by Nick Rogers
The debate around the meaning of sex and gender made an appearance at this year’s British Labour Party conference in Brighton. Women’s Place UK – an organisation that questions the demand that biological males who self-identify as woman should have access to women’s spaces, to all-women shortlists, and be able to stand for election as women’s officers in the labour movement – organised an unofficial fringe meeting for the Monday evening of the LP conference. Despite circulating details of the venue only an hour or so before the start time – a security precaution experience has taught them to adopt – those attending the meeting found themselves confronting a baying crowd.
I did not attend the meeting. However, a woman comrade from my Constituency LP who did provides a vivid account of what happened:
“On approaching Brighton on the train slightly late for the meeting I got a message that a younger woman and her teenage daughter were frightened to go through the mob outside the meeting. I wasn’t sure of how to find the meeting, but as soon as I left the rear entrance of the station, I heard the roar of men shouting from several streets away. I found the two women around the corner from the meeting. I encouraged them to walk with me and said that I’d ask the police there to help us through.
“As we approached, I saw a large crowd of mainly young white men, some with masks and hoods down, crowding the entrance of the venue and shouting abuse. I was just so angry at women including lesbians being threatened by a crowd of mainly young men that I put myself between the mob and the two younger women and marched them into the venue through a kind of side passage.
“In the building I met a leading feminist campaigner I know who had come out to look for the two women and hadn’t found them. She was shaking and soaking – a young man had just squirted liquid from a plastic bottle at her head and face. She realised by the time I saw her that it was water, but it could have been anything. Apparently, police saw the attack but did nothing. She has given them a photo of her assailant.
“Ironically, later on residents in the residential flats above the community rooms where the meeting took place, got fed up with the hours of noise and chucked water over the protestors. Predictably, it was later claimed by the protestors that the water was being thrown at them by meeting attendees, though we had no access to these upper storey flats.
“Inside the basement meeting hall, Onjali Rauf, a Muslim campaigner for trafficked women and award-winning children’s writer, had just begun calmly to speak, against a constant background of the windows being kicked, with the blinds shaking. Where the blinds didn’t totally cover the windows protestors were taking pictures of those of us in the hall. I saw several women from Haringey Labour in the meeting, some of whom had been shaken up by the experience of entering the venue; also Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Education Union; and Simon Fanshawe, founder of Stonewall. They tweeted their disgust at the protest, and that they heard only respectful discussion and nothing in any way transphobic in the meeting. (The full transcripts of the talks are published on WPUK website so you can check for yourself.)
“The meeting was well-stewarded by the absolutely unflappable WPUK women and Brighton Resisters including some very long-standing Brighton lesbian campaigners. These women are absolutely the veterans of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, and feminist campaigns such as Greenham, Grunwicks, setting up Women’s Aid Refuges in squats in the 1970s and organising support for women in stopping National Front marches in Turnpike Lane and New Cross etc.
“We’re used to groups of young white men trying to shut us down and indeed physically attack us. However, for several of the younger women there, the experience was extremely upsetting and scary. Onjali had to leave early after speaking, in order to collect her car. She was accompanied by several stewards, so I hope she was not abused as she left. The rest of us left in groups, to be greeted by the choir of protestors singing ‘We’re better feminists than you’.
“The protest was organised by Brighton Queer AF – a group which has objected rightly to the commercialisation of Pride. I’m sure that if any of them had come into the meeting, they would have learnt a lot, and maybe found that they hold common views on lots of things with the feminists, lesbians and trans-people who are gender-critical and socialist. The involvement of anyone with either official roles in Labour or Momentum or The World Transformed in encouraging the mob is alarming and is hopefully being followed up.”
Later that evening, I met several women who were recovering from the experience of having “scum, scum, scum” screamed in their ears as they entered and left the meeting and of having endured the cacophony of banging and shouting from outside throughout the entire meeting. One of my women comrades had been spat at.
Although they were clearly shocked, I was impressed with my comrades’ determination. Some had been fairly non-committal when it came to gender self-ID and its implications for women. They had attended the meeting to find out more. From the level of intimidation they had just witnessed, they were now clear that the left and the labour movement has a problem with rationally debating the issues raised. What is more, they felt the actions of the demonstrators were an expression of blatant misogyny.
The following morning, I was personally drawn into the debate when a young member of my delegation, without consulting with the rest of us, went to the rostrum on a spurious point of order to condemn the WPUK meeting as a transphobic hate group and to denounce any delegates who had attended, calling “shame” down on them. The rest of the delegation urged me, as delegation lead, to set the record straight. Making a (possibly equally spurious) point of order, I responded from the rostrum to explain that the young man did not speak for our CLP. I went on to say that differences within our party and the broader movement could only be bridged if debate was conducted in a fraternal and comradely spirit and that everyone’s freedom of speech was protected. The previous night’s demonstrators had sought to silence debate. Their behaviour was semi-fascistic.
These two short contributions have subsequently trended in a minor way on social media and within strictly limited political circles, but widely enough to reach the eyes of one of the editors of Redline, who asked if I would contribute an article.
It was only at the end of 2017 that I became aware of the intolerant reaction of some transgender activists to anyone who challenges their newly-minted ideology, and particularly anyone who will not accept the mantra that “trans-women are women”. A well-regarded local activist, Helen Steel, was mobbed and barracked for a prolonged period at the Anarchist Bookfair when she tried to intercede to defend some women activists who were handing out leaflets. Until then, I had always taken at face value the progressive nature of the demands of transgender activists – admittedly, the debate around these issues was peripheral to the political discussions I was mostly involved in. I had previously not heard the term of abuse, TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), which was yelled at Helen for an hour or two.
It was the 2017 incident at the Anarchist Bookfair that prompted a group of us in the local Labour Party to investigate. It was not long before we realised that something was far wrong, not only with the way the debate was being conducted, but also with the thinking, or ideology, that the most extreme transgender activists had developed. If a trans-woman is any biological male who “feels” like a woman (and that is what the advocates of self-ID tell us) and “trans-women are women” then being a woman (or alternatively a man) is simply a feeling in your head.
Now, those of us who were quickly becoming gender-critical instinctively applaud anyone who challenges gender norms of behaviour, including in what they wear and in how they interact with other people and wider society. It is our understanding that gender is a social construct. In many ways it is oppressive, particularly to women, although it also places unhealthy psychological expectations and constraints on what it is to be a man in our society. We should all be rebels against gender. In a sense, the objective of socialists should be to abolish gender.
We also are aware that some people are so uncomfortable with the gender that society imposes on them that they wish to live their lives in the opposite gender. Others are unhappy with the biological sex into which they are born and may pursue medical intervention. There is an important discussion to be had about what we need to do as a society to help transgender people lead “liveable lives”.
However, we believe that there is a material, biological basis to the oppression that women have both endured and fought against for thousands of years – as a Marxist, this is axiomatic to me. The role of women in the reproduction of species – through nine months of pregnancy, then birth and taking the major role in caring for young people – is the economic foundation of all hierarchical, patriarchal societies. It is the biologically-imposed “work” that women do and from which men benefit.
According to Engels, the “world historic defeat of the female sex” represented by the spread of the neolithic revolution (the emergence of agriculture, animal husbandry, land ownership, social elites and so on) made of women the first exploited class.
Today, it remains the case that women’s role in reproduction, and differences in the biology of women and men, such as average size and strength, must be taken into account in the social arrangements we build, if we are to move towards true equality. Yet the ideology of the transgender extremists refuses to acknowledge biological sex as the basis of the division of our species into men and women.
It is already having a heavy impact on the language used by public bodies. And, remember, this is before any change is made to Britain’s Gender Recognition Act. Increasingly, the word “woman”, and other words associated with women, such as “mother”, are being disappeared from public discourse in relation to those issues that have the most direct impact on women’s lives. Public information publications and online sites are more and more often speaking of “pregnant people”, “menstruators”, “people with cervixes”, “chest feeders”, and other bizarre terms that eradicate actual women. This is justified as being trans-inclusive – since trans-men can give birth, menstruate, suffer from cervical cancer and trans-women cannot.
Meanwhile, the ability of women to discuss the nature of their lives as a collective group, and to fight against unfair and unequal treatment is being taken away from them.
So how is it that references to women are being progressively erased from the language? And how is it that delegates at Labour Party conference can cheer news of an assault on a meeting of women activists? It seems to me that two strands of political and social development have come together.
First, there is the long night of neoliberalism under which we have weathered successive attacks on socialist ideas and the very concept of people coming together on a collective basis to fight for their rights. This political environment has nurtured the kind of post-modernist nonsense that passes for cutting-edge thinking in many of the social science and humanities departments of our academic institutions. The glorification of self has replaced grand narratives.
It has encouraged a relativist, individualistic approach to thinking about social issues. Thus we see activists emerging from these institutions insisting that what goes on in people’s heads is more important than material reality.
These developments are obviously profoundly un-Marxist (and deliberately so). They are also entirely unscientific – science being concerned with probing beneath the veil of immediate experience in order to uncover more profound truths.
To a large extent, adopting a scientific approach involves abstracting from the noise of a huge quantity of data in order to build testable models that can usefully explain what is happening. In biology, one of the most basic of models is the division of sexually-reproducing species into male and female, based on their role in reproduction. Transgender ideology furiously rejects this model – at least as far as our species is concerned. It insists people’s subjective experience (or assertions about that experience) is primary and even goes as far as arguing that sex is as much a spectrum as gender (it being obvious that gender, as a lived experience, is infinitely variable and malleable).
Second, we should recognise that all social change produces a backlash and that, under the guise of protecting the rights of transgender people, the advances that women made over the course of the twentieth century are being endangered.
Conservative and deeply sexist ideas such as the “female brain” and “feminine essence” are making a come-back. How else to explain being a woman or a man as a “feeling”? And the howling rage of the transgender extremists against women who dare to say that, as a biological and social category, they exist, displays clear evidence of misogyny. If something looks and sounds like a campaign against women, perhaps, by design or otherwise, it is.
There is no inherent clash between the interests of transgender people and women. Both suffer the consequences of a sexist society that demands certain behaviours based on your perceived biological sex. Both transgender people and women would benefit from working together to challenge gender stereotypes. In fact, gender and the concepts of femininity and masculinity are their common enemy.
Keir Hardie, the founder of the British Labour Party, included votes for women in the 1888 platform of the first election he fought (as an independent). He remained a supporter of the women’s movement throughout his political life and worked closely with the most radical of the Pankhursts, Sylvia. What is truly “shameful” is that, despite this inheritance, 101 years after the campaign for women’s suffrage achieved its first breakthrough in Britain, women within the Labour Party are facing the fight of their lives to assert their right to organise, campaign and speak out.
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Check out some of our other gender-critical material on Redline.