The Left & Transphobia: Bogus Science & Bogus Marxism
Article first published on socialistparty.ie -- written by Conor Payne, LGBTQ activist in the Socialist Party and ROSA Socialist Feminist Movement, Cork, Ireland
Trans People face oppression all around the world. In the US, trans women are more than 4 times more likely than cisgender women to be victims of murder and black trans women are 7 times more likely to be murdered than the general population. In the UK, 2018-19 saw a 37% increase in hate crimes against trans people. A study by UK-based LGBTQ+ group Stonewall found that 1 in 4 trans people had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, while 12% of trans workers reported physical violence or harassment in the workplace in the last year. In Ireland, a Transgender Equality Network Ireland survey found that 80% of respondents avoided at least some public places or situations due to fear of harassment and 78% had thought about suicide at some point in their lives, with 40% having made at least one attempt.
Violence, harassment and discrimination have been experienced by trans people for many years. But part of the context of these figures is a rise in the use of transphobic rhetoric and anti-trans legislation in a whole number of countries, in particular emanating from the resurgent populist right as well as sections of the establishment. Far right and right populist parties around the world rail against ‘’gender ideology;’ against the social recognition of the validity of Trans identities and lives. In the US, the Trump administration has moved to ban trans people from the military, to remove protections from discrimination for trans people in healthcare and to make it legal to discriminate against trans people in homeless shelters, among a raft of other measures. The US right has also pushed a series of ‘’bathroom bills’’ at state or local level which seek to prevent trans people from using the bathroom which corresponds best to their gender. In Hungary, the increasingly authoritarian regime of Orban recently introduced a measure to erase the legal recognition of Trans people as part of a bill allegedly aimed at fighting the Coronavirus!
In Britain, a widespread campaign of transphobic propaganda has emanated from the press and sections of the political establishment, particularly in response to proposals to amend the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 to allow Trans people to change their legally recognised gender via self-identification. The campaign has had an effect. The Tory government appears to have reversed their position on self-identification and are instead looking at new attacks on trans rights. Women and Equalities Minister Liz Truss indicated she was planning measures to ‘protect single-sex spaces;’ that is, to exclude trans people from using facilities which are designated to the gender they identify with, and to remove or restrict the right of trans people under 18 to medical treatment related to their transition. This treatment is often life saving for many young people. Obviously, these measures from Boris Johnson’s government are not grounded in concern for the rights of women, and certainly not in any scientific or medical best practice. They are a product of a campaign which mirrors the demonisation of many other minorities in society, presenting trans people as a dangerous threat.
Two examples give a good picture of the nature of the lies and distortions which are being spread. Starting in 2017, multiple British papers including The Star, Telegraph, The Sun and The Mirror published stories which suggested that the notorious child murderer Ian Huntley was seeking to be legally recognised as a woman, implicitly making a point about the alleged dangers of self-identification. It turns out that this story was completely untrue forcing ‘clarifications’ to be printed some two years later. On April 12, former Tory minister Rory Stewart falsely claimed, “When I was Prisons Minister, we had situations of male prisoners self-identifying as females then raping staff in prison. So I think if somebody is biologically male, particularly in an environment like a prison, we shouldn’t allow that to happen.” Again, The Sun ran with this headline. The truth, a statement from the Prison Service confirming “We have no record of this happening” was buried in the text of the article.
The themes of this sensationalism are clear: trans people are predators, a threat to women, their identities are not to be trusted. It wasn’t very long ago that such claims were being regularly made in the capitalist press about gay people. The difference is that this campaign unfortunately does not emanate solely from the conservative right but from also from the liberal establishment, some self-described feminists and even sections of the left.
Sections of trade union leaders, labour party activists and some left organisations have raised objections to the right to self-identification and more generally to the fight for trans liberation. The depth of the rot was exposed in the publication in the Morning Star, supported by some trade unions and associated with the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), of a particularly vile transphobic and dehumanising cartoon, comparing trans people to crocodiles. This caused justified outrage and the Morning Star ultimately issued an apology headlined, “We failed in our duty to equality and liberation” and promising to review their past coverage of the issue. And that’s precisely the point — the cartoon didn’t fall from the sky. It reflected years of articles in the Morning Star and from other parts of the left arguing that trans rights posed a threat to women’s rights and this is in turn reflected in other parts of the Left. A serious review would involve a complete rejection of this approach in favour of one rooted in opposition to all oppression and confident in the capacity for solidarity among all working class people and the oppressed.
The ‘left’ case against trans rights
The ‘progressive’ opponents of Trans rights generally present the issue as one of a ‘clash of rights’ between trans people and women, whose access to separate spaces is under threat — of course this argument takes as its starting point that Trans women are not genuinely women. They also argue that trans identities reinforce gender stereotypes and undermine our ability to understand and oppose women’s oppression. While usually couched in claims to oppose discrimination against trans people, they fundamentally embrace the same logic as the transphobic right and draw many of the same conclusions. For example, Woman’s Place UK claims to be rooted in socialist and labour traditions and claims prominent trade union activists among its leading members. But what do they advocate? Speaking on their behalf, Lucy Masoud makes it clear that they want the law:
“tightened up and…enforced; enforced to ensure that female-only spaces and services in this country are protected. Business and organisations should face fines or legal action if they knowingly, and deliberately flout the law.”
These ‘female-only spaces’ include ‘toilets, health provision accommodation, prisons, sports, sexual and domestic violence services’. This is essentially a legal ban on trans women using women’s toilets and a whole range of other services — a variant of a Trumpian bathroom bill cloaked in feminist and socialist rhetoric.
Currently in Britain, to change their gender on their birth certificate, a person must have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and to have lived as their preferred gender for two years. These restrictions cause real issues for the lives of trans people. The legal recognition of your gender has both practical and symbolic significance. Birth certificates are an important legal document often requested when applying for all kinds of services or interacting with the state. A birth certificate which doesn’t match with someone’s lived gender or with other identification they have puts trans people at risk of being forcibly outed during these interactions, or causing other obstacles and problems.
While some Trans people experience gender dysphoria, others do not and this medicalised process requiring people to receive a psychological diagnosis before gaining legal recognition flies in the face of current research and understanding of trans identities. Access to Trans healthcare is also very limited for those who cannot afford private healthcare- in Ireland you will wait three plus years. Self-identification means simply that this process is replaced with a legal declaration of one’s preferred gender. This has existed in the south of Ireland since 2015, albeit with important limitations such as the absence of any form of recognition of non-binary people. Despite the apocalyptic claims dominating the debate in Britain, it has not caused any issues for the rights of women or anyone else. The idea that giving trans people the legal right to use facilities in line with their gender would lead to dangers for women is not backed up by research. For example, one study from Massachusetts looked at localities which had trans inclusive laws and those that did not and found no difference in reports of assaults or other crimes in public bathrooms and changing rooms.
Violence against women is endemic in society — but trans women are overwhelmingly more likely to be its victims than perpetrators. The most pertinent concern about violence in this debate is the threat of violence against trans women who would be forced to use male toilets, be detained in male prisons etc. In 2015, Vicky Thompson was found dead from suicide after being held in a male prison and being subject to transphobic harassment.
Reinforcing gender stereotypes?
Another important claim of transphobic campaigners is that trans identities are predicated on gender stereotypes and that young people are ‘’pressured’’ to adopt a trans identity if they don’t conform to stereotypical behaviour for boys or girls. This is completely baseless, and ignores the very real danger to young trans people when their identities are denied. Studies demonstrate both that the gender identities of trans children are as strong and consistent as those of cis children and that young trans people who undergo hormone treatments have much more positive outcomes as a result.
Of course, the same people making this argument will also question the authenticity of trans people who they believe don’t look or act enough like the gender they identify with. Gender stereotyping and rigid gender roles are a huge part of our society and the point should never be to criticise inviduals, whether trans or cis, if they reflect them in some way in their lives. At the same time, there is precisely a growing attempt to reject these false binaries and this is part of what is fuelling the support for trans liberation among young people and in the global women’s movement. The (fairly obvious) truth is that attacking trans rights only serves to reinforce gender stereotypes, not to undermine them in any way and that this will impact cis women also.
A stark illustration can be found in the guidelines published by ‘Fair Play for Women’ for organisations on how to provide ‘female-only’ changing rooms:
“in order to uphold your lawful policy of providing women with a female-only changing room it may sometimes be necessary for staff to deny access to a male person. We instinctively know who’s male and female simply by looking which makes it quick and easy for staff to spot if a male person enters a female changing room…admission to female-only changing rooms should be based first on a visual assessment of someones sex, followed by a request to see a female birth certificate in circumstances where staff reasonably suspects that the person was born male”.
These are incredible suggestions which amount to gender policing. The impact on the rights and safety of trans people is obvious but it would also have much wider implications. Most people don’t carry their birth certificates around with them and its inconceivable that if this approach were widely implemented it wouldn’t impact on intersex people and cis women who don’t fit stereotypical standards of how women look!
Where left and feminist organisations argue these ideas its worth looking at the political and theoretical roots. Many position their opposition as being a rejection of postmodern ‘identity politics,’ but in reality their argumentation reproduces a version of identity politics. For Marxists, the starting point is the need to stand against all forms of oppression, to support the struggles of oppressed groups and to seek to link them in the context of a united working class and socialist movement. A key part of this is understanding the roots of different forms of oppression in class and capitalist society and therefore the potential to fundamentally challenge them.
Capitalism relies on the oppression of women, a gendered division of labour, and the unpaid domestic labour mainly of women within the structure of the nuclear family. It therefore depends on an ideology of gender stereotypes and roles. Trans people as well as other LGBTQ+ people by their existence undermine this ideology and therefore face oppression in capitalist society. Where the emphasis is put on the conflicting rights or aspiration of different groups, without a perspective for real unity and solidarity, it tends to undermine this and instead point to a battle for the limited rights and resources which capitalist society is willing to dole out.
In the writings of those leftists who oppose the fight for trans liberation, we see this narrative; a conflict between the rights of women and those of trans people and the conclusion that ultimately the rights of trans people must therefore be limited. Kiri Tunks of the National Union of Teachers writes that allowing trans women to use women’s services will “mean that services already under attack from austerity politics will be further hampered in their ability to deliver for the people they were created to serve. While this is dubious given the relatively small percentage of the population who are trans women, it’s notable that there is no perspective here for fighting for better resourced services for all, only fighting over ever reducing crumbs. This has nothing in common with a socialist approach, but does have parallels to the rhetoric of the right which pits, for example, immigrants against non-immigrant workers in a competition for resources. The left should never accept this approach; it should place its confidence in a united fight against austerity policies which impact the services we all rely on.
Writing in the Morning Star, Mary Davis of the Communist Party of Britain argues that women face ‘’oppression’’, while trans people only face ‘’discrimination’’. By her account, the difference is that:
“oppression, unlike discrimination, is linked materially to the process of class exploitation by paying women much less than men, thus serving capitalism’s profit motive.”.
Therefore “challenging the specific discrimination faced by trans people is not served by undermining resistance to the centuries-old oppression of women as a biological sex.” This is very strange. Clearly ‘’discrimination’’ isn’t sufficient to describe the brutal violence against trans people around the world, nor the targeting of trans people by right-wing regimes and forces, or the economic disadvantage of trans people.
This definition would also seem to suggest that homophobia, anti-semitism, which flow from capitalist society but which don’t have a direct link to the profit motive cannot be ‘’oppression’’. Most importantly, it completely misses that women’s oppression and LGBTQ+ oppression are linked; that the ideology of gender roles and stereotypes which serve to justify and perpetuate women’s oppression lead inexorably to the targeting of LGBTQ+ people, including trans people whose existence represents a defiance of those norms. Sexism, homophobia and transphobia are all intrinsic to capitalist society and there is a common interest for all those who want to fight them and to unite.
Elaine Graham-Leigh of Counterfire, another left group which gives succour to the arguments of the transphobic right, attempts to ground their position in a Marxist understanding of women’s oppression and to paint the fight for trans rights as wholesale ‘’postmodern identity politics.’’ A Marxist analysis identifies the origins of women’s oppression in the development of class society. Early human societies did not produce a surplus of wealth, relied on the contribution of each group member to survive and neither had class division nor the oppression of women. With the development of agriculture, an economic surplus existed which created the specialisation of labour, a minority which was freed from the day to day toil of physical labour and appropriated the surplus as its own. This new ruling class needed to be able to perpetuate itself by passing on its property and privileges.
This was the basis for the creation of the family and the subjugation of women whose sexuality needed to be controlled to enable inheritance via the male line. Therefore the oppression of women flows from specific historic conditions and can also be abolished by eliminating those conditions. This idea stands in opposition to the main framework of bourgeois feminism which often sees men at all levels of society as collectively oppressing all women, and therefore can point to no fundamental way out of oppression, only to ameliorate it within the existing system.
For Elaine Graham-Leigh recognising trans women as women and trans men as men is incompatible with this analysis because:
“In this view, women, for example, are not oppressed because of any relation to their female sex, but because and to the extent that they identify as women and signify this through their performance of femininity. The reality of the sex of their bodies is as unimportant as all material reality.” She also suggests that accepting trans identities involves “the damaging inference that women who don’t like it could just identify as men, or, even worse, that the fact that they don’t like it shows that they must really be men.”
A Marxist view of womens’ oppression
Of course, you can’t identify out of your oppression and given the oppression faced by trans people it’s ludicrous to suggest that anyone would adopt a trans identity in order to do so! It is however possible to oppress people by denying them the right to identify as they wish. This is precisely because gender is a material social reality.
To read this account, you would think that trans identities are some recent postmodern invention. Of course, throughout history and in a variety of different human societies there have been trans people; people who didn’t identify with the gender assigned to them or wished to live outside the gender binary altogether. This language and the frameworks used to understand this has changed of course, as it has with many other identities. The central issue then is where we stand on the rights of trans people, and the right to self-identify means the right to exist in society in the way which is most authentic to you, rather than be forced into the rigid gender roles which capitalist society seeks to impose.
There is no reason for a socialist defence of trans rights to reject a materialist understanding of women’s oppression. We do have to understand how women’s oppression in capitalist society functions today, not just how it emerged historically. Its purpose is not solely to facilitate the inheritance of property but much more. The unpaid labour of women, worth $10.9 trillion a year, reproducing the next generation of workers within the nuclear family, the profits which accrue from low pay in sections of the workforce dominated by women and as a means of social and ideological control. All this gives rise to misogyny as a real material force in society which can affect all women. Just as not all cis women will experience pregnancy and the forms of oppression which relate to it, neither will trans women, but they will unfortunately experience many aspects of women oppression including potentially gender-based violence and higher levels of low pay and poverty and in many cases experience these more intensely as a particulary marginalised group of women.
Graham-Leigh makes some correct criticisms of neo-liberal identity politics, in particular its hostility to the idea of united struggle. She says this:
“this view of oppression as being only something which the oppressed themselves can fight buttresses the neo-liberal argument that society is irrelevant…It is only if, on the other hand, we perceive the importance of social, communal bonds, that we can fight against oppression to which we are not ourselves subject but which we don’t want to exist in our society.”
While oppressed people do obviously have a unique insight into their own oppression and their own struggles and demands are key, we agree that an effective movement fighting to win has to have a perspective for building a united struggle which takes in the whole working class. This also involves the wider working class movement being willing to take up the struggles and demands of all oppressed groups. Having made this point, however, she later completely contradicts herself as regards the involvement of trans people in the movement against gender-based oppression: “Since we live in a society in which women are still at risk of male violence and systemic oppression, we need to be able to organise just with other women when we require it.” So, here we see exactly the same outlook: it’s impossible for trans people to be fully integrated into the women’s movement and indeed they are implicitly described as a potential source of ‘’male violence and systemic oppression’’. The reason Graham-Leigh contradicts herself so is that she shares much common ground with identity politics. Her practical approach is grounded not in a Marxist analysis of women’s oppression but in ‘patriarchy theory’ which views sexism as a collective enterprise of ‘men’ against ‘women’, and therefore feels the need to police the boundaries of gender identity.
We should not just engage in abstractions but base ourselves on real experiences. In recent years, we have seen the emergence of a new global women’s movement, fighting anti-abortion laws, gender-based violence and femicide, the gender pay gap and many other manifestations of sexist oppression. This movement has been an important part of the radicalisation of a new generation of young women and trans people and has played an important role in re-introducing important methods of working class struggle to those who grew up at the height of neo-liberal ideological dominance. Particularly notable has been the use of the method of the strike in the Spanish state, Switzerland and elsewhere. Has the experience of this movement been one of mistrust and division around the involvement of trans and non-binary people? In fact, the solidarity has been instinctive and young people generally have the most open attitudes to trans rights in society.
In Ireland, the recent steps forward in terms of gender recognition and the defeat of the 8th amendment have both been part of the same process of the rejection of the conservative status quo. Similarly, the wave of transphobic incitement in Britain does not herald a new dawn for women’s rights but poses the threat of a reactionary offensive against them. While Graham-Leigh’s statement that “there is no natural unity among the oppressed” has an element of truth, we should be clear the source of division in the working class is capitalism and its ideology and that the outbreak of struggle tends to break down the barriers that exist because of the necessity of unity and solidarity.
In the context of a relatively low level of struggle, the success of right populism, and the inability of the Corbyn movement, despite its positives, to develop a mass political alternative at this stage, there is a danger of a capitulation to backward and socially conservative ideas among a layer in the left and labour movement in Britain. This is not helped by the continued influence of Stalinism in sections of the trade unions and Labour Party left and a layer of left-wing young people, which has always tended to adapt to conservative prejudices and understate the capacity of working class struggle to overcome them. The Morning Star recently carried an article about the virtues of ‘progressive patriotism’, a line which was also used by Left Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey. It’s important to be sensitive to people’s national aspirations and identities but it’s another thing altogether to describe patriotism as “necessary to achieving socialism”!
You will never build a united movement capable of taking on and defeating capitalism without challenging in a skillful way the prejudices which exist in society and standing clearly for the rights and aspirations of all oppressed people. This is how division can be overcome and capitalist ideology decisively undermined. The need for an alternative to the rotten capitalist system has never been clearer and in the coming years more and more workers and young people will search for an alternative and can find it in the ideas of socialism and Marxism. In that context, transphobia or equivocation in defence of any oppressed people will only serve to repel, disorientate and divide. To meet the challenge, we need a renewed confidence in working class solidarity and human liberation.