An article in the Socialist Review magazine (January 2017), put out by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), discusses the debate between trans-critical feminists and supporters of transgender people, and the issue of access to women-only areas. It also describes the author’s workplace experiences as a lecturer, dealing with discrimination and fighting for safe spaces for transgender people.
The piece acknowledges a “massive difference” between right wing bigots, who treat traditional gender roles as god-given, and Germaine Greer (used in the article to represent all trans-critical feminists) who challenges gender roles. The piece is less helpful in its explanation as to why feminists might criticise the trans trend.
Some comments could be read as a dogwhistle hint that trans-critical feminists are now just old and past it, whatever their previous achievements. On one hand we have the “veteran” Greer, on the other “a new generation” that “is growing up with more open attitudes to non-binary gender identities”. Online there is certainly an undercurrent of ageism in attacks on trans critics (eg the slagging off of Elinor Burkett in Jezebel as previously described). Ageism would be entirely out of keeping for the Socialist Review, but the wording of the article might have been better.
Beyond that, the article passes off trans-critical feminists as deterministic, something disputed by these feminists themselves. Greer’s argument “is underpinned by the pessimistic belief that all men are unbreakably wedded to sexism”, implying that deterministic views of males and females are standard among trans-critical feminists, and unknown among feminists friendly to trans ideology.
The most striking thing is what the article doesn’t say. As the SWP well knows, trans-critical feminists oppose the way trans ideology presents girlhood and womanhood in terms of stereotypical appearance and behaviour (apologies in advance for the number of links to other parts of my blog in this post).
Trans-critical feminists and Marxists actually agree that womanhood in our society is shaped by an oppressive socialisation that is inescapable for those born with female biology. For example, Marxists would endorse Germaine Greer’s 2013 article Guilt poisons women when Greer says that socialisation has been “relentlessly loading female humans with responsibility for other people’s behavior from their earliest childhood… Women feel more guilt than men, not because of some weird chromosomal issue but because they have a history of being blamed for other people’s behavior. You get hit, you must have annoyed someone; you get raped, you must have excited someone; your kid is a junkie, you must have brought him up wrong.” The difference is that these feminists apply such political ideas when considering the trans trend, while most Marxists just look the other way.
The sexist definition of womanhood, in terms of appearance not experience, is affirmed in practice when transwomen have access to female-only spaces. You might imagine trans spokespeople separating the two issues: demanding the right to be accepted as women in some sense, and have access to women’s spaces, while at the same time saying loud and clear that they do not wish to define femaleness in terms of stereotypes, or deny or conceal the oppressive socialisation that natal females go through. But I’ve never seen this done, even by leftist trans people/sympathisers, probably because it would run too deeply against trans ideology.
The article’s only reference to socialisation is via a caricature of trans-critical feminism: “a trans woman who has been socialised as a male is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and as such a danger to women-only spaces.”
The unity of working people is a cornerstone of Marxism, but one of the ways to achieve it is to acknowledge the oppression of particular parts of the working class. Marxists like the SWP urge oppressed groups to participate fully in the whole working class movement but they also support oppressed groups’ right to organise independently, and to take their own measures to protect themselves.
Supporting women’s right to their own physical spaces is one expression of this. For decades the Left has acknowledged women’s right to women’s rooms on campuses. It was taken for granted that this would also apply to washrooms, toilets, prisons, changing areas and so on. Supporting separate spaces for females acknowledges female oppression in concrete terms. It recognises, for example, that women are brought up in a way that gives them less confidence and sense of entitlement than men, and that they are often seen as irrational and over-emotional, givers of untrustworthy evidence. Above all oppression presents women and girls in dehumanised terms, as contemptible and/or fascinating objects. Capitalist alienation and women’s oppression distort male sexuality so that some men like to scare, humiliate or harm women and girls. Due to their musculature, males tend to be stronger and run faster than females, which in a sexist world can quickly become threatening.
In the odd thinking that currently dominates the Left, all the above issues are swept aside as entirely irrelevant to transwomen’s bathroom access. The issue is well summed up in this anonymous online comment (March 10, 2015):
Here’s the thing. I wouldn’t mind sharing a restroom with every transwoman I know. Heck, if you came to my gym and introduced yourself to me and tried to help me get to know you I might even go to bat for you with the other ladies in the locker room. But for all the fear you say you feel when entering the men’s, imagine how women feel when we [see] a non-passable male looking/bodied person WE DON’T KNOW in our most intimate and vulnerable places. Do you know how many of us are sexually assaulted, beaten murdered every year? Including in restrooms and other private facilities? Look it up. The numbers will astonish you… So please, stop thinking like an entitled man and consider that we don’t know the difference between you and any other person we perceive as male, and the seconds it takes to figure out could cost our lives. Men actually DO cross dress to commit crimes against women. It’s NOT a myth. Giving carte blanche access puts me at risk.
And why aren’t single user spaces ok? Unisex stalls don’t say TR*NNY in big bold letters. They say UNISEX. ANYONE.
As feminist blogger donesoverydone states, “Restroom predation is a small part of the trans problem – but it’s not nothing”. Her blog includes a list of links to cases where cross-dressing men have attacked women in women’s spaces.
Who are we with, and who are we against?
The issue of bathroom access needs to be dealt with as part of the wider issue of transgender politics, and that means coming to grips with the intensely contradictory nature of the trans trend. On the one hand, it became a mass phenomenon only when the corporate mass media and other neoliberal institutions began propagandising for it, realising that the sexist elements in its ideology make a new cool contribution to maintaining women’s oppression, and hence profitability. (“Last April Bruce Springsteen cancelled his show in North Carolina, in an act of solidarity with trans activists who were campaigning against the state’s law banning trans people from using the public toilet of their choice,” the article says. It does not say the trans campaign was largely carried by a strike from supportive bosses, and that the bathroom issue has divided the Republicans’ social-conservative and pro-business wings.)
On the other hand, trans people challenge the most traditional sex stereotyping. This gives an oppositional side to the trend, which has attracted many left wing people, who support many different struggles against discrimination. It also means trans individuals face serious dangers, from which the bosses will do little to protect them. (The article describes how one trans person did not report a brutal attack, fearing that self-defence might result in charges, and further dangers in a male jail.) Emotional turmoil, past and present, sometimes adds to their personal vulnerability.
The SWP, like most of the Left, has put on a pair of blinkers. It allows itself to see only one side of this contradiction: the left-leaning trans people who support a range of progressive causes including aspects of women’s rights. It does not allow itself to see how or why the the capitalist class has given huge backing to the trans trend.
The article states: “Socialists reject the idea that individual workers are eternally tied to particular systems of oppression, in the belief that the tendency towards solidarity within the working class can only be realised through challenging oppression.” This seems to be making the correct point that prejudices of individual workers – including sexism among male workers – can be overcome during the experience of common struggle. But the demand to give transwomen access to women’s spaces splits the working class, by failing to recognise it as an attack on working women.
Socialists, feminists, and working people generally, need to defend trans people from harassment and support safe spaces for them, eg through the provision of single-person unisex toilets. We should work with trans people whenever possible. But we must oppose the sexist elements in trans ideology and point out how they are used by capitalism.
Needless to say, I can’t speak on behalf of trans-critical feminists and I’m not trying to, but I am calling on other Marxists to open a more constructive dialogue with them.
The International Socialist Tendency
The SWP is a leading section of the International Socialist Tendency. The IST would not want any kind of endorsement from a trans-critical miscreant, but it will get one anyway.
The IST’s politics have always remained centred around the core Marxist ideas of workers’ revolution and socialism from the ground up. It does not tail “left wing” dictators, trade union bureaucrats, hip academics, it is free from the dogmatism of orthodox Trotskyists. The IST’s politics have steered it through very difficult times, allowing to grasp the nature of state capitalism in Stalinist Russia, and the nature of Russia today as part of world imperialism. It sees the strategies needed to get from the here and now to a free world. It has done all it can to support working class struggle again and again during decades of desperately low industrial activity. Again and again it has supported the struggle for women’s liberation in both theory and action.
The line of the IST on transgender, like that of the rest of the Left, reflects the damage dealt by 40 years of neoliberalism. It is likely to be corrected when a sustained rise in working class struggle finally throws off that legacy, and a new layer of activists, inside and outside the IST, look more critically at the sexism inherent in trans politics. That process will take time, but the worldwide anti-Trump protests are a great first step in that direction.
Here is another valuable summary of this program, from the Transgender Trend blog.
The documentary Transgender Kids – Who Knows Best? broadcast on BBC2 on Thursday night, January 12, was a long overdue presentation of an important debate which needs to be heard in public… Previous media coverage of “trans kids” (BBC’s output summed up here) has relentlessly kow-towed to trans activists in presenting only one story: that of brave kids becoming their “authentic selves” and brave parents supporting them to do so. The “innate gender” ideology behind the transition of children has not been questioned. This documentary is the first to present the other side of the debate and to include the stories of children who happily grow out of cross-sex identification and those who later regret their transition…
Full post at:
A great summary of an important program, one of the rare cases when a mainstream media outlet has aired concerns about the transgender trend. The post draws some conclusions and implications. At the end it links to a petition to have the program broadcast in North America.
The BBC recently broadcast a program Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?. Unusually for a mass media outlet, it raised challenging questions involving transgender issues. As far as I know it was broadcast only in Britain, but it is available online here (archive.org) and here (dailymotion.com). It follows the BBC’s earlier, uncritical support for transgender ideology (see here and here). Issues surrounding the recent program have been summarised by journalist Jesse Singal in New York magazine.
The film zeroes in on the controversy surrounding the late-2015 firing of Kenneth Zucker, a leading childhood gender-dysphoria researcher and clinician, and the shutdown of his [Canadian] gender-identity clinic — but it’s really about the broader controversy that has raged over this subject, mostly a bit beyond the attention of mainstream audiences.
Many people are upset the BBC aired the documentary at all — to them, Zucker is a monster who practiced a brutal form of “conversion therapy” in which he tried to turn transgender kids cisgender. These and other accusations peppered the negative coverage the documentary received prior to its airing, on sites like PinkNews (“BBC documentary features doctor who tried to ‘cure’ trans kids”), Gay Star News (“There are fears a BBC documentary on trans children will be ‘blatant transphobic propaganda’”), and the Guardian. More than 11,000 people even signed a Change.org petition arguing the BBC program “should not be broadcast until reviewed by experts” — experts, it’s safe to say given the content of the petition, who aren’t fans of Zucker.
As Science of Us explained in a series of investigative articles I wrote early last year, the truth about Zucker and his clinic is a lot more complicated. Many of the claims activists have made about him are false or seriously overblown, and the “external review” that led to his firing commissioned by the hospital which oversaw his clinic, Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, was absolutely riddled with errors and falsehoods. CAMH itself quickly decided it couldn’t stand by the review it had commissioned; after we reported that the single most damning allegation in the review was completely false, CAMH yanked the document off its website entirely, replacing it with a toned down “summary.”
In an update, Singal adds that on the morning after the program appeared, “the BBC Breakfast morning show broadcast a sensationally misleading segment on the subject — one which wrongly implied that Zucker engaged in a variety of abusive practices that he has never even been publicly accused of.”
Singal seems to accept the concept that some children are born into the wrong body, but he defends the chance for clinicians to do their professional work without being dismissed as bigots.
I want to touch on two issues here. One is the belief in “gender identity” which underlies a lot of the anger against Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? and trans-critical progressives more generally. The other issue is the role played by clinicians.
The politics of gender identity
The process of sex stereotyping is so subtle, pervasive and continuous that over time it becomes deeply internalised. Our stereotypical behaviours and habits of mind seem to originate within ourselves, as Cordelia Fine points out in Delusions of Gender. For example, while “millions of marketing dollars” are “spent promoting a pink, frilly world to girls”, and this permeates girls’ peer culture, it might still come as a shock to politically correct parents when their daughter demands pink frills; they begin to worry that their efforts to resist stereotypes in her upbringing were just holding back their daughter’s true inner self (page 226, London : Icon, 2010 ed). Femininity becomes a “thing” that females just “have”.
Socialists and feminists in the 1960s and early 70s pointed out that this is a myth foisted upon us. The consciousness-raising groups set up by women’s liberationists were intended, among other things, to listen more critically to the “inner voice” that tells females why it just “feels right” to put themselves second, to take responsibility for others’ happiness, etc. – and to recognise its political origins.
Now the notion of inner, natural femininity and masculinity has been powerfully restored to respectability in Left and feminist circles. The inner voice is now called gender identity, and it comes with a small but crucial tweak: in a small minority of cases, this thing called femininity pops up in the male body, and vice versa.When boys long to be girls, or declare themselves to have always been girls, this does not originate from the accumulated social messages they’ve received about what girlhood is, it does not originate from their daily observations of actual girls adhering to stereotypes, or the pressures and restrictions of being a boy in our world, it comes from a mystical inner source, beyond biology and society. (During the Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? program a trans psychotherapist and activist, Herschel Russell, says “A mother of a gender diverse kid asked her 8 year old… how come you know that you’re really a boy? And the child said ‘I know way down deep where the music plays.’ And i think that’s so precise. It’s non-rational, it’s profound, it’s beautiful, it’s deep, that’s how we know what gender we are and very young children know that.”)
This trend reflects discontent with sex stereotypes, but in a form heavily coloured by the neoliberal environment: the marginalisation of liberation politics; the rise of postmodernism with its contempt for the whole idea of human liberation; the drive of plastic surgeons and other specialists to expand their professional domains; the growing social acceptance of body modification.
Most importantly, transgenderism is now championed by the neoliberal capitalist class and popularised through its propaganda machine, as a weapon against women. There are also strong arguments (eg here and here) that it aids and abets homophobia and lesbophobia, because many same-sex attracted people face pressure – from family or community or their own internalised self-hatred – about the wrongfulness of their desires, which transitioning may be thought to solve. Young women may also see transitioning as an individual escape route from the restrictions imposed by women’s oppression.
The high ground
However, if you believe that gender identity is not an internalisation of stereotypes, but something true and vital to your inner self, anyone who denies it is denying you. Once you believe this, denying gender identity is comparable to denying the inner selves of lesbians and gays on the grounds that only hetero sex is natural and healthy. It becomes bigotry. The loudest and most widespread opposition to the trans trend comes from social conservatives, and very often they do say that trans identity and same-sex attraction are comparably unhealthy and unnatural. This obviously reinforces the commitment to gender identity politics among progressives.
So trans people and supporters have a very confident claim to the moral high ground, continually affirmed by the neoliberal capitalist media and by most leftists, feminists and LGB activists.
This raises the free speech issue. While liberals tend to support free speech generally, abstractly, leftists often say we should deny it to racists and bigots, pointing out that letting such people speak freely actually reduces free speech through the intimidation it imposes on oppressed groups. Once trans-critical progressives are seen as bigots-in-disguise there is a case for closing down them too.
It also invites comparisons to conversion therapy used on gay men and lesbians by clinicians – the practice of problematising same-sex attraction, and seeking “cures” for it. If inner gender identity is self-evidently true, why even explore possible social origins to it, unless you’re a bigot? In fact, there is no valid analogy between such work and conversion therapy of lesbians and gays. But that fact has been buried, so powerful is the coalition advancing the transgender trend.
The work of clinicians
Clinicians (psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, etc) are trained to look beyond the surface of what their clients tell them, to explore its meaning, try to unpack it, to try to see where it comes from and where it might take them, so as to give clients a deeper understanding of themselves and a clearer basis for making decisions about their lives. The clinician’s work includes asking questions about past and present family dynamics. At times this will mean coping with hostility from the client and/or members of the client’s family, and trying to find ways around this resistance.
Clinicians have their own political preconceptions. Socially conservative clincians will no doubt believe that adhering to the sex roles you were born to is the best way to a fulfilling life. A great many more clinicians now accept the assumptions of transgender politics. A few may have a political critique of sex roles from a liberationist perspective. These preconceptions no doubt contribute to their professional work, sometimes negatively, despite their attempts to avoid this on the grounds of professional ethics.
At the same time, the work of clinicians can’t be reduced to their politics. A skilled, insightful, experienced clinician may still be of great help to someone even if, for example, they hold traditionalist values. Certainly, it would go against clinicians’ whole professional training to let politics dominate their work.
Yet this is exactly what is happening. Clinicians are caught between the pincers of elite support for transgender ideology, imposed via bureaucratic hierarchies, and the pro-trans moral fervour of left-liberal activists. While some therapists have simply capitulated to the new politically-driven trans paradigm, others are finding that they have no room to criticise or to deviate from it.
It is very instructive to read the comments of clinicians who have resisted this trend. Take for example the commentary of Lane Anderson (pseudonym), writing on the 4thwavenow blog. “I am a licensed psychotherapist” writes Anderson. “I’m writing this post on my last day at a teen health clinic, where I’ve seen clients and their families for nearly a decade… After much soul searching, I felt I had no choice but to remove myself from this crippling work setting.”
In the past year especially, it’s become increasingly clear to me that I cannot uphold the primary value of my profession, to do no harm, without also seriously jeopardizing my standing in the professional community… for a significant portion of my clients and their parents, I am unable to provide what they profess to come to me seeking: sound clinical judgment. Increasingly, providing such judgment puts me at risk of violating the emergent trans narrative which – seemingly overnight and without any explanation or push-back of which I am aware – has usurped the traditional mental health narrative.
When I am suddenly and without warning discouraged from exploring the underlying causes and conditions of certain of my clients’ distress (as I was trained to do), and instead forced to put my professional stamp of approval upon a prefab, one-size-fits-all narrative intended to explain the complexity of my client’s troubles, I feel confused. It’s as if I am being held hostage. No longer encouraged or permitted to question, consider or discuss the full spectrum of my client’s mental health concerns, it has occurred to me that I am being used, my meager professional authority commandeered to legitimize a new narrative I may or may not wish to corroborate.
It’s been perilous to simply admit to not fully understanding it all–let alone disagree with the trans narrative. There was no training or teaching. I was just suddenly told that some of my clients thought they were trapped in the wrong body and that was that.
The 4thwavenow blog also includes an earlier post with another critical perspective, from a clinical psychologist. Another blog, transgendertrend.com, includes a range of articles and statements from professionals questioning transgender diagnosis, one of them describing “a vigorous albeit suppressed debate among physicians, therapists, and academics”.
Clinicians, transgender and women’s liberation
Clinicians have been caught up in a much wider struggle. Capitalism needs to maintain women’s oppression and that involves supporting the anti-woman elements of transgender ideology. This includes the mystical and alienated concept of gender identity, which naturalises and eternalises sex stereotypes, and has helped to drag leftists and liberals so far to the right on this issue. In response, we should defend clinicians who try to do their work unimpeded by bureaucratic fiat or pressure from the neoliberal mass media.
A happy holiday break to all – I will be away with very limited internet access until about 9 January.
Transgender campaigners and lobbyists have been delighted at the downfall of North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, who was voted out at the recent US elections. He is the first sitting governor to lose an election in the state, and in 2016 he was the only sitting governor across the USA to lose his post. The same electors backed Trump and voted in a Republican senator. McCrory’s loss is widely attributed to his support for North Carolina’s HB2 law. The law includes viciously discriminatory anti-worker provisions (see here and here; I think these provisions will appeal to local small-to-medium businesses more than major corporations), and anti-gay measures, banning “any local restrictions on discrimination in public places based on sexual orientation”. But the notorious aspect of the law – the aspect that has rallied forces for and against it – relates to transgender rights, in particular the use of government-run bathrooms: it says people must use the facilities matching their sex of birth rather than the gender they now identify with. The law was used to over-ride a pro-transgender ordinance in the city of Charlotte.
Big business was prominent in the campaign against the HB2 bill. Corporations held back investment in the state, impacting on jobs: they launched what amounts to a capital strike, of the kind that has previously been used, on a larger scale, to bring uppity left wing governments into line.
Associated Press had previously reported that “over 100 top CEOs” had protested against the impending law.
The list now includes leaders of many sectors of the economy. Tourism is represented by Hilton, Marriott and Starwood hotels; AirBnB, Uber and Lyft; and American Airlines, which has a major hub in Charlotte, the state’s largest city.
Banking and finance executives include the leaders of Bank of America, Citibank, TD Bank, PayPal and others. Restaurateurs and retailers include leaders of Starbucks, Barnes & Noble and Levi Strauss. Technology leaders joined in force, including the leaders of IBM, Apple, Intel, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, eBay, Twitter, YouTube and many others.
After the election The Economist noted that corporate supporters were heavy hitters within the pro-trans alliance:
“Mr McCrory did worse than other Republicans in part because of a state law widely thought to discriminate against transgender people and others. After he signed it, some businesses reconsidered their investments, entertainers cancelled concerts and sports tournaments were moved… the economic costs, and the broad coalition that mobilised against him, seem to have convinced some Republican-leaning voters to ditch him…” (North Carolina: Not going quietly. The Economist 26 November 2016 p32)
Indeed The Economist could not help gloating over McCrory’s come-uppance after his “rash” support for the HB2 bill. Similarly, Time magazine called the governor’s downfall “a cautionary tale for other conservative legislatures that will almost certainly consider similar measures in the coming months.”
Republican candidates for the state legislature did not suffer in the same way as McCrory from the pro-trans campaign. They won both chambers. This may be due to what The Economist called “energetic gerrymandering”. (The New York Times has described NC Republicans’ “unscrupulous efforts to fence off black communities” so as to “diminish the political power of black voters”; this included “an unnecessary and harmful voter ID law and other unfair electoral restrictions”.)
Meanwhile the alt-Right Breitbart News has exploited the bathroom dispute to boost its salt-of-the-earth, anti-elite credentials, by railing against “corporate extortion” and the alliance of big business with the “radical left” and gay rights groups.
Two right wing ideologies slugging it out
The bathroom access issue has wider ramifications for Republicans, “pitting the party’s pro-business branch against social conservatives“, according to a Reuters article. To put it another way, the top layers of Republican and Democratic parties both reflect the views of the neoliberal capitalist class, which has moved on from the traditionalist, backwoods sex stereotypes where chromosomes are destiny. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, the capitalist elite finds in transgender ideology a means to help preserve women’s oppression in a changing world. And women’s oppression remains vital to its economic interests. The neoliberal elite is by far the most powerful force driving the trans trend, and now defines its fundamental nature.
The main difference between the Republican and Democrat grandees on this issue is that the Republicans have to try to accommodate the traditionalist views still cherished by the their base, and championed by the religious and alt Right. For the Right, the battle against the trans trend is part of a wider war against lesbians and gays and liberalism. But lacking elite support, the Right is almost certainly doomed to lose on the trans issue. Its only path to victory would be the nightmare scenario where it manages to take leadership of mass anger during a social crisis, deeper than anything we have yet seen, and extending far more deeply than the election of someone like Trump. Under that scenario trans people, lesbians and gays, women and organised workers would all get it in the neck.
The only way out of this morass is to start building an alliance between trans-critical feminists and Left, which can then start to rally wider layers of support for women against the trans trend, on a progressive basis.
Ms. Hungerford clearly has no time for all the silliness po-mo brings to the table.
“Post-modern neoliberalism seeks to dismiss the experience of womanhood by claiming that anyone can choose to be a woman. And, in any case, it claims that we are too diverse to be generalized about. An interesting position to take: the class “women” has no defining characteristic, and yet transwomen know exactly what being a “woman” feels like.
The maxim “trans women are women” means at least three things: first, it means that being raised as girl from birth is not an important or relevant aspect of being a “woman” because one can be a woman without it.
Secondly, it means that having a female body is not an important or relevant aspect of being a “woman” because one can be a woman without it.
And third, it means that to be a “woman” reflects an…
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