“Trans women are women” – Identity politics takes aim at women’s emancipation

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.

Abortion rights protest in New Zealand 1973

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.

“Women are enslaved by beauty standards”. 1968 protest

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.

Gay Liberation protest in New Zealand in 1973

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.

19th-century illustration of the ‘races of man’

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. 

‘Rejection of the gender binary’ leads to ridiculous anti-scientific nonsense.

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.)

Former US Attorney General Loretta Lynch falsely compared separate bathroom laws to Jim Crow segregation

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.

Unions were immeasurably strengthened when women entered jobs that were previously male-only. Freezing workers protest lockout by Talleys, 2012. Photo: ISO

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.

Rainbow Youth promotes breastbinders

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.’

Abuse and threats directed at those who question the liberal orthodoxy on ‘transgender rights.’

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.

Threatening comment left on Renee Gerlich’s blog. The discussion is being shut down before it has begun.

(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.


17 responses to ““Trans women are women” – Identity politics takes aim at women’s emancipation

  1. James,
    Thanks again for some very thoughtful and well reasoned writing. Whether I agree with all of your conclusions is separate matter. I confess I am still thinking about many of the issues you raise. But allow me to pose a question that may help clarify further discussion. (And at the end I will “sneak in” a comment.)

    First, I found this definition in Merriam Webster’s On Line Dictionary. Perhaps you have a more thorough definition from another source:

    variables included age, income, and gender: sex.
    gender, sex
    The word gender has been used since the 14th century as a grammatical term, referring to classes of noun designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter in some languages. The sense ‘the state of being male or female’ has also been used since the 14th century, but this did not become common until the mid 20th century. Although the words gender and sex both have the sense ‘the state of being male or female,’ they are typically used in slightly different ways: sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender refers to cultural or social ones.
    Moving to my question, you write:
    “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…”

    So far so good, from my point of view. However later you write:

    “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?”

    Your answer is qualified in a number of ways — which is of course reasonable — but seems to arrive at this conclusion:

    “But this does not negate the fact of the division of humankind into two, and only two, distinct sexes.”

    Does your answer not serve to replicate the confusion between “sex” (a biological fact in most cases) and “gender” as explained in Merriam Webster’s, “while gender refers to cultural or social ones”?

    Finally, whatever conclusions humanity, scientific and social inquiry come to regarding the relationship between sex and gender, I would be very careful of sweeping generalizations such as this one that you say you agree with in the Militant:

    “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.”

    The increasing use of “executive decree” and executive authority in the larger political sense has been noted by the communist movement for decades since WWII (at least). The growing tendency towards the “strong state,” forms of Bonapartism, etc. In that sense Obama’s use of executive decrees was not something particularly new or different from other U.S. presidents.

    But I would remind you that the U.S. armed forces was desegregated by executive decree. (Unlike school desegregation which was announced by Supreme Court order. (Though not enforced and indeed resisted for many years.) We might ask ourselves what are the differences between executive decree and what some would (and did) call “judicial decree.”

    I would ask you (and the Militant if anyone from the paper were willing to participate in this discussion) whether in 1948, the very same year that one of the two U.S. bourgeois parties split wide open and ran opposing candidates in that year’s presidential election, over precisely the issue of desegregation (and other aspects of anti-Black discrimination), the U.S. working class had the kind of working class unity forged, in the way the the Militant suggests is required, before such steps can be supported.

    I would pose the identical question to you with regard to the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Brown v. Board of Education” decision in 1954. The racist mobs in the south who resisted many efforts in implement Brown — and later racist mobs in the north as well, for example in Chicago when Dr. King and others led the “Open Housing” marches in 1966 — were not evidence of broad working class unity. Quite the contrary. Of course workers with white skin were by no means unanimous in opposing desegregation. I am not suggesting otherwise.

    To the best of my knowledge U.S. communists supported both the Brown v Bd of Ed decision as well as Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces. The degree of support for these steps in the working class (which in this case meant among workers who were NOT Black as these steps were overwhelmingly popular within the Black nationality) was not a factor, to my knowledge. Nor should it have been.

  2. Thanks for your comment Geoff1954.
    On the question of the confusion of sex and gender: perhaps my answer does perpetuate the confusion, and in light of your comments I will try to think of a way of re-wording the point to make it less so. It is extremely difficult to avoid the confusion altogether, however, and I concede in advance that there may not be any such suitable re-wording. This is because of the confusion necessarily introduced (intentionally or otherwise) by acceptance of the idea of ‘gender identity’. If I had posed the question as “could sex also be a human construct?” the answer would be: Of course not! Who ever said that it was?

    The advocates of ‘gender as identity’ USE the word gender, and MEAN by it a mishmash of sex and gender in the non-biological sense, but when they talk about ‘rejecting the gender binary’, they clearly mean the sex binary and advance arguments related to biology. It was the biological arguments I was addressing, but they come bearing the name gender. This confusion of language is very widespread, and is not easily or quickly undone. If everyone agreed to use ‘sex’ for the biological difference and ‘gender’ for the social roles attached to the sexes, the argument would already be 90% won.

    I have run out of time to address your point about executive decrees, but will come back to it later.

    • Geoff, on the question of presidential decrees, I accept your point. The statement as it exists is too sweeping in its scope. I would go further and say that whenever the ruling class makes a progressive reform (such as desegregating the army was) they do it precisely in order to pre-empt and forestall any further discussion and (even more important) struggle around that issue. Always. Whether in any particular instance they will be successful in heading off such discussions and struggles is something that only time can tell. In retrospect it is easy to see that the desegregation reforms – both army and education – were too little too late, and too poorly enacted, to forestall the mighty civil rights movement.
      But with another ‘pre-emptive’ progressive reform, Roe vs Wade, hindsight tells us that possibly they were more successful in pre-empting struggles that might have won abortion rights more securely. (Not that this means it was wrong to support the reform). In New Zealand, interestingly, the opposite thing occurred: the ruling class fought tooth and nail to ram through even tighter anti-abortion laws in the 1970s, succeeded in getting the law they wanted… but despite that, the struggles in the street against this law won improved access to abortion in fact. It’s a highly contradictory and inherently unstable state of affairs, and yet it can be said with certainty that access to abortion has not been eroded in this country to anything like the extent it has in the US over the past 30 years. (I wrote about it in an earlier blog).
      Anyway, my enthusiasm to endorse the sweeping statement flowed from my conviction that at least in the case of the bathroom letter, the practice of politics by presidential decree has greatly worsened a bad situation – and I remain convinced of that. (And in this case, it is not even a progressive reform.)

  3. “If everyone agreed to use ‘sex’ for the biological difference and ‘gender’ for the social roles attached to the sexes, the argument would already be 90% won.”

    I think that’s true. But I agree with you, the language itself is difficult to untangle. Leaving a conscious effort to confuse things aside, some of the confusion is inherent in what is being discussed.

    I will pose one other question for you. A child who is clearly a member of one sex, is not sure they they really “identify” as that sex. They are too young — generally speaking — to make any definitive medical decisions with regard to what is called (confusingly, I agree) “gender reassignment surgery,” hormone treatment, etc.

    The child reaches an age (I don’t pretend to know what age that is, as a generalization) where the child decides to shape their appearance to conform to the identity the child feels most comfortable with. (Let’s also stipulate that many such children prefer to dress in a way that doesn’t really “identify” them as one sex or the other.) As I understand your point, there should be separate bathroom facilities for such children in schools and other public locations. But the fact is there often are not. So are you suggesting that a 12 year-old born as a boy, who wears a dress must continue to use the boy’s bathroom?

    There are potential problems for all the children involved, either way it seems to me.

    One other issue with the criticism of the U.S. executive order is that for all intents and purposes many people chose the public bathroom they feel most comfortable using in any event, and have for some time. Often this passes with no incident whatsoever. If the opposite of the executive order is actively maintained as law, how do you suggest it be enforced?

    • “As I understand your point, there should be separate bathroom facilities for such children in schools and other public locations. But the fact is there often are not. So are you suggesting that a 12 year-old born as a boy, who wears a dress must continue to use the boy’s bathroom?”

      I am not convinced that this problem actually exists in real life, especially with your second stipulation of ‘many such children’. The numbers are quite small. If “there often are not [separate bathroom facilities]” then such facilities should be built, wherever there is a demand for them.

      Not so many years ago, disabled people demanded the right to fully participate in public life including education, and pointed out that the design of most public buildings and schools prevented access to people in wheelchairs. Once it was accepted that they should have equal right to education, school buildings began to be modified to enable wheelchair access. The problem was not solved instantly, and the solution is still a long way from complete, but obviously it can be done. There is no reason why toilet access for gender-dysphoric children must be solved by demanding that women and girls give up their right to privacy. That is no solution at all.

      How should it be enforced? Firstly, by making it clear to all that if a person with male anatomy enters a female-designated bathroom they are breaking the law and can be arrested and prosecuted. Just like any other law. The rest should follow.

  4. Regarding the question of the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender,’ from what I have read the term ‘gender’ first makes it appearance in English academic writing in the context of medical & psychiatric texts of American doctors “treating” intersex infants. In cases where the sex was ambiguous, surgical procedures would be followed by an encouragement to treat the child in a certain way to encourage a ‘correct’ and corresponding ‘gender identity’. The phrase ‘gender identity’ makes its first appearance in a scholarly psychology paper in the late 1960s. Many of the key feminist texts of the second wave period do not contain a single instance of the phrase ‘gender’ or ‘gender identity’ – rather they use ‘sex roles’ or ‘sex caste’. This of course all changes with the neoliberal turn in the 1980s and the hegemonic status acquired by a certain strand of postmodernism – epitomised by Judith Butler. The 1990s is the period where the phrase ‘transgender’ comes into being, and the associated ideology (‘gender identity’ as an essence, people born in wrong body, normalisation of SRS) has developed since then into something of a monolith. The thing that I think important to realise is that the confusion you point to is very much intentional: people who promote gender identity ideology frequently invoke the impenetrable and (apparently) profound nostrums of academics such as Butler, which blur and conflate sex and gender together in confusing and misleading ways.

  5. James thanks for your responses. Like the article itself I believe they deserve more thought and discussion. For my own part I will restate that I am still thinking about many of these issues. I appreciate the “jump start” you have offered, to think about them more consciously and thoroughly. I am not as prepared to come to conclusions as you are, especially sweeping conclusions. But time and further debate may well prove you right in many ways.

    With respect to your points on the use of executive authority by the capitalist state, and major reforms in capitalist society promulgated through that means, as well as others, again I would be careful about conclusions that are too sweeping:

    “I would go further and say that whenever the ruling class makes a progressive reform (such as desegregating the army was) they do it precisely in order to pre-empt and forestall any further discussion and (even more important) struggle around that issue. Always.”

    This could lead us into the outcome of America’s Second Revolution, the Civil War, which was immediately followed by what are known as the “Reconstruction Amendments” to the U.S. constitution. Which in turn would lead us to the entire history of Radical Reconstruction and its bloody overthrow. Followed in turn by new forms of racist discrimination, Jim Crow and more. Then further struggle, over a more extended period of time than is often appreciated. (Though without question there were periods characterized primarily by reaction and others characterized by greater struggle and, ultimately progress.)

    Such a discussion goes beyond what I’m prepared to contribute to, at least today. I will only say that the defeat of Radical Reconstruction has more complex factors behind it than the effort by the ruling class, “to pre-empt and forestall any further discussion and…struggle around that issue.” Its defeat I believe, cannot be summarized as neatly as your statement suggests. Further examination may show that other elements of history do not fit so neatly into that construct either.

    For example is the primary factor in the evolution of access to abortion rights in the U.S. a “premature” Supreme Court decision (as it seems the Militant now suggests) or the failure of the fight for women’s rights — which as you noted actually exploded in the years after Roe v. Wade — to prioritize defending this right and fight to defend it with the means and methods that could have made that right more secure? Is that outcome not in fact, as you suggest, more a consequence of the lengthy (and I agree unprecedented) retreat of the working class and the U.S. labor movement, than a “premature” court decision?

    This poses the broader question about how working people fight to extend and deepen reforms that are forced out of the ruling class, the role of working class leadership, etc., etc. etc. My point is that in evaluating what has happened in the class struggle, looking at what the ruling class is attempting or hoping to do, is only part of the picture. Moreover the rulers do not always act with unanimity, which often provides opportunities to working class leadership with a revolutionary — rather than a reformist — outlook. Again a discussion that takes up more concretely, various chapters of history would get into these issues in more detail.

    Finally, just one thought in response to your reply regarding bathroom access. You are certainly right to question my use of the term “many children.” I should take my own advice and edit any comment I make, to remove adjectives that are too sweeping or inaccurate in other ways.

    But there is a broader political problem I’m not certain you have fully considered. It is related to the demands by some on the “left” that the capitalist state (or individual employers) restrict democratic rights of those with reactionary views. It is one thing when we demand — as the Civil Rights struggle did — an expansion of democratic rights. Proposals that the capitalist state enforce all of its laws more harshly are far more problematic.

    As one example it is one thing to insist that every charge of rape, sexual violence or harassment be taken seriously, fully investigated and that the woman making the charge not be treated as a potential “criminal.” It is another thing to say the simple solution to these crimes is, “they are breaking the law and can be arrested and prosecuted. Just like any other law. The rest should follow.” I need not remind you this is exactly what the State of Alabama said it was doing in the case of the “Scottsboro Boys,” to name one well known case.

    Please. I am NOT attempting to draw an equivalency between the issues raised in your post and either racism or the oppression of women, both of which have enormous social weight in the revolutions that are needed to advance the rights of the vast majority of humanity. I am only suggesting again, that perhaps a little more thought be given before arriving at sweeping conclusions that may be a bit too “neat and simple.”

    With respect to your point that those “breaking the law” regarding bathroom access, “can be arrested and prosecuted. Just like any other law,” keep in mind the specific concern I raised with you involves school children. I’m quite certain you are not advocating arresting and prosecuting 12 year olds as a general rule.

    In Cuba Mariela Castro has led a great deal of work involving some of the political questions your original post took up. I am curious what if any conclusions have been drawn from that experience. I am also quite sure that the conclusions drawn by those who have devoted the most time to dealing with these issues, may not yet be the same as those drawn either by the general population, or even by other members of the Cuban Communist Party.

    What I am saying is I hope to learn more and I welcome more discussion. So again I appreciate your efforts to encourage that my sharing your own opinions.

    • I really need to get my tendency to make sweeping statements under control! Once again, you are quite correct in pointing out that my statement about progressive reforms by the rulers was too general. I should limit that to the epoch of imperialism, from about the beginning of the twentieth century, when the bourgeoisie in the developed world had exhausted its progressive role. Clearly matters were quite different earlier, when the bourgeoisie was still capable of revolutionary acts, and Radical Reconstruction was the last gasp of the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class in the US.

      Not sure I get your point about Roe vs Wade. We got the court decision when we did – that much was beyond our control. We supported it, we fought to extend it and make it real. Has the erosion of abortion rights in the US since then been primarily due to the failure of the major women’s organisations to prioritise the fight to defend those rights? Certainly. But you don’t comment on my counter-example in New Zealand. I assure you that in this country, active defence of abortion clinics when they came under rightist attack has been left up to small numbers of people, probably smaller proportionally than the significant mobilisations in the US after Witchita, for example. In other words, the leadership default was just as great here. And yet, access to abortion has not been driven back here as drastically as in the US. I think an explanation of that fact could reasonably include the pre-emptive effect of Roe vs Wade, in contrast to the fight-to-the-end strategy that the NZ rulers adopted, at great cost to themselves, and the resulting balance of forces in the outcome.

      I don’t know where you get the idea that I am calling for (or even implying) “the capitalist state to enforce all its laws more harshly.” I am demanding that the laws protecting women’s privacy be enforced. The fact that rape laws can and have been used to frame up innocent people (like the Scottsboro boys) does not mean we should cease to demand that rape laws be enforced.

      And finally – yes, it would be great to hear Mariela Castro’s views on these questions. If you know of some good materials online, I would be very happy if you could add a link to them.

      • James, you ask me what my point is re: Roe v. Wade and my answer is, “What was yours?” What lesson are you trying to draw? That’s it’s preferable when the ruling class fights every reform to the bitter end? The ruling class does not ask the workers movement its opinion about how it should oppose immediate and democratic demands that we raise. So I am sort of lost here.

        It is not clear to me if you are trying to support the relatively recent stance the Militant has taken towards Roe v. Wade and I further confess that I don’t fully grasp what the Militant’s point is either.

        It is no secret — and never has been — that legally speaking, Roe v. Wade rests on the right to privacy. The Militant has explained that over and over again for 40+ years. Would it have been politically stronger if the court had ruled more clearly in favor of the unambiguous woman’s right to control her own body? Of course. That is also not news. More recently the Militant seems to want to approach the history differently. But what point it — and you — are getting at is quite unclear, at least to me.

        You say, “I don’t know here you get the idea that am calling for (or even implying) ‘the capitalist state state to enforce all its laws more harshly.”

        I did not say you are calling for that. I specifically noted that I was sure you were not calling for that with respect to children (and here I include young teenagers up to an age I’m honestly not prepared to specify) who use bathrooms that do not correspond to their sex. I simply pointed out to you that the alternative you offered to the Obama executive decision is not free from dangers.

        Again, to review, you wrote:

        “How should it be enforced? Firstly, by making it clear to all that if a person with male anatomy enters a female-designated bathroom they are breaking the law and can be arrested and prosecuted. Just like any other law. The rest should follow.”

        I’m not at all sure it will be that simple in real life.

        Unfortunately it seems to me a only a relative handful of articles on the work Mariela Castro is leading in Cuba appear in English. (For whatever reason, the Militant which was long a source for a wide variety of information on Cuba, does not seem to report on her work frequently, if at all.) When I see something I almost always share it on Facebook.

  6. It seems we have more or less reached an impasse in this discussion, Geoff, but I will make one more attempt to clarify my position regarding Roe vs Wade. (I’m only vaguely aware of recent discussion in the Militant on this question, so I’m not sure if my position is the same as theirs). My point related to progressive reforms implemented by the capitalist rulers. I was trying to explain that (at least in the imperialist epoch) they make such reforms with an eye to mass struggles and mass pressure. Their aim is always to defuse and derail mass struggles and the political discussions associated with them. Often they resist the mass pressure as long as they can, and concede a reform only when they are unable to head off the pressure by any other means. More rarely, they can make a reform pre-emptively, in an effort to defuse discussion and struggle before it really begins, just as engineers will discharge water from a dam that is threatening to burst, in order to save the dam. Whether their choice of one course or the other is ultimately better from the point of view of the working class is not a question we need concern ourselves with very much at the time of the reform, because that is a tactical decision on their part, and not something we have any influence over anyway. We take the situation as we find it, grab hold of any reform they concede for whatever reason, take advantage of any splits in their ranks, and try to advance the interests of the working class further. It can, however, be useful to note situations where they have successfully pre-empted and curtailed struggles in the past, in order to get a better sense of the starting point of future struggles. In the US, where the second wave of feminism went deeper than anywhere in the world, and yet where the right to abortion, one of its central conquests, has been more severely eroded than in most other countries where it was won during this period, it seems reasonable to believe that the largely pre-emptive Roe vs Wade decision had something to do with that situation.

    • James, if we are not at an “impasse,” we are at a logical stopping point in this discussion — for now. (I hesitate to use the word “impasse,” which Merriam Websters defines this way: “a situation in which no progress is possible, especially because of disagreement; a deadlock.” Because in fact I think each of us has conceded some points to the other and I assume that you, like me, are still open to further discussion. If not right now.)

      So I’ll just close with this. Your wrote:

      “In the US, where the second wave of feminism went deeper than anywhere in the world, and yet where the right to abortion, one of its central conquests, has been more severely eroded than in most other countries where it was won during this period, it seems reasonable to believe that the largely pre-emptive Roe vs Wade decision had something to do with that situation.”

      I won’t quarrel with the idea that ruling class “pre-emption” may have “had something to do” with what we are discussing. Whether that conclusion really leads us anywhere politically is another matter.

      And I will add this. Other factors that are related to U.S. politics may have played an equal if not greater role. The biggest single tool in the rulers’ box of “pre-emptive” tools, has been the “two party system” and lesser evilism. Without developing that thought at any length now, let me just suggest that may have been an equal or larger factor.

  7. I have been following the exchange of comments with interest although feeling a little taxed as I have only a little understanding of Marxian theories. It did strike me though, that this exchange manifested (for me) an analytical focus on sex-class normally accorded to economic class. Ever since I read Heather Brown’s book on the writings of the early Marx, where he comes as close as damn it to a radical feminism, I have wondered if Marx would have come up with a sex-class theory too had he not subsequently focused attention on economic class. Is there a publication (or paper) on something like a theory of sex-class (I suppose one could extend the class analogue to race class as well)?

    • Two writings by Marxist feminists come to mind in response to your question: the first is a pamphlet by Mary-Alice Waters with the long title “Feminism and the Marxist Movement – how winning the liberation of women is inseparably linked to the struggle of the working class to transform all economic and social relations.” The second is a collection of six essays by Evelyn Reed called Problems of Women’s Liberation. This one is at least 40 years old, but I loved it when I first read it many years ago and still find it useful to refer back to from time to time. Both are available from Pathfinder Press at the link below.

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