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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.

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Are all trans critics right wingers or rad fems?

The far Left has a tradition of consistently opposing sex role stereotyping and oppressive female socialisation. But when transgender advocates celebrate stereotypes and deny the importance of socialisation, the Left turns the other way. In a series of posts I want to look at why the far Left so often treats transgender as off-limits to criticism, and sides against trans-critical feminists. The Left’s excuses are: it is just a rad fem thing; the trans trend is not really harming women (or splitting the working class); trans critics are only helping the Right and the violent haters; you should deal with any differences by working with trans people not against them. Then there are the material reasons for the Left’s position. These issues will be discussed in turn.

 

There is a common reason advanced for uncritical support of the trans trend: look at who opposes it! Only the Right and “terfs”, who both have very different agendas to ours. In fact, a wide spectrum of feminists and liberals are worried about the trans phenomenon (eg here and here), for reasons including child sterilisation, the erasure of lesbians and gay men, and the erasure of strong female role models from the past. But it’s true that these are a small minority of feminists, and an even smaller minority of liberals. It’s also true that radical feminism is the only cohered political current challenging transgender ideology at present. So it’s easy for Left commentators to pass off any criticisms of trans as something distinctive to radical feminism (usually some kind of determinism). So for example Alison Thorne of the Freedom Socialist Party says “Sections of the feminist movement hostile to transgender people came from the radical feminist, biological determinist tradition.” In Marxism and Women’s Liberation Judith Orr says:

The rejection of trans women because they are not “born as women” flows from the weakness of a theory of women’s oppression rooted in patriarchy theory. So some radical feminists justify discrimination against trans women because they claim there is something intrinsically oppressive, either biologically or culturally, in maleness. (78-9)

These sweeping dismissals may sound plausible to many socialists, who have fought rad fems on other issues like the use of police and the law against porn and clients of sex workers.

But the truth is that socialists and trans-critical feminists share very important ideas that are of key relevance to understanding the impact of the trans trend. The difference is that these feminists actually apply such ideas to the trans phenomenon, while most socialists are, for now, in denial.


The Left on female socialisation and sex role stereotypes

Once again Judith Orr sums up ideas held widely on the far Left. She points out that capitalist society “crushes us into boxes labelled girl and boy” (92) and describes a feminist cartoon from the mid-1970s showing “a boy and a girl getting gradually boarded into coffin-shaped boxes of gender expectations”. (128) She says:

The process of socialisation shapes expectations of what is “normal” behaviour for women and men, and its internalisation means sexist mores are absorbed into our day-to-day lives and become part of the society’s “commonsense”. A recognition of such a process contributed to one of the initiatives of the 1960s – “consciousness raising” groups… Building women’s confidence and encouraging women to reject the limits of roles society has socialised them to expect is a positive thing. (27)

She warns that consciousness-raising can become inward-looking and unhelpful if counter-posed to social activism, which is the main vehicle of social change. (27) But she does not dismiss it for that reason, nor does she suggest that the value of consciousness-raising is diminished just because the stiff post-war years have been replaced by the slime and hypocrisy of neoliberalism. “We have to expose the terrible pressures put on women to fit unattainable expectations”, Orr says: “just because they can become internalised does not mean that they are less the product of a sexist society.” (172)


Trans critical feminists

How does this compare to trans-critical feminists? Naturally, their statements on trans are often framed within their broader understanding of women’s oppression, which is not a Marxist one. Some of their arguments I do not support. But the common ground stares you in the face.

In an article on transgender (May 2016) Sarah Ditum refers to myths about “brainsex”, the supposed differences of the female and male brains:

Feminist analysis has vigorously challenged that view. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that “one is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman”, stressing that gender (one’s social role as a woman or man) is something that must be learned – and that this learning process is enforced on the basis of sex… The qualities of femininity (for example, gentleness, demureness, motherliness) are not inherent properties of female humans, according to the feminist critique of gender, but ones that female humans are socialised to develop…

In fact, it seems unlikely that “gender identity disorder” – the current diagnostic term – describes one coherent phenomenon at all. In the absence of compelling evidence for brainsex, what we appear to be looking at is a variety of conditions…. But at the moment, all are being treated as though they originated from a mismatch between brain and body which prevents a person from being recognised in their correct social role. The implication of that being that anyone who isn’t transgender has the converse experience – of a match between brain and body and a natural affinity with their social role of man or women.

Elinor Burkett, in a much-reviled challenge to transgender ideology, says:

I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper points out that the concept of innate gender identity is incompatible with the view of gender as the product of socialisation.

Sheila Jeffreys addresses these issues in Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism (2014). She argues the radical feminist position that the very concept of gender embodies sex stereotypes. In the Introduction to Jeffreys states:

‘Gender’… ascribes skirts, high heels and a love of unpaid domestic labour to those with female biology, and comfortable clothing, enterprise and initiative to those with male biology. In the practice of transgenderism, traditional gender is seen to lose its sense of direction and end up in the minds and bodies of persons with inappropriate body parts that need to be corrected. But without ‘gender’, transgenderism could not exist…

Transgenderism depends for its very existence on the idea that there is an ‘essence’ of gender, a psychology and pattern of behaviour, which is suited to persons with particular bodies and identities…

Feminist critics argue that the concept of ‘gender identity’ is founded upon stereotypes of gender, and, in international law, gender stereotypes are recognised as being in contradiction to the interests of women…

The Left needs to acknowledge the real case being argued by trans-critical feminists. Their arguments cannot be dismissed as anti-male determinism.