Twenty years ago gender ideology was a curiosity on the social margins. Now it is mainstream. Yet its central idea, of a “gender identity” distinct from biology and socialisation, has no basis in material reality.
The trans debate is framed as a culture war dividing progressives from bigots, as a grass roots movement defying the elite. Yet gender identity theory was normalised thanks to support from elite institutions, top corporations, conservative politicians and virtually the whole corporate media, including the business press and right wing gutter tabloids.
The arguments surrounding transgender, and gender ideology, are complex and messy. They’re discussed at length on this blog: see the page Archived posts by topic or read the following overview of Freer Lives which offers another way into past articles. The overview describes how and why gender ideology was mainstreamed by the capitalist class. It discusses why some bosses and right wingers have some reservations about it. It suggests why the left supports this new, elite-driven sexism. And it talks about ways to get rid of it.
A sexist ideology
Gender ideology says transwomen are women, who can longer be defined by biology or socialisation since that would exclude their trans sisters; the only “inclusive” way to define a woman is through stereotypical appearance and behaviour. As a result, sexism inevitably flourishes within the ranks of trans people and their supporters. It’s no coincidence that the trans flag is pink and blue.
This sexism is concealed by the myth of “gender identity”. This identity is supposedly discovered through some form of communion with one’s inner self, explained in vaguely mystical terms or via pink and blue brains. Pro-gender Marxists strain to find a more solid material basis for gender identity, but inevitably sink into murk and evasion. In fact this “identity” is an internalisation of the sex roles someone has observed over their lifetime, which is then affirmed as real by wider social forces – most importantly, by the corporate media and neoliberal capitalism.
Gender ideology and the capitalist class
Gender identity theory has seduced the bosses. By fostering drug dependency it benefits bosses in pharmaceuticals, but crucially it also benefits the bosses as a whole. The capitalist system is addicted to women’s unpaid labour, keeping the system’s workers (including themselves) ready for work each new day, and rearing tomorrow’s workers. But women’s willingness to slave away free of charge ultimately depends on them continuing to view themselves as inferior, natural nurturers, so this notion must be continually reinforced. While the message of inferiority is targeted at ordinary working class women, it permeates the lives of women across all classes. But it also clashes with another trend in the capitalism: women are no longer just the wives of wage workers, they’ve been drawn into offices and factories in vast numbers, where they see that they’re equal to men. This new life experience underpins feminism and has forced the bosses to accept the compromise position of liberal feminism. In this context the new sexism of gender ideology is manna from heaven. As well as redefining women, it makes trans status the definitive or only alternative to traditional sex roles. Discontent is now a minority concern. The role of women is to giggle, gush and do their hair, work quietly, and respect the interesting cool minority who are not like them.
This is why the bosses mainstreamed gender ideology. Since the early 2000s the corporate mass media, liberal and conservative, have poured out stories about kids “born into the wrong body” and the brave mothers supporting them. Gender ideology is now enforced by public and private bureaucracies, Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, and by the big corporations themselves. It is promoted by the imperialist warmongers who run the US Democratic Party, and has been embraced by Britain’s Conservatives. In official documents the reality-based word “sex” is increasingly replaced by the sexist term “gender”. Big-business philanthropy in the USA has poured phenomenal amounts of money into lobby groups driving the trans trend.
It has to be stressed that the bosses did not do this under pressure from below. They faced nothing like the previous, real, popular movements which had supported the rights of women, black people or lesbians and gays. This is a top-down trend.
Claims and demands
Supercharged by elite support, gender ideologists have advanced a range of claims and demands which flow from the logic of gender identity theory.
- Trans people should be allowed to self-identify, with no need to change their bodies or appearance.
- This should allow them access to women-only spaces – again, with no obligation to change their bodies or appearance. This also applies in under-age situations such as schools.
- Transwomen should be able to represent women in sports contests and leadership posts.
- Crimes committed by transwomen should be recorded as committed by women.
- Teens too have an innate “gender identity”. And while adult transwomen can keep their beards, teens face pressure to undergo chemical or surgical maiming and sterilisation to fit their inner identity (otherwise teens, being truly “fluid”, might abandon these identities).
- Young children may be transgender as well. Through programs funded by neoliberal politicians, primary schoolers are led to doubt their mind-body link and set on the path toward maiming and sterilisation.
- Same sex attracted youth should consider whether they’re heteros born in the wrong body.
- Lesbians who don’t include people with “girl dicks” in their pool of potential lovers deserve hatred and abuse.
- Clinicians who ask children or teens to wait before transitioning, or explore what is driving their decision (ie do their job), should be silenced and sacked, just like academic critics.
- Gender-critical women’s liberationists too should be silenced, reviled, intimidated, and sacked from their jobs.
- Mentally ill teens should be given a fake explanation for their suffering.
- Teens and kids should hide their interest in transitioning from unsupportive parents; this isn’t grooming it’s defending their gender identities.
Right wing opposition
The more conservative media bosses, even while they continue to push gender identity theory, have baulked at some of this, and have probably been disturbed by the unexpectedly high numbers of young people adopting trans identities. Much as these bosses support the new sexism, they want the trans trend to be nothing more than a handful of kids tucked away in suburbia, a few public individuals like the respectable Catherine McGregor or the glammed-up Caitlyn Jenner, plus amusing oddities like the Le Femme Finishing School. In effect, they want gender ideology to supplement, rather than challenge, traditional ideas about women: something useful for managing malcontents without disrupting the views and lives of the silent majority who keep to the old ways. Most bosses seem to shrug off such social disruption, trusting the progressive left to keep shielding and shoring up the new sexism, to keep smoothing things down. But the trans trend’s very entanglement with the left is a further annoyance to the most conservative bosses.
The partial hostility of some bosses, the invasiveness of trans demands, and the near-absence of left-wing resistance to gender ideology have created political space and motive for sections of the right to oppose parts of the trend. Outraged social conservatives have mobilised in the USA and in eastern Europe (see eg here). But some right-of-centre liberals too are disturbed by the attacks on women, children, free speech, science, and the work of clinicians and academics – all seen, of course, through a right wing lens. The hard, Breitbart right too has bought in. All these right wingers see a chance to discredit the left and break gender-critical women’s allegiance to progressive politics.
The liberal and radical left
So right wing liberals defend women, when most of their left liberal peers do not! Left liberals have been influenced on the one hand by ruling class media and institutions, and on the other by progressives further to their left, from whose ranks their spokespeople and intellectuals often emerge. So for example, during the rise of gender ideology left-liberal journalists could “bravely” defend trans kids, feeling a pleasant shiver of radicalism as well as a pat on the head from their senior manager. Their right wing equivalents despise radicals, and follow or work in media that does not swallow the whole, extended trans agenda.
How can more radical leftists swallow this sexism? For one thing, it hides cunningly behind human rights. Once you assert a mystical inner truth about people having a “gender identity”, challenging it becomes a violation of their inner selves, equivalent to telling a lesbian or gay man that same-sex attraction can be “cured”. The circularity of this argument is concealed by emotive references to trans suffering and suicides (as though other forms of oppression do not also generate suffering and suicides, without this being used as a manipulative tool); by the broad spread of support for gender ideology across the political spectrum; and by the use of organisational manoeuvres like no-platforming to avoid debate.
Another reason is trans people’s challenge to old fashioned sex stereotypes, which anchors feminine traits to female biology. This challenge exposes trans individuals to discrimination and assault, particularly the many who work in prostitution. It also generates right wing attacks as discussed above. The left-liberal corporate media, and trans activists and supporters, make the most of all this to paint any criticism of gender sexism as right wing bigotry.
Taken together, these factors provide activists and intellectuals with a very plausible cover for gender ideology to offer to rank and file leftists. So it is a serious mistake to dismiss these leftists as stupid koolaid-drinkers, sexist men or handmaid women.
But it is no more than a cover. Because, as gender-critical progressives show, you can defend people’s right to adopt the persona and social rules of the other sex without compromising women and children or redefining women in sexist terms. You can defend trans individuals from attack while also pointing out that their ranks have been vastly swelled by elite support.
Activists and intellectuals
Why do so many activists and intellectuals provide this cover? One reason is the sheer weight of capitalist ideas, delivered via liberal feminism. This condemns gross attacks on females but is remarkably indulgent of women’s objectification, which feeds into uncritical support for prostitution, pornography, and gender ideology.
Another reason is the prolonged political torpor on the western left. During the upsurge of worker and social activism in the late 1960s radicalised women soon turned their attention to sexism on the left. In the event of a similar upsurge today there is absolutely no doubt that most female activists would broaden their view of sexism to include gender ideology. But today we’ve been shaped by the Long Night of neoliberalism with its four-decade collapse of strike activity. Workers in some oppressed or developing countries have made advances, and some western workers have joined episodic protest movements, but this has not generalised into a new political confidence internationally.
Alas, this mood has been consolidated intellectually by postmodernism, which emerged as as a point-by-point attack on the liberation politics of the 1960s and early 1970s. Liberation politics rest on a form of humanism which says that there is a rich inner world in every person, a whole universe of thoughts feelings and capacities that deserves full expression. It says that human beings have agency, they can act to change the world. And it says that another world can be reached beyond the current horizon, beyond today’s vileness. These ideas inspire Marxism, and, in different ways, socialist and radical feminism. The postmodernists have contempt for such ideas. For them liberation for all is replaced by self-cultivation for the few; there is no world of freedom to win, merely an endless clash of interests, the political mirror of an eternalised capitalist marketplace. This cramped view of humanity and human potential is not adopted wholesale on the left, but it has wide resonance among people who see no end in sight to sexism, racism and other miseries.
The Marxist left
Marxist parties and groups retain a belief in humanism and liberation. They have largely caved in to gender sexism for other reasons. The best sections, which rely on political self-activity of workers, have been utterly debilitated by the neoliberal torpor. Small left parties have turned to the identity politics milieu for influence, recruitment and cadre: a Trojan horse that has released gender ideology into their organisations, corrupting their politics and traditions. Meanwhile left parties which retain links to the union bureaucracy are most likely hostage to its support for gender ideology, hence the major concessions recently made by Britain’s Morning Star newspaper.
This leaves gender critical feminists fighting almost alone, with only handfuls of other progressives joining them.
Women’s liberationists, the left and the right
Gender critical women’s liberationists face unbelievable vitriol on the left. Violence against them – punching, murder – is routinely urged on social media and elsewhere, sometimes jokey, always self-righteous. The excuse, of course, is gender identity theory, but it is hard to argue when these feminists talk of misogyny: here at last are women we can stomp on. Let’s remember at this stage that gender critical feminists denounce violence and discrimination against trans people, as people living by the cultural conventions of the other sex; they simply refuse to endorse attacks on women.
Gender critical progressives are routinely refused platforms for debate in the left and left-liberal media.
When the left refuses to take up the needs of an oppressed group, the right will sometimes do so, in its own way, and so it is here. Gender critical progressives find themselves sharing the same practical demands as some right wingers: protection of women’s spaces; protection of teens and children from maiming and sterilisation; defense of science, and the material reality of the sexual binary; free speech, and defending the jobs of academics and physicians.
In these circumstances a few gender critical feminists have allied with social conservatives, who have reached out to them (eg here). The radical feminist Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) in the USA have notoriously allied with outright bigots: this has of course been denounced by gender critical socialist feminists (eg here).
A much wider layer of gender critical feminists have more or less uncritically welcomed the support of right-of-centre liberals, such as Times journalists Janice Turner and Andrew Mulligan. Gender critical feminists see their demands echoed in right wing publications like The Spectator and Spiked and the blog Quillette, and they are offered space in other conservative outlets, including the Wall Street Journal. All this is denounced by the no-platforming censors who run the left media.
The politics of the gender critical left
Left wing gender critical feminists are well aware of conservative and corporate support for gender ideology. But their fire is almost always turned on trans lobby groups and activists. This reflects their concern to stop the practical attacks on women’s rights, eg around women’s spaces and sports contests, which no amount of theorising will do by itself. I think it also reflects their particular understanding of the source of the problem, which they locate in patriarchy or an oppressive male sex class of which trans activists are the visible expression or advance guard. Seen this way, the current article may be little more than a male socialist exonerating men from blame. These disagreements are not the focus of Freer Lives (I have discussed them here) but they do impact on strategy and tactics.
The way out
Gender identity theory simultaneously attacks women’s rights and certain traditional values. For both these reasons the media, liberal and conservative, have had to work hard to sell the new theory to ordinary people, despite all the political support the new sexism receives. This is why objections to parts of gender ideology are starting to have some impact. But most of the resistance has come from the right.
Can the right save us from gender ideology? Social conservatives can’t defeat it without regaining support from the ruling class. That could only happen as part of a brutish, reactionary lurch in society, where every gain for women and workers was pushed back decades. Yet even then, this would not be a Gilead, women would still be massed in the workforce, so gender ideology would probably reappear as soon as liberalism revived.
It is much more likely that the capitalist class will accommodate some right wing liberal concerns and row back on some policies, amid much left-liberal hand-wringing. But the elite would certainly protect the core concept of gender identity as social orthodoxy, leaving the trans lobby a springboard for new forays forward. In any case, a victory for right wing liberals would also strengthen neoliberalism, the policy era under which this madness was mainstreamed.
That leaves one way out. If most of the left and the workers’ movement shifted ground and the sexist underpinnings of the ideology were revealed instead of meticulously concealed, the game would be up. If even just the radical left shifted into attack, it would provide a focus for ordinary workers’ uneasiness.
It is proving very difficult to shift left wing opinion around practical contested issues, such as the risks posed by letting transwomen into women’s spaces: facts and statistics are thrown about by both sides and leftists accept the word of those they currently trust. The factors that lead leftists to accept gender ideology also make them suspicious of our counter-arguments.
To make headway, I believe that two things are needed. One is to separate ourselves sharply from all “allies” on the right. Leftists will not be shifted if we uncritically cite the union-bashing Times, Daily Mail, Spectator or Wall Street Journal. If this loses us platforms on their media outlets, well, their readers were never going to form the backbone of the fight against this new sexism. The other is to forefront the role of the bosses in mainstreaming gender ideology, and their interests in doing so. Left wingers, unionists in particular, need to see the trans issue not as defense of vulnerable people, nor as a “clash of rights” between trans people and women; they need to see it for what it is: an attack on working women by the capitalist class.