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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.

Sex Matters – Law, terms, definitions, gender self-identity and woman’s rights

Union activist Kiri Tunks writes in The Morning Star on proposed changes to the law on gender self-identity in Britain: “The government’s announcement that it will consult on a change in the law… means that a fierce debate that has, until now, been taking place off-stage is being thrust into the public arena.” The ability to define one’s own “gender”, she points out, “will undermine the legal characteristic of ‘sex’ and could lead to serious implications for women and their ability to fight sex discrimination and oppression… Gender roles are socially constructed and are commonly formed in stereotypical ways that reinforce discrimination.” She says that “women are being told they cannot talk about ‘a woman’s right to choose’ or refer to vaginas or ovaries because to do so is transphobic.” She also defends the need for single-sex spaces. Concerns to defend these spaces is “often dismissed as unjustified moral panic”, but they “exist to try to ameliorate the oppression women face.” This piece is a very valuable contribution to the debate on gender, just as it is poised to reach a wider audience.

Full text available here https://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article41915

Originally posted https://morningstaronline.co.uk/ 8 August 2017

Source: Sex matters

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is probably the single most influential figure in postmodernism, inspiring many later theorists and activists including queer theorists such as Judith Butler.

His book The Order of Things, which outlined the theory and method of his early, structuralist phase, suffered a devastating critique from the psychologist Jean Piaget (Piaget p128-35) But it is the later, post-structuralist Foucault who became a guru. He now replaces structuralism’s “great model of language and signs” with Nietzsche’s theme of “war and battle”. (Quoted in Callinicos APM p81).

The network of power/knowledge

Nietzsche had presented military and market competition under capitalism as universal, eternal features of society and nature, as previously discussed. The clash of social classes, he said, is secondary and arises as a side effect of this fundamental, atomised power struggle.

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (-its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. (Nietzsche, The Will to Power epigram 636)

Foucault does a cut-and-paste of Nietzsche’s formulation, lightly adapted to modern times and his academic environment. Power, he says

is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of non-egalitarian and mobile relations. Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations) but are immanent in the latter… there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled… One must rather suppose that the manifold relationships of force that take shape and come into play in the machinery of production, in families, limited groups and institutions are the basis of wide ranging effects of cleavage that run through the social body as a whole. These then form a general line of force that traverses the local lines of force and link them together. (Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol 1 p94)

Despite the passing reference to economic forces, Foucault generally discusses power only in relation to knowledge, which he treats as more or less two sides of the one coin: “power and knowledge directly imply one another”. (Foucault, Discipline and Punish p27) The police truncheon, fuel-air bomb and factory all fade from view. Everyone seeks power by gaining knowledge of others and by framing the knowledge that others receive.

This war-of-all-against-all formulation is bound to irritate mainstream politicians and right wing ideologues who like to present society, at least sometimes, as bound together through patriotism, “national values” etc. Conversely Foucault’s concept of power has appealed to many social activists and critics who want ways to unmask hypocrisy and explore the realities of discrimination and the power struggles hidden beneath bland exteriors. Ultimately, though, Foucault’s formulation has two very conservative implications.

Firstly, it makes to no qualitative distinction between oppressor and oppressed. The Walmart executive, the call-centre worker, the police spy, the Sierra Leonean mother who’s had her hands chopped off by thugs, are all playing the same game of power/knowledge, seeking power over others by gaining more knowledge of them. The only difference is how well they are currently doing in this fluid, timeless contest.

Secondly, there is nothing beyond the network of power/knowledge – people will always be competing and trying to dominate one another. Postmodernists love to attack Marxists for their “closure”, the way they link every social relationship back to capitalism and class struggle. In fact it is postmodernism that is closed. Humanity can never be liberated, it is forever caught within social forces beyond its control, like rats in a maze with no exit.

Localism and fragmentation

Foucault opposes any challenge to the capitalist system as a whole. The mighty global network of corporations, banks, armies, bureaucracies and private institutions that dominate the world should not be subject to any united challenge from below: that would require masses of ordinary people developing a collective, systematic understanding of what they are dealing with, and Foucault rails against “the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse”. (Quoted by Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History p59) As we’ve seen, everyone is always trying to dominate each other, and power and knowledge are twinned, so when Marxists talk of the capitalism as a totality their real aim can only be totalitarian power for themselves: they want to control everyone’s thinking within their own discourse, the end result being the Stalinist police state.

Foucault’s alternative is localism, the motto of the petty-bourgeois intellectual since Proudhon: “a reactivation of local knowledges – of minor knowledges, as Deleuze calls them – in opposition to the scientific hierarchisation of knowledges and the effects intrinsic to their power”. (Foucault, Power/Knowledge p85)

Protest actions should never be more than fragmentary, nor should our way of thinking. No knowledge can be anything more than a perspective, inseparable from one’s place in particular power struggles. As Mark Poster put it, there is “not truth only truths.” (Poster p7)

The celebration of fragmentation fed into the social mood of the late 1970s, as discussed earlier. The far Left slogan of “one struggle one fight” against the establishment and the system as a whole looked less and less realistic as the tide of struggle receded. Postmodernism, and Foucault in particular, provided a set of theories to justify the abandonment of these politics, and to attack anyone who still defended them.

Humanism and anti-humanism

“Man is an invention of recent date” says Foucault. “And one perhaps nearing its end.” If “the fundamental arrangements of knowledge” were “to crumble, as the ground of classical thought did at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” (Quoted by Callinicos, ITAFFM p42)

Leaving aside the sexist terminology of the time, the concept “man” presents people in broadly humanistic terms. Foucault was anti-humanist. He was not indifferent to human suffering, as shown for example in his criticism of the prison system. But his moral critiques are made within a stunted view of what people are and what they are capable of. Before discussing that, some background about humanism.

Humanism, as Wikipedia says, “emphasizes the value and agency of human beings”. Among other things, it asserts the value of the human personality, the notion that each individual has a universe of thoughts and feelings within them, and they deserve the chance to express and develop that inner world to the full. And it asserts that humans can consciously act on society and change it. So people are “subjects”: both a valid focus of study, and active participants in the world.

Humanism arose alongside the slow emergence of the capitalist class, and was a weapon in its attack on the rigid hierarchies of feudalism. People depicted in art were no longer lifeless symbols but displayed their own thoughts and feelings. As capitalism flourished people began keeping private diaries, the notion of romantic love pushed out the belief in arranged marriages. Personality was deeply explored in literature. The notion that people could change their personal situation through their own efforts became accepted ideology: you made your own life and “the people” could throw off injustice. Women began to challenge the way their own lives were cramped by sexual oppression. (For an overview of these developments see Zaretsky ch 3-5)

By the late nineteenth century, however, the supremacy of the human subject, “man” as a central concept, was under challenge. Under intense scrutiny, the human individual turned out to be rather fragmented internally into persona/inner self, Jekyll/Hyde, ego/id, etc. People were also seen to be driven by forces and structures external to themselves, such as class position, national status and sex roles, as well as by great events like war and economic crises. Perhaps “man” as a self-contained, unitary, free-floating entity was not after all such a good way to understand people and society.

The politics of humanism

Behind these ideas lurked different political agendas. Mainstream capitalist ideology still emphasised the freedom and responsibility of the individual. You are free, so if you don’t get rich you are to blame. It celebrated competitive individualism, with “the community” as a cynical or sentimental overlay. The celebration of the human personality usually focused on upper class males.

The rising socialist movement, and Marxism in particular, broke from these bourgeois concepts of liberty and liberation. It opposed competitive individualism as anti-human: true personal fulfilment and freedom required, among other things, nourishing interpersonal bonds which are cruelly constrained under capitalism. It challenged women’s oppression, particularly that of working women. For example, Lenin said in 1919 that the Soviet republic had barely begun the task of women’s liberation: “Notwithstanding all the [new, Soviet] laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery.” Marxists also pointed out how men’s lives were debased by women’s oppression. If woman is “merely a cook, a maid and a whore for man, their relation only satisfies his dehumanised, animal needs”. (Mezaros, p185) Within the Marxist worldview individuals were not truly free to do as they chose, but still had agency by participating in the struggles of their class. Major class struggles were set off by the economic and political crises of capitalism – objective forces beyond anyone’s control. But the working class was capable of understanding these forces, and overcoming them through revolution. When the working class broke the rule of the capitalist class it would also end humanity’s enslavement to the chaotic uncontrolled forces of market and military competition that threatened even the capitalists themselves.

But there was also a second strain within capitalist ideology, one that derided the individual and glorified wider social structures. Unlike Marxism and classical liberalism, it denied human agency, declaring that common people could never take democratic ground-level control of the forces that ruled them. This current tends to present the human personality as endlessly malleable, and/or inconsequential. (By contrast, Marxism declares that people have basic needs and drives which set a limit on the social engineering of our minds. People crave the chance for creative use of their skills, and for fulfilling interpersonal bonds. Their skills, tastes and personal relations develop historically but are an intrinsic part of being human, and if they are not given expression our lives are cramped and distorted.)

Fascism is the prime example of this second form of capitalist ideology: individuals are nothing before the majesty of the nation. But postmodernism too says that people can never be more than chess pieces moved by uncontrollable outside forces – in Foucault’s case, this means power/knowledge.

Foucault’s anti-humanism

“Where there is power,” Foucault says, “there is resistance”. (History Sexuality Vol 1 p95) But this resistance seems to be like a law of physics: not the struggle against oppression, more like an objective force operating beyond human control; it does not imply real agency from an individual or a social class. Certainly, such “resistance” does not mean we can ever fight our way beyond the dog-eat-dog world of petty power struggles. This is very clear from Foucault’s contempt for theories of liberation. He allows for no development of the idea beyond bourgeois ideology:

The socialism of a certain period, at the end of the nineteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth century… dreamed of an ultimately liberated human nature. What model did it use to conceive, project, and eventually realise that human nature? It was in fact the bourgeois model.

As evidence for this he points to the failure to move beyond bourgeois values, eg around the family, in either the Stalinist states or western democracies. But while liberty is a purely bourgeois concept for Foucault, the idea that we are all nasty, competitive and selfish – the stalest capitalist cliché about human nature – is preserved in concealed form, in the idea of the inescapable network of power/knowledge.

After all this, Foucault suddenly does an about turn. In his final works he retreats from an objectivist notion of power.

Characteristically, just as he had in the mid-1970s denied that he had ever been concerned with language, Foucault now played down the question of power: “I am very far from being a theoretician of power… power, as an autonomous question, does not interest me”. (Callinicos, APM, p88).

Foucault now investigates

a group of practices which have been of unquestionable importance in our societies… those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria. (Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol 2 p10-11).

I would argue that this is another rehash of Nietzsche. As previously discussed Nietzsche proposed that great men, the Lords of the Earth (the Trumps, Koch brothers and Tony Blairs of his day) could achieve self-expression by forging mighty personalities from their own superior wills, while people in the “herd” could not and remained depersonalised. Foucault is not on the far Right, but like Nietzsche he is drawing a class line. Having spent years explaining that ordinary people’s personalities, hopes and dreams are as shallow and insubstantial as a face drawn in the sand, he now says that the new middle class, and those who ape them, should feel entitled to self-cultivation.

“Couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art?” Foucault asks. (Quoted in Callinicos, APM p89) By “everyone” he means everyone-who’s-anyone, everyone in a certain social layer. “To invite a hospital porter in Birmingham, a car-worker in Sao Paulo, a social security clerk in Chicago or a street child in Bombay to make a work of art of their lives would be an insult – unless linked to precisely the kind of strategy for social change which… poststructuralism rejects.” (Callinicos, APM p91)

Bodies and pleasures: Foucault on sexuality

If Foucault was to ever to address discrimination against women, his three-volume work on sexuality might be the place. No. His wretchedly impoverished view of humanity leads him away from examining the way sexuality under capitalism dehumanises females.

Under a humanistic view, sexuality connects to the human needs for intimacy, variety and experimentation, all brutally limited by female objectification and the values of submission and self-sacrifice. Foucault sees things differently. Sexuality, as anything more than bodily sensations of pleasure, is only a “great surface network” of force relations created blindly on a social scale as individuals seeks power over each other by gaining knowledge of them. So he can talk of the notion of female hysteria being created, like that of perversion, by doctors and psychiatrists in the Victorian era, to increase their own power. But even here his real aim is to degrade the notion of the human subject, with its valuation of personality and agency: power struggles create “men’s subjection: their constitution as subjects in both senses of the word.” (History of Sexuality Vol 1 p60)

There is no shortage of texts which discuss the inner damage females sustain through socialisation. To take a few examples, Juliet Mitchell closely examines how females’ very early experiences lay the groundwork for a lifetime of self-limitation, in “The Making of a Lady” (Psychoanalysis and Feminism part 1) Cordelia Fine has researched the subtle ways in which girls internalise femininity. John Berger points out that the objectification of women and girls leads inevitably to “a woman’s self being split in two”:

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. (Berger Ways of Seeing ch 3)

Foucault directs our attention away from all this.

Above all Foucault mocked the notion of escape from oppression through sexual liberation. Like Nietzsche, he compared liberation to religious deliverance:

Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom… slips easily into this discourse on sexual oppression. Some of the ancient functions of prophesy are activated herein. Tomorrow sex will be good again. Because this repression is affirmed, one can discreetly bring into coexistence concepts which the fear of ridicule or the bitterness of history prevent most of us from putting side by side: revolution and happiness. (Foucault History of Sexuality Vol 1 p7)

Foucault, female socialisation, and transgender

As part of the transgender phenomenon, sex stereotypes have been repositioned as a minority concern, and femaleness redefined in terms of stereotypes rather than socialisation. These are the messages which governments and the corporate media are now pumping out to millions of women and girls internationally, under the guise of defending vulnerable transgender people. In this way the trans trend is of great benefit in furthering the anti-woman agenda of the capitalist class. Marxists and feminists continue to oppose female socialisation in many contexts, but most fall quiet when the issue is seen in terms of transgender; effectively, they are the Left wing of the uncritically pro-trans coalition that extends all the way to the business wing of the US Republican Party.

To this extent, the issue of female socialisation has been junked to accommodate transgender concerns. How can the far Left have made such an abject capitulation? As previously discussed they have caved in to immense pressure from identity politics. But why are identity-politics activists themselves – anti-sexist, politically sophisticated – willing to take such an anti-woman position? The postmodernists, Foucault prominent among them, have helped to make this possible. They have connected to the anger and cynicism of masses of people only to narrow our view of people and society, limit perceptions of what is possible, and pull social critics and activists to the Right. In response we need to reassert Marxist humanism, which highlights the significance of people’s agency and the value of their inner lives. And this means, among other things, highlighting the oppressive nature of female socialisation, even when it is given a progressive veneer.

Sources cited but not hyperlinked in the text:

John Berger Ways of Seeing Penguin Kindle edition
Alex Callinicos Against Postmodernism Polity Press Cambridge 1989
Alex Callinicos Is There a Future For Marxism McMillan 1982
Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish, Penguin 1979
Michel Foucault History of Sexuality Vol 1 Penguin 1981
Michel Foucault History of Sexuality Vol 2: The Uses of Pleasure Viking Penguin 1984
István Mezaros Marx’s Theory of Alienation, Merlin Press London 1970
Jean Piaget Structuralism, Routledge and Kagan Paul London 1971
Mark Poster Foucault, Marxism and History Polity Press 1984
Eli Zaretsky Capitalism the Family and Personal Life 2nd edn Harper and Rowe NY 1986

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.

Trumpland: white women, why, and where to now

Hardened sexists and racists are making the most of Trump’s victory. Nigel Farage, for example, has entertained his followers with the thought of Trump groping Theresa May. It is all made worse by the odd tradition of seeing the US President as a moral as well as political leader.

Countless women around the globe must be feeling personal pain that such a gross man defeated a female candidate so heavily favoured to win. Particularly galling is the fact that, according to exit polls, almost 53% of white women voted for Trump; for white women without tertiary education the figure was two thirds. The response to this from female journalists and commentators has ranged from contempt at white women’s betrayal to explaining the result as internalised misogyny or women putting their whiteness above their interests as a sex. One of the bitterest articles came from LV Anderson who also hinted at some likely implications for US women:

More than half of white women voted for the man who bragged about committing sexual assault on tape, who said he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, who has promised to undo legislation that has afforded health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans, whose parental leave plan is a joke, who has spent his campaign dehumanizing nonwhite people, who has spent 30-plus years in the public eye reducing women to their sexual attributes. More than half of white women looked at the first viable female candidate for the presidency, a wildly competent and overqualified career public servant, and said, “Trump that bitch.”

Why it happened

In reality, the majority of white women voted for Trump as part of a working class backlash against neoliberalism, similar to the Brexit backlash in Britain. Michael Moore called the result as “anger and the need for revenge against the system”. As Naomi Klein said:

Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.

At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous.

As a strong and accomplished woman, beset by sexist attacks on her like so many other female leaders, Clinton became a symbol of hope and pride to innumerable women around the world. But her glass-ceiling feminism did not connect with struggling working women in her own country. They saw her, correctly in my opinion, as part of the elite attacking them.

That does not mean that they attack neoliberalism as such. They interpret their suffering through a framework of right wing ideas, some racist, some sexist, some about the virtues of self-help etc. But above they hate what the elite has done to them.

As analyst Stephen Long points out, it was this same economic pain that allowed Trump to increase the percentage of Latinos voting Republican, despite his racism, whereas among “the well-off and well-educated whites who normally favour the Republican candidate, there was a slight drift towards Hillary Clinton.”

In response to their economic misery some people simply withdrew from electoral politics. The Republican vote was almost two million down from 2012, but the Democratic vote fell by almost seven million (IBT), despite the election being billed as high-stakes. But a lot more people did vote and they voted to punish the candidate connected most clearly to the elite and the status quo.

Trump and transgender

Trump was initially on-side with the transgender trend, which will be no surprise to trans-critical feminists and socialists. However, most of his support base is hostile to the trans phenomenon (not, or course, as an attack on women, or because it supports for sex stereotyping, but because it challenges the most traditional, anatomy-is-destiny stereotypes). Under this pressure he changed position on North Carolina’s HB2 law banning male-born trans people from using women’s bathrooms, saying that it was an issue for the state government to decide, effectively supporting the ban. His instincts lead him one way, but he is susceptible to pressure from the religious Right.

Where to now

Protests against Trump have already started. Over time there is huge potential for these protests to draw support from millions of working people as they gradually realise that Trump is not improving their lives.

Trump will certainly want to divert that mass anger. He will scapegoat the vulnerable, most likely through immigrant-bashing and Islamophobia. He will also mobilise social conservatives around a range of reactionary demands as he tries to keep people’s economic misery off the political centre stage.

Trump may choose to accommodate trans people to widen his support base, but he may equally attack them to curry favour with social conservatives. In any case, the religious Right has received a shot in the arm from his victory, and will be active and vocal.

Trans-critical feminists and socialists challenge the trans trend from a pro-woman perspective; for the religious and alt Right opposition to trans people is part of an anti-woman agenda. In the current atmosphere distinguishing ourselves from the Right is more important than ever.

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.




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.