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Man wears dress: the two sides of transgender ideology

Early last year the Louis Vuitton fashion house featured young male celebrity Jaden Smith in a skirt and dress, in a video advertising its new collection. The move was hailed for helping the cause of transgender acceptance and gender fluidity. The Independent ran an article by Heather Saul quoting the gender-fluid Ruby Rose:

“[Kids] from middle America, to smaller towns in Australia, to all over the world — if they don’t quite understand why they don’t quite feel comfortable in a dress, but all their friends wear dresses, or if they’re a boy and they want to wear a dress or they want to wear a skirt, they’re gonna get picked on. To be able to make this huge impact on what was really a huge transgender and gender-fluidity movement last year is really going to be for the greater good of society because it’s going to let people know they’re not different in a weird way; they’re different in a way that should be celebrated.”

The last line in this quote was used in the article subheadline, emphasising how “different” these young people are from their peers.

This piece followed an earlier article in which Katie Glover, editor of transgender magazine Frock, complained that the Vuitton advert undermined trans identity:

…to help make it plain for anyone to see which gender you are, you put on a uniform.  Men put on trousers and have men’s haircuts, and women put on dresses and skirts, feminine tops and tights and women’s shoes to show their femininity and declare to the world that they are female…

Male-to-female transgender people rely on props like clothes, shoes, make-up and hairstyles to create the gender identity they want to portray to the world because most of the time their bodies alone are unable to do that…

The danger for trans women is that if wearing what are traditionally women’s clothes becomes the norm for men too, then trans women will no longer be able to rely on these props to help them display a female gender identity – and for many, that could be a serious problem.

Glover’s piece prompted a critical response the next day from Daren Pritchard. Pritchard argued that defending gender-fluid people and opposing role stereotypes go hand in hand.

Glover’s article states that gender stereotypes in clothing exist as a uniform to clarify which gender a person is. She implies we should stick to the stereotypical norm of men wearing trousers, and women wearing skirts or dresses to reinforce this. But claiming that women should have to declare their femininity to show that they’re woman is outrageous – not to mention incredibly old-fashioned…

This dated notion of ‘boys do this, and girls do that’ is responsible for so much gender prejudice, not to mention endless aisles of pink toy hoovers and blue toy spaceships. We have moved hard to move away from such entrenched traditions. The progress in acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community over the past years has been incredible, so let’s not reverse that by exclude those – such as non-binary people – who don’t fit into specific categories…

I would assume a trans woman wears clothing intended for females because they identify as female. Surely a non-binary person wearing clothing that may be associated with either gender is no different; their changing wardrobe is merely a continuation of their fluidity.

The three articles bring out tensions within transgender ideology.

The two sides of transgender ideology

On one hand, the adoption of trans or fluid identity is one, very specific way of defying the restricted social role you were allocated at birth. The new use of “gender” confronts the chromosomes-are-destiny version of sex stereotyping, which has centuries of tradition behind it, and is still championed by social conservatives and still accepted by millions of people. For these reasons trans or gender-fluid people face discrimination and sometimes considerable personal danger, against which they deserve full support.

On the other hand, trans ideology says natal men can now be women on the “inside”, and vice versa, not via biology or socialisation but via an inner essence beyond both. In reality this mystical essence rests entirely on gender stereotypes; it too appeals to much of the centuries-old “common sense” about the nature of males and females.

The concept of gender-fluid idea has a bit more potential to go further and challenge gender-based thinking entirely, something the far Left has tried to work with. But this is a potential only. Most importantly, discussion of gender-fluidity preserves the idea that discontent with stereotypes is a minority concern: the great mass of us are still a snug fit with our “gender” of birth.

These different elements in transgender thinking play out in the media, which tends to serve up different things to different audiences. The niche-market left-liberal media often highlight progressive ideas within transgender ideology; at times it may even reject crude notions of pink and blue brains, without challenging the trans conceptual framework. Meanwhile the mainstream media, addressed to a vastly larger audience, mostly delivers precisely this pink-and-blue, mystical, born-into-the-wrong-body stuff. (See for example this research on child transition covered in British media: it finds that media stories commonly present “the uncontested belief in gender and sex-role stereotypes as evidence that a child is really the opposite sex”.)

Touching a raw nerve

There are also tensions within the left-liberal view of transgender. To emphasise the progressive elements of trans thinking does not eliminate its more fundamental, conservative ones. This creates a lot of straining and pretense, touchy no-go areas, issues that must be left unexplored – especially transgender’s central reliance on sex stereotypes. Perhaps Katie Glover’s real blunder was simply to say the unsayable.

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.

The conservative side of transgender

This is the blog about the transgender phenomenon, by a socialist critic. Discussion and constructive criticism are welcome.

Transgender individuals are trying to live a life that feels better for them, in the process defying the idea that we are naturally feminine or masculine based on our biology. As a result trans people risk harassment, bashings and sometimes murder by backwoods haters. Their rights are supported by the Left, most feminists, and most lesbians and gays. The Christian Right has rallied against them, as part of a wider campaign against anyone outside traditional, biology-based, heterosexual identities.

Yet everyone else seems to be on board. Trans rights are promoted by governments, CEOs, public authorities, and the mass media, including the right wing Murdoch empire. They are championed by an extraordinarily wide coalition stretching from the far Left to sections of the US Republican Party. Support from the elite and the Right is based on the potential of the trans trend to further their own interests. For while it challenges biology-based sex stereotypes, the trans trend does not challenge sex stereotypes as such – in fact transgender thinking is founded on sex role typecasting, for when someone transitions from one gender to the other, they have little or nothing but stereotypes to define them in their new status. Trans ideology also reframes the whole issue of discontent with sexual identity, from something that affects everyone, and demands deep social change, to something that affects only a small group, and demands only that we accept diversity. This makes the trans phenomenon a very useful way for the elite to maintain conservative ideas in a changing world. As Marx said, the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class, and it is the elite’s way of looking at the trans issue that prevails.  The conservative elements of the trans phenomenon are also advanced by many trans activists. The problems are these:

  • mass media massively ramps up the sex stereotyping aspect of the trans trend, turning it at times into a carnival-like celebration
  • critics who try to point this out have at times been silenced by trans activists, supported by the corporate media; the concept of ‘hater’ has been degraded by trans activists and supporters, used to create a mood of fear that silences progressive-minded critics
  • trans activists make certain demands that reinforce women’s oppression
  • media and public institutions present transgender identity as the definitive or only alternative to mainstream traditional sex roles, concealing the option of simply living a freer life without reference to gender
  • instead of social change to push back stereotypes, trans ideology calls for personal change: the foot must change, not the shoe; instead of pointing out that something deeply wrong in society must change, it calls only for acceptance of diversity
  • children and teens discontented with traditional gender roles are being told that trans identity is the only alternative: a high-stakes alternative leading toward surgery, infertility and a lifetime on costly drugs
  • there are also questions to be asked as to whether the transgender trend is being used at times to channel young people away from gay or lesbian identities.

There is a different way to oppose biology-based stereotypes of the girly-girl and red-meat guy: to let males as males and females as females throw off stereotypes and live freer lives just as they are. I think most trans people would have no problem with this; they might even see it as vaguely allied to their own approach. It was once a commonplace among leftists and feminists. Yet we rarely hear of this approach, for it is not what the elite want people to hear. The Left does not challenge them, for it has surrendered a great deal of ground on this issue.