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The Left and transgender: “work with trans people, not against them”?

This is the second in a series of posts discussing why the Left does not criticise the conservative aspects of the transgender trend.

At times the far Left acknowledges that trans ideology contains conservative ideas. For example Laura Miles points out:

Many trans people have tended to take a highly essentialist view of gender identity, which treats gender as somehow natural and given — “a man’s mind in a woman’s body, “a woman’s mind in a man’s body”. A glance at a selection of trans people’s autobiographies will confirm this. Transgender is also often presented in the media in this over-simplified way… there are serious problems inherent in such an essentialist approach to gender identity.

This quote was a passing comment in an article within a theoretical journal. Such points don’t tend to get made very often, and when they do they’re not highlighted in Left newspapers. Why not?


A Left argument for setting aside conservative trans ideas

One reason, I think, is tactical. Trans people face serious daily discrimination and are attacked by the anatomy-is-destiny Right. Because they suffer from capitalism, they are driven to oppose it. You don’t deal with such a group, the argument goes, by lecturing them about their errors: that would be sectarian and/or ultraleft. (An analogy is sometimes drawn with lesbians and gays: you don’t pontificate about the bourgeois nature of the marriage institution, you support LGB people’s fight for equal rights. More generally you defend lesbian and gay rights without harping at those who adopt stereotypically feminine or masculine roles.)

Instead you start from common ground and take people forward step by step, involving them in campaigns around other social issues, giving them a working class perspective, winning them to the common struggle against the system, and slowly eroding their conservative ideas through new experiences, and sometimes comradely discussion. You say: now that you’ve broken with the most traditional stereotypes of sex, why not break with all sex stereotypes?

This seems to be the approach articulated, for example, by Socialist Alternative’s Red Flag in Australia. An article on gender and capitalism concludes with this: “We need to remove all political content from the categories of ‘men’, ‘women’, ‘gay’, ‘straight’, ‘trans’, ‘cis’ and so on. This would lay the basis for a society in which gender is either a purely personal matter, or no matter at all.”  (Red Flag 22 April 2016) In this spirit the group describes a struggle against anti-trans discrimination in the workplace: “we achieved the right for a transgender employee to dress as they chose providing they followed the company dress code. In addition, we were able to secure the right for our fellow worker to be addressed by their preferred name and without any need for gender references. Then we were able to negotiate the abolition of gender identification requirements on forms.” (Red Flag 1 Sept 2013)

This approach probably works very well with left-leaning trans individuals and perhaps many other trans individuals. They are not the problem. In their personal lives many trans people are a long way from the crass Caitlyn Jenner stereotypes, but even those who do go for extreme stereotypes are not the problem. It is a problem when trans activists go on the offensive against feminists trying to defend women’s rights, but even that, I think, is secondary.

The core problem, entirely unacknowledged by most of the Left, is the sexist propaganda around transgender that pours from the neoliberal mass media and public and private institutions, telling us that pink and blue are a natural fit for almost everyone, ensuring discontent with sex stereotypes remains chained to “gender”, and snuffing out the concept of oppressive female socialisation. The neoliberal elite are using the transgender trend as a road block. By all means swap gender, they say; be genderfluid, genderqueer, or agender if you must, but do not advance beyond this point – don’t go saying that sex stereotypes might be a problem for the mass of people, especially the mass of womankind. Don’t start defining womanhood via restrictive ideas internalised over a lifetime.

The better sections of the Left sneak a few individuals around this roadblock, but don’t confront it directly. They don’t even admit to its existence. There is no “transgender trend”, just hard-beset trans people, whom the media accommodates partially, grudgingly, under popular pressure. (So while Red Flag opposed the silencing of Germaine Greer, particularly via recourse to a university administration, they still denounced her criticisms of trans ideology.)

Of course, the Left does attack sex stereotypes and oppressive female socialisation outside the context of transgender. But for every person who reads a Left newspaper, how many thousands receive sexist-but-unchallengeable ideas via the mass media’s framing of trans? By taking a stand against this sexism the Left could have real influence far above the odd article in support of women’s liberation.


Defend trans people without taking sexist ideas on board

Challenging conservative trans ideas does not mean any reduction whatsoever in support for trans people (actual trans people, not their neoliberal propagandists) against the religious Right or discrimination or persecution in daily life. In fact this will become more important than ever after Trump’s election victory. But it does mean accepting the need to fight on two fronts at once, just as, during the Brexit campaign, the far Left has fought to expose the EU as a neoliberal austerity machine while also attacking the racist Tories and Little Englanders.

At present trans-critical feminists must choose between bitter isolation and accommodation to the Right. They deserve more. They are natural allies for the Left.