It’s worth reminding ourselves that once, not so long ago, there was a mass movement for women’s rights – a social and political movement, led by women, that mobilised people by the thousands in the streets, demanding an end to the oppression of women. In New Zealand there were rallies and marches against discrimination in employment, for the right of women to control their reproductive lives, especially the right to abortion, and protesting violence against women. These issues became central to the movement as it developed and sharpened its focus in the 1970s and 1980s.
The movement started with something more intangible however: in the words of pioneer feminist Betty Friedan, “the problem that has no name.” Friedan was describing a profound sense of alienation felt by women who were supposedly ‘living the dream’ of middle-class domesticity in the midst of post-war prosperity. Women who, during the years of the Second World War, had been drawn into the industrial workforce to fill labour shortages caused by the mobilisation of men in the armed forces, found themselves shunted out of these jobs at the end of the war. An ideological campaign was built to justify this driving of women back into the home, which glorified the role of the housewife and her continual acquisition of domestic appliances – often in contrast with miserable figure of the ‘career woman.’ Many women felt a deep disquiet with this role of dependence and social marginalisation that was thrust upon them in this way, and dulled the psychic pain with tranquilisers freely prescribed by their doctors. Betty Friedan’s seminal 1963 book The Feminine Mystique articulated this dissatisfaction and launched a movement.
An early focus of the emerging women’s movements was boisterous public protests against beauty contests – in which women were stripped of their humanity and their dignity (their sisterhood in the first instance), degraded to the status of mute sex objects, and paraded to compete for the attention of men. Alongside these protests were innumerable conferences and educational gatherings, which questioned the narrowness of educational and employment opportunities available to women (and the consequent unequal pay), drew attention to the exclusion of women from the institutions of political power, decried the marginalisation of lesbians and other women who rejected the role of wife and mother, examined the psychology of self-hatred and sexual repression imbued in women who didn’t conform to the feminine stereotype, exposed the humiliating treatment of women by the health system, and demanded the right to participate fully in all aspects of social and political life. This great mass movement began in the United States but quickly spread, eventually extending its reach across the globe, transforming social relations between men and women in very fundamental ways. It was a joyful, liberating time.
There were secondary consequences of this mass challenge to the gender roles foisted on women in capitalist society. Men who didn’t conform to their stereotype were also oppressed by these gender roles, homosexual men in particular. Homosexuality was despised both as a crime of depravity and as an affliction which could be cured only by the most severe forms of medical intervention, such as ‘aversion therapy’ and castration. The numerous terms of abuse for gay men, ‘queers,’ ‘faggots,’ and the like, were part of everyday language. The gay liberation movement challenged all of this head on, joining the fight for decriminalisation with the fight for gay pride.
These movements became intertwined with concurrent movements against racism and for national liberation, and all of them strengthened the rising movement of the working class in those years. These movements also shared the fate of the working class. When the working class movement was halted and driven back from about the mid-1980s, the mass movement of women, and gays, retreated from the streets. By that time, they had won some important, if partial, victories, some of which were codified in law: progress towards closing the pay gap, improved access to abortion (despite the determined efforts of the political machine to prevent it), decriminalisation of homosexuality. The women’s movement retreated into institutional and literary forms, but it had a lasting impact on political consciousness and culture, and these gains continued to be recognised in law many years later, such as the recognition of same-sex marriage. The push to reverse it began immediately (as documented by Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth, among others) but it made little headway in reversing consciousness on the question of women’s rights. On the contrary, support for women’s rights and opposition to discrimination against gays, lesbians, transgender people has continued to grow in the working class.
But it is now more than thirty years since the last mass mobilisations of women, thirty years of labour movement retreat, the longest unbroken retreat of the working class in the history of capitalism. A new round of serious attacks has begun in the realm of ideas. This time, the attacks come from the liberal-left wing of bourgeois thought, and are couched in terms of an extension of the conquests of the women’s and gay movements.
Transgender people – and I use this term in the widest possible sense – had participated in the gay rights movement and shared in its conquests: recognition of their condition as fellow human beings, the pushing back of anti-gay violence of which they had been a particular target, a reduction in prejudice and discrimination – although none of these problems had been eliminated, of course. Is the current ‘transgender activism’ and its demand for recognition that ‘trans women are women’ simply the next logical stage of what began as the fight for gay rights?
I believe that the answer to that question is No. But in order to understand why, we need to look a little more closely at the concepts of sex and gender.
Biological sex is an objective fact that one would think few would dispute. Human babies, almost without exception, are born with either male or female sex organs, and that fact, the child’s sex, is recorded on their birth certificate.
The word gender is more problematic, because it is used in several different ways in this context, and the different uses often get mixed together, making for a very confused discussion. In the first place, gender is often used more or less interchangeably with the word sex, to refer to biological sex characteristics. It is also used to refer specifically to non-biological matters, namely, the particular social roles attached to the two sexes by society. Increasingly, gender is also used to refer to an individual’s feeling of identity as male or female, which in the case of transgender people may be different from their biological sex. Some claim that this ‘gender identity’ is genetically determined, yet separate from biological sex – a claim without a shred of scientific evidence to support it.
It was recently reported widely that a Canadian couple obtained a birth certificate for their baby named Searyl that didn’t specify the baby’s gender.
According to a news report on CNN, “Parent Kori Doty wants to avoid assigning gender to the child. Doty identifies as non-binary trans: … non-binary is a term to describe people whose gender identity falls outside the categories of man and woman. Trans, short for transgender, describes people whose gender identity doesn’t match the sex or gender they were assigned at birth.
“It is up to Searyl to decide how they identify, when they are old enough to develop their own gender identity,” Doty said in the statement. “I am not going to foreclose their choices based on an arbitrary assignment of gender at birth based on an inspection of their genitals.”
This is about as fine an example as one could find of the confusion between sex and gender that is introduced when gender is defined by an individual’s identity. It is not a baby’s gender that is specified on their birth certificate, but rather its sex, and sex is not ‘assigned,’ but is a simple biological fact. (The only exception to this is the very tiny number of intersex babies, who are born with partially developed organs of both sexes, and for whom a sex is actually assigned by medical decision.)
Interestingly in the Canadian case, a lawyer argued in favour of registering the sex as ‘undetermined’ on the basis that “race is no longer recorded on birth certificates or other identification because it’s personal information and gender should be treated the same way. “One’s sex, one’s gender identity is as personal a piece of information as how you identify your race and it shouldn’t be on ID documents,” said [Vancouver-based lawyer barbara findlay, who advocates for gender-free identification.]”
The comparison with race helps to explain where this thinking comes from, and why talk about ‘non-binary’ gender becomes hopelessly muddled.
One of the consequences of the anti-racist struggles was the questioning of the scientific validity of the whole concept of race, which had formed a pillar of scientific thinking in biology and anthropology. In books that were still in use in schools in the 1970s, the races were named Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid, Australoid, and so on, and were often placed in a series from the most primitive to most advanced. This fallacy provided scientific cover for theories of racial inferiority and justifications for the crimes of colonialism. Under the impact of anti-racist struggles, a new scientific consensus was reached that not only is the idea of racial inferiority false, but the whole idea of distinct races was also a fallacy. There is, in fact, a continuum of genetic variation among human beings, and the categorisation into distinct races had absolutely no objective biological or other basis in nature. Race was a human construct, with no function other than the justification of racist theory.
Could the same thing not be true of gender, and the division of human beings into the binary categories of male and female? Could gender also be a human construct?
As with variation in ‘racial’ features, I think it is reasonable to argue that there is a continuum of variation between the sexes. Apart from the obvious fact of having a penis or a vagina, there are (after puberty) secondary sex characteristics such as body shape and hair and hormones, which are typical of one or the other sex, but may be present in varying degrees in people of both sexes. At least in respect to the secondary sex characteristics, the continuum of variation between the sexes exists.
But this does not negate the fact of the division of humankind into two, and only two, distinct sexes.
How can a continuum of variation be compatible with two distinct categories? Consider this analogous situation: As with most species, human beings have juvenile and adult forms. In human beings there is a continuum of change from juvenile to adult, and it is impossible to determine the exact moment at which the child becomes adult. Furthermore, the categories of juvenile and adult can be broken down further into embryo, foetus, infant, child, adolescent, youth, maturity, and senility. Does all this negate the reality of the juvenile/adult stages of development? Absolutely not: the distinction remains that juveniles are unable to reproduce until they become adults. This is an objective difference which is totally independent of any human thinking about the question; an example in nature of quantity passing into quality.
In the case of race, there is no objective difference of function between the different ‘races’. This is demonstrably not true in the case of sex, because of the different function of the two sexes in reproduction. Those who ‘reject the binary’ and replace it with an ever-expanding list of categories and ‘identities’ (which further confuse matters by mixing up sex and sexuality) are engaging in unscientific fantasies.
I doubt that many people take such unscientific claptrap seriously. But a large number passively accept the idea of gender as identity, and it informs public policy in an increasing number of ways. For example, in most provinces of Canada there is no longer an requirement for people to have had gender reassignment surgery in order to change their legal sex designation; Denmark and Argentina have made a similar change. Ontario is likely to issue ‘gender-neutral’ birth certificates by 2018. A government committee has recently recommended a change along similar lines in New Zealand.
What harm is there in this, beyond a lot of muddled thinking? A great deal of harm, in fact: this particular form of identity politics sets itself squarely against some of the key conquests of the women’s movement and its strengthening of the working class.
One of the first widely-debated examples of this was when US President Barack Obama issued a presidential directive mandating that transgender students in government schools be permitted to use whatever bathroom they choose. According to a detailed report in Politico magazine, the directive “emphasized that a student’s gender identity will be considered that student’s sex when it comes to enforcing federal law.” The Obama administration presented this directive as a major civil rights accomplishment: Attorney General Loretta Lynch compared laws that required students to use bathrooms according to the sex recorded on their official records to the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South (before they were overthrown by the Civil Rights movement.)
This comparison is utterly false. The Jim Crow laws were an instrument of oppression, but laws requiring separate bathrooms for the two sexes oppressed no one. On the contrary, they were in part a conquest of the fight for women’s rights.
In the industrial cities of nineteenth-century England, for example, there were no toilets for women in public spaces, severely limiting the ability of women to participate in public life. Sheila Jeffreys has written (here) that the Ladies Sanitary Association campaigned for them from the 1850s onwards. There was a similar campaign in Melbourne, Australia. The fight for women-only bathrooms in public spaces is still being waged in India in the present day. The lack of female-only toilets in schools is a particular focus of campaigns in India by organisations such as Child Rights and You (CRY), which argue that this is an important reason that girls drop out of school.
In the 1970s and later, women waged a fight by to force their way into jobs and occupations that had previously been the exclusive preserve of men: the more skilled, higher-paid jobs in industry in particular. This fight was not just a matter of women proving that they were capable of doing these jobs and getting hired, it was also a fight against sexist violence and sexual harassment on the job, which of course did not vanish when the first women were hired. The fight to force employers to provide private bathroom facilities for the use of those women was one important aspect of this. All of these struggles were part of the fight for equal status of women workers in the unions of workers.
When women conquered the right to become coalminers, mutton butchers, firefighters, jockeys and so on, it immensely strengthened the bonds of solidarity between male and female workers, and rendered ineffective one of the favourite weapons the bosses had previously been able to use against striking workers – the pressure of male workers’ non-working partners to break a strike.
Obama’s ‘bathroom letter’ undermines the right of women workers and students to privacy, insofar as it permits people who are anatomically male entry to bathroom facilities that are private to women, under the banner “Trans women are women” – in other words, simply on their claim that they identify as a woman. (At least some women’s toilets have had urinals installed as this policy gets implemented – see this video).
Women who object to this are not bigots, nor are they motivated by hostility to transgender people. They are simply defending one of the gains of past struggles. Where transgender people have reason to fear sexual assault when using male bathrooms – and this is not necessarily an unreasonable fear – separate facilities should be provided for them. This should not be at the expense of women’s right to privacy and women-only spaces. The greater unity of the working class won through women’s struggles in an earlier time is at stake.
Working people should unequivocally oppose sexual violence and discrimination against people who describe themselves as transgender. I believe any adult should have the right to choose for himself or herself whatever name and pronouns they prefer. (Whether they can reasonably expect everyone else to conform to their pronoun preferences is another matter). They should have the right to whatever hormone treatments or gender reassignment surgery they consider necessary, as part of the public health system. Transgender individuals should have the right to serve in imperialist military forces without discrimination.
However, to reduce the question to these terms narrows the concept of a ‘right’ to a point where it becomes almost meaningless. For example, far more fundamental than the right to serve in the US military, for example, is the right not to serve. The real fight is to overthrow the warmakers and dismantle the imperialist war machine altogether.
Consider another analogy: I support the right of homeless people to sleep on the streets. In a time when homeless people seeking a little shelter in shop doorways are confronted with pavement spikes, barbaric sprinkler systems and the like, this is a right that needs to be defended. However, in defending this right, one can hardly forget that there is a far more important right, which is the right not to sleep on the streets. The real fight is to get rid of the social conditions which compel people to sleep on the streets.
Among advocates of transgender rights and the institutional policy-makers, this most important aspect is often overlooked, ignored, or denied.
The drive towards expanding access to hormone treatments and gender reassignment surgery is essentially an attempt to find medical solutions to problems that are not medical in nature. Gender is not a biological or medical question, nor is it a matter of an individual’s identity. Gender is the set of roles imposed on the two sexes by society, through which women are subjugated.
The women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s fought against the narrowly constrained gender roles imposed on women by a sexist society. Under the slogan ‘women can do anything’, taboos on women doing ‘men’s jobs,’ playing physical sports, taking leadership roles, actively enjoying sex, loving other women, and many others, were broken down. (It was the reaction against women that falsely characterised this as ‘wanting to be a man.’) The women’s movement also fought against the psychology of self-loathing that was an essential part of the subjugation of women.
Now, it seems, those things are to be normalised, not fought. Social pressures are transformed into questions of individual identity. If a person feels uncomfortable with the social and sexual expectations placed on them, the problem is assumed to lie with their bodies, not with the social pressures, and hormonal and surgical solutions are offered. As far as I can tell, this is the official policy of the Auckland District Health Board, for example.
The most alarming manifestations of this are in respect of children. Pre-pubertal children who are gender-dysphoric (feel themselves to be of a different gender than their natal sex) are being offered puberty-blocking drugs which have serious side-effects and will eventually sterilise them. (The main drug, Lupron, is a prostate-cancer drug, used off-label, and its long-term effects are largely unknown.) Rainbow Youth Aotearoa, a New Zealand organisation claiming to advocate for queer and gender diverse youth, promotes breast binders, which have crippling effects that include compression of the spine, compressed and broken ribs, build-up of fluid in the lungs, and damaged breast tissue.
All this is despite the fact that statistically the most common outcome for such children is that they grow out of their gender dysphoria at puberty and become gay or lesbian adults.
It is almost as if we have come full circle, and are now back in the 1950s, when non-conforming women were given prescription tranquilisers, and homosexual men were offered aversion therapy and chemical castration to ‘cure’ them of ‘their problem.’
The principal critics of these developments have been feminists who have remained loyal to the traditions of their movement and defend its conquests. For raising questions and insisting on a discussion about these issues, they have found themselves isolated, bullied, silenced by censorship and no-platformed, abused and threatened on-line, subjected to witch-hunts that seek to deny them employment or access to research institutions, hounded out of organisations they founded and supported for years, slandered as being ‘worse than a serial rapist,’ and had packages of faeces mailed to them.
(For a particularly vindictive example of this kind of thing, see the pact signed by 120 people to silence feminist Renee Gerlich – a private citizen with no special access to news media – as well as Renee’s accounts of similar persecutions of others.) A special term of abuse has been invented for this purpose: TERF – short for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. The sexist character of this abuse is unmistakable.
The anonymous on-line abuse and threats are not the worst of it. ‘Respectable’ publications, media, human rights organisations and others are complicit in the censorship and no-platforming. When high school teacher Tim Leadbeater, who is a member of the teachers’ union, the Post-Primary Teachers Association (PPTA), took issue with an article in the PPTA magazine and raised some questions about whether the article was consistent with PPTA policy, his concerns were dismissed on spurious grounds, and the magazine refused to publish his letter. (Read the full story here).
I first read this article in the Militant newspaper on Obama’s ‘bathroom letter’ over a year ago. It asserts, among other things, that “imposing broad social policy changes through executive decree is an obstacle to the discussion and debate needed to forge working-class unity” and when I read it, this assertion seemed an exaggeration. Now, it appears to me to be a massive understatement. The discussion and debate is being most forcefully shut down before it has even begun.
This is a vitally necessary discussion, both for women and for the working class, in their intertwined fight for emancipation. The feminists who are raising these questions deserve the solidarity and support of working people everywhere. This is the place to begin.