Changing gender without defending boundaries

Submitted by cathy n on 21 September, 2017 - 1:42
Transgender rights are human rights

Pat Murphy (Solidarity, 447) says that Claudia Raven did not give enough serious attention to the feminist concerns raised in relation to potential amendments to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).

This is an attempt to give our discussion some more substance, as well as a response. It is of course not definitive and the debate should continue. But this discussion has been made more urgent by the context of the recent stopping of a meeting on the GRA, and a subsequent protest involving physical confrontation at the rearranged meeting (see page 4 for a statement on this).

The first problem with Pat’s letter is that he accepts the position that there are valid concerns about changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act without assessing whether, overall, the mooted reforms are good — or not. We categorically do welcome the move to reform Gender Recognition in the UK.

Moreover we think the stated feminist “concerns” are neither convincing, nor being argued in good faith. The method of argument underpinning them is to point to marginal examples which do not stand up to scrutiny (e.g. counselling arrangements for rape victims). Or to criticise bits and pieces of trans politics (e.g. the idea of being “authentic” in a gender role) which may be not gender-critical enough for our liking but do not, from any reasonable point of view, constitute grounds to oppose the proposed reforms.

Also it is simply not good enough for Pat to allude to a commonplace paranoia (that you might find in the Daily Mail), by implying that doctors are not, or would not be, holistic in their approach to young peoples’ developing gender identity. The real problem, as with all health services, is that there are nowhere near enough sympathetic and qualified professional help and support services.

The second problem with Pat’s letter is that it fails to make a serious characterisation of the politics involved. Claudia was referring to a small group of feminist activists, many of whom are part of the broad left, who do not accept trans identity, or only some trans identities, as real and/or acceptable. And these ideas have been around a long time! We have to go back as far as 1979 for the first anti-transexual feminist diatribe — The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond.

These ideas are not the equivalent of the reactionary dominant narrative, but do “present” as such. Despite the claims to be “gender-critical” (surely a liberatory idea?), you only have to scratch the surface to find toxic bigotry. For example, this from the Twitter account of a feminist supporter of the GRA critics — ″nothing but a bunch of violent males claiming to be women and their handmaidens″.

Before developing these points, it is worth restating what is at stake here. The majority narrative in society is anti-trans. The proposed amendments to the GRA would represent welcome progressive social change and help combat oppression. It could even, if built on, be an opportunity for the left to broaden its understanding of what it means to be human. But that opportunity could be cauterised through, on the one hand, bigotry, and pandering to bigotry and on the other, drives to censor and shout down from other sections of the activist left.

Amendments to the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 are necessary because it is out of date. And the proposed changes are consistent with those being made in many other countries. Crucially, the 2004 Act pathologises trans people: although it does not require people to have a medical procedure to change their legal gender, it does require people to “live as” their chosen gender for two years, have two doctor’s diagnoses and considerable scrutiny. To remove these stipulations will end what has been widely recognised as a humiliating experience.

It will enable those who struggle to prove change of name (those out-of-work, for example) to transition more easily. It will end the pressure to “play up” to gender norms in appointments and official meetings. It will allow for a wider range of people, with different perspectives on “transitioning”, and could indeed create room for a less medicalised and more holistic support. This will only materialise, of course, if it is funded.

There have been two types of red herrings raised about these potential amendments. One highlights a so-argued undermining of conditions in, and access, to women’s services. Pat refers to, “the rape victim who requests that her counsellor is a natal woman is not a transphobe.”

First of all, zero transphobia is not self-evident. If your counsellor is a trans woman, how would you know? After all, if your counsellor has shown you their sexual characteristics then they should be sacked. Are we going to say victims can say they don’t want to speak to a cisgendered, androgynous-looking woman?

Nonetheless under existing law (the 2010 Equality Act) it is legally possible to argue an exception for cis-women to see cis-women and services would then be able to ensure cis-women are available in their hiring practices. Exceptions like this should be properly argued for, not asserted, perhaps on the basis of particular experiences cis-women have. And this approach should be consistent: trans-women too should have specialist help available. Our point here is that this all needs more reasoned, and more honest, discussion.

The second kind of red herring in the debate is the practice of using (sometimes out-of-context) ideas attributed to trans activists/the left to say “look how unreasonable these people are!” Pat cites the idea of lesbians who refuse to have sex with transwomen who have penises being labelled transphobic. But it is legitimate to ask what the issue might be here.

Assume this woman is indistinguishable from a cis-woman. You are attracted to her, until you discover she is trans and/or has a penis. Is that not transphobia? In Australia there have been excellent studies about race “preferences” in sexual partners, which show that the preferences are indeed just covers for racism(1).

Equally we have to move to a society where we can just say it like it is. Something like, “I like you but I’m not into penises”. We think transwomen might be grateful for the honesty. It might be that’s the end of the relationship, which would be okay. It might be that she also hates the penis and has no intention of ever taking her pants off. You might have a great sex life without it making an appearance!

The feminism on display from those arguing against the proposed changes to the GRA is rooted in feminist activism of the 1980s, from people who haven’t moved on. Some see themselves as radical feminist, some as socialist feminist. In the 1980s it would have been anathema for all socialist feminists to see sex work as a particular form of precarious work, with self-organisation as the way to fight for rights. But rightly, ideas around this have moved on for many of us.

Anti-trans feminists continue to work in specific spaces, and often have some power — in academia, groups like the London Feminist Network and parts of the trade union bureaucracy. These networks have taken on a sect-like character, of people who are unable to assess changes in the world around them.

Although most claim not to be “biological essentialists”, the arguments they make are tantamount to that. This feminism sees sex as a stable and immutable basis of gender, and does not recognise lots of social changes around gender or the great deal of generalised gender diversity that exists in many developed capitalist countries and beyond.

Obsessively insisting on the ″science″ of biological sex, as opposed to the fluffiness of “feelings” (“male and female aren’t feelings”, says Jennifer Duncan in the Morning Star, 16 May 2016), is one way to construct a polemic, but this too, does not stand up to scrutiny. Our “feelings” of gender identity are socio-psychological orientations; we all have them, they are how we see ourselves in the world, they do not lack objective reality, they can be verified, but they require a different kind of analysis.

While biological sex binaries are important organising principles in society, and a strong historical basis for women’s oppression, the gendered social structures which are built on these sex differences have been weaker and stronger at different points in human history and across different societies.

Capitalist institutions (and the people who inhabit them) — families, the law, education etc. — have been affected by dynamic changes, which have broken down gender ideologies and practices. For example, as women have been drawn into the workplace, we have seen a fragmentation of gender ideologies as well as, in discrete areas, institutionalised low pay, and reinforced gender divisions of labour. The socialisation of people into gender based on the sex binaries we are assigned at birth remains strong but these are unstable, imperfect and contradictory.

We would also assert that women continue to be oppressed, and that that oppression, with all the above caveats, is linked to biology. Sexual division of labour formed the basis for the oppression of women with the development of property. But around this grew up complex and intertwined systems of oppression that do not require a woman to be child-bearing to be oppressed as a woman.

Nobody checks our karyotype, or examines our genitalia, before they cat call us in the street, treat us as bimbos, or deny us work based on the name on our job applications. Transwomen face oppression as women, it is erasure to suggest otherwise. Furthermore the experience of transwomen involves oppression as transwomen, particularly from men who feel their sexuality is threatened, and use violence to resolve that threat.

The idea that gender hierarchies are fixed, that “men” and “women” are locked into a “battle of the sexes” and that male privilege is all-powerful, is a form of identity politics one where men, rather than capitalism, are the main enemy. Because transwomen have male biological histories, they can never be “real women”.

Against this obtuse nastiness, it is no wonder that some trans people claim “real womanhood” for themselves. We understand that to be a way of saying “my gender identity exists, get over it”. And good luck to them, and to us all really, because many of us have to both fight against and muddle through over the expectations of gender identity with live with.

Identity politics
On the other hand we are concerned about the identity politics in trans activist circles.

In fact we think there is a clash of different variants of identity politics here. One is a matter of women versus men, another is trans versus non trans. But we should not make the mistake of thinking our criticism of that politics puts us in agreement with those opportunistically raising those points as an argument against the amendments to the GRA, and against trans rights generally. The left needs a coherent and liberatory alternative, not miserable fault-finding.

Censorship is wrong in principle but also very counterproductive. We have to persuade, not least because we want to win over people who are attracted to the anti-sexism of these feminists only to fall prey to their anti-trans bigotry.

The furore around the GRA amendments is a backlash. Answering the backlash means unpicking and challenging ideas, we can’t go round that. While the anti-trans feminist ideology does mesh with the dominant anti-trans narrative, for the most part this is combined with being “on the left” and fighting misogyny. There are other examples of left backwardness in history, prejudice towards lesbian and gay people was once widespread on the left, seen as “bourgeois deviationism”. So anti-GRA feminists are transphobic, but they are not the same as the far right. They are a toxic, and influential source for backward ideas in the labour movement.

Human beings have long defied gender, but some have found it impossible to live within either their sexed and gendered bodies, or the social expectations into which they are born, or both. It is only in recent history in the West that there has been a way to name this and describe this. That people are finding ways to get through their lives in a more manageable way is a good thing.

The fact is that all those who have been, will be or could be punished for not conforming to ascribed gender-roles face a shared source of oppression; trans and non-binary people, feminine men, non-trans women, we all should be marching together to fight gender oppression. Moreover, as the structures that oppress us are those created and perpetuated by capitalism, it is capitalism we want to bring down.

1. Is sexual racism really racism?