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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.
In the article shared below, an Irish gender critical feminist, Jean Cross, addresses the need to distinguish sex and gender; to challenge gender ideology’s re-enforcement of sex stereotypes; to defend sex-segregated spaces; and to allow public discussion on trans issues.
She raises her concerns in a letter she wrote to Ireland’s Minister of Education last year. The letter discussed a recent report, Exploring Genders Identity and Gender Norms in Primary Schools, produced by the School of Education at the University of Limerick in collaboration with the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI).
This is copy of a letter I sent to the Minister for Education last year. I have had no response. Dear Minister McHugh, I am alarmed at the assertions and conclusions contained in the recently published report, Exploring Genders Identity and Gender Norms in Primary Schools by Dr. Aoife Neary (University of Limerick) and Catherine Cross (TENI). […]
Like other western countries Australia is normalizing “gender identity” at an institutional and governmental level. And as usual, the best-resourced critics of this process are in the right wing media. A recent example is the article All-new female formula, just add anyone (paywall) appearing in the conservative newspaper, The Australian, 26 May 2020. It says:
The Australian Academy of Science, whose president John Shine is seizing on COVID-19 to campaign for accurate science against “made-up stuff”, has quietly adopted a definition of a woman as “anyone who identifies as a woman”.
The academy’s formula includes transgender people whose “personal gender identity does not correspond with sex assigned at birth” and who remain biological males.
The Academy, notes the article, has a “10-year ‘Women in STEM’ plan to achieve ‘gender
equity’ by inspiring girls to study these disciplines. A glossary at the end of the taxpayer-funded report redefines what it means to be a girl or woman…. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel backed the academy, saying he supported ‘an inclusive culture within science’”.
In Britain the Conservative Party is sophisticated enough to have embraced gender ideology’s benefits for the capitalist class. In Australia this part of the neoliberal agenda has largely been left to the Australian Labor Party. In 2013, The Australian article notes, national human rights law was changed by the Labor government “to allow people to make complaints of discrimination on the basis of their ‘gender identity’, regardless of whether or not this inner feeling fits their biological sex. Labor’s then attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said at the time he was satisfied the definition of gender identity was ‘meaningful’”. The Australian goes on:
The change in the Sex Discrimination Act [my link, FL] flowed through into federal public service guidelines, and “gender identity” has come to overshadow biological sex across many institutions from universities and schools to sporting organisations and big corporations.
The Australian also discusses the current Labor Government in Victoria. This passes for
left wing in the Australian context, but like its national counterpart it is neoliberal (eg privatizing the Port of Melbourne) and this guides its approach to gender ideology. From 1 May this year, the article notes, Victorians “have been able to change their official birth sex” by “paying $110.50 and filling in an online declaration.” (There is also provision to change the legal sex of a child.) The Equality Minister, Martin Foley, “has argued that doing away with the requirement for sex-reassignment surgery allows transgender people to have ‘their true self reflected’ on birth certificates.”
Drawing on gender critical feminism
The Australian cites the concerns of gender critical feminists, including radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys:
“Whilst women and feminists seek to unwrap the boa constrictor of gender roles from around the necks of women and girls, the notion of ‘gender identity’ supports and maintains them,” said political scientist Sheila Jeffreys, arguing against Labor’s bill.
“Persons who wish to express a gender identity not usually stereotypically associated with their biological sex need to be accommodated in ways that protect them, but do not conflict with the rights of women.”…
“Some women’s groups,” the article adds, “argue that the privacy and safety of women and girls in toilets, change rooms and dormitories are put at risk by the poorly understood injection of a nebulous gender identity into laws and policies.”
Where The Australian is coming from
Needless to say, the paper does not share Jeffreys’ longing for women’s liberation. It cites her to make a cynical appeal to progressive women who are concerned about gender sexism, but this is not the overall thrust of the piece. It brackets radical feminists with Christians, ie with groups committed to chaining women permanently to the family and the mountain of unpaid work that goes with it. It also quotes at length from evolutionary biologist Madeleine Beekman: she objects to the Australian Academy of Science’s redefinition of women on deterministic grounds, saying that biology explains, for example, why men are “more willing to pursue careers involving extreme competition… We’re just another ape — can’t we just stick to the facts?”
It talks of “the rights and protections enjoyed by women on the basis of their biological sex”, but the need for such protection is not linked to women’s oppression within current society; rather, the article lets readers fall back on “common sense”, traditionalist ideas of women’s inherent, eternal frailty.
A division of labour
The Australian is the national flagship of Murdoch’s empire down under. While it is busy calling gender identity “nebulous”, the other Murdoch papers, locally based in Australia’s states, are working hard to support and normalize gender identity. For recent examples see here and here on the news.com.au website, which carries articles that appear in these state-based media outlets. (Even state-based columnist Andrew Bolt, a notorious right wing warrior, supports gender identity theory.)
This contradiction reflects, I think, the different charters of the national and state outlets, as previously discussed. The mass-circulation state papers have a brief to connect with ordinary working people and win them to right wing views. At a time when traditionalist views of women have less traction, they have embraced the new sexism of gender ideology, and “educate” the mass of working people to accept what is still an unpopular notion.
The Australian on the other hand caters mainly to a smaller audience of committed right wingers who do not need their sexism reinforced. It expresses conservative complaints that the trans trend has over-reached, and that most of the elite has conceded too much ground to a socially disruptive trend that has gone too far and is heavily entangled with the left. As I have argued elsewhere, conservative media bosses want the trans trend to be nothing more than a handful of celebrities and kids tucked away in suburbia, enough to justify born-into-the-wrong-body stories that update sexism for modern times, but which supplement rather than challenge traditional prejudices. So, beyond the apparent contradiction between the national and state papers, the same purpose is being served.
The right remains an enemy
Progressive minded people who are uneasy about the sexism of gender ideology have few places to turn. Gender critical pieces in the right wing media may often be the only places that articulate their concerns. Yet these articles are not published to push back sexism, but to reinforce old ideas and win people away from the left. At the same time they are used by pro-gender leftists to paint us as right wing, biological determinists. These articles should never be cited without also being attacked.
The Green Party in the US state of Georgia has adopted a gender-critical position, and as a result it may be expelled from the national party. The Georgia Greens deserve full support against such a threat, and let us hope they serve as a rallying point for other progressives across the USA and elsewhere. The stand they have taken is a real step forward for the gender critical left.
The immediate issues
The Georgia Greens have outlined key events: at a state convention in February delegates “without objection” adopted an amendment to the platform of the state party, endorsing the gender critical Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights. The national party’s Lavender Caucus demanded that this endorsement be rescinded with an apology, failing which “‘the Georgia Green Party must be disaccredited and disavowed by the Green Party of the United States’”. Exchanges with national party figures followed. The Georgia Greens say:
As the conversation unfolded in national party channels the hateful rhetoric and name-calling targeting the women in the Party who were speaking up to defend the position taken by the Georgia Green Party was punctuated with threats of actual violence and doxxing. Multiple women were banned from national party social media forums for comments grounded in biological reality and their defense the rights of children to be protected from conversion therapy.
The Georgia Greens have called for “a partywide conversation on the underlying issues” and [added 27 May 20, FL:] have issued a state Dialog not expulsion.
The Lavender Green Caucus says that while the Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights is “couched in statements about protecting children and women’s rights” it is “a document intended to deny trans people their bodily autonomy and freedom of expression, against the advice of the vast majority of medical professionals and LGBT advocacy organizations.”
For example, The Declaration makes familiar villainizing arguments about puberty suppressing hormones, which allow children the option, with the consent of themselves, their parents and their doctor, to stall puberty until they are legally old enough to consent to gender confirmation. The writers of the Declaration would prefer instead to force children to undergo permanent physical changes that exacerbate their dysphoria, inflicting trauma that could last the rest of their lives…
It may seem to some with less direct experience that our language is overly hyperbolic. Some may see Georgia Green Party’s statement as innocuous or even well-intentioned. We can only assure you, as Lavender Greens, that the language used by the Georgia Green Party is both familiar and insidious. It is the same bigotry in the name of protecting children that queers have faced every step of our way toward acceptance and equality.
If the Georgia Greens are going “against the advice of the vast majority of LGBT advocacy organizations” we should note the top down, billionaire-funded nature of these bodies. Insofar as they are truly going against the advice of medical professionals we should note that medicine is not value-free and that the their opinions reflect the very broad support for gender ideology from elite institutions, the media and across the political spectrum.
There are more general points at play here and I would like to discuss two of them. One is the importance of the Georgia Greens’ action in the context of the whole, global trans debate.
The dismal terrain
To see the significance of what the Georgia Greens have done you need only cast your eye over the wretched confusion that currently prevails around gender ideology. The great bulk of the left has thrown its weight behind an attack on working women, for reasons previously discussed on this blog (here in general terms, here in terms of the far left). So small are the ranks of the gender critical left that many progressives uneasy with the new gender sexism often think they have nowhere to turn.
Another disaster is that the debate has been dominated on both sides by the political right and by elite forces. On one hand, gender ideology has been championed by the neoliberal grandees of the US Democratic National Committee, by Britain’s Conservative party, and by CEOs of major corporations and billionaire philanthropists; during the rise of gender ideology some US Republicans also helped out. Most of the liberal and far left have fallen in behind these forces. On the other side is a mix of social conservatives, right wing liberals, and the alt-right, all making slimy overtures to gender critical feminists.
Since the early 2000s corporate media outlets, liberal and conservative, have overwhelmingly endorsed gender identity theory, and have mainstreamed the trans trend (previously discussed here and here). Without this backing it would have remained a curiosity on the social margins. Today the right wing gutter tabloids still propagandise for “gender identity”, eg routinely affirming transwomen as women. They are not following their readers, nor are they adapting to new times: gender ideology still lacks popular appeal. They are driving the trans trend.
However, some of these conservative outlets, while continuing to support gender identity, object to the trend’s increasingly invasive claims and demands, and dislike its links to the left. This has created more space for right wing criticism, which on practical issues converges with the concerns of gender critical progressives, some of whom now contribute material to right wing media platforms, which gets them denounced in the no-platforming, vilifying left media.
As I have argued elsewhere, the right are neither saviours nor allies. No-one on the spectrum from bigotry to neoliberalism is a friend to women. At one end of the spectrum they glorify the family, which handcuffs women to unpaid slavery in the home; few of them genuinely support LGB people and fewer back abortion on demand. At the other end, right wing liberals attack workers, meaning they attack working women, whose sexual oppression make them a particularly vulnerable part of the working class. Right wing liberals champion the neoliberal policy era under which gender ideology took root and flourished.
To clean up this mess we need left wing bodies with significant public profiles to offer a gender critical option to ordinary progressive people. Socialist and radical feminists are doing so, but on the wider left they have few friends. Britain’s Counterfire has given some cautious support; also in Britain, there is the Communist Party-aligned Weekly Worker, eg here; the Morning Star newspaper included gender critical material until an internal coup in February this year. Beyond that there are only very small grouplets, as far as I know, most notably around the Redline blog. All this underlines the value of the stand taken by Georgia’s Greens.
Built on sand
The other general point I want to make concerns the concept underpinning gender ideology, the trans trend, and the whole case made by the Lavender Greens: gender identity theory.
This theory is central to the notion that transwomen are women, with all its practical, social implications. “Gender identity” provides the rationale for applying the concept of conversion therapy to trans people as well as same-sex-attracted people, but it also says that lesbians and gays may in fact be heteros born into the wrong body. It “explains” and labels many forms of psychological distress, especially in young people. Gender identity provides a reason for the chemical and surgical “gender affirmation” of teens, for primary school ed programs, and for organizational work with kids behind the backs of parents. Gender identity means that questioners in health and mental health, academia and political life are all bigots who should be silenced and sacked.
Incredibly, this high-stakes concept gets almost no scrutiny. Its many supporters, from Tories to Trotskyists and across the corporate media, have closed ranks around it. The main rationale is a circular argument: any questioning of gender identity is a deep violation of trans people’s gender identity, leading to suffering and suicide (as if suffering and suicide do not result from the oppression of black people, women, and other groups, without this being used as a manipulative, silencing device.)
Gender identity is said to be “known” or “felt” by individuals, when communing with their inner selves. For most adherents this is enough. In response to cries of magical thinking, some leftists have tried to ground it in the material world, with no success.
Gender ideologists deny that women are defined by female biology or socialization, since this excludes transwomen. They don’t define women in terms of stereotypes either, or so they say. If so this would leave “woman” emptied of all meaning (unless perhaps as a postmodern “floating signifier“). In practice the empty space is indeed filled with sex stereotypes. This left-endorsed sexism is precisely why the media has mainstreamed gender identity theory.
People have the right to live their personal lives by the cultural conventions of the other sex. We should support trans people against real bigots who oppose this right, as leading gender critics have done. But we can do so without swallowing a sexist redefinition of women, just as we defend Jews without endorsing Zionism or concentration camps for Palestinians.
Support the Georgia Greens
Georgia’s Greens are helping to defend women from the new cool sexism of gender ideology. They are pushing through the extraordinary confusion that currently exists around the transgender trend – a trend founded on a fantasy that is, for the main, carefully protected from scrutiny. In doing this the Georgia Greens will be subject to a great deal of grief and pressure to capitulate. They deserve all the support we can give them.
The top down nature of the trans trend, a mainstay of Freer Lives, has been rammed home in a new report from supporters of gender ideology. Only adults? Good practices in legal gender recognition for youth was put out by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Youth & Student Organisation (IGLYO)”, produced with the law firm Dentons and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. It offers tips to trans lobbyists:
In Ireland, Denmark and Norway, changes to the law on legal gender recognition were put through at the same time as other more popular reforms such as marriage equality legislation. This provided a veil of protection, particularly in Ireland, where marriage equality was strongly supported, but gender identity remained a more difficult issue to win public support for…
The most important lesson from the Irish experience is arguably that trans advocates can possibly be much more strategic by trying to pass legislation “under the radar” by latching trans rights legislation onto more popular legal reforms (e.g. marriage equality), rather taking more combative, public facing, approaches….
More interesting still:
Another technique which has been used to great effect is the limitation of press coverage and exposure. In certain countries, like the UK, information on legal gender recognition reforms has been misinterpreted in the mainstream media, and opposition has arisen as a result… Against this background, many believe that public campaigning has been detrimental to progress, as much of the general public is not well informed about trans issues, and therefore misinterpretation can arise…. In Ireland, activists have directly lobbied individual politicians and tried to keep press coverage to a minimum in order to avoid this issue.
This last technique is recommended throughout the report: “As we have seen in other countries which have more progressive legal gender recognition laws, the route that Norwegian charities and NGOs took was to advocate directly to politicians.” And: “Danish NGOs have relatively easy access to politicians” so it is “considered to be easier and more efficient to directly change the law via lobbying/ political influencing.” In passing, the report notes a march organized in France, and there is a fleeting reference to public education campaigns, but these are very much the exception and in many ways jar with the rest of the content.
The wish to avoid public debate and exposure is explained away as a means to avoid provoking hate crime and to avoid media-sown confusion between legal self-ID and chemical or surgical procedures which worry the public. But these are top-down, anti-democratic arguments. Anyone who wants to live by the cultural rules of the other sex should be free to do that without fear, but whispered deals with elites only leave the hate to fester. Popular mobilization leaves less room for both hate and confusion.
The ELR paper
The report is critically examined in a forthcoming paper: “Reform ‘under the radar’? Lessons for Scotland from development of gender self-declaration laws in Europe,” Kath Murray, Lucy Hunter Blackburn and Lisa Mackenzie, Edinburgh Law Review (ELR) May 2020. (see advance copy) The paper notes that the drive for self-ID has enjoyed success in countries where public input into the changes was minimal, but hit a barrier when faced with organized popular resistance in Britain:
…in Denmark a closed consultation took place with 28 organisations, which elicited 9 responses (we were unable to find evidence of a public consultation). Public consultations took place in Ireland and Malta but had very low response rates. In Ireland a pre-legislative consultation in 2010 secured 40 responses, while the Maltese consultation in 2014 received 26 responses. By contrast, the Scottish and Westminster consultations secured over 15,600 and 100,000 responses respectively.
Left wing gender ideologists are fond of presenting the trans trend in grass-roots, salt-of-the-earth terms. The SWP’s Laura Miles, for example, declares that the legal rights of trans people “exist on sufferance as far as the ruling class are concerned”. Look through the IGLYO report and judge for yourselves.
Impact on women ignored
The IGLYO report saw women’s concerns in purely antagonistic terms, complaining of “trans exclusionary radical feminists (‘TERFs’), a term coined by a journalist at the Guardian.” The ELR paper notes how lobbyists in countries considering self-ID avoid the issue of how it might impact on women. The Scottish Government, it says, was asked why it “did not cite international evidence to support the view that legal self-declaration was unlikely to have negative effects on single-sex services.” It “responded that its review ‘did not find any relevant research from these jurisdictions in relation to these statements’.”
Denounced on the right
Shamefully, the top down nature of the trend trend has been exposed mainly by right wingers. In his own article on the IGLYO paper (The Spectator 2 Dec 2019), James Kirkup zeroes in on gender ideology’s domination of “public bodies, politicians and officials” in Britain.
Some of the bodies that have embraced these changes with the greatest zeal are surprising: the police are not famous social liberals, but many forces are now at the vanguard here… I think we can discount the idea that this is a simple question of organisations following a changing society. Bluntly, society still doesn’t know very much about transgenderism.
Caroline ffiske writes in The Conservative Woman (“The philosophy not the party!”) 13 May 2020:
Under the Conservatives, the trans narrative corrupts the hearts of our public institutions. It is rolled out by the Department of Education, the Government Equalities Office, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Police, the Courts, the NHS, the BBC, the Office of National Statistics, the Ministry of Justice.
She describes how this plays out in each case. For example:
Perhaps secondary school will be the place for open debate? The best treatment for a bad argument is to shine the light of day and discourse upon it. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has thought of that, and it too seems to have been captured by the trans lobby. The CPS has produced guidance for schools which suggests that it is “transphobic” to challenge the narrative. The CPS treats “gender identity” as established fact. Working alongside the trans lobby groups Stonewall and Gendered Intelligence, it has produced schools guidance which says that “people are assigned a sex at birth” … According to it, children should even be careful about thinking the wrong thoughts. Transphobia includes “personal negative thoughts about trans people”….
The Equal Treatment Bench Book guide for UK judges tells them [my hyperlink, FL] that “the term ‘transgender’ is commonly associated with those people whose gender identity does not correspond to the gender assigned to them at birth”…
She calls for a groundswell of activism that stirs Conservative MPs to pluck up their courage and defy the gender ideologues. Similarly, Kirkup concludes his article with a rousing message: “no policy made in the shadows can survive in sunlight.”
Weak elites, mighty lobbyists?
These two conservative writers land telling blows against the elitism of the trans trend, but can’t explain its success. Caroline ffiske talks of public institutions being “captured” like helpless innocents. She paints Tory MPs and their leaders as cowardly, weak, bemused: passive victims of the trans lobby. “Apparently ‘Downing Street just wants the whole subject to go away’. Never was there such a naive sentiment.” James Kirkup says he is mystified: how did this lobby “achieve such stunning success, not just in the UK but elsewhere?” He says the IQYLO document “helps answer” that. It certainly exposes the secretive, manipulative tactics of the lobbyists, by why has that worked so well with politicians, on an issue that lacks electoral appeal? Reading his article we are left to imagine MPs bamboozled as the gender ideologists shove ready-made legislation before their eyes, as if to be signed by some dementing old monarch, and then watching almost from the sidelines as the trans intriguers finesse it into law.
In reality MPs, top bureaucrats and the police are as usual serving the capitalist class. If the trans lobby has had green lights all the way, it is for the same reason that every section of the corporate media has mainstreamed gender identity theory: the ruling class needs to maintain women’s oppression in a changing world, and gender ideology helps it do so. But the trans-critical right can’t let itself see any of that: the system is good, as are its lords and masters, so the attack has to be coming from dark outside forces.
The only elite opposition to the trans trend comes from parts of the conservative media which want to rein in some of the more invasive and disruptive demands of the trans lobby, as previously discussed. This allows space for criticism by people like Kirkup. But the mass-circulation tabloids which raise these concerns are still eager to spread the sexism of “gender identity”, particularly to working women, so for example the “Femail” section of the Daily Mail has just celebrated The top 10 ‘sexiest transgender women in the world’ (my emphasis). They are not reluctantly following their readership, or adapting to cultural change: as we have seen above, public support for gender ideology remains weak. They are driving the trans trend, as they have since the early 2000s.
The right are enemies
Right wing critics of gender ideology are neither saviours nor allies. No-one on the spectrum from bigotry to neoliberalism is a friend of women’s rights. At one end of the spectrum they glorify the family, which handcuffs women to unpaid slavery in the home; few of them genuinely support LGB people and fewer back abortion on demand. At the other end, right wing liberals attack workers, meaning they attack working women, whose sexual oppression make them a particularly vulnerable part of the working class. Right wing liberals champion the neoliberal policy era under which gender ideology took root and flourished.
Many leftists seize on right wing attacks to paint gender ideology as progressive. The truth is that the left have betrayed women on this issue, and when the left fails to defend an oppressed group, sections of the right may step in and do so, in their own twisted way. But their scope to do that would narrow as soon as the left threw its support behind women’s liberationists.
There is a huge, horrible inversion on this issue: the left has fervently backed a ruling class attack on working women, based on the fantasies of gender identity and a popular trans movement from below. The left must abandon its fantasies. The top down nature of the trans trend stares you in the face.
“A world segregated into male and female categories feels suffocating,” says the nonbinary Robin Dembroff, assistant professor in philosophy at Yale. “Nonbinary identity is a radical escape hatch”, an alternative to the world of “normed conformity” where “everyone forces each other into a blue or a pink box”. This is set out in Dembroff’s recent article Why be nonbinary? which has received well over 5000 Facebook likes. It is one of a flood of pieces pouring out support for gender ideology, heading people away from a real challenge to confining sex roles and women’s oppression.
Gender and traditional sexism
First Dembroff dispenses with traditionalist sexism:
Most people assume that gender is tied to biological sex. For the majority, this means that gender is identical to sex, where sex is taken to be determined by one’s reproductive features. Call this the ‘identity’ view of gender.
For all the huffing about how gender is just body parts, no one in practice holds the identity view of gender. If gender is just reproductive features and nothing more, it makes no more sense to insist that people must look, love or act in particular ways on the basis of gender than it would to demand that people modify their behaviour on the basis of eye colour or height.
No one “in practice” seems to mean that this theory has no cred scientifically or academically; Dembroff wants to flick it away. But it cannot be dismissed that easily. Vast numbers of people watch boys getting each other in headlocks, hear that boys will be boys, and see nature at work. People don’t make the same sort of assumptions about eye colour and height because no mighty vested interests have worked century after century to police the behaviour of short or green-eyed people, and establish visible patterns of behaviour reinforcing the policed messages. We are struggling against powerful material forces, not just wrong ideas.
Gender and socialized sex roles
“For others, following Simone de Beauvoir, gender is the social meaning of sex,” ” Dembroff says. “Call this the ‘social position’ view of gender.”
A distinction between sex and gender, in which genders are the social positions forced upon certain sexed bodies, has long circulated among feminist theorists and activists. And, no doubt, this way of thinking about gender has helped to debunk ideas about how female persons ‘naturally’ should be and reveal widespread social discriminations against these persons…
It is powerful to insist that women and men should be able to look, act and simply be any way they want. Countless people identify as men or women while simultaneously bucking gender norms. For many of them, being understood as a man or a woman is important for describing how they were socialised as children, how others interpret their bodies, or how they feel about their own bodies. This is wonderful: the more sledgehammers we take to gender categories, the better. Some prefer to make these categories gooey on the inside; I prefer to torch them.
In other words, social positionists deserve a nod, but going nonbinary is more radical, exciting and effective. Most importantly: “While other feminisms question the unequal value placed on femininity and masculinity, highlighting the resulting gender inequalities, the nonbinary movement questions why we insist on these categories at all.”
This is the article’s key distortion. Liberal feminists may limit their attack to the “unequal value placed on femininity and masculinity”, but this is not true of radical feminists, socialist feminists and gender-critical Marxists, all of whom want a liberated world in which feminine and masculine sex roles are abolished altogether and people are free to be themselves (Even most pro-gender Marxists would say they support this.) But the distortion is essential to Dembroff’s argument, to establish nonbinary’s special status.
The real problem is, however, is that nonbinary works against the removal of sex stereotypes. This happens in several ways.
Not like other girls?
When women’s liberationists defy stereotypic expectations, they are consciously sending a message to women as a whole: you can all do this, and you should. Nonbinary, on the other hand, presents discontent with sex stereotypes as a minority concern. Debroff applauds nonbinary/agender teenager Kelsey Beckham who declared in The Washington Post that “I don’t want to be a girl wearing boy’s clothes, nor do I want to be a girl who presents as a boy… I’m just a person wearing people clothes”. Debroff says “Beckham’s claim gets at the heart of nonbinary identity.” But in The Washington Post piece Beckham’s defiance of sex stereotypes makes her other: one of a select few: “Being agender, Kelsey explains… is like living on an island apart from the rest of the world.”
Worse than this, nonbinary implies that the mass of working class women and girls are a good fit with their sex roles. As radical feminist M K Fain points out in her own critique of Dembroff’s article, this is a faux-radical version of “I’m not like other girls” – an attitude now widely derided online, as another writer explains:
Modern feminism acknowledges that the ‘I’m not like other girls’ movement carries hints of internalized misogyny, when girls proudly claim that they ‘are not like other girls’, it suggests that this ‘other’ breed of girls is generally shallow and vapid with no other interests besides fashion, fitness, or beauty.
Its “nonbinary” version offers no message to the mass of women and girls in working class suburbia except to do your hair and support the brave interesting minority who are not like them.
Nonbinary and the pink and blue flag
Nonbinary identity, Dembroff says, is “open to anyone”. Anyone and everyone? “I and other nonbinary persons question why we categorise people as women and men at all.” Could we all, then, get through this radical escape hatch? In a purely logical sense you can move from being nonbinary yourself to rejecting sex stereotypes for all, merging with the politics of women’s liberation. In practice, the nonbinary dwell beneath the “trans umbrella”, where a sex-role-defiant woman – be she nonbinary, masculine, gender fluid or agender – remains not only part of a small minority, but a subordinate part, living under the shelter vouchsafed by the trans movement. In return the nonbinary trend helps draw the most sex-role-defiant young women under the umbrella, women who might not be wowed by Miss Transgender UK or the Le Femme Finishing School.
Life under the trans umbrella is saturated in the sexism of gender ideology. This says we have an innate gender identity that can only be expressed through stereotypic behaviour and appearance, with the optional extra of body mod. It demands that we define women not by biology or socialization but only through the things that women and transwomen can share: feminine stereotypes a fact concealed under the myth of our innate, mystical/magical, nebulous gender identity. And since we all have an innate gender identity, and this almost always aligns with one’s sexed body, any feminine ways that natal women display do not reflect oppressive socialization but are natural and inborn. Girls will be girls. It is no coincidence that the trans flag is pink and blue.
And like other forms of gender ideology, nonbinary trivializes women’s oppression by presenting womanhood as something you can opt out of. And, related to this, when you “question why we categorise people as women and men at all” you come very close to denying the existence of women’s distinctive oppression as a sex, within the current system. Within a sexist society female biology guarantees systematic discrimination, a point that Fain drives home.
This fake radicalism makes it very, very hard for sex-role-defiant women to fight their way clear of the new cool sexism. Fain has a telling description of its impact on three women whom she lived with in 2018:
We spent a lot of time together that year, and there were many late-night conversations about the sexism, misogyny, and male violence we had experienced. We talked about not fitting into what society had expected of women, we stopped shaving together, and we encouraged each other to not be ashamed of our natural bodies. We called rape crisis lines, organized protests, and exposed violent men in our communities… The four of us dreamt of what a feminist world could look like… Now, one year later, all three of them identify as ‘non-binary’ — no longer a woman… In our last days together, I tried to show them a feminism that rejects gender rather than embraces its lies — but since I am ‘female’ and they are ‘not’ I could not possibly understand their pain. They said I was hateful.
For women’s liberation
Nonbinary serves as a recruiting agent for the wider world of gender ideology. But, against immense obstacles, women’s liberationists are pushing back against this ideology, particularly in Britain. The spearhead of this opposition is Women’s Place UK. Their struggle against gender sexism is being supported by those Marxists who have not lost their way on this issue.
An interesting discussion on transgender issues recently took place at the annual conference of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party. It was described in the party’s weekly Socialist Worker, at the end of a report on the conference.
The SWP restated its support for gender self-id in the Gender Recognition Act. During the discussion Sally Campbell, editor of the party’s magazine Socialist Review, said “The starting point is we stand in solidarity with trans people. Being inclusive doesn’t erase anyone.” Feminist opponents of self-id, she said, see “biology as the roots of women’s oppression”. She also implied that the corporate media was hostile to the trans cause. Freer Lives has previously discussed the politics of sexual biology, the emptiness of gender identity theory, and the corporate media’s fulsome support for this theory. Most interesting in the current context is that the party line came under challenge from two directions, and that these challenges were both given space in Socialist Worker.
One member, Moyra, suggested that “socialists should adopt a broadly gender critical approach as the best way to support both trans’ rights and women’s rights.”
She said the SWP should oppose tactics such as no-platforming “gender-critical voices” and using the term “Terf”. She said belligerence around the debate was unhelpful in “trying to understand the complexities of the arguments around biology and gender”. She said, “There is an objective basis to build a unity of the oppressed between women and trans people because both groups are oppressed by the ideology of gender stereotypes.”
Moyra might reflect a wider current within the SWP, which it feels the need to acknowledge. But the party might also want to publicise her views as a way to help it balance and push back against its most hardline gender ideologists, who want to picket meetings of the women’s liberationist group Women’s Place UK.
Sally [Campbell] argued against going to the protests. “Going along to WPUK is not where we should be putting our energy,” she said. A commission laying out the SWP’s support for trans rights and backing the right to self-declare gender said “neither should we organise or encourage participation in protests outside Women’s Place UK meetings.”
Traditionally the SWP saw the picketing of progressive groups as a marker of nutty sectarian outfits. Even today, the notion of picketing a conference called Women’s Liberation 2020 must embarrass its leadership. Trying to overcome this healthy tradition, the party’s hardline gender ideologists have sought to put WPUK beyond the pale, presenting it not as a progressive group with some wrong ideas but as a bunch of bigots masquerading as progressives.
Another delegate, Kate, said groups such as Women’s Place UK (WPUK) were “giving a left face to transphobia.” She said that the group had spread “misinformation about the Gender Recognition Act” and that it only offered “criticism of trans people,” not criticism of gender. She also said it was right to join protests outside of WPUK meetings…. Laura Miles said there’s a difference between people raising legitimate questions about trans rights and “where people retail what are clearly transphobic positions”.
To see the fraudulence of the “left face” position you only have to glance through the WPUK website, carrying articles such as this denunciation of alliances with the right, written by one of the group’s founders. The WPUK approach trans activists’ demands and ideas on the basis of their impact on women, and sometimes children. They never attack trans people as such, or challenge the right of people to live by the cultural conventions of the other sex. The SWP’s hardline gender ideologists are straining to present WPUK as something it is not.
The contradictions of the SWP’s gender ideologists
Presumably, the hardline gender ideologists in the party still think of themselves working in the SWP tradition, but in practice they have broken with it. The tradition of the SWP calls for unity in action with other progressive groups, and dealing with differences through clear, consistent, sharp arguments. The politics of gender ideology calls for silencing progressive opponents through physical pressure and organizational manoeuvres and through pragmatic, manipulative arguments where ideas are picked up or abandoned case by case, according to whatever works at any given moment. The tradition of the SWP calls for a commitment to women’s liberation, expressed, for example, in Judith Orr’s Marxism and Women’s Liberation. Gender ideology redefines women in terms of what they can share with transwomen, that is, in terms of stereotypes – eroding women’s safety, dignity, and public participation, and creating a roadblock to women’s understanding of their sexual oppression.
The contradiction in the SWP as a whole
This alien presence has gained a hold in the party through the impact of neoliberalism. The SWP does not look for guidance to left wing MPs, nor to left union officials and their machines, nor to radical dictators. Nor is it caught up in ossified dogmas of Trotskyist sects. It looks to the real live working class as the way forward for the world, and to the potential of the working to class to cohere into a force that draws all the oppressed behind it for the overthrow of capitalism. But its very adherence to this tradition has exposed it more than most left groups to damage from the deep and sustained ebb in western workers’ self-activity over the last four decades. One of the ways it has tried to survive is by looking to the identity-politics milieu for influence, members, and cadre. But this has brought serious new problems.
At times this contradiction in the SWP produces feeble compromises. It is notable, for example, that Sally Campbell presented her opposition to the picketing of WPUK as a mere tactical decision: “not where we should be putting our energy”. At other times the contradiction produces vacillations.
So the SWP sometimes holds to its traditions, as in this statement in the party’s theoretical journal, condemning the no-platforming of feminists (Marxism, feminism and transgender politics December 2017):
For example, when [Julie] Bindel was invited to speak at an event in Manchester in February 2017 the website of the venue, a well-known local resource for working class history and events, was bombarded with abuse and instructed not only to withdraw the invitation but to close down the venue itself. This is not a tactic likely to win wide support, as many activists use the centre. It is also mistaken in its aims of closing down the meeting, which had been scheduled as part of LGBT+ History Month… No platform is not a tactic to be applied willy-nilly to people whose views we do not like, however offensive they may be.
At other times, the party has capitulated. The following year the SWP opposed an open letter in The Morning Star that denounced trans activists’ attempts to silence gender critical feminists. Signatories to the letter included union leaders Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka, and Kiri Tunks, Nation Union of Teachers Vice-President. It was also signed by Lindsey German, a leading member of the Marxist group Counterfire. Those signing it made it clear that they had “a variety of positions” on the proposed GRA changes; the letter was simply a call for “action within our movement to allow debate to take place” (discussed in a previous post). The letter describes the beating of 60-year-old woman Maria MacLachlan at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park; “an incident… on a Bectu picket line in which trans activists, with no connection to the industrial dispute itself, mobbed and verbally attacked a female trade union member on the basis of having recognised her as an attendee at a similar meeting”; “masked activists blocking entrances” at a venue in Bristol and “deliberately intimidating those wishing to go inside”; and a “meeting organised by Woman’s Place UK targeted with a bomb threat which Hastings Police are investigating as a serious incident”.
These cases are part of systematic attempts to shut down meetings organised by women at which they can discuss potential legislative changes and the impact these may have on any sex-based rights already enshrined in law.
They draw the whole of our progressive movement into disrepute.
Some trans rights activists even continue to justify the use of violence, meaning that many women are simply too frightened to attend meetings that are both public and lawful in order that they may discuss their own rights.
Other women, including ordinary women concerned for their rights, as well as those active within the trade union movement and other political campaigns, are also now anxious and fearful that they will be subjected to such attacks when engaging in any political activity, meetings, or protests.
Disgracefully, Socialist Worker stated “We believe that Mark [Serwotka] was mistaken to sign the recent letter in the Morning Star.”
This contradiction within the SWP was more or less buried during the first huge wave of support for gender ideology, which swamped both liberal and radical politics. But the Trojan-horse nature of gender ideology is increasingly exposed now, as women’s liberationists have slowly pulled together an opposition to it. They are supported by some Marxist groups and individuals, but the spearhead for the resistance is Women’s Place UK.
WPUK sent a letter to Socialist Worker responding to its conference report. This response was published in SW’s Letters section in the online version of the paper. It reads in part:
We note that the only reference to women’s rights is in the session on defending trans rights – a glaring omission such as this is precisely why Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) was set up, to make sure that women’s voices will be heard.
Your report refers to WPUK “spreading misinformation about the GRA” and “only offering criticisms of trans people”. Both these allegations are false, as the thousands of people who have attended our meetings or who have endorsed our five demands could tell you. We have never “criticised” trans people and are pleased to have had trans people attend our meetings and speak on our platforms…
We welcome the fact that you will not organise or support protests outside our meetings, but you should go further and condemn attempts to stop us meeting as having no place in our movement.
The WPUK letter notes that tickets for its upcoming London conference have already sold out: “Anyone on the left who ignores this is isolating themselves from a growing movement.”
Where next for the SWP
I think the SWP can go one of two ways. It can continue to let gender ideology eat away at its politics and traditions, and leave Britain’s new flourishing women’s movement to feminists guided by patriarchy theory, and to other Marxist groups, mainly from the Communist Party tradition. Or it can oppose the sexism of gender identity theory and the erosion of women’s rights that flows from it, and at the same time support the right of trans people to live according to the cultural conventions of the opposite sex, and defend them against the real bigots on the right, who think sex-stereotypical behaviour emerges naturally from our biology of birth. This would mean giving unconditional but critical support: defending trans people as an oppressed group without endorsing anti-woman ideas and demands that currently dominate trans thinking. I think that is the real basis for unity between women and trans people, and the way forward for the left.
In Britain a high-profile court ruling has just made it harder to speak out against the sexism of gender ideology.
Maya Forstater worked as a researcher at a think tank called the Centre for Global Development (CGD). She lost her job in 2019 after tweeting a range of gender-critical comments, which included an insistence that transwomen are men.
In her own summary of events leading up to the court’s decision, Forstater discusses her long term opposition to sex stereotyping (she was co-founder of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign) and how this eventually led her to the fact that stereotypes are now “being repackaged into the new idea of ‘gender identity’ — that if a girl child doesn’t conform to gender norms she might actually ‘be a boy’ (and vice versa).” She became increasingly concerned at the “impact of transgender ideology on women’s rights, on lesbians, on vulnerable young people being told they are born in the wrong body and on freedom of speech.” She eventually put these views into a series of gender critical tweets, causing her unexpected trouble with her boss.
At the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) she said that the CGD had not continued her employment because of these comments, and had therefore discriminated against her. She asserted that her statements expressed philosophical beliefs of the kind protected under Britain’s Equality Act 2010.
Prior to the decision she noted the high stakes involved in the case:
If we can establish this point in law it would help people who are currently afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs or being treated differently by their employer. It would also help people facing discrimination outside of work. For example political parties and membership organisations that suspend people for expressing such beliefs, venues that refuse to host public meetings and social media platforms that discriminate against gender critical feminists would need to re-think their policies or they too would face claims for discrimination.
In deciding against her, the EAT was guided by an earlier case which set out five criteria for determining whether the beliefs expressed in contentious comments are genuinely “philosophical”, and therefore protected. It found that Forstater’s comments met four of these criteria, but not the last one: “It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.”
The judge said (para 90 of the decision) that Forstater was
absolutist in her view of sex, and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society. (access via Google drive)
Louise Rea, a solicitor advising the CGD in the case, hammered home the key point:
Employment Judge Tayler acknowledged that there is nothing to stop the claimant campaigning against the proposed revisions to the Gender Recognition Act or, expressing her opinion that there should be some spaces that are restricted to women assigned female at birth. However, she can do so without insisting on calling transwomen men. It is the fact that her belief necessarily involves violating the dignity of others which means it is not protected under the Equality Act 2010.
British law and gender identity theory
Writing about the Forstater case, legal commentator Darren Newman notes the context of existing law in Britain: “importantly, the right of a trans person to have their acquired gender fully recognised in law was established by that Court in Goodwin v United Kingdom. It was as a result of that case that the UK Government introduced the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the concept of a Gender Recognition Certificate – the effect of which is that:
…the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender (so that, if the acquired gender is the male gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a man and, if it is the female gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a woman).
(S.9(1) GRA 2004)”
In an excellent defense of Forstater, Ruth Serwotka points out that the Gender Recognition Act’s “legal fiction of changing one’s sex” exists in tension with elements of the Equality Act that maintain the right of women-only facilities to exclude transwomen in certain circumstances, “known as exemptions”. But it is hard to deny the degree of support that gender ideology, and in particular gender identity theory, now receives in British law.
As previously discussed, this support extends more generally throughout the institutions of neoliberalism, reflecting the new norms of official society, that is, the norms set or tolerated by the capitalist class, and articulated by the intellectuals, commentators etc. who consciously or unconsciously shape their thinking to the current needs of capitalism.
Gender identity and the material world
Does elite support mean that gender identity is real? For only if it is real can challenging it be seen as an affront to trans people’s dignity.
The reality of gender identity is usually advanced as a mystical/magical inner truth known to the individuals concerned. And this is usually defended by a circular argument: this inner “knowledge” is real because saying anything else is a horrible violation of trans people’s innate gender identity. The circularity of the argument is protected from scrutiny by three things. First and foremost is the support the theory receives from the conservative and liberal corporate media, and from neoliberal institutions more generally. Another factor is the sheer breadth of support for gender ideology: it must be true if it’s endorsed by everyone from Tories to Trotskyists (the strained attempts by pro-gender Marxists to establish a materialist basis for gender identity have been previously discussed in Freer Lives). The other protective factor is people’s understandable reluctance to challenge the heartfelt belief of a group of people facing hostility from social conservatives and violent haters, and rejection from many ordinary people. But none of these factors remove the mysticism, circularity, or sexism of the argument. Gender identity is a fiction.
The sexual binary
Paragraph 41 of the EAT’s decision states:
On the totality of the Claimant’s evidence it was clear that she considers there are two sexes, male and female, there is no spectrum in sex and there are no circumstances whatsoever in which a person can change from one sex to another, or to being of neither sex… If a person has a Gender Recognition Certificate this would not alter the Claimant’s position. (access via Google drive)
The judge described such as view as “absolutist” at a time when “biological opinion is increasingly moving away from a[n] absolutist approach”.
Is there really no sexual binary? Sexes arose as the key condition for sexual reproduction, which involves guess how many sexes. The reproductive tract takes a male form, a female form and… not many others. True, for human beings sexuality can no longer be reduced to biology; here as in other areas, humans broke through the fixed, narrow routines of animal life, making sexual life varied, and enriched by deep personal interactions. But this does not alter the binary nature of the sexes themselves (see earlier discussion in Freer Lives and Do women exist? by James Robb).
When gender ideologues tell us that sex is a spectrum, and speak of people with chromosomal or other irregularities, we are left to assume that such people are trans or fluid, or more likely to be; left to assume that the men with these irregularities are more likely to be “feminine”. Left to assume, for nothing is ever made clear. Like so many anti-working class theorists, gender ideologues despise clarity. Ideas are to be picked up or discarded on pragmatic grounds. Whenever it suits, these same ideologues indignantly dismiss all biological considerations in favour of the mystical/magical inner truth of gender identity.
The fact that some scientists now deny the sexual binary does not reflect scientific method, or the knowledge accumulated through it. It reflects the changing needs of our rulers, and the way they shape public thinking.
The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class
The capitalist class has adopted gender ideology so that they can use its sexism to help maintain the oppression of women, to which the bosses are addicted. The whole point of attacking the sexual binary is to cast doubt on sex itself as an alternative to “gender”, that is, to sexist social convention, as a way of defining women. Transwomen can only express their womanhood through the cultural conventions of femininity (apart from the optional extra of body modification). But crucially gender ideology also applies this thinking to natal women: their womanhood can no longer be defined by their biology and a lifetime of female socialisation – that is exclusionary hate talk which, as Maya Forstater discovered, can get you into real trouble. Natal women, as a category, can only be women on grounds they share, or are said to share, with transwomen – only because they gossip, gush, do their hair; only because as kids they played with dolls, loved pink, and wore frilly dresses, as so many transwomen longed to do.
Such a huge change in public thinking inevitably provokes resistance from sections of the right. Some right wingers want to return to traditional stereotypes, where female biology is the natural source of femininity. Others are simply overwhelmed by the suddenness and enormity of the claims and demands now being made by gender ideology, and the challenges they raise to children, to free speech, and to the dignity of women, seen through a conservative lens. More politically minded right wingers, including some right-of-centre feminists, want to use the trans issue to discredit the left and win progressive women to neoliberalism. But all this is secondary.
Gender ideology is in essence an attack by the bosses on working women. This has an impact on all women since it redefines them in sexist stereotypic terms and in doing so unleashes a series of consequent practical attacks on women’s rights. But the target is working women since the bosses need them to continue to perform unpaid labour raising today’s tomorrow’s and yesterday’s wage slaves: gender ideology is just one more form of sexism designed to reconcile women to this role. But an attack on working women is also an attack on the working class as a whole. This is a fight for women’s liberation, but also a class battle of workers against bosses.
Every socialist should be supporting the efforts of feminists such as Woman’s Place UK, Fair Play for Women and Feminist Current to oppose gender sexism. Marxist groups and journals such as the Morning Star, Redline and Counterfire have led the way in doing that. Pro-gender Marxists are on the wrong side of the barricades, they have lost their way. We should all be standing with Maya Forstater.