The problem of identity politics

In this concluding part on the shortcomings of identity politics regarding Transgender Rights, let’s consider three contentious areas: Claims by groups including lesbians and women that they are being ‘erased’. Alliances that have emerged between Second Wave Feminists and the extreme Right. And the problem identity politics has with intersectionality.

Identity politics and fear of ‘erasure’

Just a casual trawl of Google throws up blog posts and articles about lesbian erasure, bisexual erasure, and queer erasure. It’s as if the liberation pie is a finite size and if one group is getting a bigger slice than another group then somebody is getting disadvantaged. That’s not to dismiss claims of erasure out of hand but it has proven to be a source of division and rancour that mitigates against greater unity between and within LGBT and feminist movements.

Bisexuals have long complained of being subject to erasure by the rest of the LGBT community – and academia. In 2005, a team of psychologists in Chicago and Toronto went so far as to question whether bisexuality really existed. This almost echoed a refrain often heard from some gay men that “you’re either gay, straight or lying”. However, the same university in 2011 declared that they’d got it wrong and new research now supported the existence of bisexuals!

But certain attitudes persist. In 2018, a character on a Netflix drama uttered these words: “Bi is just a stop on the train to Gayville.”

Transgender people also feel erased – ‘ciswashed’ out of the history of LGBT struggle. For example, the involvement of trans activists in the 1969 Stonewall Riots was long overlooked. And they continue to feel underserved by the mainstream LGBT lobby groups although that situation has improved significantly in recent years.

Yet the most vociferously expressed fear of erasure comes from trans-exclusionary feminists. To give a flavour of the argument, in an anthology titled Female Erasure, it’s asserted that the so-called “medical transgenderism industry” is preventing “meaningful discussions about sex, gender, changing laws that have provided sex-based protections for women and girls, and the re-framing of language referring to females as a distinct biological class”.

The rising visibility of transgender people is deemed to be at the expense of women’s rights. Especially in areas like access to single-sex spaces including rape crisis centres or women’s refuges. This is in effect a denial of support or even recognition of trans male-to-female victims of sexual and domestic abuse. But trans-exclusionary feminists argue that as male-to-female trans are not actually women, they should not be able to use these facilities.

Many rape crisis centres have made it clear that they will not adhere to this anti-trans line of thinking. One centre in the northern English city of Leeds declares on its website that it’s “proud to be a feminist organisation” and that it protects and maintains its women-only services and spaces. But by that, it “means people who self-identity as being a woman or a girl”. That includes transgender male-to-female and those who are non-binary. If somebody identifies as a woman and have been subjected to abuse, they get support.

However, positions are becoming increasingly entrenched. The appointment in 2021 of a transgender woman, Mridul Wadhwa, to lead the Edinburgh Rape Crisis centre in Scotland caused an all too predictable storm. Wadhwa had already unleashed a tsunami of protest from the anti-trans lobby after being selected as a candidate for the ruling Scottish National Party from an all-women shortlist. Yet again, claims of cis women being erased.

Trans-exclusionary feminists had barely enough time to catch their breath when Wadhwa got under their skin with a call for more “intersectional inclusion in rape crisis services” As we’ll see below, intersectionality and identity politics don’t mix as well as you might assume. Wadhwa is a living case study of this. She has experienced transphobia – in India and the UK – racism and misogyny.

In an online debate during the Covid lockdown, she asserted that rape crisis services were used predominantly by cis white women and it was her aim to see more marginalised groups “further away from the cis white heteronormative existence” being aware of the help they could get after abuse. But Wadhwa came under fire from trans-exclusionary feminists who took umbrage at the suggestion that women coming to a rape crisis centre could be challenged about their own prejudices as part of the recovery process. Wadhwa said:

“But I think the other thing is that sexual violence happens to bigoted people as well. And so, you know, it is not discerning crime. But these spaces are also for you. But if you bring unacceptable beliefs that are discriminatory in nature, we will begin to work with you on your journey of recovery from trauma. But please also expect to be challenged on your prejudices.”

That went down like a lead balloon with some feminists. One commentary claimed Wadhwa wanted “women’s service providers to commit to blanket inclusion of trans identified males into women’s services”. And that “Wadhwa had a weighty agenda hidden within the rambling intersectionality narrative”.

Around the world, the battle lines have been drawn between trans-exclusionary feminism and trans activism. Claims of erasure abound. But most shockingly – some on one side of this volcanic argument are prepared to side with the Far Right to achieve their objectives.

DISCOVER: Karl Marx meets Transgender Rights and Identity Politics

Feminists who align with the Far Right to scupper Transgender Rights

In early 2021, the Spanish coalition government considered a new law proposed by the United Left making it easier to obtain a legal gender and name change. This followed a hunger strike by trans activists on the steps of the Spanish parliament building in 2018. Predictably, the country’s still powerful Catholic church and right-wing parties were horrified. Gender self-determination with no diagnosis, medical treatment or judge required was beyond the pale. Even though eight other countries in the European Union now have similar laws.

The church and right-wing took aim at the ability of children under 16 to bypass parental objections and access treatment for gender dysphoria. Maybe to their astonishment – the bishops and conservatives found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with Spanish feminists. They argued – echoing the sentiments of trans-exclusionary feminists around the world – that trans rights weaken the definition of what it is to be a woman and therefore make it harder to root out sexism and misogyny in society.

Predictably – toilets became a political flashpoint. The prospect of latrines being designated according to “registered gender” brought Confluencia Feminista – an alliance of women’s organisations – out against the proposed law.

Feminists within the United Left issued a statement making the entirely valid points that Spain has an appalling record on male violence and a high level of prostitution. But then conflated this with the new trans law viewed as another attack on the rights and dignity of women. “This is a fight that we cannot walk away from.” The statement claimed the new law represented “neo-liberal doctrines” permeating the left; attacked hard-won rights for women and promoted “gender ideology”.

But it’s the inflammatory arguments of veteran communist and feminist Lidia Falcon that are most notable. Falcon’s vehement opposition to the trans law has found her on the same side as the far-right Vox party. Which is ironic – and a bit sad – because 85-year-old Falcon was imprisoned and tortured by the fascist dictatorship of General Franco which ruled Spain up until 1975. Yet in March 2021, Falcon shared a platform with Vox and the right-wing ultra-Catholic organisation Hazte Oir – even though it opposes abortion rights for women and “LGBTI indoctrination” on TV.

Falcon and her Feminist Party, founded in 1977, have now been expelled from the United Left while one of the country’s main LGBT platforms pressed the authorities to conduct a hate crime investigation against her over comments that trans people and gays defend child abuse. She also described the trans lobby as a “mutant sect”. To Falcon, the transgender rights law in Spain is a victory for post-modernism, neo-liberalism, and the decline of the Left since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In another interview, Falcon was asked if trans women could play a role in the feminist movement. She pointed out that the Feminist Party has men in its ranks who were both feminists and “comrades”. But her comradeliness doesn’t extend to trans people.

“What is this about trans women now, who are strange beings who decide to be a woman but who are born as a man, pretend to be protagonists of this feminism?”

To Falcon, the transgender lobby – and its LGBT allies – is an unwitting tool of patriarchy and capitalism come to divide the feminist movement. Because more time is spent discussing who is a woman and who is not than the number of women murdered each year, pay, domestic abuse and poverty. And she crowns these arguments with some biological essentialism likening the existence of trans people to the stuff of fantasy novels and science fiction.

Falcon’s argument in a nutshell is that transgender rights is a neo-liberal plot to divide the Left and feminists; blur the distinction between men and women to mask patriarchal oppression and a victory for post-modernist ideas over the traditional socialism of the Left. But this scribe would contend that Falcon’s views are a combination of the anti-LGBT attitudes that have long been a hallmark of the Stalinist Left and the siloed mentality fostered by identity politics.

However – on the point about post-modernism – I’ll return to that under Queer Theory – but without having to insult or demean transgender people.

Identity politics and problems with intersectionality

Earlier we got a hint of the problems that identity politics has with intersectionality – let’s look at how that arises in a bit more detail…

It can be said that a black lesbian faces three kinds of prejudice: race, gender, and sexuality. Do feminist and LGBT groups recognise or consider that person’s level of oppression and their own relative privilege? The accusation is that the compartmentalisation that identity politics creates means that a black lesbian could find herself subsumed into a struggle for lesbian rights that leaves a good part of her oppression unaddressed.

Now a supporter of identity politics might suggest that she could split her time between different liberation movements around sex, sexuality, and race. A sort of cafeteria approach to liberation – choose what you need.

Anybody who grew up with the last hurrah of working-class politics in the 1970s and 1980s will remember when ‘the movement’ sought to embrace all these oppressions linking them back to an underlying socio-economic cause: capitalism. This compartmentalising of liberation struggles since then and the inability to cross-fertilise between movements is rather depressing.

Not that weren’t drawbacks in the old days. While trade unions and mass left-wing parties did indeed advance women’s and LGBT liberation, there was also plenty of undeniable misogyny and homophobia within the working-class movement and oppressed groups often felt their struggles were not sufficiently prioritised. A reflection of societal attitudes at the time but also a prevailing view that the politics of sexuality weren’t the stuff of blue-collar struggle.

I remember being in Liverpool in the early 1980s when a box of pro-LGBT stickers got opened in a trade union centre and a young shop steward gasped in horror:

“Fockin’ ‘ell, we don’t support that lot do we?”

Can still recall my heart sinking.

Identity politics seemed to offer a sharper focus on the liberation struggles of women, gays, lesbians, and transgender people – as well as ethnic minorities. The working-class was just another bunch of people having a rotten time with no primary role as Marxists claim.

The trouble with all this is that once previously oppressed individuals feel they have achieved their own liberation – why should they care about anybody else’s? There’s no common cause. Common struggle. Any need to be bothered with other downtrodden groups in society.

Many of my ageing left-wing gay friends moan about younger gay men voting for right-wing and even extreme Right parties. But in the world of identity politics, once I as a cis white gay man imbued with neo-liberal values and not really caring about the rest of society have achieved my liberation, I can join the ranks of the oppressors and do as I please.

As I’m not part of a broader based movement and do not adhere to an all-encompassing Marxist analysis of society – I can forget my black, Asian, disabled and trans brothers and pop off to vote for Donald Trump. They’ll just to have liberate themselves through their own siloed liberation movements – which they don’t believe I should be a part of anyway. Or even attempt to understand. So, what’s the point. I’ll just go off and enjoy oppressing…

Intersectionality would be most effective in a movement where everybody believed they had to stick around to achieve a bigger goal. Then you can confront your comrades-in-arms about their privilege and whether they understand your experience of life. But if we’re just engaged in a competition to see who can get liberated first, why would I give two hoots about somebody else’s oppression so long as I get what I want? This is the neo-liberal approach to liberation politics.

And so, we see some groups win significant reforms – groups that already enjoyed a degree of ‘privilege’ in society – while others remain marginalised and excluded. That has undoubtedly been the case for transgender people in relation to cis white gays and lesbians.

It’s also given rise to an identity politics that is entirely reformist in approach. By and large, it has not sought to challenge the status quo but to seek parity within it. Put another way, the aim has been to correct the defects of capitalism and patriarchy making it more palatable. But this hasn’t benefited everybody as we’ve seen. The argument is – are we near the limits of what can be achieved through reform. And if we are – what’s the alternative?

In the next instalment of this series on Marxism and Transgender Rights, I’m going to look at whether Queer Theory is all it’s cracked up to be. And whether Marxists should be hostile or supportive towards it.

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