Sex, gender and gender identity: why socialists should support updating transgender rights.

What follows is a contribution to the debate which has recently emerged around transgender rights, mostly in respect of proposed changes to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA) 2004 and the Equality Act 2010. Criticisms have been raised, including by some on the left, over the Tory government’s intention to consult on particular proposals to update and amend the GRA.

The proposals seem to me to be reasonable and progressive suggestions which would help address aspects of trans oppression, especially as faced by working class and nonwhite trans people. Not everyone on the left or among feminists agrees that they are so reasonable, however.

Thus some of the proposals’ critics are clearly transphobic, exhibiting a general incomprehension and hostility towards trans people and a failure even to acknowledge the existence of trans oppression. Ill-informed coverage in sections of the media has certainly fuelled a considerable amount of unpleasant posting on social media by people who seem incapable of empathy towards trans people and their supporters.

Mermaids, the support organisation for trans children, reported a huge increase in malicious posts to the police in August. Some of these accused parents of child abuse for supporting their children’s access to puberty blockers in preparation for their possible future gender transition.

It’s unfortunately very easy for those who never bother to support lazy, hateful fuckwittery with actual evidence to vent their bigotry and ignorance on such public forums. They take no account of the damage they cause, not least the potential effect of discouraging trans people from coming forward to seek help and support in the first place.

Other criticisms of the proposals, while not openly hostile to transgender people, seem based on misunderstandings and misplaced fears which have resulted in some otherwise radical or progressive people ending up in what seems to me political muddles.

First though, a word of caution on how these debates should be conducted. In my view supporters of the proposals should not automatically label people’s concerns as transphobic and thus alienate them and unnecessarily polarise the debate.

Nor is it helpful that accusations and counter-accusations of transphobia, misogyny and the alleged erasure of either women or trans people have been thrown around. Some have suggested that one oppressed group seems prepared to throw the rights of another under a bus in pursuit of their own rights. But women’s and trans rights are not in competition or on opposite sides of a set of scales where more rights for one means less rights for the other. Nor is there a limited ‘stock’ of rights which will be exhausted if one group gets more.

Some critics on the left have even suggested that some of us socialist supporters of the measures being proposed are in danger of ditching a Marxist analysis of oppression and capitulating to idealism and/or Identity Theory (for example in recognising the reality of gender identity). Unsurprisingly I think this is a serious misreading of the political reality.

I strongly believe that socialists should support the proposed changes announced in July by Justine Greening, the Tory education secretary and minister for women and equalities. Nevertheless we should at the same time defend the right of those on the left who express concerns to engage in honest debate. Socialists should not support, for example, the one or two recent misguided attempts to discipline those in the trade union movement who have voiced criticisms of the proposals.

Nor is it helpful, in my view, to refer to critics of the proposals, or trans-critical people in general, as ‘TERFs’ (trans exclusionary radical feminists). It is not very conducive to comradely debate. While it’s a commonly used epithet in transgender milieus it doesn’t get us very far, not least because some who may be critical of the proposed changes are not necessarily trans-exclusionary or hostile to trans people in the same way as are people like Germaine Greer, for example.

Similarly, ‘no-platforming’ trans-critics (this has been attempted against Germaine Greer) is also inappropriate in my view. The tactic of no-platforming has its place on the left. There are certainly people who should be subject to no-platform demands, such as fascists who would like to use their platforms and their violence to atomise and terrorise their opponents and destroy democracy.

No platform’ would be a very legitimate tactic to implement in the US today, for instance, in the wake of the fascist violence in Charlottesville, against supporters of the various white-supremacist and Nazi groups that terrorised the town. But to urge the use of this tactic even against people openly hostile to trans rights like Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Julie Burchill or Sheila Jeffries is inappropriate and counter-productive and simply looks undemocratic and overly defensive. Such people should be (firmly!) debated in public forums.

We need to remember that the real enemies of trans people are not radical feminists but the ruling class in capitalist society, the enemy of all oppressed groups.

So why are trans people calling for changes to the GRA?

The Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004 under the second Blair Labour government. This was the same government which revoked the infamous Tory homophobic Section 28. In 2005 the Civil Partnership Act was passed, followed in 2010 by the Equality Act which granted parity of protected category status with other protected categories (like disability) on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender reassignment This was followed in 2013 under the Cameron Tory/Lib Dem coalition government by the Same-Sex Marriage Act. Similar progressive legislation has been passed in a number of other jurisdictions in the last decade or so.

Thus despite the impact of neo-liberal economic deregulation, rampant privatisation, rising inequality, wars and austerity, burgeoning racism and islamophobia, scapegoating of disabled people and assaults on organised labour and working class living standards, an element of social liberalism within neo-liberalism has permitted, under pressure from LGBT+ campaigners, some significant pink-washing by centre-left and centre-right governments (at minimal political and economic cost) by ruling classes in the more advanced economies.

When the GRA was drafted fifteen years ago it was certainly progressive, both in terms of being the first UK legislation to provide some legal protections specifically for transgender people (such as non-disclosure), but also because it did not require a trans person to have had genital surgery in order to be eligible for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC).

However, much has changed in recent years. Not only has much of the terminology changed but the numbers of trans people coming out has increased dramatically, partly down to the passage of the GRA no doubt.

Trans people have become much more visible and are self-defining in new ways, including non-binary ways. The passage of time since 2004 has meant that there are other outdated provisions in the Act, not least that it does not apply to those under 18 and it requires psychiatric intervention to ‘prove’ a person’s eligibility for a GRC.

I can give a simple example of the shortcomings of the Act from my own experience. Around a decade ago I applied for and obtained an interim GRC since I met all the rather onerous, medicalised and not inexpensive criteria. I then fell foul of the requirement under the Act that a married trans person had to annul their marriage in order to obtain the full certificate (in order that the Act would not endorse single sex marriage by the back door).

My partner (wife) and I baulked at the injustice of this and the insecurity it generated and so we did not proceed to the full certificate. That also meant that like quite a few transwomen I could not then qualify for a state pension at 60, despite living in female role, having changed all my documents and records, etc.

It is true that this particular restriction in respect of marriage annulment altered with the passage of same sex marriage legislation but there is still a provision in the GRA for ‘spousal veto’ for blocking a trans person’s application for a GRC – and this ought not to be the case.

Thus it ought not to be difficult for non-trans people to appreciate the levels of resentment generated by these and other anomalies, as well as recognise the transphobia many trans people face in pretty much every sphere of our lives – education, employment, housing, access to health care, susceptibility to violence, discrimination, hate crime and so on.

Not everyone does recognise this, however, and consequently the discussion around the proposed changes and their possible implications has generated much heat and not a little acrimony. This has emanated not only from sources we might expect to be hostile to transgender rights – the right-wing media and commentators, some religious groups, trans-critical radical feminist blogs and websites, for example – but also from some socialist feminists and some on the left in the trade union movement, and even a few trans people themselves.

On this last point we should note that there is no single ‘transgender movement’, or a united ‘transgender view’. Trans people hold a huge variety of aims, aspirations and political standpoints. Thus the journalist and newsreader India Willoughby weighed in some weeks ago on the ‘bathroom use’ issue to argue that feminist critics of transwomen’s use of gender specific toilets were right and that, in particular, some transwomen were making life more difficult for ‘genuine’ transsexuals like her by insisting that they are ‘real women’ and have the right to use women’s single-sex facilities.

Such examples of what some might call ‘passing privilege’ but I would describe as ‘pulling the ladder up after you’ might be disappointing but they are hardly new. A few decades ago it was common (using the terminology of a previous generation of trans people) to find many transsexuals who saw themselves as quite distinct from cross dressers or ‘transvestites’, and both these groups often saw themselves as quite distinct from gays and lesbians. (Or bisexuals, who nobody really talked about or bothered with until fairly recently.)

Socialists must start from recognising the material reality of both trans and women’s oppression. The question that follows from this is how to fight and overcome these oppressions. The answer to that requires socialist analysis to uncover the roots of oppression, roots which are to be found deep in the class nature of society and the role of the nuclear family.

But analysis is only a start, and the current debate will be sterile if it is merely an abstract one. The point, after all, to paraphrase Marx slightly, is not just to interpret the world but to change it. Unfortunately as good deal of the opinion being expressed seems to me to be abstract and speculative.

Any serious socialist analysis should lead to concrete political measures to address women’s and transgender people’s oppression and work towards the achievement of solidarity between their struggles. The fight for reforms and against particular aspects of oppression necessitates the formulation of meaningful concrete demands, collective organisation, solidarity and struggle. The current debates need to be seen in this light.

Oppression, for Marxists, is not an unfortunate and eradicable failure or blemish of particular capitalist societies or a matter that can be addressed by better education – it is endemic to and necessary for capitalism economically and ideologically in order to make the extraction and accumulation of profit from our labour feasible.

We should note also that as the 21st century has progressed, for millions of women their oppression has grown worse since the economic crisis of 2008 and the neo-liberal assault on working class pay and conditions has intensified. Across the world millions of girls are denied education and may be subject to FGM and a life of child-bearing and domestic servitude. Poverty forces millions of women into dehumanising prostitution and the sex trade and even sex slavery, and women workers in general face lack of equal pay and status with men.

Oppression has also grown worse in many countries for trans people. They are one of the groups often scapegoated for the impact of austerity and globalisation. Transwomen are a high risk group for HIV infection. Trans people generally are economically and socially marginalised, often rejected by family, at risk of physical and sexual abuse with few opportunities for regular employment and housing.

Revolutionary socialists argue that ultimately the only way to overcome this alienation, exploitation and oppression and achieve liberation is through a revolutionary Marxist strategy of changing our world by mobilising the working class to overthrow the capitalist relations of production which generate particular oppressions. This big picture of the necessity for revolutionary transformation, in dialectical relationship with the pursuit of particular reformist demands, is not only essential but achievable.

The background to the current debate

Some UK radical feminists (Germaine Greer, Julie Burchill and Julie Bindel, for example) have been promoting a transphobic, radical feminist narrative for a long time. Burchill and Bindel have at times used their platforms in the national press to make grossly transphobic comments leading to widespread criticism and (successful) mobilisations by trans people and their supporters against them. They stand in the same transphobic tradition that Janice Raymond set out in her 1979 book The Transexual Empire: The making of the She-male.

Recently Dame Jenni Murray of BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour got into hot water for claiming that transwomen are not ‘real’ women and can’t be real feminists because they have not experienced socialisation as girls and women.

Likewise the feminist writer Chimamanda Adichie caused considerable disappointment to many of her admirers by making similar comments about transwomen not having shared the same life experiences as natal women, although she simultaneously claimed to be trans supportive.

They two are not alone in their views. A number of websites (such as Transgender Trend) and blogs have been attacking what they call the ‘transgender lobby’ for years. When Justine Greening eventually announced the Tory plans to streamline the GRC application process (welcomed by both Jeremy Corbyn, and, as it happens, Teresa May) some in the labour movement and the Press were also quick to voice concerns.

The government has long had a stated commitment to review transgender rights, partly to examine the operation of the 2004 GRA which had been in place for some years by the time the Tory/Lib Dem coalition came in after the 2010 election, and partly because of a recognition of the pace of change in many matters transgender.

Greening announced a consultation on the GRA to be published in autumn 2017. This will also consider whether a person whose gender is ‘non-binary’ — neither exclusively male nor female — should be able to define themselves as ‘X’ on their birth certificate.

In Whitehall-speak the announcement of this consultation suggests at least the possibility of changes in the medium term, subject to parliamentary approval.

What is actually being proposed?

On the face of it the proposals are hardly earth-shattering. As well as suggested changes to legislation there are calls to change and make more trans supportive current practices, staff training and guidance circulating in various public bodies such as the NHS. This is in response to trans people’s concerns and wide experience of inadequate and often transphobic NHS staff and facilities.

The background to the proposals was a review of transgender rights by the Women and Equalities Parliamentary Committee, a cross-party select committee chaired by the Conservative MP Maria Miller. It took evidence from a range of individuals, trans groups (such as the Scottish Transgender Alliance, Gendered Intelligence and GIRES – the Gender Identity Research and Education Society) and various women’s and feminist organisations, as well as Ministers, public sector representatives and others. The committee published its report in January 2016.

It’s worth quoting from the Report’s findings. It opened by stating: “High levels of transphobia are experienced by individuals on a daily basis (including in the provision of public services)—with serious results. About half of young trans people and a third of trans adults attempt suicide. The recent deaths in custody of two trans women, and the case of a trans woman who was placed in a men’s prison, are particularly stark illustrations of the issues.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 was pioneering but is now dated. Its medicalised approach pathologises trans identities and runs contrary to the dignity and personal autonomy of applicants. The Government must update the Act, in line with the principle of gender self-declaration.”

It continued:

Protection for trans people under the Equality Act 2010 was a huge step forward. However, the terms “gender reassignment” and “transsexual” in the Act are outdated and misleading; and may not cover wider members of the trans community. The protected characteristic should be amended to that of “gender identity”.

The NHS is letting down trans people: it is failing in its legal duty under the Equality Act. Trans people encounter significant problems in using general NHS services, due to the attitude of some clinicians and other staff who lack knowledge and understanding—and in some cases are prejudiced. The NHS is failing to ensure zero tolerance of transphobic behaviour. GPs too often lack understanding and in some cases this leads to appropriate care not being provided. A root-and-branch review must be conducted, completed and published by the NHS.”

And it concluded:

Across the board, government departments are struggling to support trans people effectively, with the 2011 Advancing Transgender Equality action plan remaining largely unimplemented.”

No doubt major reasons for the failure to implement the transgender action plan mentioned here have been not only the institutional transphobia referred to but also almost ten years of neo-liberal austerity and cuts to welfare and support services since the financial crash of 2008.

The committee’s Report could also have mentioned the often severe impact of social class and poverty on trans people’s experiences of accessing NHS health care, support for transition, and applications for the Gender Recognition Certificate. But predictably it did not. Other reports and writers have done so, though.

For example Pat Clinton wrote in a recent issue of Socialist Review “devastating cuts, brutally long lists and treatment decisions based on how much those providing it think you deserve it rather than whether you need it. “As with all medical treatment there is a two tier system. One tier is exclusively for those who can afford it, where waiting times are virtually non-existent and discrimination is based on cash rather than any other social factor. And there is a lower tier with

And the TUC’s trans advice for trade union reps in 2016 included this in the introduction: “Trans people face massive discrimination in the workplace. In March 2016 a study by a recruitment company showed that 60% of trans workers have experienced some form of discrimination in the workplace and 53% have felt the need to hide their trans status from their colleagues. A 2011 Government survey showed similar levels of discrimination and added that “88% of respondents said that ignorance of transgender issues was the biggest mchallenge they faced in employment.””

Specific recommendations

Some of the recommendations made by the committee are less controversial than others. For example:

– More robust procedures and sanctions relating to data protection and nondisclosure;

– The need for appropriate staff training in the NHS;

– Removing gender identity clinics from mental health services to minimise the stigma of trans being perceived as a mental health issue.

Others have caused more debate:

– Lowering the ‘age of consent’ in the GRA from the current 18 to 16;

– The possibility of introducing a third gender category (‘X’) for official documentation;

– Replacing the term ‘gender reassignment’ with ‘gender identity’ in the 2010 Equality Act;

– Creating a legal category ‘for those people with a gender identity outside that which is binary’;

And the introduction of self-declaration to obtain a GRC seems to be particularly controversial for some people:

– “Proposals to update the GRA, in line with the principles of self-declaration that have been developed in other jurisdictions. In place of the present medicalised, quasi-judicial application process, an administrative process must be developed, centred on the wishes of the individual applicant, rather than on an intensive analysis by doctors and lawyers.”

With respect to the recommendation to change the protected characteristic in respect of trans people in the Equality Act to that of ‘gender identity’, the Government said it will keep this under review but gave no firm commitment in its response.

So there remains uncertainty as to when, and even whether, some of the more contested recommendations will actually be implemented, especially given that Brexit discussions are scheduled to occupy huge amounts of parliamentary time for the foreseeable future.

Clearly, though, Greening’s announcement energetically stirred the pot of concerns being voiced by critics of various stripes who want to block or at least delay some or all of the proposals. Their aim is presumably to encourage a lobby sufficiently vocal to prevent their implementation.

Critics of the Greening announcement included Clare Foges in The Times, Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman (also in a Times article), and the authors of a number of articles in the Morning Star, whose circulation seems primarily focused on sections of the left and not-so-left trade union bureaucracy.

There is little point wasting much time on the more obvious transphobic objections being mounted by religious bigots and those in the ‘defend the family’ brigade. One Christian medical site, for instance, asserted in the face of all the robust evidence and against the views of most trans people and psychiatrists, that gender dysphoria is a mental disorder and needs to be treated and hopefully ‘cured’. Socialists reject such crude transphobic tropes as we reject similar tropes about homosexuality.

Likewise there are websites such as Transgender Trend which are highly critical of the transgender ‘movement’ generally. They promote the view that institutions and governments are being ‘bullied’ by an aggressive trans lobby representing only a tiny proportion of the population (and presumably therefore irrelevant) into adopting transfriendly policies, particularly among young people.

These trans advocates, it is claimed, are undermining the safeguarding of children in schools and social care, ignoring ‘parental rights’ and the best interests of the young people themselves, as well as undermining women’s rights and legal protections. Yet, as Stonewall and Mermaids spokespeople (and many others) have pointed out, the current situation for young trans people can be deeply damaging if left unaddressed. A high proportion of young transgender and non-binary people suffer bullying, discrimination, self-harm and suicide attempts.

Any refusal to implement currently available support and advice for trans people, or implement the proposed changes to legislation, training and so on, must be seen against this backdrop. To do nothing and cling to the status quo is to ignore the high levels of transphobia that trans people face on a daily basis.

This cannot be a defensible position for socialists to hold. Yet disappointingly some of these trans-critical attitudes are shared even by some on the left who otherwise claim, in the abstract, to be trans-friendly or trans-supportive.

Some, mainly within some of the trade union bureaucracies, seem to be deeply suspicious of the proposed extensions of trans rights mainly because, they say, they could undermine hard-won women’s rights achieved through struggles in which the trade union movement played a crucial role. Thus there have been debates (even before Justine Greening’s announcement) on transgender rights in some trade union conferences, most notably a motion at the last NUT conference, Easter 2017.

Some leading activists in the NUT took a critical view of the proposals while others were supportive of them. This latter group included members of the Socialist Workers Party, the organisation of which I am also a member, although I belong to the University and College Union not the NUT (or NEU as of September). The debates have continued since then, and become even more prickly in some quarters.

In fact at the NUT conference it was the view supportive of self-declaration in the GRC application process which was overwhelmingly supported. It seems that the rank and file delegates of unions where this issue has arisen, such as the NUT, generally support the changes while some in the left bureaucracy, or associated with it, do not.

The debate does seem particularly sharp in the NUT where it is taking place as the new union (the National Education Union) is being launched out of the merger of the NUT and ATL. Perhaps the trans debate has to some extent become a lightning rod for some of the political realignments which are happening currently.

To give a flavour of the views of some of those in the labour movement critical of the proposals, Kiri Tunks, an NUT executive member writing in a personal capacity in the Morning Star, claimed:

The ability to define one’s own “gender” will undermine the legal characteristic of “sex” and could lead to serious implications for women and their ability to fight sex discrimination and oppression.”


The demand for self-identity has huge implications for all of us and how we are defined. And, because women are an oppressed group (whose fight for equality has never been won or sustained) it is women who are the most affected by the proposals.”

Terms that are used to describe people of and from specific groups must be determined by all the people in those groups.”

She went on to criticise what she saw as the potential erasure of the term ‘woman’ because it is being used in several ways. She criticised the fact that some reproductive rights organisations have been pressed by some trans and non-binary advocates to adopt alternatives to the term ‘woman’ in their titles and materials.

She is also critical of what she sees as the substitution of ‘gender’ for ‘sex’ by some

activists, which she argues flies in the face of the commonly accepted definitions of ‘sex’

and ‘gender’ on the left and more broadly, ie sex is biological, gender is socially


While this comment may have some validity, the assumed universal binary nature of ‘sex’ behind her statement of course becomes more problematic when we note the existence of a wide range of intersex conditions, and when we recognise the complexity of the political choices of whether to define sex primarily in terms of the possession of particular gonads, chromosomes, endocrinology, child-bearing potential, secondary sexual characteristics, brain function, etc).

Nevertheless, I’d suggest that it is the case that while it may be viable to talk about a ‘spectrum’ of genders, or gender identities, it is not really valid to describe human biological sex as a spectrum: certainly humanity is pretty much clumped into two big roughly equal sized groups of reproductive capabilities, with a small minority of intersex exceptions. Gender identity, however, is a different matter altogether, as I set out below.

Also, for the record, I think Kiri Tunks has a point about attempts to find an alternative to the term ‘woman’. I am not in favour of dropping the term from organisational titles or the literature of reproductive rights campaigns and other women’s organisations and I understand misgivings raised on this score.

It seems to me that forms of words can normally been found to include transgender or non-binary people which don’t involve dropping the term ‘women’ and which can also overcome the risk of the apparent erasure of trans people and their concerns.

Some of these issues invite a longer and more detailed discussion which are beyond the scope of this piece and I will return to them in a future article. Given the purpose of this article I will move on to address each of the most controversial proposed changes outlined earlier.


The change to self-declaration in the GRC application would, almost at a stroke, remove some of the more onerous and intrusive aspects of application. It would not, however, mean that a person could simply announce their intention to self-identity as the ‘other’ gender one fine day and thus get a GRC over the counter, as some critics have suggested, essentially and falsely trivialising the process.

It is still envisaged, apparently, that there will be a formal process of registration, a legally sworn and witnessed declaration and a paper trail, but, perhaps like the current situation under the 2015 Irish GRA (and in other jurisdictions), the applicant would need to complete a three page document rather than the dozens of pages in the UK (plus letters from doctors and psychiatrists, personal medical history and so on).

Admittedly it is still early days in Ireland but as far as I am aware there have been no reports of misuse of the process in the way some critics are suggesting.

Self-identification and access to single sex spaces

Another major bone of contention relates to a claimed consequence of introducing selfidentification, that is, access by (especially) transwomen to women-only spaces (such as refuges, toilets and changing rooms, hospital wards and prisons) which are currently often subject to exceptions to the equal access normally guaranteed by the 2010 Equality Act.

This is being presented by critics as threatening single-sex spaces for women, safe spaces which had to be fought for by the women’s movement and remain necessary because of women’s widespread and continuing oppression in capitalist society.

They argue that women’s safety could therefore be put at risk and their concerns are being ignored. People will be aware of similar claims in the United States in respect of the so-called ‘bathroom wars’ of North Carolina and (potentially) other states. (Although the North Carolina statute, HB2, has now been withdrawn following sustained and widespread opposition which has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars).

But rarely do those making these doom-laden claims mention the violence that trans people, especially trans people of colour, already face on a daily basis. Inappropriate placement in single-sex facilities based on a trans person’s birth-assigned sex and lack of a GRC is physically and psychologically risky. The three deaths of trans women in British prisons in 2015/16 spring to mind here.

These attempts to exclude transgender people also erase the reality of the assaults, domestic violence (where should trans people go for refuge?), self-harm, depression and susceptibility to suicide that trans people are prone to. Surely like anyone else trans people should be able to access help and shelter appropriate to whatever gender they present?

The way that this issue is being posed, in particular the implication that transwomen are merely potentially violent men in drag scheming to get into women’s spaces in order to assault or ogle them, carries an implicit transphobic assumption – that transwomen remain men after transition and vice versa for transmen.

It also conveniently ignores several key facts. First, transwomen are actually the women most at risk of violence in seeking to use such facilities (and, ironically, ‘genetic’ or natal women have also become victims of assault and discrimination by police, security personnel and the public as a consequence of ‘bathroom bans’ for being too ‘masculine’ looking!).

Second, some women can be violent too – in prisons, in domestic situations and so on. There are certainly more registered women sex offenders than trans people, so the virtually exclusive focus on transwomen’s presumed potential for violence seems misplaced. Studies have suggested for example that women’s prisons can be at least as violent as men’s.

There have been few attested instances of transwomen’s (sexual) violence against natal women. Perhaps the prevalence of the belief that this could become widespread, though, may reflect a common notion in radical feminist ideology – the essentialist myth of the inherent nurturing, non-violent nature of women.

Third, critics seem to dismiss the idea that if a man wants to cross-dress in order to try and gain access to women’s facilities, whether he has a GRC or not is beside the point. Not having a GRC is not going to prevent this. Why would a rapist go through all the hassle of applying for a Certificate (and leaving a paper trail) when access could already be gained without it? Any non-trans man can simply attempt to pose as a woman right now without the need for a bogus GRC application.

The reality is that exclusion from gender-specific spaces can only make life even more difficult and dangerous in very obvious and concrete ways for transgender people. This is generally ignored by trans-critics but certainly not something any socialist should ignore.

In summary, this particular criticism of a supposed consequence of transwomen selfidentifying certainly looks like a straw man argument and scaremongering.

Still in relation to self-declaration or identification, but on a slightly different tack, why do some critics who rightly support a woman’s right to control her reproduction in terms of abortion, contraception and so on deny trans people’s right to exercise control over their bodies by choosing to self-identify on the basis of their gender identity?

How should socialists respond to this issue? The answer is surely to acknowledge the legitimacy of both trans people’s and women’s rights to control their bodies, just as socialists should defend the right of both women and trans people to demand safety. We should therefor support demands for practical improvements to maximise safety and minimise risk for all women, transgender or cis-gender.

It would be better if some critics were to focus less on policing and excluding those deemed ‘gender inappropriate’ and much more on how women-only spaces in capitalism can be made safer for all women, including trans women. This might include having respect for confidentiality, recruiting sufficient staff and implementing appropriate staff training, ensuring adequate supervision and monitoring of facilities, re-employing attendants in public toilets, having secure individual bedrooms and cells in shelters and prisons, good lighting, emergency help buttons and so on.

Nor should it be the case, as now, that some cis-women’s prejudices against transwomen can veto their access to such facilities. This is allowing transphobic prejudice to trump trans people’s rights to safety and support and is really not OK.

Critics should perhaps think more broadly about how we work collectively (women and transpeople together as elements of the working class) to transform the system which creates the perceived need for such ‘safe spaces’ for women in the first place.

This all points to the need for the collective development of demands in opposition to austerity and neo-liberal attacks, and for solidarity and united action among oppressed groups rather than division, blaming and scapegoating on the basis of supposed fundamental differences and privilege-parading.

Gender identity

Another proposal which has drawn criticism has been the suggestion of substituting ‘gender identity’ for the current ‘gender reassignment’ in the list of protected characteristics covered by the 2010 Equality Act.

Some critics do not recognise ‘gender identity’ as a real category (it is seen as a ‘feeling’) and this part of the debate therefore goes directly to how socialists should understand sex and gender (and gender identity) as material categories and, further, it goes back to the earlier discussion of how we define ‘woman’ and ‘man’.

It is, however, quite insulting and dehumanising for trans people to be told that their gender identity, their sense of ‘self’ is (merely?) a ‘feeling’. A person’s sense of self and gender is much more fundamental than this.

I believe it is right to regard transwomen as women, and transmen as men, both on the basis of their self-identified gender identity (how about a bit of acknowledgement and respect for how trans people think of themselves and would like to be treated?) and on the basis of the way the rest of society treats them, including of course the fact that transwomen like natal women are impacted by sexism and misogyny (if they succeed in ‘passing’ ie not being detected as transgender), and/or transphobia all the time.

Accepting the validity of these points is not to imply any denial of the oppression faced by natal women, nor does it in any sense imply or lead to the erasure of ‘woman’ as a category.

What is the nature of gender identity? It seems to me that it has a reality deriving from the internalised sense of one’s biological sex (including in some cases deep unease or rejection of this) which interacts with social gender expectations. We should recognise it as a complex part of a person’s being, a deeply-rooted sense of one’s core self but one which involves some degree of malleability. It is thus distinct from a person’s biological sex, and it is also more than an internalised reflection of societal gender expectations.

In an article in International Socialism in 2014 I wrote this about the nature of gender identity:

“ … for trans people there is a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity.

our gender is socially constructed in a dialectical relationship with our material circumstances and is to some extent fluid. People’s self-identification and self-description (including trans people’s) can change and develop over time. There is a certain fluidity because our identities are structured within given material, historical and cultural frameworks such as the class relations dominant within a given mode of production like capitalism.

Trans people are highly motivated to resist [the] gender straitjacket, which suggests that, while gender identity may not be fixed and unchanging, it is deeply rooted in us; otherwise trans people could presumably be socialised out of our gender variant behaviour and identity. Everyone, after all, is showered in cot-loads of gender conformative reinforcement from the moment of birth.”

Introducing a non-binary legal category

Concern is also being expressed by some about the reality or otherwise of non-binary gender identities and how these should or should not be recognised legally or in terms of official documentation. These objections seem to me misplaced both in terms of the absolute numbers involved, which are very small, and conceptually.

At some point, short of the British state continuing to insist that everyone can and must fall under one or the other pole of a binary gender classification, non-binary identification will be introduced. Opposition to this on the basis that it may undermine the struggle for women’s rights (presumably by somehow diluting the statistical category of ‘woman’) looks very much like the deployment of quite a bourgeois argument in defence of current bureaucracy in order to undermine a long overdue reality check.

Yes, this change will impact official statistics and data gathering (to a very small extent for quite some time, I would suggest) but, frankly, what is the big problem in some people choosing to designate their gender as X or ‘other’? The sky is unlikely to fall in, and even if it were to be mildly inconvenient for some data gathering surely the human right to so designate oneself is more important than this, and indeed will better reflect reality?

A similar argument applies to the statistical impact of those who transition from their birth-assigned gender to an acquired gender identity. The proportion of trans people is small (perhaps one or two percent of the population), the number who transition even smaller (only around 4,500 GRCs have been issued to date over twelve years in a population approaching 70 million) and the distorting impact on statistics about equal pay, hate crime and so on would certainly be negligible.

This ‘problem’ of course disappears once people can accept that transwomen are women, transmen are men, and some people are non-binary, and should be treated as such in documentation and statistics.

It’s surely not beyond the wit of people to devise questions for censuses etc which could include more than two gender categories and/or ask people whether they are ‘living in the gender they were assigned at birth’. This is roughly the form of words some of us came up with in UCU for union membership monitoring purposes which allows us to gobeyond the binary box-ticking of most biographical data collection items.

Transwomen do not share women’s socialisation and experiences, and so are not real women’

To the further objection that transwomen should not be recognised as ‘real’ women because they have not been socialised as women we should point out that after transition transwomen are subject to oppression as women (so why would any feminist or socialist want to deny them support?), and in their earlier lives they have very likely been subject to a form of oppression which cis-gender (ie non-trans) women have not been – transphobia. On that basis are they not deserving of simple solidarity?

There seems to be a very dubious dynamic of exclusion/inclusion running through claims that transwomen are not real women because they have not been socialised as women. It ignores the fact that women’s socialisation is itself not an undifferentiated or class-neutral phenomenon. For example, Ivanka Trump’s socialisation will have been pretty fundamentally different to that of a working class immigrant woman in Los Angeles, or a working class or poor woman anywhere in fact.

And there are also undertones in this attitude of the historical marginalisation or exclusion of some other women’s concerns and needs (who also will have been socialised very differently), and sometimes the exclusion of such women themselves, like Black women or lesbians by the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s.


Finally, it is really not good enough for some critics to deploy, as they have, the rather desperate argument that people supporting the changes discussed above are lining up behind a Tory government who are no friends of the working class.

Teresa May and her Cabinet of millionaires may be no friends of the working class but that says little about whether one should support specific reforms which have been campaigned for from different governments by trans organisations. It also ignores the fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition also supports the changes.

Some of the objections being made to these proposed changes clearly stem, it seems to me, from approaches to understanding oppression in general, and women’s oppression in particular, which reject the pre-eminence of social class and the role of the nuclear family.

Class may be recognised by them as a category of difference but class struggle is not recognised as a dialectical necessity for the development and realisation of the revolutionary potential of the working class. Any emphasis on exploitation and profit accumulation as the purpose of capitalism, and as the source of oppression, is seen as evidence of Marxist economic reductionism.

Marxism is thus seen as offering inadequate, or at the very least, inadequately developed analyses of women’s oppression. This I do not accept. Marxism has adequate tools to analyse and address women’s and trans oppression.

Other approaches, broadly originating in identity theory, intersectionality and more recently privilege theory, and including Queer Theory, in practice prioritise the divisions and differences between identity categories of people – ethnic, gender, national, religious differences, for example – rather than between the social classes deriving from the relations of production in capitalist society.

Essentially these approaches fail to address, or inadequately address, the consequences of the fundamental class divisions in capitalist society – who owns the wealth, the factories and so on and who has no other option but to work for them, and how the next generation of labour is produced and socialised.

Power is envisaged as more diffuse, localised and multifarious, ‘struggle’ frequently boils down to individualised resistance or subversion/queering of established power structures, and challenging oneself and one’s ‘privileges’, or calling out others’ supposed privileges, becomes the site of political activity.

Marxists oppose this rejection of the centrality of exploitative class relations. We look to strengthen our side by standing as the tribunes of all the oppressed (as Lenin put it), recognising the capitalist class as the common enemy. That means promoting unity in action in support of both womens’ and trans rights, not further entrenching differences between oppressed groups.

In the current debates on trans rights, opposing what are in reality mildly progressive reforms to current legislation which would enhance today’s limited rights of transgender people risks pulling some socialists and trade unionists in the wrong direction.

Opposing these changes is the very obverse of emulating Lenin’s exhortation to the Bolshevik Party that socialists should stand as ‘tribunes of the oppressed’. Drawing a section of the organised working class behind divisive and abstract liberal-bourgeois arguments risks undermining the unity we need to promote today’s struggles of oppressed groups and the building of an anti-capitalist socialist movement.

Reproduced with permission: this article first appeared on Laura Miles‘s blog