Marxism, feminism and transgender politics

Issue: 157

Sue Caldwell

In August 2017 Donald Trump tweeted that transgender people1 were no longer welcome in the military because they are a “burden” due to “tremendous medical costs and disruption”.2 This was the latest in a series of attacks on transgender people which include attempts to overturn legislation that allows people to use the toilet for their preferred gender.

Transgender people face the threat of violent attack; 2017 is on course to see the highest recorded number of killings of transgender people in the United States.3 In the UK transphobic hate crime has tripled in the last five years, while prosecution rates have dropped and transgender people report lack of trust in the police. More than a third of transgender employees say they had to leave their job due to discrimination in 2016.4 A survey released by Stonewall reports that eight out of ten trans school and college pupils had self-harmed and 45 percent had tried to take their own lives.5

At the same time there has been a significant rise in the visibility of trans people in popular culture such as the singer Miley Cyrus who identifies as gender neutral. The recent British Social Attitudes survey reveals a high level of acceptance of transgender people, although that level dropped when respondents were asked if it would be acceptable for them to be teachers or police officers.6 In this context increasing numbers of people are asserting their right to live as their chosen gender, sometimes by starting the process of transitioning from male to female or vice-versa or by adopting non-binary or gender neutral pronouns.

The fight for trans rights has been called “America’s next civil rights frontier” by Time magazine. In the UK the fight has focused around the bureaucratic and medicalised process that people have to go through in order to have their gender officially recognised. The government is conducting a consultation on changing the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to allow trans people to self-define and thus make it easier for them to change their birth certificate. Jeremy Corbyn announced his support for the change, but some people have derided it. Echoing some early arguments against lesbian and gay rights, they mock “trangenderism” and dismiss it as a lifestyle choice. Brendan O’Neill, writing in Spiked magazine, says: “So any bloke could self-identify as a woman, apply for the legal right to be recognised as a woman, and—boom—he’s a woman. Sorry, she’s a woman.” He goes on to helpfully inform us that “womanhood is not a pose one strikes in front of the mirror”.7

Trans women in particular are regularly presented as posers, predators and threats to women and children in the right wing press or transphobic websites such as Transgender Trend. And in 2013 trans teacher Lucy Meadows committed suicide after being hounded by Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn. Many of these attacks, with their claims that young children are being brainwashed and need protecting, are reminiscent of the hated Section 28, a piece of anti-LGBT legislation from the Margaret Thatcher era. It is perhaps to be expected that right wing tabloids will oppose trans rights. What is making this particular discussion difficult is the fact that some feminists, including active socialists who would despise the actions of Littlejohn, are also opposing the GRA proposals.

Trans rights may be the new civil rights frontier but the movement for black civil rights has not been won, neither has women’s equality or the right to love freely regardless of sexuality. This reality has contributed to the complexity of the discussions around trans rights, with some feminists in particular seeing trans rights as a threat to their hard-won gains.

For some feminists the very existence of trans people (male to female in particular) is problematic. These feminists are often labelled TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). As these criticisms cover a wide range of views, I prefer to use the term “trans-critical feminist”. There are also many feminists who fully support trans rights including self-identification.

Just a few years ago to talk about gender politics would have meant talking about women’s oppression. To a lot of young people nowadays it means fighting for the acceptance of a range of gender identities. It would be reasonable to think that feminists who fight against gender-based oppression would support these emerging expressions of diversity, but this is not always the case and this has led to some vitriolic exchanges on social media. The National Education Union (NUT Section) has been the unfortunate site for some of these exchanges which became particularly bitter throughout the summer and autumn of 2017. Juno Roche, a trans woman who won the Blair Peach Award for her work on equalities, threatened to return her award in protest at trans-critical comments from the union’s vice president, herself a long-standing feminist activist.

This article is an attempt to open up a discussion about gender that seeks common ground between the struggles for women’s and trans liberation and the fight for socialism.

The family, women’s oppression and gender stereotyping

In his classic work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels outlines the way in which, over a very long period of time, what were essentially egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies became societies divided not just into a hierarchy of classes but also based around a family structure within which women were subordinate. Crucially Engels saw this process not as inevitable or predetermined but as a result of the changes in the forces of production and their impact on the different roles played by (most) men and women in productive and reproductive processes. Whereas women had played a key role as producers and decision-makers in the small wandering bands and early horticultural societies that had previously existed (representing around 90 percent of human history to date), their role as reproducers now excluded them from the heavier productive roles of settled agricultural production. This form of production also meant that a subsistence level of existence was replaced by one in which there was a surplus, and gradually this surplus became concentrated in the hands of a minority of men.

Chris Harman describes the relation between biological and social factors thus:

An interaction between biological imperatives and social needs underlies such changes in the division of labour. The human species has to reproduce itself if any society is going to survive. But the scale of its reproduction—how many children are needed from each adult woman—varies enormously… For agricultural societies, each child is, potentially, an extra cultivator, and there is the need to compensate for a higher death rate, the result of a greater vulnerability to infectious diseases, and the ravages of interminable wars… It is in the interests of the whole society (including its women) for women not to take part in activities (such as warfare, long distance travel and heavy agricultural tasks) which expose them to the greatest risks.

He goes on to describe the link with the development of classes:

Most of the men who carried through the burden of these new productive activities did not become part of the dominant class. Most ploughmen did not become princes and most soldiers did not become warlords, and neither of them made up the priesthood which often came to constitute the first ruling class and which never got involved in heavy work of any sort. But the new forms of production encouraged the breakdown of the old lineage based communal forms of organisation… The rise of classes and the state at the expense of the lineages encouraged male dominance among the lower classes once men were the main producers of the surplus.8

Crucially, the development of the forces and relations of production shaped, and continued to do so in different ways, the impact that biology had on the position of women and the development of women’s oppression. This connection between productive forces and family structure is not mechanical—each new formation builds on what came before and is impacted also by battles between contending classes.

Laura Miles locates the origins of trans oppression in the enforcement of a greater rigidity of gender roles within the emergent nuclear family that arose around the time of another great transformation in productive forces—the industrial revolution.9 Women and children were pulled into the new factories alongside men, working in horrific conditions that resulted in a huge rise in infant mortality. The ruling class needed a reliable supply of future labour power, and some parts of the ruling class saw that this was under threat. As Lindsey German describes it: “It was out of these conditions that the demand for protective legislation and the family wage came. They fitted in with the changing needs of capitalism but were also in part due to the real concerns of working class men and women for better standards of living, safer pregnancies, healthier children and cleaner homes”.10 The working class nuclear family was modelled on the bourgeois family, although the reality for workers was very different. In practice the family wage never materialised and many women continued to work, often from home, on top of their childcare responsibilities and for pitiful wages.

To shore up the new family forms, religious leaders and legislators ensured that men and women knew their place in the family. Sexuality became more strictly regulated; homosexuality and other so-called deviant behaviours were more heavily proscribed. In this context Oscar Wilde was famously prosecuted under the “gross indecency” clause of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act.

Women were presented as weak and emotional carers and men the strong and clever providers. Modern technology, the growth of the mass market and a sophisticated media have transformed those basic roles into the showers of pink and blue foisted on young babies, and the aisles of boys’ and girls’ toys in any department store. These gender stereotypes have remained a powerful force despite the many changes in women’s lives, opportunities and expectations, especially over the last 50 years. They help shape and justify the oppression faced by women and by anyone who might present in a way that challenges the expectations that come with their birth sex. Mothers as well as fathers reinforce these behaviours. In the absence of alternatives, the institution of the nuclear family and the expectations that flow from it appear natural and difficult to challenge.

The roots of women’s and trans oppression are thus inextricably linked, and this should form the basis of united efforts to build a freer society that does not depend on the nuclear family.

Sex, gender and gender identity

The interplay between biology, environment and society runs through many of the debates currently circulating around the question of gender identity.

The formula often used to describe the difference between sex and gender is “Sex is biological and gender is socially constructed”. This differentiation highlights the profound social influences on the accepted norms for masculine and feminine behaviours. However, this formulation rests on a false separation between the biological and the social. Marxist biologists Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin and Leon Kamin argued against this dichotomy over 30 years ago: “The relation between organism and environment is not simply one of interaction of internal and external factors, but a dialectical development of organism and milieu in response to each other… All human phenomena are simultaneously social and biological”.11

While the social construct formulation is often used by feminists, an alternative, “Sex is biological, gender is in the mind”, is sometimes employed by advocates for trans rights but is often misconstrued to imply that trans theorists accept the idea of a male/female brain (some do; some don’t). This allows some feminists, having rightly dismissed the brain sex argument, to dismiss the existence of gender identity altogether.

Arguments against the existence of a male/female brain are well established. Cordelia Fine’s most recent book Testosterone Rex does a superb job of demolishing the biological reductionist myth that male hormones shape male brains and behaviours.12 Daphne Joel and others conclude:

Although there are sex/gender differences in brain structure, brains do not fall into two classes, one typical of males and the other typical of females, nor are they aligned along a “male brain—female brain” continuum…we should shift from thinking of brains as falling into two classes, one typical of males and the other typical of females, to appreciating the variability of the human brain mosaic.13

It is important to note that the word “gender” is being used in different ways. Feminist Deborah Cameron describes one meaning as “a social status imposed on people by virtue of their sex” and the other as “an innate sense of identity linked to a person’s brain”. She goes on to locate this difference as a source of conflict rooted in different conceptual frameworks “[one] ‘gender’ has a biological basis, whereas the defining feature of [the other] is that it doesn’t”.14 Her solution is to try to stop using the word gender. While I share Cameron’s desire to see a world in which gender is not a category of any importance, socialists must intervene in struggles as they concretely present themselves. In the context of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act it is important to recognise that gender identity can exist without equating it to socialised gender norms or to a sexed brain.

Feminist writer Sarah Ditum dismisses as “extraordinary” the claim that there is such a thing as “gender identity, which every individual has, entirely separately from socialised gender roles, which only some people will be conscious of, and of which the individual is the ultimate arbiter”.15 Ditum attempts to paint transgenderism as a sexual fetish, a response to trauma or faulty thinking due to autism. She also includes “a response to homosexuality” as a possible cause, despite the fact that coming out in the UK as a lesbian or gay man carries less stigma than being trans.

Responding to Ditum, transfeminist Sam Hope writes: “Here is a possibility Ditum never discussed. Women and men are not that fundamentally different, although there are all sorts of complex nuances to our neurological, chromosomal, hormonal and social experiences that create variety in how we are embodied and how we experience and interact with the culture around us”.16 In other words, gender identity is not “entirely separate” from socialised gender roles, but neither is it reducible to them.

Brown University Professor Emerita Anne Fausto-Sterling takes what she calls a dynamic systems approach to the question of gender. Echoing Rose, Lewontin and Kamin, she argues: “I believe that sex and gender are in part social constructs. But they take place in the body, and so are simultaneously biological”.17 Much of her work has focused on intersex people, which is not the same as transgender. Intersex conditions can arise from mismatches between chromosomal, gonadal and endocrinal sex-markers and include indeterminate genitalia. For people born with intersex conditions there are clearly both physical and social factors that affect the discussion about what should be on their birth certificate.18 So important is this act of assigning a sex at birth that, particularly in the US, surgeons often brutally intervene to ensure that “Boy” or “Girl” can be written on that certificate.19

For the vast majority of people it is difficult to see the social influence on biological sex. But there is greater variety associated with sex characteristics than can be accommodated by simply looking at genitalia, and the decision to use that method to record sex on a birth certificate and then to insist that such a record defines someone for the rest of their life is certainly contestable.

One complicating factor is that external genitalia are not the only sex characteristics. There are chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics. Do these attributes always tie up neatly into a gender binary? Fine warns against a simplistic approach to the effect of the genetic and hormonal components of sex on the reproductive system, “even that developmental process [has been] described by one expert as a ‘balance’ rather than a binary system”.20 The article Fine refers to includes an account of a 70 year old man, the father of four children, having a routine hernia operation and discovering that he had a womb. Arthur Arnold, who studies sex differences at the University of California, Los Angeles says: “The main problem with a strong dichotomy [between male and female] is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females. And that is often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined in a number of ways”.21

Commenting on how sex should be defined when different characteristics clash, Eric Vilain, director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at UCLA, says: “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter…gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter.” In other words, concludes the author, if you want to know what gender someone is, just ask.22

Most trans-critical feminists would agree that people with intersex conditions should determine their own gender, usually dismissing the figures as being very small. Vilain’s work uses a wider definition of Developmental Sex Disorder, and he gives the figure of 1 in 100 people affected. If autonomy can be granted to these people, why not extend it to the 99 percent whose genitals are more clearly defined?

Marxism does not accept that our biology is our destiny. Historical materialism emphasises the particular historical circumstances in which the oppression of women, and later of trans people, emerged and developed. It allows us to look at the interplay between the biological and the social. The point is not to ask why trans people exist but to defend unconditionally their right to their gender identity.

Whatever the influence of biology on gender identity may be, the social influences are profound. There is an awful lot that kicks into place once boy or girl is written on the birth certificate. As soon as the baby’s sex is known, sometimes even before it is born, the nursery is painted and the clothes bought. Even those parents who try to resist the pink and blue onslaught find their efforts amount to little once their toddler starts to interact meaningfully with society. As Judith Orr asserts: “Research shows that even children as young as three are already responding to pressure to act in gender appropriate ways, and not just from adults, but from other children of their age”.23 This is backed up by recent research in Scientific American which interestingly shows that the gender identities of trans children are as persistent as those of cis children.24

Fausto-Sterling quotes several studies that suggest “quite a number of environmental and cultural variations contribute to small individual differences in gender development. But the hard truth is that there are probably so many contributing streams, and they interact in so many different ways, that we will never have a single story to tell about gender development”.25 She urges more work to be done to “understand what happens when chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal and genital sex disagree with body image and gender identity”. For now it is important to note that such disagreement is a real and established fact, often referred to as gender dysphoria.

Trans activist and biologist Julia Serano uses the phrases “cognitive dissonance” and “intrinsic inclinations” to attempt to describe her gender dysphoria, adding: “I hesitate to define them as purely biological phenomena, as social factors clearly play a role in how each individual interprets these inclinations”.26 Miles makes similar points about the reality of gender identity: “Trans people are highly motivated to resist the gender straitjacket, while gender identity may not be fixed and unchanging, it is deeply rooted in us; otherwise trans people could presumably be socialised out of our gender variant behaviour and identity”.27

Feminists who object to the existence of gender identity, admitting only the social construct meaning of gender, see gender variant behaviour, especially in young children, as simply that—forms of play, etc, that go against stereotypes. Behaviour in young children that challenges gender roles is quite common and all socialists would encourage it. Boys do play with dolls and some girls want to drive trucks. Despite the many societal pressures against them, some will have non-traditional careers and dress and act in non-stereotypical ways. We are familiar with people like Grayson Perry who often appears in public in a dress and make-up, while boxer Nicola Adams has provided young women with an alternative model of femaleness. Socialists support attempts to counter gender stereotypes and actively promote the reality that girls can be assertive and boys can be empathetic and so on. It is completely wrong, however, to imply from this that children who are experiencing distress because of their gender identity are not genuine.

For example, showing great ignorance of the obstacles that young people face in trying to get any kind of help with gender dysphoria, Julie Bindel has written:

If I were a teenager today, well-meaning liberal teachers and social workers would probably tell me that I was trapped in the wrong body. They might refer me to a psychiatrist who would prescribe fistfuls of hormones and other drugs. And terrifyingly, I might easily be recommended for gender reassignment surgery…just because I didn’t like the pink straitjacket imposed on girls.28

In education socialists and feminists have fought together for a progressive curriculum that counters the stereotypical narrative, a tradition that Bindel seems unaware of. Instead she is suggesting that teachers who take children’s gender identities seriously are brainwashing and damaging them. This is the same argument used against “liberal teachers” for allegedly promoting gay lifestyles, which led to the nightmare of Section 28 under Thatcher when lesbian and gay teachers and students lived in constant fear of exposure.

Gender variant behaviour is not the same as transgenderism. There are people for whom adopting non-stereotypical forms of dress or behaviour do not relieve the acute disjuncture they feel. They will try to live as a tomboy, for example, but continue to feel physically and/or psychologically alienated from their bodies and their birth sex. Fausto-Sterling describes the difference between young children who are referred to Gender Identity Clinics (GICs) but go on to live and socialise in harmony with their birth sex as adults, and those who don’t as “desisters” and “persisters” respectively. “Persisters continued through adolescence to have gender dysphoria. The physiological maturation of their bodies caused them great distress.” She notes that while by age six or seven both groups started to identify with their non-natal sex “persisters actually believed themselves to be the other sex” while the desisters only wished they were.29

For those who do persist into adolescence and adulthood, the availability of supportive services to help them to be accepted as who they are remain vital for them to lead happy and healthy lives. Socialists should support the proper funding and full accessibility of these services. We should also support, as a basic democratic right, the demand for people to have autonomy over their bodies and how they are described on official documents.

The Gender Recognition Act and self-identification

In the UK the 2004 GRA granted legal recognition of their preferred gender to trans people. It does not require them to have undergone surgery, but those who have not must have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and must live as their desired gender for two years before being able to change their birth certificate. It has been a source of some distress to trans people that they have to be effectively diagnosed with a medical illness before legally transitioning. As the World Professional Association for Transgender Health state in their guidelines for healthcare professionals, “being transsexual, transgender, or gender non-conforming is a matter of diversity, not pathology”.30

The process of accessing care can be long and stressful: “The agonising wait for a first consultation at a Gender Identity Clinic (after the mandatory psychiatric assessment and referral) can take up to one year, and further delays often occur for hormone treatment and surgery (1-5 years)”.31

Following recommendations from the Women and Equalities Committee, the government is considering proposals to bring the act into line with more recent legislation elsewhere such as the one that has been in existence in Ireland since 2015. Recommendations include allowing for the possibility of a third non-binary gender category, but it is the possibility of trans people being able to change their birth certificate through an act of self-declaration that has caused most debate.32 For example, some feminists claim rather apocalyptically that this will mean the erasure of women from society, or it will become impossible to gather statistics on women. A prominent feminist in the National Union of Teachers wrote in the Morning Star:

The ability to define one’s own “gender” will undermine the legal characteristic of “sex” and could lead to serious implications for women and their ability to fight sex discrimination and oppression. It is also likely to impact on society’s ability to plan for and accommodate the needs of its population and the way it attempts to even out inequality.33

This is rather hard to credit when you look at the figures involved. In the Republic of Ireland self-declaration of gender identity has been part of the gender recognition legislation since 2015. Data released by the government in early 2017 showed that 240 people in a country with a population of around 5 million had been issued with a Gender Recognition Certificate under the procedures.34 We would be living in very interesting times indeed should these figures change to the extent that they have any statistically significant effect on gender inequality data. Many organisations have adapted their equality monitoring forms to accommodate trans people without difficulty.

Statistics can be crucial for planning adequately to allocate resources and monitor inequality. Central records of births, including birth sex, in the UK are already kept. But there is no reason why the birth certificate one carries around should not be a record in keeping with one’s gender identity rather than birth sex. Trans people should not have to effectively “out” themselves when using their birth certificate as a form of identity. To reiterate, trans people in the UK have been changing their birth certificates since 2004. The sky has not fallen in. The proposed change will simply make that process a little easier.

However, hiding behind the objections to self-identification is a more fundamental opposition to the idea that someone previously living as a man can now live as a woman, regardless of the process gone through to get there. For example radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys supports the view of Lord Tebbitt who, when discussing the bill that preceded the 2004 act, said: “There is no law nor any known medical procedure that can change the sex of a human being. The bill…is therefore an objectionable farce”.35

Of course it is true that you can’t change the fact that you were born with a penis or vagina. But as Paddy McQueen writes: “we need to justify why the sex one is assigned at birth should be the final determinant of one’s adult identity, especially when we acknowledge that many other aspects of our identity change over time”.36

The objections of some feminists to trans women centre on who can be accepted into the category “woman”. If you are only prepared to accept people born with vaginas you immediately set up a group that trans women can never get into; the argument becomes tautological. Perhaps we should be thinking a bit wider about what entry into this category might mean, from a political position of offering practical solidarity to trans people. After all, there is plenty of evidence that pre-capitalist societies accepted people born male or female to be brought up and live as the opposite gender, such as Two-Spirit people in some Native American tribes (and some tribes accepted more than two genders).37

The women’s movement has long campaigned against the idea that women are simply walking wombs. The attempt to reduce us to our reproductive organs usually comes from the right, from those who see women’s primary role as child bearers and carers and men’s as providers. For example in 2013 Pope Francis said that what he called gender theory—“that everyone can choose their own sex”—is the “exact opposite” of God’s creation.38 But this version of biological reductionism is being reinforced by some feminists.

Not all feminists agree that the category “woman” should be so biologically exclusive; some even recognise that trans women may be able to add something to the women’s movement. So Catherine MacKinnon, often described as a radical feminist icon, said in 2015: “To be a woman one does have to live women’s status. Transwomen are living it, and in my experience bring a valuable ­perspective on it as well”.39

By contrast Sarah Ditum refers to trans woman Alex Drummond as male, particularly objecting to her having a beard.40 Drummond says she did not want to have the hormones and surgery that would prevent beard growth, and claims she is “widening the bandwidth” of what it means to be a woman.41 Haarnam Kaur is a cis woman with a beard who was bullied as a young girl.42 For different reasons each decided not to go through the daily ritual of removing their facial hair. Insisting that trans women are clean shaven with feminine features is not liberating for any woman.

Some would counter that to be a woman it is necessary to have experienced growing up as a girl. They assert that transwomen “aren’t women. They don’t know what it’s like to be treated like a woman. They can’t fully appreciate what kind of oppression and fear women live with”.43 Leaving aside the obvious point that some trans women have lived as girls from a young age, it is undeniably the case that the experience of a trans woman growing up is not the same as a cis woman. But, as Sally Campbell recently argued:

Of course someone who is raised as a boy will not have the same experience as someone raised as a girl, but how far does this matter? A girl in India will not have the same experiences as a girl in Sweden. A boy raised in poverty will not have the same experience as young Prince George. And a trans person will face the misery of being constantly misgendered until they transition, at which point they will either pass as their desired gender and, if they’re a woman, face the oppression that entails, or they will be identified as trans and face…even more virulent oppression.44

As soon as you get bogged down in an attempt to find a stable experience of womanhood, you will run up against the fact that women have a diverse and changing history. Recently, Jenni Murray from BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour wrote a piece in the Times newspaper in which she attempted to describe what might separate “real” women from trans women. She gave the example of meeting a trans woman:

She described hairy legs on a woman as “dirty”. But hairy legs are not considered dirty in a man. Did she not know that the question of whether a woman should shave her legs or her armpits had been a topic of debate among women for an awfully long time? And that to describe a woman who chose not to shave as dirty was insulting and again suggested an ignorance of sexual politics?45

Sharing Murray’s views on hair removal should not be a condition for getting into the sisterhood. This would exclude an awful lot of cis women, and it is unfair to expect all trans women to have more progressive views on body hair than anyone else.

Canadian Hilla Kerner had the following justification for blocking a post-operative trans woman from volunteering as a rape counsellor because they did not have the appropriate life experience: “We know the embarrassment of having our clothes stained with blood from our period, the anxiety of facing an unwanted pregnancy and the fear of being raped, and we know the comfort of grouping with other women”.46 There are, of course, many women who have experienced all of these things, but there are also many who have not. And many transwomen have experienced the last two. In any case, it is not true that successful counsellors need to have had the same life experiences as those they are counselling.

It is difficult to know how, presented with a trans woman who “passed”—who was read by society as being female—a trans-critical feminist would be able to distinguish them from a cis woman. What test would they devise, other than to ask about their genitalia at birth? The only practical implication would be to repeatedly remind someone of their, quite possibly painful, past experiences. The irony here is that passing women are accepted and the rest excluded, thus conferring an advantage on those with the money to access the best treatments and those with more traditionally feminine features.

Interestingly, as the debate unfolds some feminists are shifting their positions. Judith Butler supports trans rights, acknowledging that her earlier work should have paid more attention to the topic and was open to misinterpretation:

Gender Trouble was written about 24 years ago, and at that time I did not think well enough about trans issues. Some trans people thought that in claiming that gender is performative that I was saying that it is all a fiction, and that a person’s felt sense of gender was therefore “unreal”. That was never my intention.47

Following Vanity Fair’s cover story on Caitlyn Jenner in July 2015, the feminist Elinor Burkett issued a series of critical tweets, which Fausto-Sterling retweeted approvingly. Later, having engaged in discussion with some trans advocates, Fausto-Sterling wrote this:

The third Burkett line I tweeted reads “people who haven’t lived their whole lives as women shouldn’t get to define us”. With the passage of a little time, I have no problem pedaling back from this one. None of us, cis, trans, highly feminine, highly masculine or anywhere in between have the right to define some single standard or version of what it is to be a woman… In conclusion: there are many ways of being male or female, masculine or feminine. And many trans people are pioneers in widening the spectrum of gender expression along which we live our lives.48

In 2013 Gloria Steinem repudiated her earlier trans-critical views, saying:

I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives. Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned. Their healthcare decisions should be theirs and theirs alone to make. And what I wrote decades ago does not reflect what we know today as we move away from only the binary boxes of “masculine” or “feminine” and begin to live along the full human continuum of identity and expression.49

The novelist and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie hit the headlines for a remark in a talk at the 2017 Women of the World Festival, saying that transgender women “are born with the privileges the world accords men”. She later clarified that “there’s no way I could possibly say that trans women are not women”.50 Unfortunately the unwarranted backlash she received online has enabled the trans-critical camp to overlook this important point.

Trans-critical feminists have no right to claim that they speak on behalf of all feminists, let alone all women. In 2013 some 700 feminists, including Lyn Segal, Nina Power, Laurie Penny, Jessica Valenti and Reni Eddo-Lodge, issued an international statement for trans-inclusive feminism. It states: “We are committed to recognising and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognising trans women as women and including them in all women’s spaces”.51

I will leave the last word in this section to the black power activist and socialist feminist Angela Davis:

Who are we talking about when we say women? It seems to me that we will finally have made some progress if women who have always been marginalised from the general category “women”—which has always been about white middle class women—those who have had to struggle can become the sign of that category. And what would it be like to have say, a black trans woman who has been involved in struggles against violence, struggles against the prison industrial complex, to stand as the sign of that category, women? Why can’t we assume that those who have had to struggle to be recognised, to struggle for survival, to struggle for freedom, why cannot they become the sign of what we should strive for?52

Trans-critical feminism

Feminist objections to trans women are not new; they stretch back at least to 1979 when Janice Raymond wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, and transwomen have been excluded from the American women-only festival MichFest since 1991. Transgender people have also had to fight to be accepted as part of the LGBT+ movement, despite playing a key role in the 1969 Stonewall riots that launched the Gay Liberation Front.53 Within feminism the argument is still ongoing, and the trans-critical side includes some socialist as well as radical feminists. I will respond to some of the most common objections before looking at the theoretical problems that underpin them.

Trans women are a danger to cis women

A website set up by some socialist feminists and claiming to be “pro-women not anti-transgender” carries the following statement on its home page:

We’re an informal collective (mostly British) with urgent concerns about women’s rights & freedoms. Our independence is more threatened than it has been for a century. If you’re a woman, this affects you and your children now… As long as patriarchy keeps women at a disadvantage and promotes male violence, we will support sex-based protections and help for females. This means males should sometimes be separated from females, regardless of gender identity or expression.54

Such arguments have been used to oppose trans women using women-only toilets, women’s refuges and being placed in women-only prisons. In the US especially, where “bathroom bills” have caused much controversy, trans-critical feminists find themselves on the same side as some of the most bigoted state law enforcers. Those law enforcers are not above charging into women’s toilets violently to eject non-trans women who look too masculine. Do radicals really want to set themselves up as the gender police, deciding who can and cannot “get in”?

This is not the place for a full discussion of the important issue of violence against women. Suffice it to say that for a man to have access to a woman for the purpose of doing them harm it is not necessary to present as a woman and get into a women’s toilet or other women-only space. The continuing statistic of around two women per week in the UK dying at the hands of a current or former male partner makes this clear.

In April 2016 an American organisation, the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, issued a strong statement on proposals to keep transgender women out of women-only spaces. They opposed the claim that:

These proposals are necessary for public safety and to prevent sexual violence against women and children. As rape crisis centers, shelters, and other service providers who work each and every day to meet the needs of all survivors and reduce sexual assault and domestic violence throughout society, we speak from experience and expertise when we state that these claims are false.55

On the contrary, it is trans women who find themselves subjected to abuse and violence if they are forced into the toilet (or prison) corresponding to their birth gender. There are some simple solutions here. As socialists we should always fight for public spaces to be safe and free from the threat of violence. When I was young public toilets were supervised by someone who kept the area clean but could also be a friendly and reassuring presence. Fighting for better and safer public services would be in all our interests, and cis and trans women (and men) should campaign together—to defend women’s refuges, to fight for better healthcare and safer streets. It is austerity and cuts that are making our public spaces more dangerous, not trans people.

The same is true of prisons, although it is rather hard to think of women’s prisons as “safe spaces”. All prisoners are subject to risk assessments whatever their gender, and decisions are made about whether they should be isolated from other prisoners. There is no need to target a particularly vulnerable group—and trans women in men’s prisons are vulnerable, as shown by the cases of Vikki Thompson and Joanne Latham, who both killed themselves after being put in men’s prisons in November 2015, and Tara Hudson who was sexually harassed in a men’s prison, all having lived as women for many years. There are many arguments to be made about the appalling treatment of women in prisons. Trans women are not the problem, and stigmatising them takes us further from, not closer to, a solution.

Trans women perpetuate gender stereotypes

According to Julie Burchill transgender women are “woefully conventional souls… They are frilly docile smilers who always wear make-up and never the trousers”.56 Putting aside the particularly offensive nature of this remark, it is not true that all male to female trans people present as stereotypically feminine. In order to access treatment they have to live as their preferred gender for two years. To prove that you are doing this in modern capitalist society means keeping your hair long and wearing make-up if you are a trans woman, whether you want to or not. You are therefore unlikely to turn up at the GIC without make-up and a dress and risk delaying treatment. It is the system that is reinforcing stereotypes, not trans people. As an aside it should be noted that the right of women to dress ­non-stereotypically also implies their right to dress in a standard feminine way should they choose to do so. There are similarities here with the arguments around women wearing the hijab, and it is no surprise that at least one prominent trans-critic feels that she can tell Muslim women what to wear as well as trans women.57

In fact, as transgender people have become more visible and confident, and GICs have gained experience, trans people have increasingly presented a diversity of identities that challenge the norms of what men and women should look and behave like. This has included identifying as non-binary and as masculine women and feminine men.

As McQueen points out, as well as lacking empirical support, the accusation that trans people present stereotypically “strips trans individuals of critical self-reflection and agency… It substitutes the real-life experiences and beliefs of trans individuals, especially their complexity and diversity, for homogeneous, stereotyped and ungrounded representations”.58

Of course trans people are just as susceptible to gender conditioning as anyone else. But they are no more responsible for people like Caitlyn Jenner appearing on magazine covers than cis women are for Kim Kardashian.

Trans rights are a threat to women’s rights

Ditum asserts: “It must be noted that where the aim is for every person to be treated in accordance with their gender identity (rather than their birth sex, or their perceived gender following transition), this leads to pressure on women rather than on men”.59 In fact the experience of Ireland has not been one of diminishing women’s rights. The period since the passing of more liberal legislation for trans people has been one of a growing movement for the repeal of anti-abortion legislation. It has also seen the passing of legislation for same-sex marriage in the teeth of opposition from the Catholic Church. The Equal Marriage campaign in Ireland was seen as much wider than just an LGBT+ issue and brought in many progressive movements that challenged gender stereotypes rooted in the family. Perhaps because of this unity forged in struggle, when the GRA was approved it was not seen as a threat to women. This mood of solidarity is evident in the North of Ireland too, where a trans man addressed a recent pro-choice demonstration. He was enthusiastically received, and the slogans of the demonstration—for a woman’s right to choose, anti-Tory, anti-DUP (Democratic Unionist Party)—acted as a unifying rallying call. It should not be a surprise to Marxists that a victory for one group of oppressed people can bolster another’s. But such unity does not happen automatically; it has to be fought for.

It is true that abortion campaigns, especially in the US, have become the unfortunate site of polarised arguments on either side of this debate. Some trans activists have argued that such campaigns should drop the slogan “A woman’s right to choose” because it is exclusionary of trans or non-binary people who may get pregnant. This would be a mistake as fundamentally the attack on abortion rights is an attack on women and an attempt to reinforce their role in society as child bearers. In most major pro-choice organisations common sense has prevailed, and the slogan “A woman’s right to choose” remains in place while efforts have been made to ensure inclusivity. So the Irish Abortion Rights Campaign website includes the statement: “While the term ‘woman’ is used in this document, we are fighting for abortion access for any person who needs or wants one, including women, trans men and non-binary people”.60

This reasonable and inclusive position prevails in most similar organisations. It is not true that women are being erased. In fact most tabloid headlines about the erasure of women turn out to be based on misinformation. This was true in the case of a headline in The Sun that screamed “Don’t Call Mums Women” and when the Daily Mail ran a story about “women” disappearing from the census.61 Both of these stories were repudiated, but unfortunately some feminists had shared them on social media to back up their case. There are similarities here with Islamophobic headlines around the disappearance of Christmas, or the racist scaremongering about not being able to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep. It is unfortunate that some people on the left are taken in by them.

Patriarchy theory and identity politics

The distinction between socially constructed gender expectations and a gender identity that reflects an individual’s sense of self is important, and both are real. Some feminists make the mistake of basing the former purely on biological differences abstracted from the material conditions in which women’s oppression arose and continues to exist. Some trans and queer activists see the latter as the key battleground on which to fight oppression. In both cases the roots of the problem in class society are missed.

What feminist objections to transgender people have in common is the underlying acceptance of patriarchy theory. Dismissing Marxism as being class reductionist and unable to account sufficiently for oppression, their explanation ultimately rests on biology. Thus men benefit from the oppression of women and being born with a penis means makes men part of the oppressive class and a potential threat to women. For patriarchy theorists, women are oppressed not because of the way that modern capitalism relies on the family for its own needs, but because of our role in the reproductive process per se. Biology trumps any socio-historical explanation of oppression, and men benefit from, or are privileged by, this oppression and thus have an interest in maintaining it. Feminists Joan Scanlon and Deborah Cameron exemplified this position at the London Feminist Network’s “Feminar” in 2010: “gender…is a system within which one gender (male) has economic and political power, and the other (female) does not—and the dominant group has an investment in keeping it that way”.62

It is difficult to see within this view how women’s oppression can ever be overcome. An understandable desire to protect hard fought for women’s spaces can become an overriding motivation, especially when those spaces are under threat from cuts and austerity. Perceived threats can be blown out of proportion in the fight to maintain any small gains that have been won, and trans women have wrongly been portrayed by some as such a threat.

As with other debates within feminism, there are different variations on this theme, including those, such as Marxist feminist Lise Vogel, who accepts the role played by class society in the roots of women’s oppression. There are also people who call themselves feminists but may know little of patriarchy theory and may simply be expressing an opposition to sexism. But as a political position, all feminists accept the need either for a completely separate women’s struggle, or for a fight for women’s rights that takes place alongside but independent from the class struggle.63 Some feminists, but not all as we have seen, will conclude that if you are going to have a separate women’s struggle you need to clearly define who “real” women are and allow no fluidity or flexibility. And the definition is “born with vagina”; anybody else in a woman’s space is a threat.

Where feminism suffers from an overemphasis on biology, some trans activists see their identity as a radicalising factor in itself and a basis for struggle. Trans theory leans on many strands, but perhaps the one most commonly associated with it is queer theory. Queer theory has been critically discussed previously in this journal.64 We have recognised the contribution made by supporters of queer theory in rejecting the commercialisation of LGBT+ spaces and demanding a more radical approach than that offered by proponents of a “safe” gay politics. However, queer theory arose on the back of a series of defeats for collective class struggle. Basing itself on the theories of Michel Foucault, it locates power not in the class nature of society but in a whole range of smaller battles. As developed by Judith Butler among others, the sites of these battles include “discourse” and “performance”. In some interpretations, simply declaring oneself “queer” can itself be a revolutionary act that challenges the power that non-queer people allegedly have over them.

As with feminism, there are many differences within trans activism. A tendency to focus inwards on identity can lead to the setting up of hierarchies where, for example, some non-binary people believe they are challenging the gender binary in a way that transsexuals (who transition to living as one gender from living as “the other”) are not. Such hierarchies can be the source of much moralism, which has in the past negatively affected the LGBT+ movement.

A distinction needs to be made between recognising gender identity and supporting identity politics. The two are not the same. Supporting the right of an oppressed group to declare their gender does not imply that only trans people have an interest in opposing trans oppression, or that identity should form the basis of one’s politics. It is perfectly possible to support the rights of an oppressed group while fighting that oppression as part of the wider class struggle for socialism. This is what Marxism does, whereas identity politics represents a move away from working class struggle.65

It is a refreshing sign that young trans, queer and feminist people are discovering an activism that is more outward looking, joining demonstrations against Trump and in support of refugees and being part of the movement behind Corbyn, for example. But sometimes the tactics adopted in support of trans rights undermine such collectivity.

For example, when Bindel was invited to speak at an event in Manchester in February 2017 the website of the venue, a well-known local resource for working class history and events, was bombarded with abuse and instructed not only to withdraw the invitation but to close down the venue itself. This is not a tactic likely to win wide support, as many activists use the centre. It is also mistaken in its aims of closing down the meeting, which had been scheduled as part of LGBT+ History Month.

No platform is a tactic developed by the working class movement as part of the fight against fascism. It is designed to stop those who would trample over every element of working class organisation and democracy. Fascism needs the oxygen of big rallies and demonstrations to grow, and anti-fascists are right to stop them. If unchallenged, fascism can rise to power, destroying the working class and leaving millions dead in its wake. No platform is not a tactic to be applied willy-nilly to people whose views we do not like, however offensive they may be. Marxists believe that ideas can change. We believe this on a grand scale, as in the throwing off of the “muck of ages” in the course of revolution. We also believe this is true in the course of smaller battles. For example, on picket lines we link arms with our colleagues, even if they hold sexist views. The experience of common struggle then makes the arguments against sexism easier to win.

Just as it is wrong for feminists to see men as their oppressors wielding power over them, it is equally wrong to see trans-critical feminists as the source of trans oppression. The comments made by Adiche are not in the same category as those made by Bindel or Germaine Greer, and they are certainly not the same as those made by Trump. Trump is the leader of the world’s foremost imperialist power wielding real influence over the lives of millions of people, able to have his decrees turned into legislation and acted on by the forces of the state. This is not true of Adiche.

One common theme that runs through both feminism and some trans ­activism is the acceptance of privilege theory. The problems with privilege theory have been discussed elsewhere in this journal.66 It is used by trans-critical feminists to denounce trans women for growing up with “male privilege”; it is also used by some trans activists to denounce people for abusing their cis privilege. Lack of oppression does not constitute a privilege, which implies an interest in maintaining that oppression. Having male privilege would imply that, should women’s oppression end, men would be worse off. This is not true, as we have argued consistently in this journal. Cis women have an interest in ending trans oppression, in freeing all of us from the gender straitjacket, in fighting together for autonomy over our bodies and so on. Patriarchy theory, identity politics and privilege theory do not help us in the struggle for a better world; they tend to separate rather than unite.

Marxists believe that power in society rests not with men or cis people, but with a ruling class that really does benefit from the exploitation of the working class. It is in their interest to maintain divisions within the working class, which in turn has an interest in not only resisting capitalist exploitation, but in ridding society of all forms of oppression as part of that resistance. As John Molyneux has written: “the decisive advantage of Marxism is that, in theory and in practice, it provides the framework for articulating the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia within the overall struggle of the working class for socialism—a society in which the very roots of these oppressions will be torn up”.67

Conclusion: theory and practice

In his Theses on Feuerbach Marx wrote that “the dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question”.68 It is important that we try to understand the question of gender identity from the point of view of intervening in the world in order to change it. We should develop our theory while testing it in practice, not as an academic exercise.

In a much-quoted passage in What Is To Be Done, Lenin writes:

[Our] ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation.69

It is important that trans rights are taken up and supported by socialists. In this we will find ourselves up against bosses, generals, judges and millionaires who will include trans people in their ranks, just as they will include women, black people, lesbians, gays and bisexuals. Class shapes the way that oppression develops, the way it is experienced and the way that we fight back.

The debates currently taking place inside the trade unions are important. The NUT voted overwhelmingly at its 2017 conference to support self-identification, and socialists must defend that position from current attempts to undermine it. It is not good enough to say, on the one hand, that you are opposed to transphobic bullying and on the other hand that trans people are not who they say they are. You can’t push the bully out of the way only to turn to the trans person and say, “Come on, you’re not really a woman, are you?” Our hard-fought positions on equality apply as much to our trans colleagues as they do to any other oppressed group.

That is not to say that Marxists are only interested in fighting oppression when it arises within the workplace. Oppression pervades every aspect of our lives. Take the issue of Trump’s proposed ban on transgender people serving in the military. This is not simply a class issue, even though those signing up are overwhelmingly from working class backgrounds with few opportunities for a well-paid civilian career. The US military is an instrument of imperialist rule, and not an institution that socialists support. Nevertheless Trump’s description of trans soldiers as a “burden” has the effect of justifying transphobia whilst creating a scapegoat for budget cuts. This must be challenged, as the logic carries over into all areas of public life and divides us in the fight against capitalism.

Current debates are pitting groups of people against each other who in fact have much in common to fight for. Access to safe, well-funded healthcare is an obvious example. “Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide” can apply equally to the fight for abortion rights and the fight for gender affirmation treatment. Socialists fought for abortion rights to be seen as a class issue, and this stands for trans rights too. LGBT+ people have involved themselves in the fight against Islamophobia and racism, and these will impact on women too. Trans people and non-trans women are finding themselves in the firing line of far-right and fascist groups across Europe. In the course of such struggles socialists should fight for the greatest possible unity. It is therefore also incumbent upon us to challenge transphobia and trans-critical feminism should it arise.

The “tyranny and oppression” experienced by trans people is real. Their strong sense of gender identity is real. It is neither biologically determined, nor is it a social construct in the way that socialised gender norms are. Gender identity is influenced by socialised gender norms but not reducible to them. It arises from the many varied and complex ways in which we as physical, sexual and conscious individuals interact with the social and material world and develop a sense of self. Socialists support people who challenge gender stereotypes in all sorts of ways, and we support the rights of those whose gender identity clashes with their birth sex. This includes not only the right to transition from female to male or vice versa and be fully accepted as one’s preferred gender, but also the right to identify as non-binary and to use gender-neutral pronouns.

Socialists should welcome the increasing visibility of gender diversity. Many young people demonstrating against Trump or for Corbyn carry placards asserting their gender non-conformity and sometimes their trans identity. Our revolution will consist of young, old, gay, straight, black, white, men, women and some people with gender identities we haven’t thought of names for yet. It will be all the more glorious because of that. It is perhaps foolish to speculate on what will happen to gender identity after that, other than to say that it will become as irrelevant as eye colour. But most importantly the revolution will not happen at all without winning a new generation of trans and feminist activists to a class-based understanding of society, and we won’t do that if we end up siding with those bigots who wish to push us all back into little pink and blue boxes.

Sue Caldwell is a teacher, LGBT+ activist and long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party


1 I am using trans or transgender as an umbrella term to denote people whose gender identity does not match their birth sex, and this includes non-binary and gender fluid identities. When I use trans man or trans woman I am referring to people who have transitioned from female to male (ftm) or male to female (mtf) respectively, regardless of whether they have had any medical intervention. I am aware that these terms are contested and that meanings may change over time.

2 Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara, Gareth Jenkins, Laura Miles, Sheila McGregor, Judith Orr and Camilla Royle for their comments on this article in draft.

3 Human Rights Campaign, 2017.

4 Yeung, 2016.

5 Weale, 2017.

6 NatCen Social Research, 2017.

7 O’Neill, 2017.

8 Harman, 1994.

9 Miles, 2014.

10 German, 1981.

11 Rose, Lewontin and Kamin, 1990, pp275 and 282.

12 Fine, 2017.

13 Joel and others, 2015.

14 Cameron, 2016.

15 Ditum, 2016.

16 Hope, 2016.

17 Fausto-Sterling, 2016a.

18 Doctors sometimes actually measure the phallus to see if it is less than an inch in length (indeterminate sex) or more (deemed male).

19 Human Rights Watch, 2017.

20 Fine, 2017, p88.

21 Ainsworth, 2015.

22 Ainsworth, 2015.

23 Orr, 2015.

24 Olson, 2017. Cis is a prefix that is interchangeable with non-trans.

25 Fausto-Sterling, 2012, p57.

26 Serano, 2007, p98.

27 Miles, 2014, p46. My emphasis.

28 Bindel, 2016.

29 Fausto-Sterling, 2012, p66.

30 Morgan, 2015.

31 Morgan, 2015.

32 For a more detailed explanation of the proposals and their implications see Laura Miles’s blog at

33 Tunks, 2017.

34 Duffy, 2017.

35 Quoted in McQueen, 2016, p675.

36 McQueen, 2016, p675.

37 See Feinberg, 1996, chapter 5, and Miles, 2014, or for a more recent example of research into 3rd century BC Europe, see Turek, 2016.

38 Catholic Herald, 2016.

39 Williams, 2015.

40 Ditum, 2016.

41 McCormick, 2015.

42 Khaleeli, 2016.

43 Lee Lakeman, quoted in Elliott, 2016.

44 Campbell, 2017.

45 Murray, 2017.

46 Tasker, 2017.

47 Williams, 2014.

48 Fausto-Sterling, 2016b.

49 Steinem, 2013.

50 Quoted in Smith, 2017.

51 International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, 2013.

53 See Miles, 2014.

55 National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, 2016.

56 Quoted in McQueen, 2016.

57 Bindel, 2013.

58 McQueen, 2016.

59 Ditum, 2016.

61 Both front pages from 23 October 2017.

63 For Vogel, writing in the 1980s, the continued existence of women’s oppression in so-called communist countries such as China, Russia and Cuba proved that women’s oppression would continue beyond the fall of capitalism.

64 Wilson, 2011.

65 For a detailed critique of identity politics see Smith, 1994.

66 Choonara and Prasad, 2014.

67 Molyneux, 2012, p119.

68 Marx, 1947.

69 Lenin, 1902.


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