In recent years, trans rights have become a major element of the so-called “culture wars” and the “war on woke” being waged by the right around the world.1 This has gone hand in hand with attacks on analyses of organisations such as the police as institutionally racist, with right-wingers claiming that these reactionary institutions are actually contaminated by “wokeism”, “critical race theory” and “cultural Marxism”. Another element in this assualt is the supposed defence of “free speech” by right-wing political figures and authoritarian governments, which are intent on rolling back the radicalising impact of mass movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion.
In Britain the Tory government has grown increasingly hostile to trans rights. In late 2020, it refused to introduce provisions for self-identification into the Gender Recognition Act 2004 despite previously supporting this change, which would have made a significant positive difference to trans people’s lives.2 Government ministers have also been encouraging state bodies and other organisations to disaffiliate from Stonewall, the main LGBT+ rights advocacy organisation in Britain. Indeed, the BBC withdrew from Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme in November 2021.
Even in the 18 months since I published my book, Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the Fight for Trans Liberation, levels of transphobia—hostility to and fear of trans and gender non-conforming people—have increased substantially.3 This article will discuss how and why the lives and rights of trans and gender-diverse people have been weaponised by the right into such a prominent and toxic issue. It will also consider why Britain is seen by many as a hotbed of transphobia, with some trans people referring to it as “TERF island”, while others consider emigration.4
In Transgender Resistance I argued a number of important points. The oppression of gender-variant behaviour has not always existed; rather, it developed with the emergence of class societies and the consolidation of the nuclear family under capitalism. This happened as a consequence of the systematic oppression and dispossession of women and the subordination of women’s sexuality. Women’s oppression, heteronormativity, the gender binary, the commodification of women’s bodies and control over bodily autonomy are deeply embedded in capitalist ideology, as are homophobia and transphobia. As I wrote in the book:
Marxists seek to understand sex, gender and the oppression of women, and also gender-variance and non-heterosexual sex, through the lens of historical materialism, recognising that the relationship between them is a complex interaction—each affects the other reciprocally.
There is a constant tension within capitalism; although certain legal rights and protections may be won in some societies by oppressed groups as a result of pressure from below (for example, same-sex marriage, equal pay laws and nominal equal rights for trans people), these are all historically and socially contingent. They do not essentially undermine the capitalist mode of production’s reliance on the subordination of women for bearing and raising the next generation of workers.5
Only an approach to human sexuality and gender variance that starts from the basic material factors of human societies—how human beings produce the things we need from the land and raw materials, how we organise to distribute these goods, who owns these things, and who controls what is produced—can provide a comprehensive understanding of how homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (and sexism) have emerged. Finally, I argued that the path to liberation from these forms of oppression lies in socialist transformation of the conditions of production and reproduction. The forms that these conditions currently take are central to sustaining the capitalist mode of production and the exploitation of our labour power.
Trans liberation, as with liberation from other forms of oppression, is not possible within capitalism even though particular trans rights can and should be fought for and vigorously defended in the here and now. Liberation requires the working class seizing political and economic power from the capitalist class in order to create the conditions for the genuine and permanent freedom of all to express the diverse varieties of human sexuality and gender expression that make people whole.
Transgender Resistance argued for the crucial role of working-class agency in such a transformation, especially at the point of production, where capitalists are most vulnerable to the interruption of the flow of profits. It also argued that LGBT+ rights have advanced most during high levels of workers’ struggle. A key example is the 1917 Russian Revolution, which brought the working class to power at a national level for the first time in history. The decriminalisation of homosexuality was one of the first far-reaching measures enacted by the new Bolshevik government. Conversely, LGBT+ interests have been set back most severely at times of working-class retreat and defeat, such as the crushing of the workers’ movement in Germany by the Nazis in 1933 and after.
Socialists should always be “tribunes of the oppressed”. Our starting point in today’s culture wars and conflicts over trans rights should be one of solidarity with trans, non-binary and gender-diverse people. We need to show respect for how the oppressed self-identify, and we need to resist claims that the rights of one oppressed group (trans people) undermine those of another (women).6 Such arguments are inherently divisive and potentially reactionary, and they fail to identify oppression in capitalist societies as being driven from the top.
In recent months, a great deal has happened, much of it negative and damaging to trans and non-binary people. In June 2020, Maya Forstater, who lost a claim to the Employment Tribunal in 2019 that her gender-critical beliefs were protected under the Equality Act 2010, was successful in her appeal.7 This meant that holding her beliefs was not against the Equality Act 2010 as such, although it also does not mean, as many of her supporters have wrongly claimed, that expressing anti-trans views is protected under the law. In fact, the court pointed out the difference between believing something to be true, even if it is unpalatable to most people, and expressing that belief in discriminatory, bullying and defamatory ways.
Another significant 2020 legal case, Bell versus Tavistock, resulted in severely restricted access to puberty blockers for trans people under 16 years old.8 Not only was the ruling devastating for these young people, but predictably it was used by anti-abortionists to argue that pregnant young people should not be deemed capable of giving informed consent for abortion under the Gillick competency rules.9 Thankfully an appeal by the Tavistock and Portman Trust was successful, and the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal in September 2021.10
More generally, misinformed anti-trans articles seem to appear almost daily in the British media. In October 2021, there were thousands of complaints against a transphobic BBC online article, “We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women”, which was based on a very small, flawed survey.11 In her recent book, The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice, Shon Faye noted:
In 2020 alone, The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times ran over 300 articles—almost one a day—on trans people. The free Metro newspaper accepted a full-page advert in 2018 from a campaign group urging the public to resist reform to the Gender Recognition Act… The previous year, the tabloid Daily Star ran an entirely false series of stories claiming that the notorious child murderer Ian Huntley was transgender, before—two years later—it finally admitted the story wasn’t true.12
There are many other examples of newspapers and magazines publishing transphobic material, ranging across the political spectrum from the right-wing Daily Mail and Spectator to the liberal Guardian and socialist Morning Star. Radio and television shows, such as BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and Today and BBC2’s Newsnight programmes, have regurgitated damaging misinformation, as have “gender-critical” websites such as Transgender Trend and Mumsnet. These platforms largely either ignore trans voices completely or subject them to hostile questioning in interviews.
These articles, reports and posts damage trans and gender-diverse people; transphobic misinformation has real consequences. Hate speech causes emotional damage and legitimates hate crimes. As Judith Butler recently wrote: “The fear is particularly prevalent when public figures—politicians, high profile newspaper columnists and so on—demonise trans people in print or on air; it makes the fear more pronounced because you worry someone is going to act on it”.13
In one example, Today presenter Justin Webb asked the Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey in September 2021 if there “should not be spaces where biological males cannot go”. In another, the former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, who is now a presenter on Sky News, attacked trans people as part of a dangerous agenda of “wokeism” in a November 2020 Times article:
The greatest tragedy in all of this is that the gurus of wokedom have persuaded thousands of idealistic young people who rightly want to change the world into supporting what is actually a deeply reactionary movement. The trans activists can only realise their aim of being able to enter spaces reserved for women by erasing the female sex.14
These sorts of comments and articles normalise terms such as “the trans lobby”, “gender ideology” and “transgenderism”. They contribute to trans people’s lives being made more difficult. Stonewall’s “School Report 2017” found that 45 percent of young trans people had attempted suicide at least once.15 A YouGov survey published by Stonewall in 2018 found that 25 percent of trans people had experienced homelessness and 51 percent had hidden their trans status at work for fear of discrimination. Of those in a relationship 28 percent had experienced domestic abuse.16 According to the Galop Transgender Hate Crime Report 2020, a quarter of trans people had experienced physical violence or been threatened with it. Meanwhile, nearly one in five had experienced sexual assault or been threatened with it.17
The appointment of Nadine Dorries, who has campaigned against abortion and same-sex marriage, as secretary of state for culture and sport in September 2021 is surely a harbinger of bad things to come. So too was the appointment of Kishwer Falkner, who has defended those critical of trans activists, as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in December 2020. The EHRC joined the chorus of attacks on Stonewall in 2021 when it should have defended Britain’s most prominent LGBT+ advocacy organisation from attempts to defund and delegitimise it. At the time of writing, the Good Law Project was challenging Dorries’s attempts to ensure that the new chair of the Charity Commission would be someone with an “anti-woke” agenda. The Tories hope that this chair would work to“rebalance” (that is, undermine) charities that the right disapproves of, such as Stonewall and Mermaids, which supports trans children and their families.18
As Tory minister for women and equalities, Liz Truss has dragged her feet on introducing a promised ban on “conversion therapy” for gay and trans people. Only at the end of October 2021 did the Tories announce a consultation on proposals for new legislation.19 Worryingly, however, these proposals seem to leave the door open for transphobes to attack affirmative intervention for trans people as constituting a form of conversion therapy. The way would also be wide open to allow people to “consent” to conversion therapy, despite concerns that such supposed consent is vulnerable to manipulation and pressure.
Truss has also made it clear the Tories do not believe that trans people should be able to self-identify as their gender, and the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, later doubled down on this. Unfortunately, if trans and non-binary people are denied the right to self-identify, it necessarily means others—state bodies and other agencies—take that right upon themselves, and this has an authoritarian dynamic. Mauro Cabral Grinspan, executive director of the trans advocacy organisation GATE, spelt out what these kinds of denials have meant historically: “When states refuse to accept and respect individuals’ right to be identified as themselves…gross human rights violations occur”.20 Indeed, there has been a sharp increase in transphobic hate crimes since 2015.21
Boris Johnson’s government has been very friendly to anti-trans voices. LGB Alliance, a virulently anti-trans group, was welcomed at the 2021 Conservative Party conference. The organisation’s own conference, held shortly after, received an enthusiastic endorsement from Johnson’s office, which described it as “ground-breaking” and “truly momentous”.22 However, there have been arguments within the Labour Party too. Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield attended the 2021 LGB Alliance conference, along with trans-critical writer Julie Bindel, television writer Graham Linehan and the Scottish Nationalist Party politician Joanna Cherry. LGB Alliance also issued a press pass to Andy Ngo, a right-wing social media personality linked to fascist groups in the United States such as Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys. Sadly, criticism of this decision has been muted among “gender-critical” activists.
Political scientist Craig McLean has suggested that the disinformation and scaremongering pushed by transphobic groups has had some success, talking of a “silent radicalisation of the British electorate”:
These groups have used their influence in the media to push with impunity a narrative that transwomen are not safe and should not be allowed to use female facilities. They have pushed a narrative of “raising reasonable concerns” and “just asking questions”, but the reality is that they have helped to demonise an already vulnerable minority.23
High profile figures have helped this process along. In 2020, Harry Potter author J K Rowling, who has hundreds of thousands of social media followers, posted gender-critical views, generating a storm of media interest. Hundreds of people signed an open letter in support of Rowling, but hundreds of others, including members of the Harry Potter films’ cast, signed one in opposition.
In another set of high profile events, October 2021 saw the press full of hostile commentary about student protests against Kathleen Stock, a philosophy lecturer at Sussex University. Earlier in 2021, Stock had published a “gender-critical” book promoting trans-exclusionary views and utilising biological essentialist arguments to justify these positions.24 The students’ protests were supported in principle by the University and College Union (UCU), both at the university and nationally, although neither endorsed calls for her sacking.25 Stock was not a UCU member, having resigned before the 2018 higher education pension strikes.
The socialist approach to the Sussex protests was to express solidarity for the student protesters but to reserve calls for sacking to fascists—the long-established policy of “no platform”. Stock, like most other “gender critics”, is not a fascist. Of course, socialists should also never engage in or endorse abuse or threats when opposing transphobes and transphobia, online or offline, from whatever quarter. Nevertheless, the reality is that trans and non-binary students at Sussex University, as well as student union and UCU officers, had themselves received abuse and threats from transphobes and “gender critics”.26
Stock is a trustee of the LGB Alliance and a signatory to the Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights, which is hostile to trans people.27 This document calls for the “elimination” of the “practice of transgenderism” and the repeal of the Gender Recognition Act. It is thus small wonder that gender-diverse and trans students at Sussex University felt threatened by her presence and demanded the university act on its own Trans Equality Policy.28 When Stock was awarded the Order of the British Empire in December 2020 for “services to higher education”, she immediately used the platform to attack Stonewall for its support for trans rights: “I want to use this opportunity to draw further attention to suppression of critical thought about gender identity ideology and trans activism in British universities.” This prompted a letter of opposition to her criticism signed by 600 philosophers and academics.29
Sussex University’s vice-chancellor Adam Tickell condemned the students, throwing the weight of university management behind Stock.30 Right-wing columnists and journalists, Tory ministers, trans-critical feminists and even some on the left took Stock’s side, all citing defence of academic freedom and free speech. Her supporters on the left failed to recognise that trans and non-binary students deserve basic solidarity. These students were exercising their right to free speech by criticising Stock and protesting the use she made of her platforms to promote trans-exclusionary policies.
On 28 October 2021, Stock resigned from Sussex University. Students had already stopped attending her classes in protest at her “gender-critical” activism, which had been a long-running issue on campus. She immediately embarked on a tour of media outlets, claiming to have been “silenced”, and announced that she would be joining the faculty of a new, right-wing private institution in the US, the University of Austin (UATX). Though claiming to be dedicated to “the fearless pursuit of truth”, this is less a university than a website, and it has no students, no accreditation, no campus and no degree programmes.31 It does, however, have various right-wing luminaries on its board of advisers including the anti-Palestinian, conservative activist Bari Weiss, the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson and cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker. It also has a range of unsavoury financial links. Journalist Tom McKay points out that the UATX website claims the institution is “fiscally sponsored” by Cicero Research, which is linked to Joe Lonsdale, a right-wing tech multimillionaire: “Lonsdale is best known for partnering with right-wing venture capitalist Peter Thiel to found Palantir, the big data analysis firm infamous for courting contracts with federal immigration agencies and the military”.32 However, sadly for this right-wing coterie, the wheels had started to come off the UATX wagon within days of Stock’s announcement, with Pinker and Stephen Zimmer, the current chancellor of the University of Chicago, resigning from its advisory board.33
Scratch a free speech absolutist and you quickly find they really want to curb the rights of others to criticise them. When criticism happens, they use their considerable public platforms to complain of being silenced and bullied. As Charlotte Lydia Riley has noted in her introduction to The Free Speech Wars collection of essays:
Freedom of speech, of course, does not mean freedom from the consequences of that speech. Much of the time, when people demand freedom of speech, what they want is freedom from consequences. They want to be able to insult people, shout slogans, tell deliberate untruths or incite violence without facing any repercussions.34
Stoking moral panic
Until 2016, the formal situation for trans people in Britain appeared to be improving steadily. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 had allowed trans people to obtain a gender recognition certificate, albeit via a medicalised and restrictive process.35 The Equality Act 2010 gave legal protection to trans people and, more broadly, same-sex marriage was legalised in 2013.
However, after 2016, an increasingly hostile minority focused on trans people as a threat and a social problem. A plethora of transphobic organisations and websites emerged, notably in opposition to the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee’s trans rights proposals. Following a survey of trans people, the committee had proposed around 30 recommendations. including better training for NHS staff and amendments to the Gender Recognition Act that would introduce self-identification. Almost none of this has been implemented. Instead, by September 2021, a report by the Council of Europe’s Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination found that the “significant advances” achieved in recent years for LGBT+ people in Britain and Europe are “under threat”.36 According to the report’s author, Fourat Ben Chikha:
My work on this report has left me with no doubt that the rising hatred we are witnessing today is not a product of individual prejudice and a sense of greater freedom to express it, but the result of sustained and often well-organised attacks on the human rights of LGBT+ people throughout the European continent.37
He also notes that attacks on LGBT+ people have been particularly egregious in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine and Britain. Hungary’s far-right president Viktor Orbán banned gender studies in 2018, claiming it is “an ideology, not a science”. It is no coincidence that one of the universities targeted by this ban was founded by George Soros, who has repeatedly been at the centre of antisemitic conspiracy theories. Hungary’s retrograde measures also included removing the right of trans people to change their name or obtain gender-appropriate documents, a legal right that had existed since 2004.
Britain does not come out well in the report. “In Britain”, it says, “anti-trans rhetoric, arguing that sex is immutable and gender identities are invalid, has been gaining baseless and concerning credibility, at the expense of both trans people’s civil liberties and the rights of women and children”.38
Sources of transphobia
Most transphobia is driven by the right and far-right. Opposition to trans rights is a touchstone issue for ideological opponents of equality and apologists for capitalism. The central aims of capitalism—continued economic growth and the maximisation of profit—now pose a clear existential risk to humanity in an era of climate change, environmental catastrophes and new pathogens such as Covid-19, which has so far killed at least 5 million people. Transphobia, just as with anti-migrant racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism, is being deployed as a key weapon of the right to maintain its ideological and political control of society and minimise the potential for organised resistance by the working class.
Anti-trans agitation was consciously adopted some years ago as a “wedge issue” by both the religious and secular right. It was seen as an effective way to mobilise conservatives on social issues and to split progressives, liberals and feminists by arguing that trans and gender-diverse people constitute a threat to women. Of course, these forces never actually gave a damn about women’s rights and the sexism and misogyny faced by women.39 By advancing transphobia, they hope to prise open other fronts in their decades-long wars against LGBT+ rights and women’s rights, for example, over school curriculums, abortion rights and so on.
Despite narrowly losing the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump has retained control of swathes of the Republican Party and its support base. At the time of writing, his supporters have around a hundred anti-trans bills lined up in the legislatures of Republican-held and marginal states.40 Some have been passed, such as a Florida bill in April 2021 that could force schools and colleges to undertake health examinations of girls who participate in school sports, potentially involving physical tests, if they are suspected of being trans or non-binary. This amounts to a threat of sexual abuse being used to force trans girls out of girls’ sports—not something you would expect any feminist to endorse. Nevertheless, many trans-exclusionary feminists celebrated the bill’s adoption.41
Unholy alliances on the right
In the US, attacks on trans rights are led by wealthy right-wing organisations such as Hands Across the Aisle, a conscious alliance of religious and secular right-wingers that also involves some radical feminists. Also prominent are the World Congress of Families, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF)—which has been named by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group—and the American Center for Law and Justice. Another leading transphobic organisation is the Heritage Foundation, which, according to blogger Jane Fae, has helped fund British-based anti-trans groups and initiatives.42 ADF International, based in Britain, supports protests in defence of “free speech” on British university campuses. In September 2021, the US-based Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) and the Women’s Human Rights Campaign USA condemned the Texas legislature’s ruling that drastically restricts abortion rights. Yet, in 2016 WoLF had proudly accepted a $15,000 donation from the ADF to fund anti-trans campaigns, ignoring its notorious hostility to women’s rights and its support for many legal cases attacking abortion rights and access to contraception.43
Far-right groups are also heavily involved in promoting transphobia. In July 2021, anti-trans protests erupted outside a trans-inclusive spa in Los Angeles following complaints about the presence of a trans woman.44 In violent demonstrations that followed, trans people and their supporters were clubbed and tear-gassed by police and transphobic protesters, including members of fascist groups such as the Proud Boys. The protests showed the extent of the convergence of anti-trans agitation with far-right militias and terrorist groups, anti-vaxxers, and QAnon conspiracy theorists.
Right-wing groups have promoted all sorts of transphobic misinformation. Historian Jules Gill-Peterson writes:
The state is aiming to push trans people out of public life and citizenship in order to emancipate itself from them and from their political power… It is thus no coincidence that Islamophobic, anti-black, anti-immigrant, antisemitic, evangelical Christian and white nationalist groups all find themselves on the same side of this issue, especially online, where disinformation campaigns and violent language, death threats, and fantasies involving the abuse of children are hurled at trans advocates and the parents of trans children.45
One of the claims that transphobes often make is that the so-called “trans lobby” is conspicuously well funded. For the far right, this is proof of a left-wing or Jewish conspiracy to undermine the family and “good order”. However, the Global Philanthropy Project 2020 calculated that:
Between 2013 and 2017, LGBT+ movements worldwide received $1.2 billion, but the “anti-gender” movement received $3.7 billion… The aggregate revenue of US-based organisations associated with the “anti-gender” movement during the ten years spanning 2008 to 2017 was $6.2 billion; in that same time period, 11 US organisations associated with the “anti-gender” movement funnelled some $1 billion into countries across the globe.46
Nevertheless, claims of huge funding for trans activists continue to feed antisemitic conspiracy theories, which can then quickly seep into more mainstream “trans-critical” feminist perspectives. One example of this is Helen Joyce’s 2021 book, Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, which promotes various aspects of trans-critical misinformation.47 Joyce points the finger at wealthy people such as Soros, trans investor Jennifer Pritzker and billionaire architect Jon Stryker, claiming they are “funding trans activism”. In a review of Joyce’s book, Alex Sharpe notes that this singles out three Jewish donors.48 In response, Joyce claims that it “never occurred” to her to think about the religions of the examples she chose to illustrate the funding of the “global agenda” that she attacks. However, as Sharpe says, “Joyce should have been more attentive to the potential consequences of foregrounding Jewish donors.”
Similarly, Jennifer Bilek, a “trans-critical” blogger, has claimed that Jewish people such as Soros, Pritzker and author Martine Rothblatt are behind a “transhumanist” movement intended to erase women and transform human society into a techno-globalist dystopia.49 Bilek’s attacks on trans rights are widely circulated on social media by anti-trans groups and individuals who rarely distance themselves from this singling out of Jewish figures. The result, as Ben Lorber and Heron Greenesmith point out, has been to “spread antisemitic conspiracy theories deep within anti-trans feminist movements”.50
Christa Peterson, a researcher who examines antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories among anti-trans feminists, has listed many examples, drawing attention to the danger of these views becoming mainstream and providing an entry point into far-right politics. According to Peterson, who has assiduously followed Stock’s social media posts for years, she “enthusiastically shared a feverish piece attributing the trans movement to a conspiracy funded by George Soros and his organisation’s ‘many astroturf tentacles’.” Peterson’s detailed critique of Stock’s activities and book expose the misinformation and logical fallacies that underlie her trans-exclusionary politics.51
Another source of transphobia is trans-exclusionary feminists, particularly radical feminists. We should note that many feminists, and indeed many radical feminists, particularly those from younger generations, are trans inclusive. Some have developed robust arguments against trans exclusion. In fact, there is no shortage of arguments against transphobia from within feminism.52
Nevertheless, trans exclusion by radical feminists does have a long history, with some trying to drive trans women out of the women’s movement from as early as the beginning of the 1970s. In 1979, Janice Raymond published her notoriously transphobic book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, in which she argued, “Transsexualism…should be morally mandated out of existence”.53 Her suggestions that radical feminists should lobby against funds for trans healthcare and make transitioning as difficult as possible continue to have considerable repercussions today. Raymond herself was instrumental in the campaign to oust a trans woman, Sandy Stone, from the trans-inclusive Olivia Records collective in 1974, a campaign that nearly destroyed the collective and put Stone’s life in danger following death threats from armed trans-exclusionary feminists.54
Initially, the various trans-exclusionary and “gender-critical” groups that emerged after 2016—rooted mainly in radical feminism but also, to some extent, socialist feminism—were focused on opposing self-identification in the Gender Recognition Act. Since their formation, however, many have been subject to substantial mission creep. Some have radicalised, opposing the Gender Recognition Act entirely and opposing trans protections in the Equalities Act. Others oppose trans women’s participation in women’s sports and recreation. Opposition to trans women’s access to “single-sex” spaces such as domestic violence refuges, prisons, changing rooms and toilets are endlessly aired, despite trans people having had access to these spaces for decades.
Some “gender critics” claim to support trans rights, but this support is offered in such a general and abstract way as to be meaningless when it comes to defending actual trans lives. Often, as, for instance, in Stock’s Material Girls, the trans rights they have in mind are impractical “separate and equal” facilities, in other words, forms of gender and sex apartheid.55 Whether such proposals constitute transphobia needs to be judged on the basis of their probable consequences.
Having rejected the foundational feminist tenet that “biology is not destiny”, many now in effect argue the converse—biology is all. Biological essentialism means that a person cannot “change sex”, that there are only two immutable sexes, and that consequently trans women remain potentially violent “men in drag”. Yet, modern biological science offers a much more nuanced account of the sexed human body than this, as I address in Transgender Resistance.56 This understanding of sex recognises that the sex assigned at birth is neither immutable nor binary. People’s biological sex characteristics do change over time—they are not, as the transphobes claim, static. Changes occur throughout our lives, sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstance, natural or otherwise. Moreover, how we categorise and give significance to sex and to its mutability is down to human culture and social relations.
Most of the hostility of trans exclusionists is directed at trans women, but their attitude to trans men is also negative, tending to erase them by claiming they are deluded lesbians who have been “transed” by transgender ideology and are thus deserters from lesbianism. Biological essentialism and a refusal to accept the existence of gender identity effectively erases people with intersex conditions as well as those with trans and non-binary identities. In Transgender Resistance I describe gender identity as “much more than a ‘feeling’”:
It is an outcome of interactions between the person’s self-perceived body, their biological sex (including in some cases their deep unease about this), the social perception of their body in the eyes of others, social factors like gender values and expectations, and finally the person’s development as a sexual being with sexual attractions and sexual needs (their sexuality). Our gender identity has a certain mutability and plasticity as a result of these dialectical interactions mutually influencing one another. However, it also has a level of persistence in the face of social pressures that serve to constrain us within binary and sex-ascribed social expectations on pain of hostility, disapproval, and even ostracism and violence.57
Transphobes and “trans-critical” authors deploy a series of myths designed to undermine transgender people’s rights, and I look at some of these in this section. Let us begin with some of the false legal arguments articulated by trans exclusionists. One is that trans people do not have legal protection to use single-sex spaces and so should be excluded from them. This is simply incorrect—trans people’s rights are covered under the Gender Recognition Act and more particularly by the Equality Act, in which “gender reassignment” is a protected characteristic. The law allows full access by trans people to single-sex spaces “unless there is a compelling and legitimate reason to the contrary”. Even then, as Sandra Duffy points out, “proportionate and reasonable accommodation must be made for their protection”.
Duffy, an academic lawyer working in human rights and specialising in gender and sexuality, has also published a detailed legal analysis of the Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights, mentioned above, and its conformity to international human rights law.58 The Declaration, published in 2019, has assumed the status of a papal decree among some transphobic groups. Transphobic and “gender-critical” organisations treat it as the last word on the supposed legal standing of “sex-based” and gender-based rights. In reality, it is a deeply flawed manifesto for the removal of trans people’s rights and their exclusion from social life.59 Duffy demonstrates that the Declaration is founded on false premises and is legally unsound. Crucially, although transphobes and “gender critics” constantly talk about “women’s sex-based rights”, Duffy notes that no such rights exist in law. They are “a fiction with the pretence of reality”:
The Declaration wants to argue that there are law-based “women’s rights” that inhere in people based on a certain set of physical characteristics correlating to an assignation of sex… However, there is no basis for this assertion in international human rights law.
What does exist in international human rights law and British jurisprudence is protection from discrimination based on sex, “wherein sex is one of a number of protected characteristics”. However, “‘Sex’ is broadly understood to also refer to the social aspects of gender”.60 For good reasons, reflecting the complexity and the social aspects of sex, the category “sex” in international human rights law is essentially a conflation of “sex and gender”. Furthermore: “The notion of ‘sex’ has evolved considerably to cover not only physiological characteristics but also the social construction of gender stereotypes, prejudices and expected roles”.61 In other words, “sex” as a prohibited ground of discrimination does not merely refer to biological characteristics. By claiming otherwise, the Declaration fundamentally misunderstands international human rights law.
Indeed, gender identity is recognised under international human rights law, despite transphobes frequently denying this. The United Nations draws on the 2007 “Yogyakarta Principles”, in which gender identity is “understood to refer to each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth”. This “personal sense of the body” may involve, “if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance and function (by medical, surgical or other means), and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms”.62
Another set of claims made by transphobes and some “trans-critical” authors is that many trans people regret their gender transition. However, as Julia Serano and others have demonstrated, the proportion of trans people who detransition is very small. Moreover, this is often a result of the transphobia they face during transition rather a decision that they are not trans. Indeed, some later decide to retransition. A 2021 article in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery surveyed 7,928 patients who had gender affirmative surgery and found the prevalence of regret after surgery was just 1 percent.63 Of course, there may conceivably be some under-reporting due to social stigma, but the proportion of those who detransition is still tiny. For the vast majority of trans people transition alleviates their sense of gender dysphoria by more closely bringing into line their body and their gender identity.
From a socialist perspective it would be wrong to stigmatise anyone who regrets their transition, and a decision to detransition should always be respected and supported as an expression of the person’s right to bodily autonomy. However, reputable peer-reviewed evidence certainly militates against the view that all trans people should be prevented from transitioning because a few trans people change their minds. Nor should they be made to jump almost insurmountable legal, medical and financial hurdles. Such obstacles especially penalise working-class trans people, who often struggle to keep regular employment, get education and find a secure home.
Studies show that being able to transition hugely benefits trans young people, whereas being prevented from doing so has seriously damaging effects on mental health and wellbeing.64 Despite claims to the contrary, nobody can access NHS surgical intervention before 18 years of age. One of the biggest problems faced by trans young people is getting a gender identity clinic appointment. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, waiting lists have risen, despite already being dire before the pandemic. At the time of writing, the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust was reporting a waiting time of four years.65 The idea of a “conveyor belt” automatically processing young trans people from referral to surgery is a transphobic myth.
These false accusations are linked to the common allegation that healthcare professionals are harming trans young people by caring for them. Such claims, repeated in Stock’s and Joyce’s books and elsewhere, are widely rejected by health practitioners and trans people themselves.66 The reality is that the harm is being caused by lengthy waiting lists and repeated attempts to block access to healthcare and medication such as puberty blockers, which are reversible and have been used for years in cases of precocious puberty.
“Rapid-onset gender dysphoria”
Another prevalent myth is that of social contagion: the claim that young, impressionable people are influenced by friends and social media into believing they are trans or non-binary when they may just be gay or “confused”. This is often derisively referred to as “rapid-onset gender dysphoria”. Media outlets have boosted these claims by, for instance, sympathetically reviewing Abigail Shrier’s claims about rapid-onset gender dysphoria in her bestselling book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.67
A foundational source for these ideas is a 2018 study by Lisa Littman.68 Though deeply methodologically flawed, this study has been used to attack and undermine affirmative care for trans children, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and practiced in British gender identity clinics such as the Tavistock and Portman Trust. Although rapid-onset gender dysphoria is not a diagnosis, Littman’s study could lead to its acceptance and the legitimation of “reparative” gender treatments—conversion therapy to get the children to accept their assigned sexes and what others think their gender and sexuality ought to be. Arjee Restar, who worked in the same department as Littman at Brown University, has published a critique of Littman’s study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, pointing to its inherent biases, such as its reliance on survey responses from concerned parents who had visited anti-trans websites and online forums.69
Autogynephilia—trans as fetishism
There are also claims that trans people, especially trans women, are sexual fetishists motivated by a pathological disorder. This theory, “discovered” by the sexologist Ray Blanchard in 1989, has had a recent resurgence. Blanchard labelled it “autogynephilia”, a form of narcissism in which men allegedly become sexually aroused by imagining themselves as women.70 This theory, which most trans people consider to be transphobic, relates to the complex interplay between sex, gender identity, sexual desires and sexual fantasies. It seeks to explain gender dysphoria as a form of misdirected sexual arousal, discounting the obverse possibility that various “cross-sex” sexual fantasies may be the result of a person’s gender dysphoria.
The theory of autogynephilia has been repeatedly debunked. Blanchard’s findings have not been replicated, and his methodological shortcomings have been frequently criticised. Serano concludes that:
As a theory of transsexual etiology and taxonomy, autogynephilia has little merit… Future studies that seek to understand the phenomena of cross-gender arousal, and female/feminine embodiment fantasies, should be conducted in a manner that is respectful of this diversity, deferential to what male-to-female spectrum individuals say about their own experiences and careful to avoid needlessly exacerbating the non-consensual sexualisation that this population already faces.71
Trans people as a physical threat
Perhaps the most common accusation against trans people in the media is the fearmongering claim that trans women’s access to women’s spaces is a safety danger. This allegation frequently forms the basis for legal challenges to remove rights of access to gender-appropriate spaces for trans and non-binary people, especially trans women. In July 2021, the High Court ruled against one such attempt, finding that the Ministry of Justice was correct to house trans women in women’s prisons, subject to appropriate and rigorous risk assessment processes.72
There is very little evidence to support such scaremongering. Transphobes and “gender critics” rely on rare cases of assaults by trans-identified people and manipulated statistics to argue that all of trans people’s legal rights of access to public toilets, changing rooms, refuges and gender-appropriate prison estates should be curtailed. Promoting such arguments increases the threats of harassment and assault for trans and non-binary people in spaces that they need to use. Moreover, often the targets of the self-appointed gender police turn out to be cisgender women who are not stereotypically “feminine” enough.73 It is a sad irony that feminists who push these arguments rely on conventional oppressive binary gender stereotypes.
The debate on the left
Regrettably some socialists have capitulated to the view that trans rights conflict with women’s rights.74 In doing so they have provided political cover for the right’s anti-working-class politics and hostility to trans people. We need solidarity between oppressed groups, not the opening up of divisions. Advances for trans rights also mean advances for women’s rights, LGBT+ rights and the rights of all oppressed groups. Victories for transphobic and trans-exclusionary ideas are emboldening for the right—they strengthen its attacks on other groups and on the working class as a whole.
Adherence to a biological essentialist understanding of sex has led these left-wing “gender critics” into a dangerous muddle. One example is the socialist Morning Star newspaper, which has been sympathetic towards “gender-critical” claims and published a string of articles articulating this. Notoriously, the paper pushed a cartoon in 2020 that showed a crocodile slithering into a pond and saying, “Don’t worry your pretty little heads. I’m transitioning into a newt”.75 This image generated a huge backlash, including from various trade unions, forcing the Morning Star to print a half-hearted apology, although sadly this failed to alter its general editorial line.76
At the level of socialist organisations, George Galloway’s Workers’ Party of Britain opposes trans rights and any comprehensive sex education in schools that includes awareness of differences in sexuality and gender presentation, pandering to the most conservative religious sentiments. It also rejects amending the Gender Recognition Act to include self-identification.77
In the wake of Stock’s resignation, Counterfire, another left-wing group, claimed that she is not transphobic: “The statements from both Sussex UCU and the national union both fell far short of what should be said faced with this campaign of intimidation. Accusations of transphobia against Stock are wide of the mark”.78 Unfortunately, Counterfire’s statement said nothing about the intimidation and threats faced by trans and non-binary students at Sussex University. It also failed to recognise that the UCU had quite rightly stated its solidarity with trans and non-binary students at the university. The article amounted to an apologia for Stock’s activism and ideas. Making abstract pleas for “debate and dialogue”, such left-wing organisations display a lack of basic empathy with trans and non-binary people, instead expecting them to debate their own existence. They fail to accept that trans rights are human rights. Instead, their biological essentialism leads them to deny that trans women are women and trans men are men and that non-binary identities are worthy of respect and dignity.
Many arguments deployed by left-wing “gender critics” misunderstand what constitutes materiality in the Marxist sense, leading to claims that gender identity is not “real” or “material” and is instead just a “feeling” or, worse, a delusion. As noted above, I challenge this view of gender identity in Transgender Resistance. Christa Peterson also argues:
People have an internal sense of their own gender that can come apart from their knowledge of their assigned sex. This is generally fixed and certainly not revisable in the way ordinary beliefs are. This is an empirical claim. It is empirical. It is close to a bare description of trans people’s existence and experience.79
It is a serious mistake for any socialist to deny this. If we accept that a person’s sexuality is real, why not a person’s gender identity? Indeed, trans people, contrary to what is sometimes crudely claimed, do not deny the existence of biological sex: what is generally being denied is that being a man or a woman is all about biological sex, and that sex is only about biology.
The claims of the “trans-critical” left reflect a mechanical misunderstanding of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’s materialism. Their historical materialism was applied to things and events in both the natural and social worlds, including human consciousness, knowledge and behaviour. Thus, class consciousness, sexuality, the motivations and drives behind our interactions with others, our gender expressions and our behaviours are all material factors in what Marx calls “the ensemble of social relations”, the totality. All of these human social and psychological phenomena are part of our activity in the world and our interactions with others, the existing technological forces and the prevailing mode of production. Moreover, they are a part of the labour we collectively perform on the natural world.80
One of the tasks for Marxists today is to further develop a robust historical materialist understanding of the roots of the oppression of both women and transgender people. One recent contribution to this is Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke’s Transgender Marxism.81 This collection of essays by a range of trans activists and theorists sets out to examine “transness” within the social relations of capitalism in a period of growing crises for the system. The editors point out that the academic field of transgender studies has been a source of positive contributions to other areas, such as gender studies and queer studies, for several decades. These contributions have furthered our understanding of sex, gender and oppression. As they note:
Capitalism as a mode of production requires circuits of circulation, consumption and social reproduction. Far from a marginal concern, the regulation of gender and sexuality must be understood as integral to capitalism.82
In other words, trans oppression, like other oppressions, is bound up with the production of value and profit under capitalism. The contributors to Transgender Marxism offer robust alternatives to both liberal and identity theory approaches that currently dominate trans rights activism. Queer theory, privilege theory and identity theory approaches fail to recognise class conflict and exploitation as the sources of structural and institutional oppressions.83 They also fail to centre the working class, its struggles and its revolutionary potential as an agent of liberation. Instead, they tend to assume that cisgender people can be at best only “allies” in the fight for trans rights. In contrast, Marxists recognise that, although trans people have a right to organisational autonomy, working-class cisgender people also have an objective interest in fighting transphobia. Failing to do so is detrimental for the entire working class. The key to liberation, therefore, is solidarity within the working class between trans and non-trans people, and between all oppressed groups.
Adherence to identity politics approaches among anti-oppression activists must be addressed with sensitivity by Marxists. Given the very low levels of working-class struggle for many decades, it is unsurprising that the power of workers is unclear to many, especially younger, activists. When discussing how trans liberation can be achieved, Marxists need examples of the power of workers’ action. We also need a capacity to explain that identity politics—and various liberal “solutions” such as getting more trans, black and female faces into high places—are ultimately inadequate tools for liberation, even if they are understandable reactions to oppression. Proposed solutions based on such politics will inevitably remain trapped within the capitalist mode of production and privatised property relations. Marxists recognise that reactionary agendas and movements can only be fought effectively by mass resistance from below, and ultimately by the working class resisting its exploitation and oppression in order to fight for systemic transformation.
Transphobic and “trans-critical” voices are loud and disproportionately influential, but polls continue to show they are a minority. The British population is broadly supportive of trans rights, and this is especially so among young people.84 A 2020 survey found 51 percent were comfortable or very comfortable with trans women using women’s refuges and only 24 percent uncomfortable. Some 66 percent of women said they were comfortable or very comfortable with trans women using women’s public toilets, although this had fallen from 72 percent since 2016.85 The government’s consultation on the Gender Recognition Act, published in 2020, showed around 70 percent supported self-identification.86
There are also grounds for optimism about the potential for resistance. Various legal attacks against healthcare for trans people and rights under the Gender Recognition Act and Equality Act have failed. “Trans-critical” motions put to a number of trade union conferences have also been rejected. Moreover, there have been inspiring examples of collective resistance, such as at Temple High School in Texas, where students staged a mass walkout to support a trans school student.87 Indeed, trans people and their supporters are increasingly getting organised, as shown by the founding of the Feminist Gender Equality Network (formerly called the Gender Inclusion Network), which has attracted hundreds of academics and activists to its meetings.88 Even during the Covid-19 lockdowns, angry protests against the Tories were organised over the issue of trans self-identification. In some places Trans Pride events were organised and attracted significant trade union support.89 Resistance to rising transphobia is growing; socialists must strive to shape these struggles and fight to win trans, non-binary and gender-diverse people to socialism, building the networks and organisations we need to make revolution a reality.
The Transgender Nation activist Susan Stryker is widely credited with having launched the field of transgender studies in 1994 with her ground-breaking performance and 1994 essay, “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix”.90 This suggested an analogy between “transness” and Frankenstein’s monster, seeking to recast the subject of this “monstering” from a despised victim into an active subject capable of remaking themselves and the world. She urged trans people to emulate the monster’s rage at his treatment and redirect that anger outwards—to resist, to identify the problem as society’s and not the individual’s, and to fight back and change the world. Resistance to trans oppression, and oppression in general, is part of the working-class struggle for a better world, a socialist world. Trans liberation has a relationship to all the struggles against the oppressive and exploitative capitalist system under which we live. In an interview in 2019, Stryker was asked about the relevance of climate change to trans. She responded:
If we live in an anthropogenically changing climate, one way to address that is to change what it means to be human. And so we can imagine a human subject that desires differently, that imagines its relationship to the environment differently, that imagines sociality differently, and has a different relationship to technology and embodiment. These are the things that we are talking about with trans. It is the reformulation of something that is meant to be inhuman or is feared as representing an inhumanity, an unnaturalness, a monstrosity, and using that as the basis for imagining how people can be otherwise to how they are.91
Laura Miles is a former LGBT+ rep on the national executive committee of the UCU, author of Transgender Resistance: Socialism and the Fight for Transgender Liberation, and a member of the SWP in Leeds.
1 I am very grateful to Joseph Choonara, Richard Donnelly, Kate Mayer and Sheila McGregor, who read earlier drafts of this article and made a number of helpful comments and suggestions.
2 Self-identification, or “self-ID”, refers to a proposed amendment to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 that would enable a person to obtain a gender recognition certificate to change their birth certificate through a legal declaration. This would replace the current medicalised and lengthy process, which requires a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
3 Miles, 2020.
4 TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” and is a commonly used acronym that is applied to a range of anti-trans individuals and organisations. I tend to avoid its use because it is insufficiently accurate; some radical feminists are trans-inclusive, and some who are not radical feminists are hostile to trans rights. Instead, this article generally uses the term “gender critical” when referring to the range of feminists and others on the left who oppose various trans rights. The terms “trans critical” and “trans exclusionary” also appear. The right and far right are not “gender critical”; these political forces can better be described simply as “transphobic”—they hate and fear gender-variant people of all genders and identities.
5 Miles, 2020, pp51-52.
6 For an explication of the notion of the “tribune of the oppressed”, see Lenin, 1947.
7 Employment Appeal Tribunal, 2021.
8 Keira Bell, who had been through gender transition but regretted their decision, brought a legal challenge against her gender identity clinic. She was supported by various “gender-critical” groups. This litigation intended to prevent clinicians from prescribing puberty blocker medication to young trans people—www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Bell-v-Tavistock-Judgment.pdf
9 Gillick competency refers to a set of guidelines originally concerning the right of young people to make informed decisions about access to contraception without parental approval, deriving from a legal case brought by Victoria Gillick in 1983. These guidelines are used to determine young people’s ability to give informed consent about contraception, abortion and medical procedures.
10 Nottingham, 2021.
11 Lowbridge, 2021.
12 Faye, 2021, p6.
13 Butler, 2021.
14 Phillips, 2020. Foreign observers are often bemused by how transphobic the British media has become. Indeed, in November 2018, Guardian staff in the United States condemned the anti-trans editorial position of their British counterparts—see Levin, Chalabi and Siddiqui, 2018.
15 Stonewall, 2017.
16 Stonewall, 2018.
17 Bradley, 2020.
18 Good Law Project, 2021.
19 UK Government, 2021.
20 Grinspan, 2021.
21 Bradley, 2020.
22 Milton, 2021.
23 McLean, 2021.
24 Kelleher, 2021a; Stock, 2021.
25 University and College Union, 2021.
26 Kelleher, 2021b.
27 Women’s Human Rights Campaign, 2019.
28 Sussex University, 2018.
29 Parsons, 2021a.
30 Lawrie, 2021a.
31 Kelleher, 2021c.
32 McKay, 2021.
33 McDougall, 2021.
34 Riley, 2021, pp8-9.
36 Ben Chikha, 2021, p2.
37 Ben Chikha, 2021, p6.
38 Ben Chikha, 2021, p14.
39 Fae, 2021.
40 Krishnakumar, 2021.
41 Zoellner, 2021.
42 Fae, 2021.
43 Norris, 2021.
44 Beckett and Levin, 2021.
45 Gill-Peterson, 2021.
46 Global Philanthropy Project, 2021.
47 Joyce, 2021.
48 Sharpe, 2021.
49 Bilek, 2018.
50 Lorber and Greenesmith, 2021; Joaquina, 2021.
51 Peterson, 2021.
52 Kennedy, 2021; Siddiqui, 2021.
53 Raymond, 1979, p178.
54 Williams, 2014.
55 Stock, 2021, chapter 8.
56 Miles, 2020, chapter 3.
57 Miles, 2020, p53.
58 Duffy, 2021.
59 Moore, 2021.
60 United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2009 (my emphasis).
61 United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2009.
62 Duffy, 2021, p5.
63 Bustos, Bustos and others, 2021.
64 Durwood, McLaughlin and Olson, 2017.
66 For example, see Kimberly, Folkers and Friesen, 2018.
67 Russia Today, 2021; Shrier, 2021.
68 Littman, 2018.
69 Restar, 2020.
70 Blanchard, 1989; Moser, 2010.
71 Serano, 2020.
72 Lawrie, 2021b.
73 Maza and Brinker, 2014.
74 The response from the “gender-critical” Woman’s Place UK organisation to Sophia Siddiqui (Siddiqui, 2021) makes clear that it sees support for trans people’s self-identification as a threat to women’s rights: “It is the organised attempt to remove women’s right to single-sex exemptions that has created the problem. To do so would be an infringement on rights women have won to address the persistent structural and cultural discrimination and oppression we face.”—see https://womansplaceuk.org/2021/06/14/wpuk-mythbusters-a-response-to-the-irr-and-others
75 Parsons, 2020b.
76 Morning Star, 2020.
78 German, 2021.
79 Peterson, 2021.
80 Marx, 1845.
81 Gleeson and O’Rourke, 2021.
82 Gleeson and O’Rourke, 2021, p26.
83 Privilege theory argues that those who do not face a particular oppression (such as white people in respect of racism and men in respect of sexism) are “privileged”. This leads towards individualised “calling out” of supposed privilege and the demand to “check your privilege” rather than to collective struggle against oppressions understood as being rooted in the class nature of capitalism. For a critique of privilege theory, see Choonara and Prasad, 2014.
84 YouGov, 2020.
85 Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2020.
86 House of Commons Library, 2020.
87 Mochizuki, 2021.
89 Ringrose, 2021.
90 Stryker, 1994.
91 Sanders, 2019.