology presented as left wing and oppositional by both progressives and conservatives. So it’s important to highlight every left group that has held the line against it. One is the CPGB-ML, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist–Leninist).
Defending Kathleen Stock
Earlier this year this group’s website, The Communists, ran the article The tragic fall of Kathleen Stock: another voice silenced by trans extremism. Liberal feminist Kathleen Stock was forced from her academic post at Sussex University for holding gender-critical opinions.
While distancing themselves from her wider views, The Communists share her “concerns about the ramifications for women, when material realities such as sex are ignored,” and when “legislation endorsing self-identification was being rushed through in England without due consideration for its impact upon women in ‘medicine, sport, science and education’.” Those attacking Stock also attack “workers’ rights” and “the rights of women”; they “reinforce sexual stereotypes” and they “come to ideological and physical blows with lesbian and gay people.”
The article also points out the appalling role played by the Sussex chapter of University and College Union (UCU), through “its active participation in the witch hunt” against Stock. Rather than defend their harassed union member they “called for an investigation into ‘institutional transphobia’ at the university”; its local leader “boasted of installing ‘Terf-blocker software’ on her Twitter account”.
Material reality and the sexual binary
In 2019 The Communists ran a piece called The reactionary nightmare of ‘gender fluidity’. “Lenin,” they note, “told us that ‘if geometrical axioms affected human interests, attempts would certainly be made to refute them’.” And that is just what trans ideology gives us, an attempts to deny material reality in support of vested interests – for example via the notion that sex is assigned at birth.
They also defend the now-contested biological differentiation between male and female. This sexual binary is anchored in sexual reproduction, which “has persisted in nature due to the diversity it engenders.”
An “identity” mainstreamed by the bosses
The “capitalist class,” they point out, took trans ideology “from a group of academics” and propagated it “to the point where it’s on the lips of every prime minister; it’s on the lips of every banker; it’s on the lips of every capitalist.” From “being very marginal to certain academic institutions in the 1970s” it “became mainstream globally.”
Here they make an extremely valuable contribution to the discussion. The trans trend would indeed have remained on the margins without mass propaganda pumped out by the film industry, by liberal broadsheets and right wing gutter tabloids, all saying that boys who wish to play with dolls are really girls, all modernizing old sexist tropes. The role of the media, supported by the public and private institutions of neoliberalism, is the decisive feature of the trans trend.
Class power, trans ideology and identity politics: just divide-and-rule?
The Communists are firm opponents of the oppression of women, black people, and other groups. They argue for the working class and the revolutionary party to fight oppression in all its forms. But identity politics, they say, is no solution. It fragments the working class, leading workers to see themselves mainly via their identity – their ethnic group, for example – and the bosses then pit different identity groups against one another. The bosses, they imply, support trans ideology simply as one more form of identity politics.
Where did identity politics come from?
Reading these articles, you do get the feeling that identity politics has been spun out of nothing by the bosses, as a weapon against workers and socialists. The decline of the unions also seems to be a pure act of destruction by the capitalist class. In fact, identity politics has its origins in the long agonizing decline of the western workers movement, in which the bosses were only one factor.
The late 1960s and early 70s saw confident, radicalized workers win huge strikes, alongside campaigns by militant social movements. The political establishment was the enemy of all; the slogan one struggle one fight captured the mood. But the mass campaigns against the Vietnam War and conscription came to an end. Economic crisis set in; union leaders rallied behind the bosses “in the national interest” against their own members. Unemployment came with it, workers’ confidence fell, and they depended more on the very union leaders who now turned on them and broke down their spirit. The bosses launched savage new attacks against the weakening unions. Outsourcing turned yesterday’s union militant into today’s subcontractor. Strike levels almost flatlined in most western countries.
In this new climate workers no longer looked like a key force for change. One struggle one fight rang hollow. Movements against the system fragmented; identity replaced solidarity. In this demoralized climate, postmodernists opened a point by point attack on revolutionary politics, sometimes under a pseudo-radical veneer, pouring out poison that still flows in today’s political bloodstream. Trans ideology is perhaps the most important example of this. Finally, the neoliberal bosses opted to embrace identity politics in tokenistic ways, extending its reach but in shallow form.
The contradictions of identity politics
Identity politics has two sides to it. Certainly the bosses use it as a distraction from austerity policies. They prefer individual workers to think of themselves as women, black people, gays etc. rather than as workers. And the bosses pit these different identity groups against each other.
They use identity politics, but did not invent it, and would prefer a world without it – where members of oppressed groups were utterly atomized with no sense of their oppression. Because, for all the bosses’ efforts at co-option, identity politics here and there generates organized resistance, sometimes very militant, if limited in scope.
The specifics of trans ideology
Trans ideology, however, offers the bosses a lot more than just another chance to divide-and-rule. As The Communists say it reinforces sex stereotypes, but it does so in very emphatic and destructive ways. First, gender identity theory naturalizes confining sex roles for women by declaring that deep inside they have feminine “gender identities” aligned to their female bodies. Secondly, women who rebel against confining female sex roles are now partitioned off as trans, nonbinary, fluid etc. with no message to spread to their “cis” sisters except to support trans rights. Thirdly, these attacks have been successfully passed off as progressive, and militantly defended by activists as well as by union bureaucrats, liberal academics and journalists, and most of the far left. All this makes trans ideology a real prize for the bosses and their political establishment. This is why gender identity theory is embraced by the conservative as well as the neoliberal media.
The bosses “divide and rule” only when it comes to the practical outcomes of gender identity theory: the attacks on women, children, clinicians, critical academics and other critics – and on liberal-democratic values such as free speech – which all flow from the theory. This is where the right wing media shifts ground and plays to the concerns of gender critical feminists, right wing liberals and social conservatives. These arguments have been discussed at great length on Freer Lives.
The Communists are part of the Stalinist tradition, which makes their politics intensely contradictory. On one hand, Stalinists formed the backbone of the left within the western workers’ movement for decades, fighting attacks on the unions, and opposing Israel and western imperialism. On the other hand, they have long supported regimes that try to crush every particle of democratic self-organisation within their own working classes. The CPGBML are hardliners who support, for example, North Korea, and denounce the turn towards social democracy taken by western communist parties after Kruschev’s liberalization in Russia in the late 1950s. (The CPGBML was expelled from the Stop the War Coalition, apparently after disputes over what line to take on Libya and Syria.)
Major disagreements on the left are nothing new. Debate should not be stifled but nor should it interfere with unity in action around progressive goals. Stalinists’ residual presence within the union movement seems to have given them some insulation from trans ideology in the identity politics milieu. That is very welcome (though the CPGBML admit that the issue is “causing genuine confusion” in their party). All left wing critics of trans ideology should collaborate against it, however divergent their views on other matters. At the very least, they should know about each other.
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.
A group of Disney workers have taken action around trans and gay issues. The protest has involved 15 minute daily walkouts with a full day walkout on 22 March, as well as a website and twitter hashtags promoted by the corporate media.
The background is the Parental Rights in Education or “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida which, Fox News says, “bans Florida school employees or third parties from giving classroom instruction on ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity’ in kindergarten through third grade.” The bill has been signed off by the right wing Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis, and is expected to come into effect on 1 July. Fox News says that “the White House has condemned the bill as ‘hateful,’ ‘horrific,’ and ‘a form of bullying.’ ‘Why are Florida leaders deciding they need to discriminate against kids who are members of the LGBTQI community?’ White House press secretary Jen Psaki said…. ‘What prompts them to do that? Is it meanness? Is it wanting to make kids have more difficult times in school, in their communities?’”
The staff walkouts are focused on Disney’s response to the bill.
It’s not that Disney bosses have shown any sympathy for it. Disney’s former CEO Bob Iger, who stepped down in 2020, “tweeted in support of President Joe Biden’s call against the bill in February. ‘I’m with the President on this! If passed, this bill will put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy’.” More generally, Disney has dropped its traditional “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” welcome phrase, to “promote inclusivity”. The Guardian mentions “growing LGBTQ portrayals in films and TV shows and the selling of LGBTQ pride-themed merchandise at Disney stores.”
What the protestors object to is Disney’s tactical response to the bill, which did not involve explicit public opposition. Disney CEO Chapek told Disney shareholders that “instead of making an early public statement against the legislation, company officials had been working behind the scenes with politicians ‘to achieve a better outcome’”. “For weeks,” the New York Times said, “Disney lobbyists in Florida had been pressing to soften the legislation.” And in a memo staff on 7 March, The Guardian says, Chapek “cited ‘diverse stories’ such as Black Panther, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the TV series Modern Family as ‘more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort’, implying that Disney’s content speaks for itself.”
The protests forced Chapek onto the defensive. At the company’s recent annual shareholder meeting, he announced that Disney would be donating $5 million to LGTBQ groups. “I understand that many are upset that we did not speak out against the bill,” he said. “I called Gov. DeSantis this morning to express our disappointment and concern that if the legislation becomes law, it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, non-binary, and transgender kids and families”. Disney itself has now formally expressed its opposition to the bill.
In ratty response Governor DeSantis said “Disney is in far too deep with the Communist Party of China and has lost any moral authority.” His press secretary Christina Pushaw tweeted that the bill “which liberals inaccurately call ‘don’t say gay’ would be more accurately described as an anti-grooming bill.’” But DeSantis has also portrayed his stand as a battle against the big end of town: “We will never allow corporate influence to repeal the substantive rights of parents in our state.” Meanwhile over 150 companies, including Marriott and American Airlines, have signed a Human Rights Campaign letter opposing the legislation.
The bosses and the establishment
Biden’s hostility to the Florida bill reflects the ruling class view that gender identity theory should be promoted not opposed, because it reinforces sexism and women’s oppression in the modern world. It should be inculcated early and often; the formative K-3 school years are ideal, presumably. Beyond that, the bosses and their neoliberal establishment give token support to identity politics in general, including gay rights, to relegitimise themselves in the era of austerity.
Governor DeSantis and his ilk represent the populist conservative wing of the establishment, whose leaders – like the Brexiteer media across the Atlantic – support capitalism to the hilt without endorsing all current views held by the actual capitalist class. They exploit and channel anger among ordinary people, linking identity politics to the neoliberal policies that have wrecked so many lives.
The conservative establishment has generally gone along with gender identity theory itself; its media have helped to normalize and mainstream it, for its value in helping to maintain sexism under modern conditions. But it has attacked the practical, logical extensions of this theory, including its dissemination in school programs: partly out of hostility to leftists involved in trans activism, partly to curry favour with conservative supporters who have never liked “gender identity”, and partly in the hope of winning feminists from their historical left or liberal allegiances. In the USA it has made more concessions to traditionalist forces than in Britain. It is of course contradictory to back the theory not the practice, but the conservative elite can live easily with such contradictions.
Disney is the biggest private sector employer in Florida and a not insignificant member of the ruling class. It fully supports big capital’s position on trans and on gays but has tried to accommodate the social conservative section of its audience, hence the preference for back-channel lobbying.
The Disney protestors are, in part, defending lesbian and gay rights. There is ample scope for developmentally appropriate discussion of lesbian and gay issues among children in the early school years: people can kiss, love, partner, settle down and rear children with members of the same sex. The protestors also want to push Disney’s support for same-sex rights beyond tokenism. They complain for example that “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection [in the company’s media productions] is cut at Disney’s behest.”
Alas, they are also helping to propagate the sexism of gender identity theory in the mistaken belief that this too is progressive.
It would be very appropriate to campaign against sex stereotypes – with most emphasis on freedom for females as the oppressed sex, including freedom from body-image miseries. That can also be taught in age appropriate ways. As a small part of this, children might be taught that females and males can live by the traditional rules and codes of the other sex, if they wish, within a range of much wider options.
That is not what trans curriculum packages are about. They are a world of pink and blue, sometimes half-concealed by talk of “fluidity” and “spectrums”, sometimes not. At most they offer room for handfuls of “gender non-conforming” cis-females who gratefully find shelter under the trans umbrella. The end result is this: it’s just fine if you’re a natural girly-girl, your femininity comes from deep within; most girls are born that way and stay so; the few who don’t fit are different and divided off from the rest of you. That is the main message, a reinforcement of sexism and women’s oppression. As collateral damage in this war against women, young, developing kids are taught to doubt their mind-body link – you might be a girl in a boy body or vice versa – preparing them for later affirmation of surgical and chemical mutilation.
Trans ideology, then, is a world away from the defence of same sex attraction. But the two issues are brought together by identity politics, and jammed closer by the attacks both causes face from the bigots.
Missing from all this is a powerful left anchored in the labour movement. A left that offers an alternative to both neoliberal tokenism and traditionalist bigotry. A left that throws off the fake progressivism of gender ideology and defends women, lesbians and gay men, and all those fighting to be free of sex stereotypes.
John Rees, a leading member of Counterfire, has written a very useful article about identity politics, the political establishment and the left.
Part 1 of this Freer Lives piece looked at what he said about the political establishment – the elite servants of the capitalist class. Rees points out that the main, neoliberal wing of the establishment has adopted identity politics in tokenistic but prominent ways, to re-legitimise itself in the age of austerity. This has vastly extended the impact of identity politics while also discrediting it in the minds of some workers, and this reaction has been channelled and exploited by the traditionalist, conservative wing of the elite. Neither side has anything to offer working people, but both use identity politics to divide us.
Rees treats the debates over transgender issues as simply one example of these divisions.
This is an enormous advance on the positions of groups like Britain’s SWP and Socialist Party, which do not acknowledge the role of elite forces in driving, let alone mainstreaming, the trans phenomenon. However, as discussed in Part 1, the trans trend also has distinctive and major benefits to the establishment. This led both its neoliberal and conservative wings to mainstream and normalise the gender identity theory, and its pinkification of women, in the first two decades of this century. They have divided almost entirely around its practical implications for women, children, academics, clinicians etc. – part of the so-called culture wars.
Part 2 now looks at Rees’ arguments on how the left should respond to identity politics and trans issues.
Independence from the establishment
“On both sides of the establishment divide,” Rees says, “there are huge social institutions at work, and they have considerable influence in the labour movement through the conduits of the Labour Party leadership and the trade-union bureaucracy. But rather than examine the significance of the divides in establishment ideology, some on both sides of the Brexit debate and the debate about trans identity… are at pains to embarrass their opponents by pointing out that they have the support of serious establishment forces.” He calls for the left to change its response, to separate itself sharply from both wings of the establishment. “The first watchword in any left response to this bifurcated establishment ideology is political independence.”
This is a very welcome statement from Rees and Counterfire. Leftist supporters of trans ideology are effectively aligned in Britain with neoliberal NGOs and sections of the Tory Party – to say nothing of the warmongering National Democratic Committee in the USA, corporate giants and billionaire philanthropy. The SWP etc. need to accept that on the trans issue most of the union bureaucracy is indeed an echo chamber for the neoliberal establishment and it is this, not some groundswell from below, that explains trans ideology’s overwhelming endorsement by Britain’s union movement.
But the left must also be clear that the culture war divisions mask the establishment’s underlying unity on gender identity theory, as discussed in Part 1 of this piece.
The basis for unity
The left, Rees says, should build unity among the oppressed. This starts with the “functional unity” that can be built between the minorities within each oppressed group who already oppose discrimination against other groups. He gives the example of unity between Arabs who reject antisemitism and Jews who reject the viciously racist Israeli state.
This is another very helpful formulation. To run with Rees’ own example, it is not anti-Semitic to oppose Israel, however many Jews think otherwise, however deep their outrage and sense of personal violation at our position, and regardless of the fact that some people are both anti-Semitic and anti-Israel (taking Israel at its word and identifying its racism and cruelty with Jewishness itself, hating Jews as a result). We must point out that Israel is not a defender of Jews but a component of imperialism and it ultimately works against Jews themselves. Moreover, defending Jews does not require us to accept compromise, a half-way house: we do not “acknowledge” Israel while decrying its “excesses” – that leads into a morass. Give the devil of Israel your little finger and you will be taken entirely. Instead we oppose all attacks on Jews as such: from the far right, from the left or from anywhere, without any concession to Israel.
How does Rees’ formulation apply to trans issues? The SWP declared that University of Sussex students were “rightly outraged” when feminist academic Kathleen Stock said “many trans women are still males with male genitalia.” But this is outrageous only if you accept gender identity – a concept that pinkifies and confines women, makes discontent with sex stereotypes a small-minority concern, and forms the basis for many attacks on women, children, lesbians, clinicians, academics and others. A great deal of the Freer Lives blog has been devoted to debunking gender identity (eg here). As with Zionism it is an ideology that claims to represent an oppressed group, highlighting current and historical sufferings: drawing on intense emotions with great success, but serving the interests of the ruling class and its lackeys, and owing its victories mainly to elite support.
Stripped of sexist illusions, trans/non-binary/fluid etc people are those who want to live, always or sometimes, by the social codes and rules of the opposite sex, and may alter their bodies to do so. They defy traditional stereotypes which say biology is destiny. As a result they face discrimination, both in everyday life and from organised bigots; sympathy from neoliberal media and institutions is little help in their personal lives. On this basis they deserve support from the left to live as they wish. We should march with trans people against attacks from the real bigots just as we may march with Zionists against attacks from anti-Semites (however unwelcome our presence may be in either case).
This support does not involve any concessions to gender sexism. “Gender” is inseparable from confining sex roles. A transwoman’s deep inner sense of being woman is most likely the internalisation of messages about sex roles they absorbed in their early years (as previously discussed on Freer Lives eg here). The so-called history of trans people is the history of groups or individuals who rejected the sex roles they were born to, and opted out of them, with or without social sanction (previously discussed eg here). The huge expansion of trans/fluid etc identity in the last two decades is rarely due to self-discovery, mainly to massive propaganda work by neoliberal media and institutions, which channels discontent with sex roles into forms that block its generalisation to working class women as a whole.
As Rees says we should start with the minority which opposes all forms of oppression. This means that socialists should ally with transsexuals who wish to live by the other sex’s social codes without claiming to be women and redefining women in sexist terms. But first and foremost it means allying with those gender critical feminists who reject all deals with the right and support trans people against the real bigots.
Gender critical feminists
This means defending gender critical feminists from pro-trans mobilisations against them. Counterfire’s Lindsey German did just that, in an article (‘It has to stop’) on the student mobilisation against Kathleen Stock, mentioned above. By contrast the SWP applauded the protest. It is true that the SWP opposed calls for Stock to be sacked, or de-platformed, pointing out that only fascists should be shut down by organised force. (Fascists aim to use organised force to close down all democratic and progressive impulses in public life, and must be fought, in part, on the same terrain.) But this misses the point. Gender critical feminists are defending women from sexist attacks and should not face any kind of mobilisation against them. The student protestors and the SWP saw bigotry where it did not exist.
Rees’ position also implies the need for constructive debate with gender critical feminists. Here he raises two issues.
Using right wing platforms
One is the use of right wing and/or corporate platforms to oppose trans demands. He says:
It simply will not do to claim that allying with the right is necessary because other possibilities for publicity are denied to campaigners. The truth is no radical campaign can be assured of a platform unless they create one themselves. The anti-war movement or the anti-austerity movement are certainly not ushered onto the BBC, or favourably reported in the right-wing press. They have perishingly few advocates in the mainstream. But they would not be justified in amplifying the voices of racists and reactionaries even if, as is often the case, other platforms are denied to them.
But radical or antiwar campaigns can at least rely on left-liberal and far-left platforms. Feminists who oppose trans sexism are not just denied such platforms: they are cancelled, doxed and reviled on the left – physically attacked at times, sometimes driven from their professional livelihoods and subject to routine, jokey threats of murder and assault. This needs to be said by all leftists. And it needs to be said up front, not sotto voce in para 23 of a long read. Said, and denounced. Until then, we can hardly expect to make headway in the debate over using right wing platforms.
Another issue for debate, Rees points out, is separatism. Those who present men as an oppressive “sex class” preclude the possibility of wholesale social change from below. Here again his target is identity politics in general: he compares the sex-class concept to the paralysing idea that the whole white working class is an opponent. But again, I think, the trans issue has distinctive features. The sex-class concept focuses hostility not on the bosses and their lackeys but on transwomen, as a group of men who benefit from women’s oppression and whose misogyny has some sort of structural link into class divisions – not just sexists but class oppressors. This feeds into the mutual loathing between online trans activists and GC feminists, which in turn plays into the hands of those who portray us as haters. The defence of women’s spaces, women’s sport etc. inevitably puts a focus on transwomen, and practical issues that need to be dealt with through mutually respectful discussion and debate. But the issue should always be linked back to the role of the capitalist class in setting the scene for these clashes. That, I think is the only way to make headway on the left. And we must make headway.
Britain’s rulers endorse trans ideology, as part of their wider embrace of identity politics, says Marxist John Rees, a leading member of Counterfire. (Establishment ideological contradictions and the left 29 November 2021).
The “the rainbow of minorities”, he says, find support from most “of the political establishment, parts of the broadcast media, the NGO universe, the Human Resources departments of most public and private institutions” and from “much of the Labour Party and trade-union bureaucracy,” the establishment’s “labour movement echo chambers.” This support is, of course, tokenistic. So, for example, black people are “visually prominent in prospectuses and publicity, celebrated in black history month, and promoted in public,” but not given resources to deal with discrimination. But this tokenism helps the establishment re-legitimise itself after decades of austerity.
A minority within the establishment, Rees says, replaces tokenism with right wing populism, taking “a more traditional, often socially conservative, ruling-class view of what states and national cultures should be about.” In doing so it draws popular support not just from white male workers but from “considerable sections of the working class, men and women, of all ethnic minorities,” who “have been left behind by neoliberal capitalism” and who react against the multiculturalism and identity politics promoted by the neoliberal elite. He says: “Something similar [to the Brexit battle] is observable in the trans debate. Those on what is called the ‘gender-critical’ side of the argument find most of the print media, especially the right-wing press, ‘on their side’. So is half, but by no means all, the Tory hierarchy.”
So, tokenism and populism – and the game of divide and rule. Both wings of the establishment use identity politics to foment division between and within oppressed groups, and “it is the divisions in the political establishment which accounts for the virulence with which these issues are debated” on the left.
Rees’ critique of the left’s position on identity politics will be covered in part 2 of this article. First, a response to what’s been said so far.
When so many revolutionaries present trans ideology as purely oppositional, his argument is very welcome. When labour bureaucrats and their hangers-on back the trans lobby, this does not reflect a natural alignment with workers interests, or a response to progressive impulses from their members. They are in large part echo chambers for the neoliberal elite.
More could be said. For example, when trans lobbyists reach out to the NGO universe, HR departments etc. they prefer back channels, minimising public awareness of the issues at stake, reflecting the top-down nature of the trans trend. And it’s worth noting that the vast trans lobby in the USA is supported not only by the warmongering Democratic National Committee but by billionaire and corporate philanthropy which pours vast funds into LGBT shell bodies that have little or no social roots, bodies which increasingly disappear lesbians and even sideline gay men in their focus on trans issues.
Most importantly, trans ideology offers distinctive and very important benefits to the capitalist class, and to both wings of its political establishment, in their ongoing war against working class women.
Why the bosses back trans ideology
The capitalist system relies on a huge amount of unpaid labour, in the home and elsewhere, that raises the next generation of wage slaves and maintains today’s proletariat in a work-ready state. For historical reasons it is vastly easier to impose this unpaid labour on women, who have been made to see themselves as very different from and inferior to men, and ready-made to serve others. The bosses are addicted to working women’s unpaid labour and thus cannot afford to let go of the sexism that underpins it. But here the bosses face mounting pressure, because they also want women in the paid workforce en masse, where over recent decades they have learnt that they are equal to men. The bosses need a new cool sexism that resigns women to continued subordinate roles in modern times.
Gender identity theory is part of the answer. It offers the bosses a chocolate box of benefits. It says the vast majority of females come with pink gender identities naturally aligned with confining sex roles, naturally drawn to dolls and lipstick and, with all that, mountains of unpaid work. It says the girls and women who reject their sex roles no longer have any message to share with their sisters except to support trans rights. And it’s all progressive! The long-loathed women’s liberationists are now howled down; much of the spadework for this new sexism is handled by the liberal and far left. For these reasons, the capitalist media and institutions have mainstreamed trans ideology. This is what explains the otherwise-bewildering triumph of a trend formerly confined to the social margins.
The right wing bosses also back “gender identity”
And the ruling class and its establishment are not as divided on trans issues as we might think. In the USA, during the mainstreaming of the trans trend in 2000s, transgender ideology had support from some leaders of the Republican Party. Most importantly, the core element of trans ideology, gender identity theory, has been solidly backed by conservative bosses, for they too see its benefits. When the Murdoch media runs a headline like A woman has been thrown behind bars after sexually assaulting a stranger it is saying that transwomen are women: no doubt about it, no discussion needed. There is abundant, irrefutable evidence that the gutter tabloids and other right wing media have for many years waged a propaganda war to mainstream gender identity theory, as previously discussed on this blog. This is an enormous denial of material reality, defended only in terms of feelings, of magical thinking, of pseudo-science and waffle. Yet in a short few years it has become normalised; it feels odd to contest it. This normalisation could only have happened with support from the right wing media.
Right wing support for “gender identity” is the great secret of this debate. The trans lobby and their left-liberal allies bury it, of course, so as not to tarnish the theory’s progressive credentials. The right wing media themselves are coy about it too: again, this united approach helps make “gender identity” natural, normal and beyond debate. For this is by no means a done deal, since many ordinary people still doubt that men can be women. The gutter tabloids must continue to gaslight and demoralise their base on this issue, just as the left-liberal corporate media must keep stifling uneasiness among their own audience.
The culture-war divisions on the trans issue, always spotlighted, come into play almost entirely on the practical implications of gender identity theory: the many and varied attacks on women, children, clinicians, academics etc. that it demands. For the main, neoliberal wing of the establishment, the disturbances caused by these attacks, still fairly minor, are easily-absorbed overhead costs of supporting trans-related sexism and identity politics.
The traditionalist wing, on the other hand, has not bought into identity politics in the same way, and detests the trans lobby’s entanglement with the political left. Having secured the sexism of gender identity theory itself, they now denounce its practical consequences as part of the wider culture wars. Here the right wing media can channel the discontent of their audience, presenting the trans lobby’s attack through a conservative lens – and as a bonus, they can try to win progressive women from their old allegiances. (Strictly speaking their stand is contradictory: if transwomen are women, why not let them win every female sports event, or walk in on 14 year old “cis-privileged” females getting changed? But the right wing media can live very easily with contradictions.) Here and there the right wing media may carry incidental challenges to gender identity theory, as a concession to its social conservative base, or as part of the backlash against invasive and disruptive trans demands. Neither of these things alters the huge role that the traditionalist wing of the bourgeoisie, and its lackeys, have played in mainstreaming trans sexism.
Part 2 of this article will look at John Rees’ analysis of the lefts’ response to identity politics and the trans issue.
Anyone following gender critical politics must come across Jennifer Bilek. “I write at the intersection of humanity, technology and runaway capitalism,” she says on her website, 11th hour. “I have been on the left side of politics all my life, until now, where I find myself in a political wilderness, with no political home. Beyond that, labels are no longer serving me.” Her site prominently features the hashtags #followthemoney and #itscapitalismstupid.
It’s hard to imagine a civil rights movement so indelibly tied to the capitalist marketplace that it could be used to sell fashion, makeup, hormones, surgery, cosmetology services, movies, TV series, mental health treatment, and women’s underwear, while concurrently being invested in by billionaire philanthropists, the technology and pharmaceutical industries, major corporations, and banks…
There is plenty of money flowing to transgender organizations, but even more going to normalizing transgender ideology in the culture, in language, through media, marketing, and commerce, and by billionaires’ philanthropic funding of nonprofits and other institutions.
Her rage at the impact on women is very evident. She notes, for example, that the firm TomBoyX – which sells woman’s and girls’ underwear, targeted to comfort and ease of movement for tomboy activities – has recently run an ad of a “young woman with double mastectomy scars donning their boxers under a caption that reads: ‘This canvas was given to you but you made it your own. You crafted your own story. Share it with the world. #moretome.’”
This message is a clear glorification of chosen body disfigurement posing as self-actualization and liberation, sickness as wellness, self-hatred made into empowerment, and cutting and maiming female flesh for public consumption via uber-marketing…
In all this, she says, the biomedical industry is central. In The Standard (21 August 2019) she states:
The massive medical and technological infrastructure expansion for a tiny (but growing) fraction of the population with gender dysphoria, along with the money being funneled to this project by those heavily invested in the medical and technology industries, seems to make sense only in the context of expanding markets for changing the human body. Trans activists are already clamoring for a change from “gender dysphoria” to “gender incongruence” in the next revision to the international register of mental diagnosis codes, the ICD-11. The push is on for insurance-paid hormones and surgeries for anyone who believes his or her body is in any way “incongruent” with his or her “gender identity.”
Bodily diversity appears to be the core issue, not gender dysphoria; that and unmooring people from their biology via language distortions, to normalize altering human biology.
The Christian Post (14 March 2020) quotes her as saying that “Elites in the medical industry driving this ideology seek to get businesses on board… through training and punish dissenters with financial exclusion. Most industries intersect with pharma and tech so it is difficult not to comply.”
Where is all this heading? Toward transhumanism, says Bilek.
The dark design
Transwoman Martine Rothblatt’s book, From Transgender to Transhumanism, “reads like a blueprint for the modern-day trans project to infiltrate every sector of our societies”:
This is happening at a time in our history when the escalation of robots and artificial intelligence are also surging in the marketplace with female-simulated robot sex dolls that are frighteningly close in texture and appearance to real humans acting as stand-in prostitutes in brothels, and for some men, stand-in women in relationships. Robot nannies that supposedly offer guidance and friendship for children while their parents are away, are being marketed by Mattel and other corporations as “the future of raising children.”
One problem with these arguments is that the trans trend is moving away from the medical model towards simple self-ID, which de-emphasises physical change and so offers less to big pharma and big tech. A broader problem is the deterministic nature of Bilek’s case, and the whiff of conspiracy around it: it implies that the trans trend is driven unilaterally by certain profit-hungry bosses and billionaires and their allies or lackeys within the trans lobby. For example, in The Federalist she says:
One has to wonder if the LGB civil rights banner has not just been strategic positioning for transgenderism to claim civil rights, currying popular sympathies already well cultivated for the LGB community, as a pretext to insert itself into the global marketplace, our schools, universities, courts, and medical establishments for more nefarious purposes.
The trans trend is indeed funded by billionaire philanthropists and corporations, as previously discussed on this blog. But it is not just the creature of a particular cabal of bosses, however powerful.
The mainstreaming of the trans trend
Gender ideology has been mainstreamed by the ruling class as a whole, to help it address the needs of the capitalist system as a whole – in particular, its need to keep women down.
Capitalism is addicted to women’s unpaid labour as carers and home makers. “The value of this shadow labor is staggering: $10.9 trillion, according to an analysis by Oxfam. It exceeds the combined revenue of the 50 largest companies on last year’s Fortune Global 500 list, including Walmart, Apple and Amazon.” (New York Times 5 March 2020). In cold capitalist terms, women’s unpaid labour keeps the paid workforce (including themselves) refreshed and work-ready, and rears the next generation of wage slaves. Women have long tolerated this unpaid work because they have been made to see themselves as natural nurturers, and inferior to men. The system thus has a vital interest in maintaining sexist ideas. This ongoing war against working women inevitably impacts on all women as a sex, even ruling class women who help to perpetuate the system.
But capitalism has also drawn women deeply into the paid workforce, bringing them new experiences which weaken the hold of the old stereotypes – a dilemma for the bosses. They have to deal with this dilemma in the context of political and cultural changes over which they have limited control. So for example the capitalist class has endorsed liberal feminism as a compromise that reflects women’s growing social power and political awareness without challenging sexism as such. The sexism of gender ideology is a very handy new element in this fake-progressive worldview.
It is only on this foundation that particular sections of capitalism, such as the pharmaceutical industry, derive their own benefits from gender ideology.
Bilek is right to say that transgender ideology “came out of the medical industrial complex”, but at first it was just a small oddity on its margins. The bosses only really got behind it in the early 2000s, when its value as a new form of sexism, adapted to modern times and sensibilities, became apparent for capitalism.
Before this, in the latter part of the twentieth century, gender ideology owed its expansion to postmodern academics and intellectuals. Postmodernism is essentially conservative. It arose as an attack on Marxism and liberation politics. But it does not dance to the tune of the elite, in fact it has a sneering, pseudo-radical side which rankles with bosses and politicians.
This reflects the other key factor in the rise of gender ideology. Postmodernism arose out of the ebb in class struggle that set in during the late 1970s, and the political demoralization of the workers movement and the left which followed. In this environment the old calls for “one struggle, one fight”, centred around the workers movement, fractured and decayed into identity politics; women’s liberation largely gave way to liberal feminism. This created the conditions for the new gender sexism to take hold on the left. The bosses and their corporate media had no direct involvement in this process, they simply worked with the material given them on the political terrain.
Social conservatives and capitalism
Social conservatives can be suspicious, even hostile, to big business, while not seeing the bosses as the ruling class or capitalism as the defining element of our social system. Jennifer Bilek’s choice of media platforms, and her acceptance by those platforms, shows an affinity with this sort of social conservatism, and her arguments are consistent with it, albeit at its most extreme anti-capitalist edge. But as previously discussed on Freer Lives (eg here and here) any alliance with social conservatives sets back women’s rights and plays to the case made by the pro-gender left: that attacks on the trans trend, even when posed as being anti-establishment, are always right wing.
The Woman’s Place UK site has recently published an excellent article by socialist feminist Jayne Egerton: “There’s more than one way to ‘erase’ women – Women’s rights under attack in Victor Orban’s Hungary”. She notes the growing “anti gender” movements in central and eastern Europe:
These movements privilege biological understandings of what it means to be a man or a woman but only do so in order to insist that our biology should determine (and restrict) our lives. They want to hang on [to] the man/woman binary because they believe that gendered roles and expectations, ones which place women below men, are determined by sex.
For the Hungarian government, the field of gender studies “is seen as promoting too fluid an understanding of male and female roles in the place of a fixed social order in which women’s biological destiny is to be married mothers.” Hungary’s National Assembly recently “refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.” The reason:
It was claimed that the convention promoted “gender ideology” and particular issue was taken with the section that defined gender as “socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Hungarian politicians object to an understanding of gender which recognises that women’s ‘role’ can change, even improve (!), as societies change…
No alliances with social conservatives
“Unless we establish very clear lines between ourselves and right wing, religious fundamentalists,” Egerton points out, “we are in danger of being swallowed up and used by the most anti-women, global forces, the canniest of which offer themselves as ‘partners’ in the fight against gender ideology”. She cites the example of “the Heritage Foundation, a hugely powerful Christian Right think tank which has platformed radical feminists.”
The Heritage Foundation has particular chutzpah. Whilst claiming to be an ally in the feminist fight to preserve female only spaces and sex-based rights, it opposes reproductive rights, lesbian and gay rights and any measures to counter discrimination against women, notably the Equal Rights Amendment. In fact, it blames feminists for the current state of affairs – though Ryan Anderson would never be rude enough to say so at their shared events. “Transgender theories are part of the feminist goal of a sexual revolution that eliminates the proprietary family and celebrates non-monogamous sexual experiences.”
When it’s not cynically partnering with (a small number) of radical feminists as ‘cover’, the Heritage Foundation enjoys the company of the Holy See, the universal government of the Catholic Church which operates from Vatican City State. The Vatican has opposed the notion of gender since the early-2000s, arguing that males and females have intrinsic attributes which aren’t shaped by social forces. Recently, they published an educational document called “Male and female he created them”.
“Woman’s Place UK,” Egerton adds, “has consistently stated an opposition to working with, or supporting the work of the religious right (and their female representatives). Not simply because it is strategically disastrous but because it is wrong in principle.”
On this basis she criticises “those gender critical feminists, albeit small in number, who are responding positively to the news from Hungary, on the basis that Orban recognises the immutability of sex. Whilst Baroness Nicholson might see no problem in adding Hungary to her list of causes for celebration, feminists shouldn’t lose sight of a much bigger picture.” (Baroness Nicholson was a Conservative MP who switched to the Liberal Democrats. The Independent says she “voted against the same-sex marriage bill in 2013” and “suggested that the introduction of same-sex marriage that year had degraded ‘the status of women and of girls… as a binary class’”.)
Jayne Egerton’s article is very welcome and very important. It follows on from WPUK’s previous statement of opposition to feminist alliances with social conservatives in the USA, as discussed earlier on Freer Lives.
But right wing opposition to gender ideology is not restricted to social conservatives.
A more subtle and refined poison
The trans lobby attacks not just traditionalism, but key liberal values: women’s rights, the well-being of children and teens, science, and free speech, including the right to hold meetings and peaceful protests, the right of clinicians to explore the symptoms and personal histories of their suffering trans patients, and the right of academics to debate touchy issues. Most liberal commentators blind themselves to these attacks on liberal values, influenced by the sexist fantasy of “gender identity” and by the support given to this fantasy by their lords and masters in the corporate media, and on the left. Right wing liberals, on the other hand, despise the left and often work for, or look to, those media bosses who don’t go all the way with the trans lobby. This frees them up to be the standard bearers for liberalism on this issue.
The social conservative bigots and right wing liberals have different agendas but have not polarized out into sharply opposing camps. Instead there is a messy mix of gender critical ideas spread across the right, in outlets including the Wall Street Journal; The Spectator; the right-of-centre, establishment Times and Sunday Times; pseudo-oppositional sites like Spiked, Areo, and Quillette, and the alt-right Breitbart News.
They all want to win gender critical women away from the left. I suspect that the liberal end of this spectrum has had most success here, since their feminist credentials are so much stronger. Lenin once described Protestantism as a more subtle and refined poison than Russian Orthodoxy; I think the same principle applies here.
It is true, of course, that right wing liberals are sincerely appalled by the trans lobby’s attacks on women (see eg this piece by Helen Joyce in Quillette) but so are social conservatives, in their own way. The question is not their moral sincerity but the politics behind their stand, and where it leads. Right wing liberals are fighting for neoliberalism, the system that has inflicted decades of misery on working people, on women even more than men. Neoliberalism is the modern form of capitalism, which needs women’s oppression as underpinning. And while some right wing liberals may react against gender ideology, or aspects of it, neoliberalism as a system has mainstreamed it, because it helps perpetuate sexism under modern social conditions. (Because women’s presence in the workforce makes them more socially aware and harder to hoodwink than the atomized, stay-at-home housewives of the past, the sexism they get fed needs to be slimier.) The left may be wretchedly wrong about gender ideology, but they are 100% correct to hate and fight neoliberalism.
Here and there a right wing liberal may take a high profile stand against gender ideology, and even come to symbolize the struggle against it – in which case they should be supported to the hilt on that specific issue. That is a world away from routinely, uncritically citing outlets or commentators who challenge gender ideology one moment and slag off the unions or the left a moment later. Uncritical support for right wing liberals is like an alliance with bigots: strategically disastrous, and wrong in principle.
[This article was updated 7 July 2020, after publication. The main change was to add “liberalism” to its title]
Author JK Rowling has caused a sensation by defining women as biological females. She recently tweeted “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” In response to belligerent and threatening reactions, she has responded in detail on her website, in a piece simply called “J.K. Rowling writes about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues” 10 June 2020.
She says: “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman… then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”
She also challenges the “argument of many current trans activists” that “if you don’t let a gender dysphoric teenager transition, they will kill themselves”. She quotes comments from psychiatrist Marcus Evans, a former employee at the Tavistock NHS gender clinic in England, who said that such claims do not “align substantially with any robust data or studies in this area. Nor do they align with the cases I have encountered over decades as a psychotherapist.”
For such statements she was told online that “I was transphobic, I was a cunt, a bitch, a TERF, I deserved cancelling, punching and death…. Huge numbers of women are justifiably terrified by the trans activists…. They’re afraid of doxxing, of losing their jobs or their livelihoods, and of violence.” She says we are “living through the most misogynistic period I’ve experienced,” citing “the backlash against feminism and a porn-saturated online culture”, Trump, incels, and “the trans activists who declare that TERFs need punching and re-educating”.
Every progressive minded person should support Rowling’s stand. Below I want to discuss some of the key issues involved.
As Rowling says, “one of the central tenets of trans activism” is “that a person’s gender identity is innate, like sexual orientation.” Her article does not explicitly reject this notion, but she is sympathetic to academic Lisa Littman who “dared challenge” it.
Gender identity is a sexist fantasy. It is usually said to be discovered through communing with one’s inner self, but that simply draws on the sex stereotypes people have observed and internalized over a lifetime. Attempts by pro-gender Marxists to give it a material-world foundation come to nothing. Gender ideologists empty “woman” of references to biology and female socialization, and even, so they claim, sex stereotypes, but this empties the term of all meaning. In practice the emptiness is indeed filled by sex stereotypes.
Everything else in gender ideology flows from this central, sexist fantasy. If you swallow it then transwomen are truly women and deserve to be treated so; young children may be trans; lesbians and gay men may be heteros born in the wrong body; any challenge to the idea is a deep personal violation of vulnerable people. If you swallow this fantasy, Rowling’s comment “I know and love trans people” becomes weasel words.
Under this ideology, discontent with sex stereotypes suddenly becomes a minority concern. Most women’s biology aligns with their gender identity and thus naturalizes the love of lipstick, and contentment with their lot in life. The bold rebellious minority is trans, gender-fluid, etc., though, to be fair, it includes a few “gender non-conforming” or “masculine” cis-women who gratefully find shelter under the trans umbrella, staring out at the herd of boring females who happily clean and bake.
At the same time, all sex-role discontent gets shoehorned into trans identity, hence the explosion in the number of young women wishing to transition. Rowling points out: “ten years ago, the majority of people wanting to transition to the opposite sex were male. That ratio has now reversed. The UK has experienced a 4400% increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment.”
It should be stressed that anyone has the right to dress and live by the cultural rules of the other sex, and should be defended from bigots. This does not mean redefining women or erasing their lived reality.
Female erasure and the lived experience of women
“If sex isn’t real,” Rowling tweeted, “the lived reality of women globally is erased.”
The attack on Rowling for defending women’s status as a sex forces you back to basics. Human females have distinctive bodily capacities and experiences, such as menstruation, the ability to give birth, larger breasts for lactation, and typically smaller physiques. Socially mediated in today’s world this translates into shame, objectification, typically narrower roles and horizons, and a sense of inferiority to men – as well as permission to express feelings and to relate socially in deeper ways than males. This is the “lived reality” Rowling speaks of and it begins from day one.
The vast majority of the world’s women and girls cannot identify out of their sex or “gender” even at the most superficial level. Leaving aside FGM, child brides and honour killings there are routine burdens and expectations worldwide, based on her sexual biology. A man who spends hours each day with his kids is praised to the skies, for mothers, it’s your lot in life, get on with it.
Women are well aware their lot in life. It can sharpen into a political critique as they connect the personal to the political and begin to grasp their oppression as a sex. This was the purpose of the consciousness-raising sessions run by women’s liberationists in the 1960s and 70s. Revolutionary socialist parties have in the past encouraged the same sort of political generalization, also connecting it to the wider workers’ struggle. Even without such interventions, apolitical women can move this way at times, since so many disparate forms of suffering and personal injustice in their lives involve the word woman.
This is where female erasure kicks in. It isn’t women who have abortions, it’s uterus owners; the shame of menstruation is suffered by menstruators. Female erasure – “efforts to define and enforce oppressive gender constructs on the female sex” – sets up a roadblock to political generalization about women’s oppression as a sex.
In her article Rowling notes “how mentally sexless I felt in youth” and quotes Simone de Beauvoir: “It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex”. Rowling adds: “if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge. I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.”
The politics of gender ideology
Rowling’s intervention needs to be seen in context. Gender ideology, like the Brexit debate, rests on a complex political terrain.
Gender identity theory has been mainstreamed by the corporate media, conservative as well as liberal, because the capitalist class has a powerful vested interest in perpetuating sexism in a changing world. This is also why major institutions in neoliberal society have been so ready to replace sex with gender in public documents.
However, the logic of gender ideology leads trans activists to make invasive, disruptive claims and demands which, for various reasons, go too far for the more right wing bosses. This has opened space for some right wing liberals to raise typically liberal concerns over attacks on women, children, science, and the work of clinicians and academics. (The left’s pathetic failure to raise these issues is discussed elsewhere on this blog.) Yet such liberals’ defense of women can’t easily be held within right wing boundaries: these commentators find themselves having to criticise the police and elite institutions, for example.
At the same time these right wing liberals, along with some conservatives, have sought to exploit the trans issue to win women away from progressive politics – towards the neoliberalism that hits women hardest, or towards social conservative bigotry. Meanwhile the no-platforming, vilifying left primly denounces feminists for turning to right wing platforms to get their views heard.
Left wing gender critical feminists such as Woman’s Place UK are trying to get us out of this wretched mess, calling on the wider left to defend women on this issue.
Support JK Rowling
JK Rowling is no radical firebrand. On the trans issue, she says, “women are reaching out to each other across party lines”; left wing feminists such as Ruth Serwotka and Helen Lewis have previously pointed out that such left-right alliances are a dangerous illusion for progressive women. But supporting Rowling’s stand on the trans issue does not mean having to endorse all her views.
Rowling’s defense of women against the sexism of gender ideology pits her, in practice, against the interests of the capitalist class and its elite servants, who have sought to use this new sexism as a way to maintain women’s oppression in today’s world. On this issue it is left-liberals and the far left who find themselves on the wrong side of the barricades.
Rowling’s public profile makes her an exceptionally valuable ally in the battle for women’s rights. For this reason she is faced with enormous, vitriolic pushback and to her great credit she is standing up to it. We should all be supporting her in this fight.