Content note: this article discusses transphobia and misogyny
The current offensive against trans people in Britain is being carried out by an array of political forces across society. Lisa Leak outlines what these distinct forces are, how they enable and assist each other, and how this forms part of a much broader attempt at regenerating a right-wing gender politics in the 21st century.
rs21 banner at London vigil for Brianna Ghey, February 2023. Photo: Steve Eason
Every analogy is imperfect, but we can analogise the key elements of the ‘gender-critical’ transphobic project as a political wedge.
The thin end is what we might term trans exclusionary feminists (sometimes referred to as trans-exclusionary radical feminists or with other terms). This is the sharp end of the wedge because, while not huge in number, these activists provide the ideological formulations that pit trans women as being in antagonism with cis women – either as a threat to cis women’s safety, or as a competitor with them for finite resources. These activists provide the narratives that are then disseminated and reinforced much more broadly across society, and which give a semblance of moral authority to the ‘gender-critical’ milieu overall.
The most prominent public agitation of these activists is around the Gender Recognition Act and the enforcement of women’s spaces (these being the issues where they can appeal to the broadest public sympathy), but it’s important to understand that the same groups and individuals are heavy involved in lobbying and litigation in areas like health policy and workplace discrimination law – always in such a way as to make life harder for trans women. The aggressive use of privately funded litigation to erode LGBT equalities protections by degrees bears close comparison with the tactics used successfully by US conservatives to erode LGBT and abortion rights in the United States over the last several decades.
The intermediate section of the wedge is made up of more generally socially conservative milieus, including what we might call the ‘concerned parent brigade’. There is a lively ecosystem of transphobic agitation aimed specifically at parents, which bears a much broader anti-queer charge but uses panic over trans kids and teenagers as its presentable face. For example, transphobic groups have attempted to organise meetings in school buildings after hours, inviting parents to attend them and presenting themselves as dispensers of “expert” opinion on trans children. One deeply sinister organisation which is active in this milieu is Transgender Trend, which agitates against children or teenagers being able to access puberty-delaying medication or even transition socially (which is to say, agitates for the misgendering and suppression of gender-variant children by parents and teachers).
Groups and individuals in the traditionally conservative sphere bridge the gap between the nominally feminist end of gender-critical activism and the explicitly Tory end. However, this is only a rough schematic – there are many people whose views fall hazily in between these poles, and many others who call themselves ‘gender-critical feminists’, but whose overall politics far more belongs to this traditionalist anti-queer scene. An example would be Helen Joyce, journalist and author of a book called Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality. The book (positively reviewed by many mainstream UK media outlets) claims that trans rights is a ‘global agenda’ that has been ‘shaped’ by three Jewish billionaires (George Soros, Jennifer Pritzker and Jon Stryker). In more recent comments, Joyce has said that her goal is to ‘reduce or keep down the number of people who transition’ regardless of whether they are happier as a result of transitioning, and that every individual trans person is ‘a huge problem for a sane world’. Joyce and many other ‘gender-critical’ figures are able to use transphobia to launder reactionary views into a form of state- and media-sponsored ‘feminism’.
The thick end of the wedge, because it is where the power really comes from, is the state – here meaning the whole nexus of state institutions, the Tory Party, the rest of the political establishment and the bourgeois media. This is where the predominant power comes from to platform these arguments very broadly in society. It’s the state ultimately that takes the decision to resource or not resource trans healthcare (both in individual cases based on whether an individual has adequately conformed to ideological expectations of gender, and also at the collective level where resources for transition have been held astronomically below demand as a conscious choice for a long time). The Tories in recent years have facilitated the entry of gender-critical transphobic figures into bodies like NHS Trusts and policy review processes. In higher education, the government’s threatened ‘free speech’ laws would mandate universities to accommodate transphobia as well as racism and other bigoted positions. In the charity and NGO sector, the state has been extremely active in suppressing often quite middle-of-the-road LGBT groups like Stonewall or the trans charity Mermaids (which is being threatened with criminal investigation after a series of queer-baiting articles targeting the charity in the right-wing press) and promoting anti trans ‘alternatives’ like the right-wing pressure group ‘LGB Alliance’, which has been conferred charitable status and awarded money from the National Lottery Community Fund.
These categories are the main players in the ‘gender-critical’ offensive, but it’s important to grasp that they do not operate alone. These forces support and protect one another, feeding into each other’s work in very important ways. One principal way is that they simply watch each other’s backs. People whose political activity is located anywhere within this wedge will generally be defended and treated as respectable by everyone else within that wedge, even when these political actors would claim to belong to very different political tendencies. We can look for example at the recent attacks on the left-wing gay Labour MP Lloyd Russell Moyle after he identified a Tory MP Miriam Cates as having made transphobic arguments in Parliament. Cates is a Christian fundamentalist with links to conversion therapists and a track-record of anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage, anti-sex education, explicitly reactionary positions – but nonetheless she was lionised and defended in that instance by a very broad set of gender-critical feminist voices, such as the Guardian’s Catherine Bennett, who wrote an article suggesting that Lloyd Russell Moyle’s comments were comparable to the actions of the rapist and sex trafficker Andrew Tate. These forces all watch each other’s backs and pose a collective threat to anyone criticising or combatting any one element among them.
Another effect of this array of combined forces is what Holly Lewis, the American queer Marxist scholar, has described as ‘dominating the entire ideological field’. In her book The Politics of Everybody, Lewis discusses the fact that the same right-wing groups in the US that export murderous homophobia to countries like Uganda will, at the same time, support, pink-washing initiatives at home to put a positive face on the State of Israel and American foreign policy in the name of gay rights. She argues that this is not a contradiction, but a sophisticated strategy which uses media and institutional power to capture, twist and pre-define every single term in the debate, including nominally liberal or left terms, to make it very difficult to even start formulating a progressive political challenge to this dominant conservative ‘common sense’.
Above all, maybe the most striking tendency of how this alliance jointly operates is its continual exercise of constructing the category of ‘women’ in a way that is presented as neutral and factual, but is in fact highly contentious and politically helpful to the right wing and to the Tory government. This brings to mind the way that, during the Labour antisemitism controversy, media outlets would endlessly state as a fact that ‘British Jews’ were (monolithically) saying one thing, while Corbyn was saying another. This totally flattens out the reality of how any large group of people really exists in the world and thinks and acts politically. There is a right-wing, state-based politics here that turns groups of people into floating signifiers whose goals cannot be actualised through political agency, but only ‘represented’ by the state.
As a side note – this pretence that the ‘gender-critical’ movement represents ‘women’ as a block goes a long way to explaining why gender-critical activists of all kinds very often become very nasty, abusive and misogynistic when encountering cis women who disagree with them. It’s quite common for prominent trans-inclusive cis feminists online to be sent endless material luridly suggesting that they’re going to be raped by trans women, and that they are inviting this fate by support trans women’s rights. (The late journalist, socialist and disability activist Dawn Foster, for example, once shared some examples of the harrowing and lurid material that she would receive along these lines.) Images circulate continually in gender-critical networks depicting pro-trans cis women as handmaidens in the series The Handmaid’s Tale – another lurid reference to sexual enslavement.
This impulse to suppress and erase any women who publicly contradict gender-critical ideology is not by any means limited to online trolls. Recently, for example, the journalist Julie Bindel – one of the most prominent, cogent and articulate figures in UK gender-critical activism – tried to explain away a campaigning feminist barrister’s support for trans liberation by asserting that said barrister must be in a ‘coercive control hostage situation’ with a trans woman. At the very top intellectual levels of the gender-critical milieu, there is a simple refusal to acknowledge something as simple as women being a group of human beings with differing and contingent political views and desires, and consequently, there is an angry, repressive reflex against cis women who are seen as ‘betraying’ the gender-critical cause.
Why is it that this project can count on complicity from the state? I think there are a number of reasons that mostly have to do with the Tories and the right being genuinely threatened by potentially liberatory developments in gender. There is a huge explosion underway in the proportion of young people identifying as trans, LGBT or queer more broadly. This stokes parental anxiety in Tory middle England, and raises questions about the long term fortunes of the Tories politically. Also, the state’s ability to project leadership on gender equality within a liberal framework has been badly undermined by a decade of austerity, which has hollowed out women’s services. In that context there has been a huge surge in combative feminist activism about state violence against women, particularly after the murder of Sarah Everard and the conviction of the rapist police officer David Carrick. The Tories’ utilisation of trans-exclusionary feminist ideas certainly helps them neutralise these things. While people are arguing about who would be eligible in the abstract for a place in a rape crisis centre, they are not discussing the fact that there are far fewer rape crisis centres than there were 15 years ago. The way that sexual violence is imagined in gender critical discourse re-situates it as a kind of stranger danger in public places, posed by men who are social misfits and gender misfits – rather than being, as previous generations of feminists fought to establish, very much an element of mainstream social life under patriarchal capitalism, most often perpetrated by thoroughly ‘ordinary’ cis men.
In summary, what we’re facing is a powerful reactionary project, but one which reflects the fact that the right is genuinely threatened. This project is the centrepiece for a regenerated Tory, reactionary, exclusionary gender politics. A feminism which is trans-exclusionary also excludes the fight against state violence, the critique of state-sponsored formal equality, the role of difference and debate within the sisterhood of women, and many other fundamental core tenets of the revolutionary, fighting feminism we need today. We can fight back and win with a progressive, emancipatory gender politics which rejects artificial scarcity and state repression, and which fights for what we need: more resources, more freedom, more universality, more inclusion and more of everything else that has been taken away from us.