When Rights Collide

This article is about competing rights and material reality. It is timely as a British employment court has ruled against Maya Forstater who took a case against an employer who sacked her for expressing gender-critical views outside of work hours. Kathleen Stock noted “the judgment removes women’s rights and the right to freedom of belief and speech. It gives judicial licence for women and men who speak up for objective truth and clear debate to be subject to aggression, bullying, no platforming and economic punishment.”

Bruce Lesnick is a long-time political activist, currently living in Washington state in the USA.  He has been published on counterpunch.comtruthout.org  commondreams.orgsocialistaction.org and elsewhere. But when it comes to discussing gender-critical feminism and trans extremism, no publication in the U.S. will publish his writings. He has submitted this article to Redline on how the extremes of the trans agenda threaten women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, children and democratic rights in general.  Bruce’s blog can be read here.

by Bruce Lesnick

The left in the U.S., Canada and Europe – ranging from militant radicals to tepid reformers – has exhibited remarkable silence regarding certain aspects of transgender ideology and their deleterious effect on other social movements. Everyone defends the concept of civil and human rights for all, including trans people. But some go a step further, demanding not only the right of each individual to their own personal preferences, behaviors and lifestyle, but also the right of a few to impose their beliefs on others. Those beliefs, when codified in law and public policy, materially affect the rights of women, gays, lesbians and more.

Presumably, all can agree that the following should be defended for every person regardless of sex, sexual preference, gender expression, race, religion or ethnic origin:

  • Oppose all bigotry, chauvinism, intolerance and bias directed against them.
  • Denounce all bigoted violence directed against them.
  • Support the right of everyone to control their own body.
  • Support the right of everyone to love whomever they choose.
  • Support the right of everyone to dress and behave in whatever manner they choose without regard to gender stereotypes, as long as the behavior of one does not endanger or impinge on the rights of another.
  • Oppose unfavorable treatment in:
    • Wages
    • Employment
    • Housing
    • Education

But what is to be done when the claims of one constituency impinge on the rights of others? As it happens, this type of conflict is inherent in the assertion by some trans activists that “transwomen are women”. It turns out that this seemingly innocuous slogan has major policy implications.

Sex vs. Gender

The distinction between biological sex and gender is paramount. Biological sex is an objective attribute. Gender, on the other hand, is a collection of subjective preferences, behaviors and stereotypes. Positions and arguments that fail to appreciate this distinction are built on sand, with no firm foundation and no logical consistency. One can support the right of everyone to their own preferences for personal expression, how to dress and whom to love. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that, like most species, humans are sexually dimorphic, with 99.98% of all humans clearly identifiable at birth as either male or female. While gender expression can change over time for both individuals and society as a whole, biological sex is immutable. Behavior and preferences that are associated socially with “maleness” and “femaleness” are moving targets, evolving with politics and culture. But sex is a fixed, material quality we are born with, which cannot be changed. A person can change their appearance, behavior and preferences, but no one born male can literally become female, or vice versa.

What does it mean for a biological man to feel like a woman? Is there any sense in which this question can be answered that does not reinforce sexist stereotypes? Does anyone still believe that only women are nurturing, like to wear dresses and makeup, and like pink or other “female” colors? Does anyone believe that no women enjoy rough play, are good at math or have an aptitude for physical labor? Ironically, it is extreme trans ideology – promoting the idea that “feminine” males are actually women, and “masculine” females are actually men –which reinforces a sexist gender binary, using stereotypes to assign various behaviors and preferences to one or another sex. A more rational position would be to completely banish gender stereotypes, understanding that no behavior or preference is incompatible with one’s sex.

Elevating gender reinforces negative body images. For generations, the women’s movement has fought against the objectification of women and negative self-images that are promoted by a sexist culture that idealizes certain extreme body types to the exclusion of others. “Real” women, the propaganda tells us, wear certain clothes, embrace certain makeup and accessories, have the lowest possible body mass index, have particular body proportions, etc. Many women struggling to deal with these unmeetable expectations turn inward, hating their own bodies and, in extreme cases, fall victim to anorexia, bulimia or seek to alter their bodies surgically. The women’s movement has denounced the savagery and oppression implicit in these objectifying and unreasonable cultural expectations, proclaiming instead, “all bodies are beautiful.”

The trend of some within the trans movement to seek refuge in chemical or surgical alteration is a throwback to the days of sexist, idealized body images and it undermines the women’s movement’s fight against sexist stereotyping and objectification. One can fully support the right of adults to alter their own body as they see fit while not celebrating or encouraging that response to gender bias and stereotypical sex roles. Instead, it makes more sense to reaffirm the concept that “all bodies are beautiful” and that any person, male or female, has the right to present and express themselves however they like without regard to presumed sex roles and without having to deny their natal sex.

The oppression of women is based on sex. Biological women cannot escape sexist oppression by “self-identifying” as male.

Homosexuality is fundamentally a preference for partners of the same sex. To replace the reality of sex with the subjectivity of gender is to deny gay and lesbian rights and the very existence of same-sex attraction.

A Bridge Too Far

To the extent that trans activists and other gender-nonconforming people oppose personal oppression, bigotry and unfair treatment, all should be emphatically on their side. But some trans advocates go a step further, crossing a qualitative line by insisting that male-to-female trans people are literally women and that female-to-male trans people are literally men. A brief examination demonstrates that the slogan “transwomen are women” is fraught with reactionary implications that threaten women’s, gay, lesbian and children’s rights; democratic rights; and even the health and wellbeing of trans people themselves.

To believe that “transwomen are women” one must subscribe to the unscientific notion that there can be a women’s brain or essence in a man’s body. To embrace this concept, one must give credence to the backward proposition that there are such things as male and female brains – an idea used by reactionaries of all stripes to justify women’s exclusion from various positions, occupations and opportunities.

In the vast majority of cases, male-to-female trans people have 100% male biology/physiology and 0% female biology/physiology. Those who postulate the existence of some unidentified essence that might lead a biological male to believe they are female – even if some gene or other material cause for it were someday to be discovered – cannot explain why this invisible essence should trump all other tangible, observable, biological facts in determining a person’s sex.

To believe that male-to-female trans people are literally women is to insist that males who self-identify as females be included in spaces fought for and set aside for biological women: locker rooms, rape shelters, prisons, affirmative action programs and sports teams. Already self-identified male-to-female trans people are taking top prizes in women’s sports, traumatizing and assaulting women in prisons and shelters, and appropriating affirmative action slots that were set aside for natal women. If this trend is allowed to continue, it will spell the end of all women’s private, sex-based spaces and women’s sports.

To fully support the right of women to have sex-segregated, women-only spaces, sports teams and affirmative action programs, one must oppose the “U.S. Equality Act” (HR5) – which would replace the concept of biological “sex” with “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity” in federal law – as this would abolish separate spaces, sports programs and affirmative action programs for women, mandating the inclusion in those spaces and programs of any men who self-identify as women.

To accept that trans-identified males are literally women is to give voice to those who accuse lesbians of bigotry for insisting on choosing their partners based on biological sex rather than self-identified gender. Homosexuality is a sexual not a gender preference.

In the vast majority of cases, childhood gender dysphoria resolves naturally after puberty. Many of those previously dysphoric grow up to be healthy gays and lesbians. But to accept that someone can be “born in the wrong body” is to add weight to the disturbing trend of medicalizing young children, steering them toward powerful puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, invasive surgery and a lifetime of dependence on medical treatment.

To insist that a person born biologically male must, upon their request, be recognized by everyone as female, regardless of material reality, amounts to a serious assault on democratic rights. This is tantamount to allowing a religious believer to insist that their view of reality be accepted by all others without question.

By insisting, against all material evidence, that “transwomen are women,” trans advocates set the movement for trans rights against the movements for women’s, gay and lesbian rights, and in so doing weaken all of those struggles. For this reason, more and more trans people are distancing themselves from that ideological extreme.

Because medical care can differ critically based on biological sex, trans individuals receiving medical treatment risk their own lives and health if they fail to inform caregivers of their true, biological sex.

If statistics are reported on the basis of a person’s gender self-identification rather than biological sex, figures for male/female salary gaps, crime reports, health statistics, affirmative action and more become muddled and meaningless.

“No Platforming”

No platforming is an effort to deny free speech to left wing, gender critical activists who oppose the extremes of trans ideology. This antidemocratic practice seeks not only to prevent gender critical activists from speaking out on trans issues; it seeks to prevent critics of extreme trans ideology from speaking on any platform, on any issue. Those who criticize trans extremism from the left are pejoratively branded as TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists.)

These practices are anathema to any progressive movement. Only through open discussion and real debate can issues be resolved. And, as always, any attempt to restrict democratic rights inevitably redounds most harshly on working people and the oppressed.

* * *

While supporting everyone’s right to their own personal preferences – to dress, behave and love in whatever manner they choose, without regard to gender stereotypes, as long as the behavior of one does not endanger or impinge on the rights of another – it’s essential to stop short of supporting the right of one group to dictate the policies, preferences and behaviors of other oppressed groups, and to reject the right of any group to impose a non-material view of reality on others.

We must acknowledge material reality: that humans are overwhelmingly divided into biological sexes and that biology is key to distinguishing between male and female in all dimorphic species, including humans. At the same time, we must recognize the concept of gender for the subjective collection of stereotypes that it is, insisting that every individual should have the right to express themselves without regard to stereotypes and without having to deny their biological sex. The reactionary encroachment by the trans movement on the rights of others stems from a failure to get this right. Once one understands that biological sex is a material fact and that gender is a subjective, open-ended social construct, the right approach to social policy becomes clear.

Male-to-female trans people are not literally women and female-to-male trans people are not literally men. But one can and should support the right of each to live and express themselves however they like, without regard to gender stereotypes, as long as that expression does not endanger or impinge on the rights of others.


  1. Ironically, it is extreme trans ideology – promoting the idea that “feminine” males are actually women, and “masculine” females are actually men –which reinforces a sexist gender binary, using stereotypes to assign various behaviors and preferences to one or another sex.

    It’s worth reading this paper by some of the doctors at the UK’s Gender Identity Clinic at the Tavistock and Portman Hospital: Assessment and support of children and adolescents with gender dysphoria.[1]

    It gives the diagnostic criteria for children and adults for gender dysphoria:

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition provides one overarching diagnosis of GD with separate specific criteria for children and for adolescents and adults. The diagnosis involves a difference between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, and significant distress or problems in everyday functioning. Diagnosis can be made when at least two features have been present for 6 months or more (box 1). For children, cross-gender behaviours may start between the ages 2 and 4, the same age at which most typically developing children begin showing gendered behaviours and interests. The diagnosis of GD involves at least six of the criteria and an associated significant distress or impairment in function, lasting at least 6 months (box 2).

    Box 1 Criteria for the diagnosis of gender dysphoria in adults
    A marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and primary and/or secondary sex characteristics.

    A strong desire to be rid of one’s primary and/or secondary sex characteristics.

    A strong desire for the primary and/or secondary sex characteristics of the other gender.

    A strong desire to be of the other gender.

    A strong desire to be treated as the other gender.

    A strong conviction that one has the typical feelings and reactions of the other gender.

    Box 2 Criteria for the diagnosis of gender dysphoria in children and adolescents
    A strong desire to be of the other gender or an insistence that one is the other gender.

    A strong preference for wearing clothes typical of the opposite gender.

    A strong preference for cross-gender roles in make-believe play or fantasy play.

    A strong preference for the toys, games or activities stereotypically used or engaged in by the other gender.

    A strong preference for playmates of the other gender.

    A strong rejection of toys, games and activities typical of one’s assigned gender.

    A strong dislike of one’s sexual anatomy.

    A strong desire for the physical sex characteristics that match one’s experienced gender.

    It is riddled with stereotypes. Remove them and what’s left?

    1 Assessment and support of children and adolescents with gender dysphoria | Archives of Disease in Childhood. https://adc.bmj.com/content/103/7/631 (accessed 20 Dec 2019).

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