Feminism, identity politics and trans activism

This is part of a series on Transgender Rights and Marxism. I’m looking at the state of trans activism today, the record of LGBT identity politics and whether Queer Theory offers a way forward. In today’s blog post, I want to look at the rise of identity politics in the 1970s and both its upsides and downsides. Then the first indication from the late 1970s to the present day that some feminists were going to become sworn enemies of trans people – and why that happened.

I came out in the 1980s at a time when AIDS had both devastated but also emboldened the LGBT community. As we burst into the 1990s, pressure groups ranging from mildly reformist to direct action demanded a lowering of the age of consent from 21 years of age; gay marriage and an end to discrimination in jobs, housing, and financial services.

At the same time, the gay bar and club scene in my native London expanded so fast I used to call it ‘gay imperialism’. One pub after another became a ‘gay bar’. After the grim times of the 80s, what wasn’t to like about some strident identity politics? I guess for me it all reached a climax attending the New York Pride marches year after year in the early 2000s cheering on the likes of Hillary Clinton as she waved to us striding down Fifth Avenue.

It was a far cry from the politics I’d adhered to in the early 1980s. A member of a Marxist group called Militant with my nose hidden in the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. A firm believer in the prime role of the working class in changing society and creating a socialist future.

So, what happened to me and many others? Defeats for the organisations of the working class – the trade unions and left-wing parties is what happened. Add to that the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991. Not that many of us supported the rotten Stalinism that had long established itself. But the continued existence of the USSR nevertheless evidenced that another kind of society was possible. After 1991, that was punctured.

With the end of Soviet rule came the complete victory of neo-liberalism, which extended into all spheres of life. The cult of the individual was paramount in both the political and economic realms. The working class was atomised. There was no such thing as society – as Margaret Thatcher once opined. And the whole idea of building a movement to transform society seemed like a forlorn hope postponed for the indefinite future. Because for now – history was over as the American political economist Francis Fukyuama declared at the time.

And did that impact LGBT politics – and the fight for trans rights? Yep – you bet it did! Didn’t matter if you’d never read a word of Karl Marx in your life. The retreat of Marxism would impact thinking across all branches of liberation politics.

Now, an older generation than me (born, say, in the 1940s) would point to 1968 as the beginning of the end for Marxist dominance in left-wing thought – a year of revolt by workers and students that ended in defeat. From that point, an intellectual movement got underway that shoved the Marxist historical meta-narrative to the side as well as the whole notion of the need to build a united movement for change. Post-modernism and post-structuralism came to the fore. This had a seismic impact on both the feminist and LGBT movements.

Whereas as a Marxist in the early 1980s, I’d been told to “put myself on the standpoint of the working class” and almost humble myself as a callow, middle class youth before the proletariat – it was all change in the 1990s. Increasingly, I defined myself through my sexuality. Becoming, in effect, a small part of the all-conquering identity politics of the last quarter of the 20th century. This coincided with coming out to everybody I knew and to an extent retreating into a gay ghetto. Though that wasn’t necessarily an unpleasant experience. It meant new friendships and some incredible experiences!

But what I soon discovered was that within the gay sub-set of LGBT – there were hidden hierarchies and discrimination. “A-Gays” – affluent homosexuals – looked down on less well-off gays. Black and Asian gays shared their experience of racism on the scene. There was also a strong awareness that we were a commercial market. And dismay among many LGBT people as our annual London Pride event became something we watched from the sidelines – as endless corporate floats drifted by – as opposed to being in the march as we had been in the past.

LGBT liberation through capitalism?

All that said, by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, LGBT identity politics and capitalism seemed to have found common ground. Human Resources departments couldn’t do enough, it seemed, to accommodate their LGBT employees. As one commentator put it:

“Due to current forms of capitalism, employers have a need to keep employees happy and enable them to seek meaning through their jobs. As a result, LGBT employees and their allies have seized upon the opportunity by creating spaces that enable social support and working toward organisational change.”

It appeared that capitalism might confound Engels by accommodating non-nuclear families and LGBT people into the system. There was no need to overthrow capitalism. You just had to convince the capitalists that LGBT people posed no real threat, were a potential market and could also be great employees even ascending to the boardroom without the sky crashing down.

But for trans people – there were still huge obstacles in the way and dangers abounded. Not least, a wave of hatred from within the feminist and LGBT movements. Identity politics was about to show its very ugly face.

FIND OUT MORE: Karl Marx meets Transgender Rights

Feminist identity politics and trans activism

How on earth did some feminists end up declaring war on trans people? Let’s journey back to the dawn of what’s termed Second Wave Feminism. The era of struggle for women’s rights from the 1960s to the 1990s. You could call it Boomer Feminism. Significant reforms were won but this era concluded with the first fiery broadside from within the ranks of feminism aimed at transgender people.

So, how did Second Wave Feminism begin?

In 1963, journalist Betty Friedan authored The Feminine Mystique. This bestselling book was a polemic against the notion that women should stick to being dutiful housewives and mothers. It was snapped up voraciously by women who felt their lives were disappearing down the kitchen sink plughole.

But twenty years later, the black feminist bell hooks (her pen name had no capital letters) asked a pertinent question of Friedan: where are the black and working-class women in your book? Friedan’s concern, she alleged, was for college-educated white women who were bored with home life. But for millions of women there was no husband paying the bills and far from spending all day in the kitchen, they were in factories, or cleaning floors or even working the streets.

It would have been a stinging criticism for Friedan because for many years – she was a Marxist activist. In real life, Friedan was about as remote from the bored housewives she was writing about as you could possibly imagine. At college, she had fought for the unionisation of maids on campus and as a freelance political journalist was known in left-wing circles for her pro-Soviet stance.

But after publishing The Feminine Mystique, all that hinterland got brushed under the carpet. Pardon the housewife metaphor. And her critics on the feminist left denounced her evolution into a very establishment, liberal feminist.

However as co-founder and president of the National Organisation for Women (NOW) Friedan was undoubtedly a champion of equality and abortion rights, achieving many reforms and bringing the feminist debate into millions of homes – even if it was often the subject of ridicule and misogynist jibes.

Friedan, though, was not so hot on LGBT related issues. As she put it: “Homosexuality…is not, in my opinion, what the women’s movement is all about”. Friedan was worried that lesbians – or the “lavender menace” as she referred to them in 1969 – would undermine her lobbying the establishment for women’s rights. She didn’t want to be seen as anti-family and fretted that supporting lesbian rights was a step too far for NOW.

In 1970, a group of lesbian feminists reacted to Friedan’s peevishness by forming a group they mockingly called – the Lavender Menace. Part of a long tradition in politics of appropriating the other side’s insulting term for you. This led to a realignment of some lesbian feminists away from both the Gay Liberation Front and the mainstream feminist movement to advance the cause of lesbian feminism.

But the problem Betty Friedan had with lesbians would be as nothing compared to the looming bust up between some Second Wave Feminists, lesbians, and transgender people. To understand this, let’s just restate in simple terms what trans activists wanted. Their core demand was official recognition by the authorities of who they are outside of the binary categories of male and female.

That gender recognition should not involve a long, bureaucratic process involving medical practitioners and psychologists. They also, like gays and lesbians, wanted the right to marry. And yes, male-to-female trans felt access to rest rooms of their choice was only fair as well as membership of sports teams that fitted with their chosen identity.

A significant number of Second Wave Feminists and lesbian activists were having none of that. In their take on identity politics – nobody becomes female. You’re born that way or not. There is no middle ground. The idea that you can ‘feel’ you’re a woman is anathema because the very notion of femininity is a “ritualised submission” foisted on women by society which transgender people reinforce with claims such as having a female brain in a male body.

To these Second Wave Feminists, if you’re born a man then you never lose your privilege even if you choose to become a woman. As a woman can never experience that choice. When a male-to-female trans individual demands acceptance as a woman, it’s just yet another display of male entitlement. But then the argument is taken one step further to a point at which any compromise is impossible. Let me break it down into a deductive syllogism that I don’t think is simplistic but spot on:

  1. All men are rapists
  2. Male-to-female transgender are basically men
  3. Therefore, male-to-female transgender people are rapists

That is the argument in a nutshell. Obviously, I don’t endorse it just to be clear! But you won’t have to look far to see that line of reasoning in trans-exclusionary feminist blogs and social media channels today.

“The Transsexual Empire” – identity politics and trans ‘ideology’

This line of argument isn’t recent. It’s now over forty years old. In 1979, radical lesbian feminist Professor Janice Raymond published a bombshell book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. For Raymond, trans rights were not feminist-friendly and “trans ideology” but an existential attack on women and lesbians.

The language used in The Transsexual Empire is incendiary and uncompromising, setting the tone for the next few decades:

“All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating the body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit, as well. Rape, although it is usually done by force, can also be accomplished by deception.”

The idea that male-to-female trans people are automatically rapists because they have appropriated women’s bodies is jaw-dropping stuff. Raymond refuses to countenance that any sex change is genuine and even when trans people have clearly suffered from discrimination, she argues that wanting to change sex is like a black person wanting to be white.

“There is no demand for transracial medical intervention precisely because most Blacks recognise that it is their society, not their skin, that needs changing.”

The term ‘transgender’, replacing transsexual, is viewed by Raymond and feminists of a similar outlook as an extension of trans-ness to envelop just about everybody in the LGBT movement. Not just pre and post-op trans people. The real reasons for liberalising attitudes towards changing sex, in Raymond’s view are surgeons benefitting financially and allocating “acceptable” gender categories to “gender rebels” who are “disrupting the two-gendered system of male supremacy”.

Trans ‘ideology’ and the problem of identity politics

There are elements of the second wave feminist arguments on transgender that taken in isolation might conceivably have some merit. The way in which the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry have medicated sex and sexuality in the past. It’s not that long ago that gay men were subjected to drugs regimes and even electric shock treatment to ‘cure’ their same sex feelings.

The argument that gender-dysphoric young people might be better off challenging gender stereotypes than changing biological sex could be worthy of consideration. And that biological sex, from which women cannot escape or choose, has been weaponised by capitalism and the patriarchy it has fostered to assign women to certain roles and an inferior status.

The gut instinct of a Marxist would be to address these issues within ‘the movement’. But that isn’t the approach of these Second Wave influenced feminists. Instead, some have aligned to the conservative and even extreme Right – as we’ll see – to block trans rights. Even when the people they are teaming up with to declare war on transgender activism are also seeking to curb gay and lesbian rights – and roll back access to abortion.

And their activity on social media – including the tweets of a certain famous children’s author – are well documented.

These feminists have no affinity to trans people though some see themselves not only as Marxist influenced – but standard bearers against the influence of post-modernist and neo-liberal gender ‘ideology’. Trans people depicted as some kind of neo-liberal Trojan Horse that has been wheeled into the labour movement where at any moment it will cause untold damage.

More on that later!

For Second Wave feminists who came to prominence from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, ‘trans ideology’ is an existential threat to feminism. In her down to earth way of expressing things, the veteran feminist Germaine Greer – author of the 1970s best seller The Female Eunuch said in 2015 that any man who has been married and had kids who then declares he is “trans” is not to be believed. “The wife is dumped, and the children are bastardised,” is the consequence from many men transitioning to become women, Greer opined.

And where children are born “intersex” – that is their genitals are indeterminate to a degree – they should not be subject to an operation.  In 2018, feminist activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull went on TV to declare that transgender women threaten feminism and the very idea of what it is to be a woman. Women, she claimed, are now referred to as “menstruators”, “chest feeders”, etc.

This is the level of ‘debate’ on transgender rights at the present time.

In the next blog post in this series on Transgender Rights and Marxism, we stay with identity politics to see how trans people have been accused of ‘erasing’ other oppressed groups and the lengths to which some anti-trans feminists will go to undermine the forward march of trans liberation.



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2 replies

  1. This isn’t a Marxist analysis. You ignore the material reality that transwomen are males masquerading as females.

    • Hi – Did mention the accusation of subjective idealism, the rejection of material reality, against Queer Theory over that issue. And I get that Marxists are not united on this at all. Which kind of makes it fascinating and infuriating. But – having gone on an intellectual and ideological journey with these five blog posts, I’m bound to say I think identity politics has set us all at each other’s throats. It’s not a good situation where some feminists feel they should side with groups who oppose LGBT rights and abortion rights – just to trample on trans people. Don’t you think something has gone badly wrong here?

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