Towards working class unity on sex and gender

Eben Williams makes the case for a materialist stance on the sex and gender debate
Eben Williams makes the case for a materialist stance on the sex and gender debate
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The Communist Party’s March statement on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill elicited a strong reaction, to say the least. What some in our branch have started calling the “Sex and Gender Debate” can have a damaging impact on working-class organisations when handled poorly. Thankfully, even highly contentious and divisive issues can be tackled by organisations with the tools and discipline to do so. Avoiding the individualistic outbursts and splits of other groups on the Left, we’ve therefore made slow but steady progress towards finding a united position.

During my time in the YCL, I have slowly shifted from a very hard-line “gender” stance, to a more nuanced position, learning to grapple with sex as a material reality and identify the inconsistencies in many of the ideological elements of mainstream trans rights activism, without sacrificing my support for trans people themselves. It was important to me that I could find a synthesis between support for them and their material needs and dialectical materialism and Marxism-Leninism.

I would encourage an open mind from people who feel strongly about this issue, divorced where possible from gut emotional reactions. Of course, trans people should have rights like the rest of us, but we need to ask what are these rights and what are they not? What are the dominant trends in trans rights activism today, and who do they actually help? How do we fight for a material programme of rights for all, while reconciling people with profound ideological disagreements to fight in the same struggle? These are the questions that serious communists should be asking, and a united position is essential for both general organisational wellbeing, and for intervening correctly in current hostilities in the wider labour movement for the sake of class unity.

The Marxist Theory of Sex and Gender

Let’s start with what should be a simple position. Despite efforts by some postmodernists to reduce sex to a meaningless spectrum, 99.98% of human beings can be fairly equally divided into possession or not of Y chromosomes which also, all things being well, define our potential role in reproduction. By this or several other established definitions of sex, including gamete production or clusters of sex traits, we, like many other animals, are a sexually dimorphic species divided between males and females, and the existence of a very small number of intersex people does not contradict this binary trend. Sex is not “assigned at birth”, it is identified, and almost always identified correctly. To deny this would be to deny scientific fact which, as materialists, is unacceptable.

Marxists recognise that the oppression of women, here understood by its traditional sex-based definition, stems from class society, and that prior to class society, men and women, although different due to sex, were equal in status. With the emergence of private property and the division of society into classes, gender (i.e., socially constructed associations with the sexes) was then weaponised to ensure male dominance over women and male entitlement to property and wealth. Gender is also used to divide men and women and prevent them from uniting as a class against their common oppressors. As the basis of women’s oppression, class society must be overthrown through a working-class unity of the sexes.

Alternative Theories

For the radical feminists, the primary contradiction isn’t between bourgeoisie and proletariat, but between males and females. Radical feminists therefore call for female unity as a class unto themselves in order to overthrow patriarchy, which they believe to be separate from capitalism. For both Marxists and radfems, coherent, materialist definitions of men and women are necessary in order to identify the causes of women’s oppression in the pursuit of liberation. There are ideological agreements between Marxist and radical feminists in some areas, but there are also fundamental conflicts that have been laid out in another article.

The origins of the word “TERF” are credited to a 2008 blog piece by radical feminist Viv Smythe as an acronym for “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists”, referring to a group of radfems who excluded trans women from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival due to a political belief that women-only events should be exclusive on the basis of sex, rather than gender identity. Today, it is mainly used as a confused pejorative online towards people who I will describe in this article as “sex-materialists”, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, where they stand on trans rights, and whether or not they consider themselves feminists at all.

On the conservative end, biological determinism is the misogynistic belief that females are inferior to males for innate and inescapable biological reasons (i.e., sex-based), e.g., the claim that women are naturally more nurturing due to their role in childbirth, so are therefore more suited to domestic labour. In reaction to this regressive worldview, some feminists have also come to argue that it is also biological determinism to claim that sex has any bearing upon women’s oppression whatsoever, but Marxists hold that it is an uncontroversial position that oppression of one sex over another could not have developed without sexual differences between them, with class society being the determining factor.

“Gender Identity Ideology”

One of the most contentious parts of the Communist Party statement was this: “Gender identity ideology is well-suited to the needs of the capitalist class, focusing as it does on individual as opposed to collective rights, enabling and supporting the super-exploitation of women.” To some unfamiliar with contemporary gender studies as a field, this line has been interpreted as implying that trans people are dangerous or that we oppose their existence as anti-Marxist. This is absolutely not the case, and just as it is not misogynistic to critique radical feminism, nor racist to critique the flaws of intersectionality frameworks, a critique of gender identity ideology is certainly not transphobic.

Inspired by postmodernism and queer theory, gender identity ideology is completely separate from trans people and their rights. It is a very new and fast-spreading philosophy, only emerging fully formed in the past 15 years or so, which puts forward a litany of immaterialist views on sex and gender under a misguided attempt to liberate women and LGBT people by shifting their categorisation and focusing on soothing and validating the subjective experience, rather than changing material reality. Queer theory argues that linguistic categories such as “male” and “female” are delineated for the express purpose of creating hierarchies between them. So, the theory goes, if you “queer” the lines between these concepts, the hierarchies fall away.

Gender dysphoria is the very real feeling of psychological distress felt as a result of one’s sexed body which can lead to desires to alter the body through hormones and surgeries to more closely resemble the opposite sex and make this distress less acute. It is completely understandable that postmodernism would be so enticing to a group who feels in conflict with their natal sex, and the idea that gender identity is biologically, socially, and politically relevant, but sex is not, therefore becomes very attractive.

Gender identity as a concept, popularized in the late 2000’s by trans activists such as Julia Serano, then spread to the public consciousness in Britain partly through liberal lobbying organisations such as Stonewall, is usually understood today as the internalised self-perception of a person as being a “girl”, “boy”, “man”, “woman”, or something else, including “non-binary” identities, with these terms divorced from their traditional sex-based definitions.

Some believe that gender identity is innate and immutable, arguing that it develops due to biological and environmental factors, much like sexual orientation. The comparison continues when it is argued that gender identity is discovered through a process of self-reflection, and can therefore be either accepted or repressed, but not changed. As a part of this theory, gender dysphoria is believed to develop as a result of incongruence between innate gender identity and biological sex—an incongruence which also makes a person “transgender”. If gender identity and biological sex coincide, then you are “cisgender”. By this logic, gender dysphoria may be alleviated by changing your body to match “who you really are” on the inside, i.e., gender identity. This “gender essence theory” argues that it is not your sex which defines you, but your immutable gender identity.

A competing argument by those who recognise the flaws of gender essence theory is Judith Butler’s “gender as performance”, i.e., although we are not defined by gender identity, our identity leads us to perform the roles of men or women, and it is rather this social performance that defines us. A trans woman was not born a woman, but became a woman after medical transition and entering a woman’s social role. In other words, if you are perceived to be a woman, are treated like a woman, and accept the role of a woman, then you literally become one. Supporters of the former theory argue that even this is too prescriptive, with emphasis placed on medical transition and “passing” as the opposite sex. Indeed, arguments about where to set the boundaries of terms like “man”, “woman”, and “trans” can create as many hostilities within trans communities as beyond them.

To Marxists, it should be fairly clear that gender identity ideology, be it gender essence theory or gender as performance, is in conflict with dialectical materialism. As materialists, we reject the idea that reality is shaped by either perception or self-perception. Reality exists first and then we perceive it second, so one cannot perceive oneself into becoming a man or a woman. In arguing that men and women are defined by their social role and appearance, gender as performance theory also falls flat. If a woman is so masculine that she looks male, does she then become a man? Is a man who breaks the gender roles of their sex really a woman? Would a woman who grows up on a desert island no longer be a woman because she has no concept of female gender roles, and because she does not know what a woman is? Depending on your position, these can either be interesting thought experiments or deeply misogynistic. Postmodernists may entertain them as possibilities, but Marxists cannot.

This does not, however, deny shared experiences of discrimination in very specific cases. A minority of passing trans women may experience some aspects of misogyny due to being perceived as female, in the same way that straight men may experience homophobia due to being perceived as gay, but this perception does not define social categorisation. Sex is still the defining factor, with misogyny experienced in relation to perceived sex, rather than gender identity.

A Materialist Analysis of Gender Identity

There is a desperate need for more research into trans and gender identities, a contentious field of study partly obstructed by current divisions, but by considering the wide array of people with experiences of such identities, as well as gender dysphoria, we can at least draw a few conclusions. For one, gender identity is not innate and people may question or change their gender identities throughout their lives based on cultural and ideological influences, including non-trans people.

When I was very young, I had long hair, didn’t like football, enjoyed playing with girls, and looked like one. I was confused why everyone treated me different, and surprised my mum one day by asking her if I was a boy or a girl. Of course, she told me I was a boy, and I left it there, but in that moment, I had definitely questioned my gender identity and unintentionally adopted both the appearance and certain gender roles of a girl. Did this literally make me one? No. But if I had then gone on to develop gender dysphoria and start identifying as trans, I could easily point to this experience and argue that I had always known on some level that I was never really a man. This makes me highly doubtful of people who claim that they realised their gender identities in early childhood through retrospective accounts of performing masculine or feminine gender roles.

As for gender dysphoria, people have testified to a variety of external causes which can be quite separate from any innate incongruence. Gender dysphoria can be triggered, or at least aggravated, by trauma, body issues, internalised homophobia, or many other things. Social and medical transition are proven to be psychologically beneficial in some cases, while others may be resolved through mental healthcare, which needs substantial resourcing. Either way, a science and evidence-based pathway must be chosen—a process which is obstructed by simplistic narratives of “altering physical bodies to match gendered souls”.

Unlike gender identity, gender dysphoria could have some biological basis, in the same way that many other psychological conditions have genetic components. The problem with gender identity ideology is that it turns the phenomena on its head, ascribing dysphoria to a material inner identity, rather than the other way round. Gender identity ideology actually accommodates people who routinely change their gender identity in the case of people who identify as “genderfluid”. In this way, the ideology allows for the fact that gender identity is not innate by creating a new “innate” identity that changes, painting over clear contradictions in the belief system by allowing for a mutable immutable. Similarly, the tenet that “everybody has a gender identity” is upheld, while simultaneously defining some people as “agender” (lacking gender identity).

Oftentimes, changes in identity are dismissed as corrections of mistakes: “I thought I was gender identity A, but then I realised I was actually gender identity B all along,” thereby invalidating the first identity with the second and resisting any logical deconstruction. A similar argument is used against people who formerly identified as trans but “detransitioned”, either by claiming that they are lying about their past experiences of dysphoria and trans identity, or that they were incorrect or misdiagnosed.

Indeed, gender identity can be quite separate from dysphoria and even transition, in the sense that three different trans women, although all experiencing dysphoria and at the same stage of transition, may hold mutually incompatible “gender essence”, “gender as performance”, and “sex-materialist” conceptions of themselves. Either they have always been women, they became women after transitioning, or they are men who live as women, rather than women in a literal sense. These three conceptions do exist side by side among trans people and can change over a person’s life. Unfortunately, ideological disagreements can become extremely hostile, with heretical sex-materialist views usually disregarded as the internalised transphobia of “TERF” gender traitors, rather than valid trans experiences.

Gender Identity Ideology Versus Sex-Materialism

The contradictions between gender identity ideology and sex-materialism are so sharp, that they are currently dividing us along lines of sex, class, LGBT status, and more, with the only beneficiary being the united bourgeoisie. Along the line of sex, feminists have long argued that any differences between men and women beyond our physical bodies are socially constructed and learned, rather than innate, and that there is no objective reality as a male or female mind, or male or female behaviours. Gender identity ideology not only denies these sound feminist principles, it deliberately obscures the relationship between trans women and their maleness, and trans men and their femaleness, which poses problems when discussing and identifying female oppression and misogyny and classifying groups with shared interests and experiences for the purposes of political struggles or safeguarding.

When a woman becomes pregnant, she is unable to work and costs her employer money in the form of lost profits, resulting in a market incentive to hire males over females and reinforcing a subservient economic position for females on the basis of their sex under class society. This is an example of sex-based oppression shared by most females that cannot be overcome while the profit motive remains the decisive factor in employment. Sex-based protections, although insufficient, are meant to end hiring discrimination on the basis of reproductive functions, and can therefore benefit trans men as well. This is one example in which a shared struggle is waged on the basis of sex, and where including trans men in a social and political category with biological men may lead to confusion.

Another example is how violence by biological men upon trans men stops being classified as crimes of misogyny, regardless of whether this would help us understand and prevent it. If a trans man is assaulted primarily due to being perceived as a woman, does his/her gender identity make any meaningful difference? Should this really be considered a man-on-man crime? Discussions around single-sex spaces have also been hampered by ideological conflict. If we hold that single-sex spaces are important for women and girls and should be protected, and gender identity does not necessarily impact how one looks, how one is socialised, or how one’s body works, then identity alone should not be a valid enough condition for entry. We can agree this without abandoning the struggle for trans people to be able to participate fully in a society that does not provide well for people who break gender norms.

Conflating a rejection of gender identity ideology with transphobia also creates class conflict. For various reasons, we as human beings are hardwired to identify the cues that determine a person’s biological sex (although we may sometimes get it wrong). This means that when we adopt a person’s preferred gendered language, we are making the effort to pretend that we don’t see their sex, either out of genuine conviction, social pressure, or tolerance of a person’s core beliefs about their identity and a desire to protect them from discomfort. This may be familiar practice to some, but to working-class people who are used to saying things as they see them, a postmodernist ideology better suited for university gender studies departments is extremely off-putting, and accusations of bigotry will not attract those who reject it.

Among gay people, too, gender identity ideology is divisive. For example, Stonewall no longer defines homosexuality as same-sex attraction, but same-gender attraction, with the implication being that either gender identity or expression defines orientation rather than sex. This is untrue. I am a man who dates men, and am not attracted to women, masculine or otherwise, regardless of how they identify. The only exception may be trans men who I perceive as male, but only because sexual attraction is based on perceived sex as well as actual sex, in the same way that a straight man may be attracted to a passing drag queen. This does not deny that gay men can have happy and healthy relationships with trans men, but a lack of attraction to the traits of the opposite sex is part and parcel of the gay and lesbian experience and it is homophobic to imply otherwise.

I do not believe that gender identity ideology benefits trans people either, not least because it diverts from material class struggles towards divisive identity validation struggles that confer no real power. There is certainly a lot of pressure to ascribe to it, especially in younger trans circles and online spaces, but some have also found psychological comfort after disassociating. The belief that trans people can literally become the sex they identify as can never truly be realised, but by learning to accept themselves as “trans women” rather than literal women, or females who “live as men” rather than actually become them, some trans people have found greater self-acceptance and less pain from the times they recognise their sex in the mirror or are misgendered in public. Some are also returning to older language, such as “transsexual” (someone who has had medical intervention in order to appear as the opposite sex) to more accurately describe their experiences and root trans identities in material conditions, rather than subjective perceptions.

Unfortunately, trans people who adopt these positions are often accused of catering to their oppressors, of experiencing internalised transphobia, or of policing other trans people’s “right” to be considered as their preferred sex in all cases, leading to ostracization and suspicion. There are also class elements at play here, with richer trans people having greater access to the cosmetic surgeries required to help them pass, and therefore, less pushback from society in their claim to belong to the opposite sex. These are the glamorous trans celebrities, spokespeople, actors, and YouTubers who are leading the conversation about what trans rights should look like and distorting the picture of the wider trans community. In reality, the majority of trans people, and especially working-class trans people, do not pass as the opposite sex and shouldn’t need to. For this reason, gender identity ideology may serve them less well, with an ideal of actually belonging to the opposite sex constantly colliding with a material reality which denies that possibility.

From Language and Culture Wars to Material Struggle

Despite being fairly new, an entire culture and language has developed around gender identity ideology, which has rapidly filtered into cultural, educational, and political institutions. “Man”, “woman”, “boy”, and “girl”, no longer have anything to do with sex, but instead refer to self-perception. Ditto for third-person pronouns, which may be swapped as preferred or discarded entirely in favour of “neopronouns” such as “zie, zim, zir”. Words associated with sex are avoided, with “male” and “female” replaced with “assigned male/female at birth” (AMAB/AFAB), terms originally used to describe rare cases of intersex people having their sex “assigned” due to ambiguity, which have now been expanded to include cases where sex is unambiguous and identified correctly, but is undesirable. This has emerged alongside the postmodernist conception that sex doesn’t exist anyway, but is rather a spectrum of individual characteristics which society has gendered for the purposes of oppression.

Many of us who have spent enough time on the broad left will have also engaged in “pronoun circles”, where third-person pronouns are asked for during introductions in an effort to prevent misgendering (or accurately sexing) those who find this experience uncomfortable or offensive. Despite being more dominant in student anarchist spaces, these rituals are becoming more and more common elsewhere, as well, and you can almost taste the class basis of an organisation that enforces them. To be honest, I’m becoming more and more convinced that language policing of most kinds does nothing except infantilise, rather than empower us. We need to engage with each other on a basis of mutual trust and good faith, and allow room for people to resolve their own conflicts when offended, rather than adopting the role of insufferable preachers dedicating our lives to teaching a “backwards” working class the “correct” language in a misguided pursuit of performative solidarity. Conflict between trans people and non-trans people isn’t resolved by language policing, but by fighting side by side in the same struggle.

Unfortunately, a problem has emerged in which gender identity ideology has become conflated with and even superseded any material struggle. This has reached the point where it does not matter where you sit on the political spectrum or what your political programme is for addressing the needs of the trans population, if you disagree with slogans such as “trans women are women”, even if you are trans yourself, you are seen as a heretic to be lumped in the same category as transphobic bigots and fascists who seek to cast trans people as sex offenders or degenerates. Disagreeing that gender identity defines someone, regardless of context, is seen as a denial of their humanity, a deliberate aggravation of their gender dysphoria, and a provocation of suicide.

Once this conflation is achieved, any rejection of gender identity ideology leaves the realm of an ideological disagreement that is up for discussion and debate. Disagreements over identities and categories become disagreements over a group’s right to exist—acts of transphobic hatred which have been increasingly tied to an endorsement of fascism. And once “TERFs” are conflated with Nazis, public harassment, cyberbullying, no-platforming, doxing, termination of employment, and even physical violence and death threats become perfectly legitimate activist tactics which can and are used to silence disagreement. This does not deny that there are transphobic or even violent elements within the “gender critical” movement, but many have become completely unable or unwilling to differentiate the reactionaries from the progressives.

This situation can only be resolved in working-class organisations by creating a clear divide between the ideological struggle, such as over whether “trans women” are “women” or over what language we should use in daily life, and the material struggle for housing, employment, healthcare, etc. In other words, we must open up room for debate over the philosophy of gender identity ideology, as I have done in this article, while forging ahead with a non-negotiable working-class struggle for material rights regardless of sex, gender, or LGBT status. The ideological and material have become so intertwined and confused that their separation will be painful, but there is no other way to achieve working-class unity.

In order to co-exist with those who hold alternate views on sex and gender, we must recognise that sex and gender signifiers are important ways for both LGBT people and women to describe their experiences. Respect for identities cuts both ways and we should avoid policing their usage. When discussing certain biological and social issues, there are reasons that males must be grouped together and females must be grouped together, so words like man and male, woman and female must be retained and used freely for that purpose.

At the same time, Marxists must learn to tolerate other worldviews on an interpersonal level. It would be incredibly damaging to wage a war against all non-Marxists, for example, and this should be no different. It is perfectly possible to hold a sex-materialist position without attacking the beliefs of a “gender essence” trans person, or insisting on using gendered language which they find uncomfortable. We must understand that changing someone’s core beliefs can be a slow and painful process, and that the only way to heal current divisions is by creating unity around class issues alongside tolerance of ideological differences, enhancing the material rights of both women and trans people on the revolutionary road to socialism.

A Word on “Self-ID”

The Communist Party statement exposed some important truths behind the motivations of the GRR Bill in Scotland, including the premeditated legislative challenges of implementing a policy which changed the definition of the word “sex” in Scotland, but not England and Wales, and the intention to use its inevitable blocking to reinforce the case for Scotland’s separation from the U.K. under the SNP-Green government. Polling suggests that legal self-ID is also deeply divisive and unpopular among the working class, with more Scots opposed than supportive.

As communists, we seek reforms from the bourgeois state only insofar as they unite the working class for further struggle or provide real power concessions on the path to revolution. This policy does neither. It does nothing to address working-class trans people’s access to healthcare, housing, or employment; nothing to shorten NHS waiting times, end discrimination, resource or staff trans services, or tackle domestic violence. It is therefore primarily a cause for liberal charities and lobbying groups that benefits the ruling class through division, without necessitating any real concessions of power.

That said, there is a case to be made for a channel for changing markers on identity documents to be preserved and improved. For example, for the dignity and safety of passing trans people forced to reveal trans status whenever they show their ID or passport. Such a system exists in socialist countries such as China and Cuba, although this is not the same as “self-ID” and checks and balances are maintained. We have a lot to learn from the outstanding LGBT practices of Cuba, particularly—a country where trans issues are seen as health and wellbeing issues, rather than ideological ones.

A Path Forwards

To finish, I want to draw attention to an incomplete selection of the YCL’s current policies for trans and LGB liberation. At its core, this is a programme for trans rights which rejects gender identity ideology, instead focusing on material rights and working-class unity.

From our 50th Congress Political Resolution:

  • The YCL unequivocally opposes LGBTphobia and discrimination in all its forms. LGBTphobia is another form of discrimination faced by people under the capitalist system. We are clear in our condemnation and activism against LGBTphobia and for the promotion of LGBT+ rights and the right to sexual diversity.
  • LGBTphobia cannot be eliminated without eliminating other forms of discrimination, oppression and exploitation in society, and neither can those be eliminated without the eradication of LGBTphobia.
  • Different forms of LGBTphobia and discrimination should be struggled against within the framework of fighting for real human rights, arguing that LGBTphobia and different forms of oppression under the capitalist system are inter-related and part of capitalist exploitation.
  • The right to sexual diversity refers to LGBT+ and other experiences of sexuality and gender, and links to each individual’s right to express and develop themselves, free from oppression or discrimination. This right links to the inalienable right of human beings to experience complete dignity and equality in their social and economic lives.

From our 50th Congress Organisational Resolution, we resolve to:

  • Campaign for legal protections and enforcement of rights for trans people, including community and medical support, with a view to this being a multidisciplinary and long-term approach promoting each individuals wellbeing.
  • Campaign for an end to any bureaucratic and economic barriers preventing access to services, promoting the capacity for full involvement in public life.
  • Reject the arbitrary medicalisation and pathologisation of LGBT+ rights and sexual diversity, with informed care and consent taking place during medical processes, with a view to medical processes being supplementary to social integration and wellbeing.
  • Accept that gender and its associated behavioural roles are the social means by which women are oppressed by material sex, for the purpose of reproduction of the labour force. For this reason, reject subjective gender self-identification and categorisations, as well as the denial of people’s experiences of sexual diversity and gender dysphoria.

This is a working-class programme aimed at addressing the material want of trans people, based in dialectical materialism and class unity, but we also dedicate ourselves to its refinement and improvement. Any communist who wishes to do so is free to engage with our LGBT commission and our internal democratic processes in the fight for class unity and socialism.

Eben Williams, is an LGBT+ member of the YCL’s Glasgow branch

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