Truth to power?

Somebody asked me the other day, how the trans identity lobby had been so successful. It’s an interesting question.

How has it come about that all main political parties, many schools, local councils, universities and other public institutions are lined up in support of ideas which are accepted by less than 20% of the population?


I think the reasons are many and complicated. Here are some thoughts about three strands that I think are part of this story.

1. People are not supporting what they think they are supporting

It is perfectly possible to hold these two views simultaneously:

The Women Ask Questions poll asked questions that specified that they were about a male person who has male genitalia but who identifies as a woman. Whereas the questions asked to obtain the contrasting figures in the British Social Attitudes survey used a shortened version of this quite complicated definition:

[people who] have gone through all or part of a process (including thoughts or actions) to change the sex they were described as at birth to the gender they identify with, or intend to. This might include by changing their name, wearing different clothes, taking hormones or having gender reassignment surgery

For example, in response to this question:

Please think about a transgender woman – that is a man who has gone through all or part of a process to become a woman. How comfortable or uncomfortable would you be for a transgender woman to use female public toilets?

72% of women said they were very or quite comfortable.

I think the concept of a meaningful transition is relevant here. I suspect the difference in responses to the two polls is because most people think “has gone through all or part of a process to become a woman” is not the same thing as “has male genitalia but identifies as a woman”.

In other words, despite widespread and growing liberal attitudes towards transgender people, the trans identity lobby has not succeeded in persuading most people that identity is the sole determinant of sex.

However, one of the triumphs of the trans identity lobby has been to utterly conflate opposition to discrimination with support for an identity-based model of sex.

For example, when Stonewall approached 100 corporations and charities to support their full page ad in the Metro, the wording on the advert was essentially motherhood and apple pie:

“To all our trans family, colleagues, customers and friends, We are proud to stand alongside you in the fight for trans equality. We support your right to be yourself and you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect in all parts of daily life. We will keep on playing our part to make that happen and we send you our support and strength in the face of the hostility directed at you. We are proud to come out for trans equality.”

Who could disagree with that? I don’t.

But the advert also promoted Stonewall’s pre-filled response to the Gender Recognition Act consultation, supporting “a reformed Gender Recognition Act that:

  • Requires no medical diagnosis or presentation of evidence for trans people to get their identity legally recognised
  • Recognises non-binary identities
  • Gives all trans people, including 16 – 17-year-olds, the right to self-determination, through a much simpler and more streamlined administrative process” (Source: Stonewall)

These are much more specific proposals, which it is possible to disagree with, or wish to discuss, without being a bigot.

This kind of sleight of hand is immensely harmful to the possibility of a proper democratic discourse.

2. Lobbying the powerful doesn’t change power structures

Stonewall has always been a lobbying organisation, not a grassroots campaign. It was explicitly set up that way in 1989.

The campaign against Section 28 was a spontaneous, grassroots resistance against a law that demonised lesbians and gay men as a tool to consolidate central government power in relation to local government, and strengthen the internal Conservative Party coalition between economic liberals (like Thatcher) and the socially authoritarian Tory membership.

In many ways, we were collateral damage – Thatcher was not particularly interested in moral issues such as homosexuality. She included Section 28 in the Local Government Act 1988 as part of a deal with the Christian right in her own party because it looked like a useful way to weaken the “loony left” in Labour.

The Labour leadership at the time were not particularly interested in defending us, or their own left-wing councils. The campaign groups that sprang up around the country were not proxies in a political game, and we didn’t expect or count on support from any establishment parties.

Stonewall was a concrete expression of one aspect of the movement against Section 28, but it was not the only one. There were (at least) two broad approaches, crudely summed up by a series of oppositional binaries:

  • Lobbying vs Direct action
  • Respectable vs Confrontational
  • Born this way vs Glad to be gay
  • Equal rights vs Liberation

I was on the direct action/liberation wing of the movement. I remember being horrified when I heard that Stonewall had been established with a salaried CEO on £20,000 a year. Imagine what we could have done with all that money! We were running our campaign on hours and hours of voluntary input, sales of badges, donations and proceeds of fundraising discos and jumble sales. (In 2016-17, Stonewall spent £311,842 on employing a senior management team of four people, the highest paid of whom has a salary in the range of £90,000 to £99,000.)

My view was, and still is, that equal rights (to marry, serve in the military etc) are not the end goal of a liberation movement. That the different ways of living developed by lesbian and gay people, outside of and to some extent in opposition to traditional family life were a positive contribution to a possible future where women and young people would not be squashed into narrow patriarchal boxes. Like the radical feminists and gay liberationists of the 1970s, I still think marriage is a trap for women, and for lesbian & gay people.

Stonewall’s approach has been hugely successful. Laws have been changed and equal rights for lesbian & gay people are uncontroversial across the whole political establishment.

And yet, patriarchy persists; sex role stereotypes in children’s toys, books and clothes are as strong as ever; women continue to do the bulk of domestic labour, childcare and care work generally; women are objectified, harassed, assaulted and murdered by men who view us as less than human.

Lobbying the powerful doesn’t alter the structures that underpin their power. In fact, it reinforces those structures and that power.

Thanks, in part, to the successful lobbying of Stonewall for marriage equality, the naturalness and inevitability of marriage has been strengthened. The logical conclusion of arguing that we should be treated equally because we are just “normal” inside is that “normality” expands slightly to include us, but is in no other way disrupted.

3. Gender identity is a neoliberal ideology

Stonewall is a symbol of the victory of lobbying over direct action, top-down law change over grassroots movements, individualism over collective struggle. This is a shift that has happened across all aspects of politics and society, alongside the decline of trade unionism and the growth of economic inequality and insecurity.

Far from being a liberatory project, the idea that a person’s internal gender identity determines their sex is absolutely in line with this general atomising tendency in the western world. The only thing which counts is a person’s autonomous and isolated sense of themselves as a man, woman or non-binary person. There is no recognition of gender as a social relation between each individual and all others in society.

Theresa May’s Conservative government at first perceived no real danger in backing the call for self-determined legal sex. They had no investment in the gains of the collectively organised women’s movement. They do not recognise the structural nature of oppression.

At root, they are uninterested in this issue. Just as with Thatcher’s government, they were content for lesbians (and, in this case, all women) to suffer the collateral damage from an agreement that seemed expedient to them.

For that reason, I do not think they will now pursue the changes to the GRA demanded by Stonewall. The controversy over the proposals has surprised them and I think they will back away.

I may be wrong on this. In any case, things are currently looking very worrying in the Labour Party. The challenge for feminists in the labour movement over the next few years will be to find ways to expose the essentialism and individualism at the heart of transgender ideology, and point out the inherent contradiction with the aims of a movement based on solidarity and interdependence.

Whatever happens with the GRA reform, the issue is now very much out in the open, and we are not anywhere near the end of this story.

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