Socialism, Feminism and transgender politics (Part One)
By A correspondent
7 September 2020
Why has a conflict arisen between Transactivists and Feminists? What should a Marxist approach to this issue be?
In this series of articles I will try to explain why a conflict has arisen between women’s-rights activists and trans-rights activists. Until more of the left make a serious effort to understand where many women are coming from they will continue to misunderstand what the sources of conflict are, and potentially alienate women and pro-science advocates.
I hope that it will become clear from this series of articles that the approach the left adopts to this issue has implications far beyond the Gender Identity issue itself. In my opinion, the position many ostensibly Marxist groups have taken reveals the widespread abandonment of central Marxist tenets in favour of a more individualistic, anti-materialist, post-modernist approach.
I’ll first summarise the different approaches to sex and gender between Feminists and Marxists on the one hand, and Transactivists and Gender Identity Ideologists on the other, as I think it helps to explain some of the source of conflict.
Then I’ll go on to give examples of sexist ideas which are being promoted by the Trans-rights-movement. Later articles will look at other sources of conflict, such homophobia, the potential for medical harm, and attacks on women’s spaces and rights.
Just two things worth explaining before going on: When I say Transactivist I mean anyone who identifies with, and promotes, the goals of the dominant trends in the Trans-Rights-Movement, which includes those who do not identify as Trans themseleves. So by Transactivist I do not mean all Trans people, some of whom oppose some of what the Movement is doing in their name.
I also use sex-based pronouns in these articles. I’m not doing it to be rude but to speak clearly, so we can have clarity in our thinking on this issue.
Feminist or Marxist view of Sex and Gender
There is a fundamental conflict between a Feminist or Marxist approach to sex and gender, and that of someone who supports Gender (Identity) Ideology.
The long-standing view commonly expressed by Feminists and Socialists is that sex is biological reality but gender is the social role assigned to the sexes.
These roles were not random
assignations, but designed primarily to subjugate women, and control their
fertility, hence the view promoted by Christian Churches that wives should
submit to their husbands. (1)
Feminists have been critiquing these socially enforced gender-roles for centuries (e.g. see early feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman 1792 ).
The view that women are naturally more caring, giving, and selfless serves a practical function. It is intended to encourage women to see unpaid mothering and care giving as their primary role, which they should be willing to sacrifice personal well-being for. This helps put most of the burden of reproducing the next generations workforce on women.
That women are oppressed on the basis of their potential reproductive capacity, and that influencing and controlling this function is important to Capitalists, has been central to Marxist thinking for over a hundred years.
In 1884 Engels wrote about the “the world historic defeat of the female sex”, and control of women’s fertility being the driving force behind women’s oppression in class societies.
So, to summarise, feminists and socialists have, for a long time, seen gender ideology, and gender roles, as a tool of oppression which restricts women, and men to some extent, and they think dismantling this ideology is necessary for the liberation of women.
Marxist/Feminist arguments are not at all like that of Conservatives, as claimed by some Transactivsts. They only agree with Conservatives that biological sex is fixed, but not that women are naturally more emotional and submissive, less rational and intelligent, and uniquely suited to a supportive role.
Conservative view as expressed in poetry:
"Man for the field, woman
for the hearth;
man for the sword, and for the needle she;
man with the head, and woman with the heart;
man to command, and woman to obey;
all else confusion."
The princess, 1847, Alfred Lord Tennyson
The view of Transactivists and Gender Identity Ideologists
Gender Identity Ideologists/Transactivists take almost the opposite view of sex and gender to the usual Feminist/Socialist one.
They see Gender as innate, either via a male/female brain or soul or ‘essence’, and they see recognition of this gender essence as liberating. They see acknowledgement of biological sex as a socially constructed imposition which denies their soul’s reality.
They often argue for the definition of women and men to be by affinity to feminine or masculine stereotypes, and they see criticism of the concept of a feminine/masculine essence as bigotry.
Some argue that the concept of biological sex is an ideological invention that is used to discriminate against people.
Tweet by ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) Staff Attorney
This is a useful summary of the different positions;
Clash between Marxism and Gender Identity ideology
With these differing approaches to key issues a clash between Marxists/Feminists and Gender Identity Ideologists was inevitable.
It should be pointed out that for Marxists, the concept of a male or female soul or essence, with an existence separate to that of the physical body, should be a problem as it is an anti-materialist metaphysical belief.
Conflict when discussing women’s oppression
Gender Identity Ideology clashes with a Marxist analysis when attempting to understand or explain the origin of women’s oppression. Without a clear view of the origin of this oppression, and methods used to enforce it, efforts to defeat it will be misdirected and unsuccessful.
It is, or should be, illuminating that voicing a Marxist analysis of women’s oppression can cause conflict with Transactivists and get one labelled “Transphobic”.
For example, John Molyneux, a Marxist from Britain, who lives in Ireland now and edits the Irish Marxist Review, recounts what happened to him as a result of a piece he wrote discussing women’s oppression:
“The mere mention of “nature”—in this case principally biology—in relation to human history and the development of women’s oppression—in my International Socialism article has produced a frenzy of accusations from certain quarters: John Molyneux’s argument is gender essentialist, transphobic, homophobic, not to speak of intellectually dishonest, ignorant, disgusting and so on.”(2)And what had led to this denunciation?
He had written:
“Put simply, women are able to bear children and men are not”...This, it has been said, “falls into the trap of crude transphobia” because “with one crude stroke of the pen he has erased the existence of trans people from the world”. (3)This sort of reaction to people talking about the origin and basis of women’s oppression is not an isolated incidence. For example, this is a similar story regarding a socialist from the US.
“Ann Menasche, a long time social justice activist from the US, socialist, Green, and civil rights lawyer was cyberbullied on Facebook in March of 2017 by a group of trans-activists and their supporters. She was labeled a “TERF” (“Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist”), “Nazi,” “rapist,” “racist,” and a supporter of “genocide” who, like other “TERFs” are hateful bigots that deserve to die. Several people contacted her employer in an unsuccessful attempt to get her fired from her job. Her “crime” was to respond to a post by writing that persons born female are oppressed on the basis of sex (a position taken by many leftists since the time of Karl Marx), and that it was unfortunate that many males fail to recognize this fact." (4)Unfortunately, instead of leading them to re-think their enthusiastic support for the Gender Identity Movement, some ‘Marxists’ jettison Marxist analysis altogether in order to fit in with the ideology and demands of the Trans-Rights-Movement.
Sally Campbell, Editor of Socialist Review, was reported on the Socialist Worker website as having dismissed women’s concerns over the proposed introduction of self-id laws in Britain as a case of “moral panic” (self-id laws would allow any man to change legal sex by a simple self-declaration that they were a woman now) and she was reported as having ‘argued against feminists who see “biology as the roots of women’s oppression”.(5). This sounds like a worrying move away from Marxist analysis.
And, unfortunately, since writing the piece mentioned above, Molyneux decided to join the gender essentialist/transactivist side of this debate (6).
I’m now going to give some examples of the sexism promoted by the Gender Identity Ideologists/Transactivists and their supporters below, which I think will help illustrate why there is a conflict between women’s rights activists and mainstream Transactivism.
Promotion of a Sexist ideology
Gender Identity ideology promotes sexism under the guise of helping trans-people. This is done via the media, schools and professional bodies. (7)
If you read accounts by Transpeople, or their parents, in the media you see that explanations of why they identify as the opposite sex almost always appeals to sexist stereotypes. I’m going to give a few examples below, but these are just a handful out of many such pieces.
The problem to focus on here is not that some individuals, or Trans-activists, have sexist ideas. The internalising of sexist ideas in our current social environment is to be expected, and children in particular cannot be blamed for picking up the sexist messages they see around them. The worrying thing is that the media is using the Trans-Rights-Movement to promote these regressive ideas as fact. This is one way in which this movement impacts all of society, not just people who identify as transgender, and why some of us feel obliged to challenge it politically.
Examples of Sexist ideas promoted in the media
In a clip from a piece featuring a boy who identified as a girl, the boy says: "I felt I was a girl because I liked the colour pink, and I liked girls clothes, and how they wore their hair and stuff". (8)
60 Minutes Australia did a piece, The youngest transgender child in the world. A male child is asked: “Can you remember the first time you thought I want to be a girl? He replies: “When I was 2. I would say I want to wear a dress. I would say I want to play with the Barbies.” The narrator states that this child was born with normal male genitals but an “unmistakably female brain”. The interviewer asks the child, “Do you remember what it was like when you were a little boy at all?” The child answers “...I remember that I was not happy with the clothes I had to wear, with short hair...”
The same documentary shows another clip of a different male child who identifies as a girl who says: “I always knew it... when I was a little kid...I was always wanting pink dresses, Barbie everything.. I’ve always wanted to live as a girl, so I really knew exactly who I was”. (8)
In a British newspaper article about her child, leader of Mermaids (a charity for parents and young trans-identified people in Britain), Susie Green, said this about her biologically male child: “what cuddly toys she had she would nurture and treat like babies, not at all like a boy… Initially her dad just said: ‘I’m not having this’ and when she was aged about four he insisted we have a go at trying to stop her having anything girly. She had a few dolls which were put away” (9)
An NBC facebook post from 2019 stated: Transgender children may start to identify with toys and clothes typical of their gender identity from a very young age, a recent study suggests. (10)
As a final example, I will quote this piece about a right-wing anti-feminist male, who now identifies as a woman. He expresses a very traditional view of sex-roles, unsurprising considering his background.
The interviewer writes [my emphasis in bold]:
“The argumentative, slightly domineering, Eton-educated man I remember (he was the original white privileged male), who penned a book in praise of the patriarchy called Not Guilty: In Defence of the Modern Man, has mellowed in a way that makes a lot of our conversation seem like a slightly frivolous woman-to-woman chat.The Transgender person is quoted as saying about their experience:
‘...I absolutely don’t deny the guy in me. I am not pretending I am not still him in many ways. I mean I still do that thing of sitting down on Saturday and watching Sky Sports before the game, during the game and after the game because four geezers talking football constitutes entertainment to me. But I also blub my eyes out to Strictly Come Dancing and I rather like the fact that I can do both of those things.’Professionals and Institutions promoting sexism
...I think that ultimately I would make somebody a really good wife. I love creating a beautiful home, nothing makes me happier – except possibly cooking a lovely meal or going shopping. I have worked hard all these years, I have earned my way for long enough, so yes, put a pinny round my neck and let me be a homemaker, please! There is a lot of nurturing in me that has gone to waste and there is a lot of love that is not being used up,’ she says in such a heartfelt way that I find myself tempted to give her a great big woman-to-woman hug.’ ”(11)
Not only are the media promoting sexism in interviews like those highlighted above, but now NGO’s, Government Departments, and professional bodies, are also promoting these regressive ideas.
Slide used by Mermaids in
its training of professionals e.g. police
The potential for medical harm with gender “affirmation” treatments will be discussed in more detail in a later article, but for now it is worth looking at some of the sexist ideas promoted by these professionals and professional groups.
Sexism is actually written in to part of the diagnostic definition of Gender Incongruence of Childhood. The following quote is from the 2018 World Health Organisation International Classification of Diseases (ICD) -11: “Gender incongruence of childhood is characterized by...make-believe or fantasy play, toys, games, or activities and playmates that are typical of the experienced gender rather than the assigned sex” (12) [“Assigned sex” is Gender Identity Ideology-speak meaning biological sex at birth, which is in reality observed not assigned, and “experienced gender” here means the sex the child wishes they were. For the full definition see link in reference 12 below]
Royal College of Psychiatrists thinks biological sex is about male-ness and female-ness and has infinite variations:
NHS Choices website
This is a quote from an NHS
Choices website story by a mother regarding her biologically male child
who is now labelled as trans: “When my child Nick was about two, I realised
that he wasn’t playing with toys that I expected a boy to play with. He
was interested in dolls and girly dressing-up” (13)
British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
Dr Meg-John Barker, who is heavily influenced by Queer Theory, wrote some revealingly sexist passages in a booklet, Guidelines on Gender, Sexual, and Relationship Diversity, which she wrote for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. It defined women and men in terms of sexist stereotypes. (Parts of this booklet were since re-written due to public criticism. See more information on the controversy, and a link to a twitter thread with screenshots from the booklet, in reference 14 below).
The booklet claimed that:
“It is important not to assume..that being a woman necessarily involves being able to bear children, or having XX sex chromosomes or breasts. Being a woman in a British cultural context often means adhering to social norms of femininity, such as being nurturing, caring, social, emotional, vulnerable and concerned with appearance.”Unless your Northern working-class apparently and then you can be aggressive! The booklet claimed: “In some northern working-class contexts femininity is associated with strength and aggression”
And it also claimed “It is important not to assume, for example that being a man necessarily involved having a penis or being physically strong. Being a man in a British cultural context often means adhering to social norms of masculinity, such as being competitive, ambitious, independent, rational, tough, sexual, confident, dominant, taking risks and caring about their work”
Professional claiming that non-verbal children can identify as the opposite sex
This short clip (below) of a talk given to professionals by Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental clinical psychologist in the US, shows her giving a few examples of how to recognise a child is transgender, according to her thinking. It makes for quite disturbing viewing.
Ehrensaft claims, for example, that a female child pulling clips out of her hair is a gender message, i.e. the child is telling people she is really a boy.
Likewise a one year old male child unsnapping their onesie, so it supposedly looks like a dress, is a message the child is sending that they are a girl. This would pre-suppose that this is actually what the child is doing (instead of the more likely explanation that they are exploring their environment), and it assumes that a non-verbal child understands what a dress is, that it would associate a dress with being female only, somehow “knew” they were a girl in spite of being biologically male, and had the mental capacity to communicate this to adults.
She doesn’t seem to see that her suggestions involve the adults imposing their socially learned gendered views on children.
A few more worrying comments Ehrensaft makes include: “They can show you what they want to play with...so you look for those kinds of actions”(she is suggesting toy-choice be a part of the diagnostic process) and “children will know as early as the beginning of the second year of life, they probably know before”.
Ehrensaft’s views are contrary
to our understanding of childhood development. In a good essay by Katie
Alcock, and the videos with children she links to, we gain valuable insights
into how children take time to develop an understanding of biological sex
and how they might be influenced by stereotypes or superficial appearances.
“... it takes children some time to work out both whether they themselves are a girl or a boy, and that both they and others cannot change sex... Have a look at what James, aged 3, has to say on the matter: James is firm that having short hair makes him a boy, and that it also makes other people (and dolls) into boys..
..Until the age of about 7 (yes, 7 — in some children it’s older) children think that when something changes its appearance, its underlying reality changes too. This doesn’t just apply to sex, it applies to pretty much everything.”https://medium.com/@katieja/young-children-reality-sex-and-gender-3421f4f165f1
Promotion of sexism in schools
Most worryingly, sexist ideas are being disseminated in schools in Britain in the name of helping children who identify as Transgender. Unfortunately, these sexist lessons might be pushing more children to identify as trans because they want to reject the rigid roles they are being taught goes with their sex. There has been a dramatic rise in girls identifying as boys in the past few years in many countries (15), including Ireland (16), and this may lead children down a path of potentially damaging medical treatment.
Some groups are campaigning for Gender Identity Ideology to be included in sex education in Irish schools (17), and even be integrated more generally into the school system here “to be proactively addressed and embedded in primary school life” (18), so I think this is going to be a major flash-point here.
To give people an idea of what might ignite that flash we can look at what is being taught in Britain. The quotes below are from a teacher regarding what she was expected to teach:
"I was given 3 lessons on Transgender issues to include as part of the syllabus. The content of these lessons made me feel very uneasy.
The three lessons I was asked to deliver were like something from the 50’s in terms of gender stereotypes. Slick animations showed diagrams of boys with mainly blue brains and girls with mainly pink brains. Amongst these pink and blue-brained figures were a minority of boys with pink brains and girls with blue brains. A video interview with a doctor explained that sometimes biology gets it wrong and a boy or a girl will be born with the “wrong” brain in the “wrong” body. But, now it is all ok because medical science can “fix” this...
The lesson continued with explanatory diagrams and explanations about how easy it is to change sex now. Any child who thinks their problems are a result of their being in the “wrong” body is encouraged to explore gender reassignment as a possible solution. There was no mention of any side effects or of the long-term consequences of taking such an important step.
... Unproven theories such as males having blue brains and females having pink brains were presented as scientific fact
..These lessons are now part of the syllabus in most secondary schools I have taught in.... I wonder if this is perhaps the reason there are now so many more young people presenting for gender reassignment" (19)
Below we can see a slide from teacher resource pack for schools, which literally shows a pink and blue brain and says “it’s the brain that tells you whether you are a boy or girl” (20)
Similarly worrying sexist lessons have taken place in the United States, where a girl was told that “if she was into fishing and wearing athletic gear, or playing basketball, that those were boy things. And that would mean that she was a boy inside and that she was gay`` (21)
In Ireland, the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018 (22), if passed, would legally require the teaching of factual and objective sex education, but also the subjective and non-factual metaphysical concept of innate gender identity. But these two requirements are contradictory:
These are some extracts from
“the Minister shall ensure—
...“the curriculum includes the following areas in a factual and objective manner:
...(iii) the different types of gender”
...(c) the curriculum is delivered in a factual and objective manner in all schools regardless of the characteristic spirit of the school,
If one is talking about factual and objective sex education, it is important that children are clearly taught that there are only two functioning reproductive sexes, and what they are. The education system shouldn’t be promoting the teaching of sexist stereotypes, nor teaching as fact the concept of ‘born in the wrong body’, or that gender essence/soul exists separate from their body.
Another flashpoint in schools: Boys in Girls changing rooms
Other than the promotion of sexist ideology, another source of potential conflict in schools is allowing boys to self-identify as girls and gain access to girls changing rooms. The slide below is from a British local authority (East Sussex) sanctioned schools toolkit, which gives an idea of the potential problems girls could face in schools. Some similar toolkits from other areas have recently been withdrawn pending review, after a campaign by women which highlighted problems with them, but this one is still up on the local government website (23).
The phrase which really jumps out here is “although the individual in question may have the body of a boy, they are in every other respect a girl”
This is a similarly worrying extract from the Brighton and Hove City Council Trans Inclusion Schools Toolkit (24); Just to clarify, as the language can be confusing, trans girl = male child.
Parent to school: ‘My daughter doesn’t want a boy changing next to her, what if he looks at her body?’[Comment: They are misrepresenting the Equality Act here, which allows for sex-segregation in certain circumstances, privacy between the sexes being a common one. Schools in England and Wales are actually legally obliged to provided sex-segregated toilet and washing facilities from age 8]
Underpinning this scenario is the idea that a trans girl is not a ‘real girl’ and this would be something that a whole setting approach would challenge through training and awareness raising. A Human Rights response would be to state that the child is a girl and as such has the right under the Equality Act to change with the girls and to be treated fairly as such.
...It is the responsibility of members of staff to support both trans pupils and students and cisgender pupils and students to feel comfortable around one another and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all in the changing rooms.
The examples above show that girls are being institutionally told not to believe the evidence of their own eyes, at least when it might upset the males. It is also training girls that they do not have a right to establish privacy boundaries with the opposite sex. Another school resource also teaches girls that it is mean, and potentially illegal (!), to challenge males right to be in the female bathrooms (25).
So to summarise, the messages girls are getting in school is that: there is such a thing as lady-brain; that stereotypical hobbies or likes and dislikes is what makes one a girl or boy; that medically “transitioning” to the opposite sex is no big deal; that girls should not believe the evidence of their own eyes; that girls should put male feelings and demands over their own feelings, privacy and safety; and that girls are not allowed to have boundaries with the opposite sex.
Are people who object to all of this bigots?
People, mostly women, are objecting to core ideas and demands of the Trans-Rights-Movement because they are experiencing the negative consequences of this movement on the ground. Most women who are active on this issue are not motivated by bigotry, and many would have previously seen themselves as supporters of the Trans-Right-Movement (25). Women got reluctantly drawn into this fight when they saw their rights get directly threatened, or they suddenly saw the deep misogyny of the movement.
There are real-life concrete issues here that women are talking about, such as their right to safety and privacy, concerns over children's health, and the problem with the promotion of sexist ideas. If the left wishes to remain relevant, and not alienate large numbers of women, it needs to address these material issues and stop dismissing women’s concerns as “moral panic”, bigotry, or a result of ignorance.
The Left, if it were to apply a Marxist analysis, would reject Gender Identity Ideology for its subjectivism and misogyny, and would be opposing the attacks on women’s rights which are currently taking place in the name of the Trans-Rights-Movement. If we can oppose discrimination against religious people without adopting their religious ideology, or without supporting the establishment of a theocracy, we should be able to do the same on this issue.
Instead, unfortunately, many left-wing groups have taken the path of least resistance and capitulated wholesale to this anti-materialist individualistic ideology. This will do immense damage to the left in the long-run. My concern is not for the survival of these groups for their own sake, but for the impact the further weakening of the organised left will have at a time of great economic and social crisis.
I will be returning to the problem of sexism, and attacks by the Trans-Rights-Movement on women’s rights, in a future article, but the next article in this series will focus on the concerns about the influence of homophobia in the ideology and movement.
This is the piece which resulted in him being labelled transphobic, which is in effect a defence of an approach grounded in material reality http://isj.org.uk/history-without-nature/
(5) He seems to be arguing against a Marxist approach and in favour of a populist approach here http://socialistreview.org.uk/445/irish-movement-supports-trans-rights See also his Editorial comment on this issue which can be downloaded here http://www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/334
(6) I hope to cover the elite support for this movement in a later article but for now see https://freerlives.wordpress.com/key-topics/
(7) See this clip and a few others put together by a Lesbian here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqKgr2iZXOM&feature=youtu.be
(13) Quoted by Miranda Yardley
The original link to it in that article is not working but the piece from NHS Choices has been re-printed on this local government website here https://fisd.oxfordshire.gov.uk/kb5/oxfordshire/directory/advice.page?id=FJ8GmxL0aVc
(14) See articles on this
and a twitter thread with more screenshots and comments here https://twitter.com/PankhurstEM/status/1034802772166754304?s=20
(17) This Irish document is quite interesting in the comments from parents, which do suggest less rigid sex-roles in terms of things like dress-codes would make things easier for children, though some things mentioned like ‘gender-neutral’ i.e. mixed-sexed, toilets would negatively impact a lot of children due to privacy issues. The mention of buying books promoting gender identity ideology for the school library is a worry as well, as I’ve read some of the popular ones, and read reviews of others, and they tend to be anti-science and sexist. The document advocates a pro-active approach to teaching gender identity ideology in the schools, “Educators and parents... underlined the need for learning about gender and gender identity to be proactively addressed and embedded in primary school life”. The definitions on pages 2-4 show the type of ideas and language some Transactivists and Trans-Rights-Groups would want spread in the schools. Exploring Gender Identity and Gender Norms in Primary Schools: The Perspectives of Educators and Parents of Transgender and Gender Variant Children by Aoife Neary Catherine Cross https://ulir.ul.ie/bitstream/handle/10344/6889/Neary_2018_Exploring.pdf?sequence=2
This essay is good on the Male/Female brain arguments https://theconversation.com/the-female-brain-why-damaging-myths-about-women-and-science-keep-coming-back-in-new-forms-129310
(22) The slide is from the
East Sussex toolkit for schools and colleges, written by Allsorts. It had
the logo of East Sussex County Council on it.