by Nick Rogers
For an extraordinary couple of weeks, as ballot papers popped into email boxes and through letter boxes, the campaign for the new leader and deputy leader of the British Labour Party was consumed by the issue of gender self-ID and whether those who think that biological sex is a material reality should be expelled from the party.
All the leadership and deputy leadership candidates declared their agreement with the proposition that “trans women are women and trans men are men”. The women candidates went further and signed a series of pledges drafted by the previously unknown Labour Campaign for Trans Rights (launched on 10 February). The pledges label Woman’s Place UK, the leading women’s organisation campaigning for women to be acknowledged as a biological category, as a “trans-exclusionist hate group” and calls on the Labour Party to expel those who “express bigoted transphobic views” – by definition the supporters of WPUK.
Let us agree that, if trans women are women, there is no basis for excluding anyone who identifies as a woman from any women-only spaces. To exclude a subset of the category of women would be to discriminate against that subset. To argue that women who have particular bodily features that are different from other women (such as male genitalia) should be separated off from the majority of women in any circumstances, or that a subset of women who are stronger and faster than the majority of women (because they have male bodies) should be excluded from women’s sporting events, would clearly be to practice a form of social apartheid that we should all condemn.
Lisa Nandy, a candidate for the leadership, would then be correct to argue (as she did in response to a question at a rally on 16 February) that male rapists and sex offenders who, after imprisonment, self-ID as women (without obtaining a gender recognition certificate or expressing any intention to medically transition) should be moved to a women’s prison (as is happening) and have their crimes reclassified as having been committed by a woman. As she explained on Radio 4’s Today Programme (13 February): “If you start from the position that trans women are women, which I do, then you don’t exclude women from women-only spaces.”
And, if trans women are women, then the exemptions in the Equality Act 2010 that allow the providers of single-sex facilities to exclude trans women in some tightly controlled circumstances could only be interpreted as transphobic – as would the clause in Labour’s 2019 manifesto that promised to “Ensure that the single-sex-based exemptions contained in the Equality Act 2010 are understood and fully enforced in service provision” (p.66).
That is indeed the position that both the women candidates for leader – Rebecca Long-Bailey as well as Lisa Nandy – have articulated at hustings and in interviews. There have been the occasional emollient words that appear to offer the prospect of a rational discussion but it is clear from a careful reading of what they say that it will be a discussion to which only those who accept that trans women are women will be invited. As Long-Bailey said in the first televised leadership debate (BBC Newsnight on 12 February): “To refer to biological sex in a transphobic way, of course it’s transphobic…. We need to end the discussion on this and we need to protect the rights of individuals.”
The only exception to this ban on genuine discussion will be for women users of services, especially the vulnerable and abused, who express concerns about males in their spaces. Nandy explained her approach (again on the 13 February Today Programme): “There are very live debates around how you protect people…. it’s really important that those people, particularly women who have suffered domestic violence know that we’re taking this seriously, that we will be robust about making sure that there are policies in place that mean that people can’t do them harm.”
When asked directly in the same programme for confirmation that Ruth Serwotka, one of the leaders of WPUK, would be expelled, Nandy implicitly indicated her agreement: “We should exclude people from the Labour Party who are trying to harm other people”.
So there you have it: re-education in gender identity theory and patronising reassurance for the confused and scared; expulsion for the articulate and obdurate. As Nandy explained again in The Observer (1 March) after reaffirming that she did not regret signing pledges calling for expulsions: “Where you have women who want to have a genuine debate about how better to protect them [in safe spaces], it’s a very welcome debate. But that has to start with the recognition that trans men are men, trans women are women and that they exist.”
Sex and gender
I beg to differ. The question of whether trans women are women and trans men are men has to be on the table in any discussion. We at least need to come to a joint understanding of what each side in the debate means by the words woman and man.
Sex is a biological reality for sexually-reproducing species. A small number of people are born intersex but that does not support the thesis that sex is a spectrum. Male and female are clear categories that have a scientific, material basis and explanatory power.
Trans women are men who either think they are women trapped in a male body (the psychological condition of gender dysphoria that may require medical intervention), or men who reject the repressive social expectations associated with their sex and wish to be acknowledged as women. And there will be a small number of men who are abusing self-ID to gain access to women’s spaces for predatory reasons. The rapist who was transferred to a women’s prison where he sexually abused four women springs to mind.
We should treat all our fellow human beings with respect, courtesy, kindness and compassion. In the vast majority of social circumstances treating a trans woman as a woman and a trans man as a man is not a problem. But we cannot ignore biology, either conceptually or in its real material consequences.
Dawn Butler, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for women and equalities and a deputy leader contender cannot countenance such a thought. On Good Morning Britain (17 February) she insisted, “Talking about penises and vaginas doesn’t help the conversation. What you are saying then is a trans woman isn’t a woman”. And pressed further by Richard Madeley uttered the words for which this leadership contest will likely always be remembered: “A child is born without a sex”.
I have every sympathy with Dawn Butler. That is the kind of nonsense we all start spouting when we attempt to defend the indefensible. For if the words woman and man do not refer to biological categories, what do they mean?
Gender identity theory tells us that the words man and woman refer to a person’s “gender”. Everyone apparently has an innate sense of what gender they are, which may conflict with a person’s biological sex. There is no more objective way to determine whether someone is a man or a woman than by asking them. Whatever a person says they are, that is what they are.
Gender is not innate. There is no such thing as a female brain that finds itself trapped in a male body. Gender, rather, is a social construct that constrains and restricts how people are expected to behave based on their perceived sex. It conditions the social roles people may fulfill. For the most part, gender is oppressive and denies people the right to live fully rounded lives.
It is a big problem that the gender identity theory that so many on the left (and all the leadership candidates) have embraced defines the difference between women and men in terms of the very gender stereotypes we should be challenging – if not abolishing.
It is also an entirely circular argument. Women are anyone who “feels” like a woman; men anyone who “feels” like a man. Questioned on The Moral Maze (a radio programme that drills into a single controversial issue each week and dealt with the gender debate in February), Torr Robinson, trans officer for London Young Labour and one of the founders of the LCTR, said that a woman is anyone who “lives as woman”. All of which begs the question of what feeling like a woman or man or living the life of a woman or a man might mean. It appears not to require explanation only to those whose understanding of the woman/man binary is bound, not by the scientific reality of biological sex, but by the gender stereotypes we all imbibe from birth.
Once you start trying to define the categories of woman and man in terms of the social construct of gender, confusion is piled on confusion and stereotype on stereotype. The genderbread person is widely used by public authorities to explain gender: https://www.genderbread.org/resource/genderbread-person-v4-0. It exemplifies how gender identity (axes for manness versus womanness, and masculinity versus femininity, with anatomical sex being simply another axis along which you can locate yourself at pretty much any point) is really about a surrender to gender stereotypes.
One of the dafter efforts at providing a definition (now withdrawn) caused the British Association of Clinical Psychologists no end of embarrassment:
“… Being a woman in a British cultural context often means adhering to social norms of femininity, such as being nurturing, caring, social, emotional, vulnerable, and concerned with appearance.
“However, of course, not all women adhere to all these things. For example some neurodiverse women (on the autistic/aspergic/ADHD spectrums) may struggle to express emotions, or with social situations. In some northern working-class contexts femininity is associated with strength and aggression… “
So, if you are a woman who does not quite meet society’s expectations in the nurturing, caring, emotional, being vulnerable or looking after your appearance stakes, you are either on one or other psychological spectrum or from the northern working class. An object lesson in mixing up your stereotypes and maximising the number of people you annoy. Perhaps the BACP was trying to drum up business from new demographics for their anger management courses.
Women come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and personalities. They are not all “feminine” or “womanly”; they do not all have children or even want to have children; they do not all “live like a woman” (whatever that is supposed to mean). Biology is all that defines women as a category but it is not their “destiny”. Women collectively (in alliance with male allies) can transform society to overcome their oppression and, by doing so, contribute to building a socialist society that liberates the whole of humanity. But we cannot move towards that goal while so many socialists are in thrall to a gender identity theory that clings to the stereotypes that limit all of our lives.
Helen Steel was among a small group of women who turned up at the hustings for LGBT+ Labour, hoping that the Labour leadership contenders – Long-Bailey, Nandy and Starmer were on the platform – might be able to provide clarity. Forbidden from asking questions from the floor, Helen interjected at one point: “Can any of you define the word ‘woman’? We can’t talk about sexism if we don’t know what woman and man means. How can you defend women’s rights and women’s single-sex exemptions if you don’t know what the definition of woman is?”
Keir Starmer looked on with dawning realisation that the small woman being manhandled from her seat by a burly security man was the woman he had helped provide pro-bono advice for when she defended herself in the McLibel case, whom he boasts of defending in his campaign video.
Of course, none of the three could answer because the gender identity theory they have signed up to makes the words woman and man meaningless. As Helen Steel understands, gender identity theory deprives us of the tools to analyse the oppression of women because it denies the reality of biology (the reproductive role specific to women, women’s average physical size and strength and so on) and forbids any discussion that does not restrict itself to the sexist social constructs of femininity versus masculinity that patriarchy constantly constructs and reconstructs to give ideological effect to that oppression. That is the box into which Labour leadership candidates are backing the whole party.
What has Woman’s Place UK done to earn so much enmity? WPUK is a feminist organisation made up of trade unionists and socialists that advocates for women’s rights. It includes trans supporters. Among the issues it raises is concern about the implications of proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 on the single sex exemptions in the Equality Act 2010. It calls for “respectful and evidence-based discussion”, “the principle of women-only spaces to be upheld”, “a review of how the exemptions in the Equality Act… are being applied in practice” (a demand which made it into Labour’s 2019 manifesto), and for the “government to consult with women’s organisations”.
On 1 February this year WPUK held a hugely successful Women’s Liberation 2020 conference (commemorating the 1970 conference) with a thousand women in attendance (plus a few men, including me) that in scores of workshops discussed a huge array of issues.
WPUK is completely open about its activities. The transcripts and videos of all its meetings are published on its website (including of September’s meeting at the Brighton conference). If WPUK were a hate organisation, it ought to be possible to provide copious evidence. Yet none is ever forthcoming. Sometimes speeches that are hurtful and downright nasty towards trans people are cited. A few minutes’ investigation is invariably sufficient to establish that these speeches were not made either at WPUK meetings, or by anyone associated with WPUK.
At Labour Party conference 2019, there was a borderline-violent demonstration outside a meeting of WPUK. People attending the WPUK meeting (mostly women, who included members of my local Labour Party), were shouted, sworn and spat at and one woman had liquid squirted on her by demonstrators (who included lots of very aggressive non-trans men). Throughout the meeting, the demonstrators banged on the windows of the hall in an attempt to make it impossible to continue. I wrote about these events: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2019/10/08/transgender-extremism-at-british-labour-party-conference/.
This is a far from isolated example of misogynist intimidation. Other WPUK meetings have been aggressively protested. And women who argue that biological sex is an important part of the lived experience of women – and the source of women’s oppression down the millennia – have been subjected to intimidation and threats, no platforming, and some have lost their jobs. The misogynist term of abuse, TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), is frequently hurled at women who speak up on these issues. The abuse online is profoundly disturbing. Popular memes often involve guns pointed at “TERFS”. Direct threats of violence and rape are not uncommon.
My local Labour Party (Tottenham) passed a motion at the end of January that as well as calling for “sensitivity and respect for differences of opinion within the Labour Party” when debating proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, stated that, “The reaction by many party members to the activities of organisations such as Woman’s Place UK, including denouncements from this year’s Labour Party conference and aggressive demonstrations outside its fringe meeting, is very concerning”. It went on to support “the right of women to self-organise and freely campaign and advocate for women’s sex-based rights” and “for Woman’s Place UK and for supporters for trans people’s rights to organise and campaign, free from intimidation, at Labour Party events and among Labour Party members”.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the LCTR pledges calling for the suppression of motions and the expulsion of WPUK supporters had my local party in mind. This suspicion is reinforced by the wording of several motions doing the rounds of Labour Party branches that explicitly criticise Tottenham for standing up for WPUK’s freedom to campaign and express its point of view.
None of the behaviour of those claiming to be trans rights activists, ranging from the fascistic to the McCarthyite, has earned a rebuke from any of the leadership candidates.
Laura Pidcock, the campaign chair for Richard Burgon, the left’s candidate for deputy leader, wrote in an article for Tribune two sentences that ought to have been uncontroversial: “The women’s movement needs the space to talk about sex and gender, without fear of being ‘no platformed’. We reserve that measure for fascists”. She was roundly attacked on the Twittersphere. And Tribune’s culture editor (a man) tweeted: “again to make it very clear for those at the back… we won’t be hosting the ‘space to discuss’ whether trans women are women recently called for by Pidcock”. The irony of a successor to George Orwell (the literary editor of Tribune in 1940s) banning discussion of a controversial issue is lost on the magazine’s current editorial board.
Those of us who are prepared to stand up for women’s rights (including the right of women to be consulted about when biological males should be allowed into their spaces) provide the only hope that the Labour Party can be saved as an arena for rational debate. Four and half thousand Labour Party members and supporters, including three members of the Scottish Parliament, have signed the Labour Women’s Declaration that advocates for women’s sex-based rights (https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/labour-womens-declaration). A Twitter storm in response to the Labour leaders’ actions saw 25 thousand posts over one evening tagged with #ExpelMe.
The Tottenham Labour Party motion that the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights has been launched to suppress, calls for “women and LGBT activists to come together to discuss the issues in a spirit of respect and comradeship”. Before that can happen, we are going to have to stand firm against an authoritarian move to proscribe, ban and expel. Labour’s posse of potential leaders and deputies are proposing to throw out of the party those of us who refuse to utter a formula that they cannot define (because it is meaningless) and that has been invented solely to silence debate. We can draw comfort from the fact that there are thousands of us and that, before the debate within the Labour Party can be suppressed, the proposed purge will have to get rid of all of us. There is strength in solidarity. United we can win.
Nick Rogers, who is Chair of Tottenham Constituency Labour Party in London, writes in a personal capacity (8 March 2020)