Notes on British Transphobia
Updated: Jan 13
5 January 2021
Rowan Fortune explores a very British oppression and the hope that solidarity can offer.
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. ~ Karl Marx
In his excoriating essay ‘Notes on the English Character’, novelist E. M. Forster located the reactionary core that defines our society’s worst habits. He identified the middle classes (that is, not wealthier workers, but the bourgeoisie, the industrialists) as the dominant historical force to shape us since the early modern period, moulding our values and aspirations. ‘Solidity, caution, integrity, efficiency. Lack of imagination, hypocrisy. These qualities characterize the middle classes in every country, but in England, they are national characteristics.’ The figure of John Bull personifies this, and public schools provide its material basis. The diagnosis remains true today.
Forster outlined an instance of what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called cultural hegemony, whereby a ruling class imposes its worldview as cultural norms. The specifics of how it happens are uncovered in Alex Renton’s exposé of the selfsame ‘learning’ institutions, Stiff Upper Lip. Here, Renton documents the child abuse, neglect, sports cults, anti-intellectualism and misogyny that comprises the making of our upper class, and through their domination over media and politics, emanates out across society.
Renton has much praise for Forster’s essay, and much to say against celebrations of these institutions of abuse and power found in the literature of, for instance, Enid Blyton and J. K. Rowling (more on the latter later). Few British people actually go to a public school, but the attitudes and prejudices formed there filter down. Amongst these attitudes is an upholding of the patriarchy; most of these schools were recently gender-segregated, some still are, and all have fixed traditions that lock in place a narrow range of gender roles, any breaking of which threatens the edifice of English upper-class culture.
For Forster, the vice of the English character is not a lack of feeling, but a fear of it, and not mere hypocrisy, but hypocrisy arising from the muddle-headedness our public schools impart. It is my claim here that muddle-headedness explains the exaggerated susceptibility of our isle to a moral panic about transgender people, one all about upholding gender roles, and which finds its origins in the English elite, but that then drips-drips-drips to infect us all with its poison.
For Forster, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility illustrates this English quality; the example he uses comes from the novel’s beginning, where a man is convinced to leave less and less of an inheritance to impoverished relations, despite promising to the departed to be generous, not from spite or greed but a type of self-deception. This ability to self-deceive is on display in the so-called transgender debates, where a group of the oppressed has become the target of baseless attacks from across the political spectrum.
Transphobia (in-hoc with other ‘acceptable’ prejudices such as islamophobia, ableism, anti-Roma, and anti-Black bigotry) is the vanguard of British fascism. It is a wedge used by the most cynical far-right extremists and theocrats in aid of further attacks on other groups of the oppressed who have for centuries fought and won a greater acknowledgment of their humanity (from women to gay people) and it thrives in a context of entrenched, inexcusable muddled-headedness. In the course of this essay, the transmission of such ideas and the motives behind them will be sketched, but there is a need for more work to fully uncover the susceptibility of the UK to this prejudice.
The case of Keira Bell and puberty blockers is exemplary of the muddle. Bell was one of the claimants to take Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust to court during 2020 over providing treatments for trans teenagers. Her aim, rooted in her experiences of detransitioning, was to raise the bar of consent so high as to effectively prevent most from accessing these vital interventions. Her case is deeply tragic (more on which later), but the deceptions involved in extrapolating from it to justify her other goals stretches credibility. The main argument here is a version of the slippery slope fallacy (so beloved by reactionaries), namely that blockers seamlessly progress to other treatments in early adulthood, so that a teenager is effectively consenting also to those more permanent measures.
Puberty blockers are targeted by the anti-trans movement because nothing cements a moral panic like the plea, in the words of Simpson’s character Helen Lovejoy, ‘Won't somebody please think of the children?’ In truth, blockers are demonstrably not a risky experiment threatening children’s well-being, but an under-resourced intervention that permits trans teenagers an opportunity to mitigate gender dysphoria. It affords them the chance to decide on more serious treatments as adults. There is plenty of extant evidence that blockers are a vital service and, far from too readily provided, are overly restricted. Therefore, as with many social goods, they are often least available to the poorest. Numerous organisations have already taken apart the specious basis for this attack on trans rights. Their voices, however, are too rarely joined by socialists who ought to be, in Lenin’s words, tribunes of the oppressed.
Gender Identity Research & Education Society have spoken of the devastation this ruling will likely cause to young trans people. Stonewall, in their response, noted that blockers have been vital for decades to both children experiencing precocious puberty as well as those questioning their identity. The International Journal of Transgender Health has shown at length that the ruling contravenes not only morality, but science. And Dr. Adrian Harrop was so moved by his patients’ desperation, he produced a forty-minute video explaining in layman’s terms the realities of hormone blockers.
There are a broader range of arguments deployed to justify transphobia, beyond our scope here but never more credible than the issue of puberty blockers. For instance, there are anecdotal claims about trans women posing a threat to cis women (cis is the identity of someone aligned with the gender assigned to them at birth); proposed pseudoscientific conditions such as ‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria’ or ‘autogynephilia’, which belong alongside historic classifications of homosexuality as a mental illness. The Sociological Review Monographs publication TERF Wars: Feminism and the fight for transgender futures is a good place to look for responses to these kinds of arguments. Some Marxists, in a display of vulgar materialism, argue that trans ‘ideology’ is bourgeois idealism since biology is material and identity is ideas; Red Fightback’s free pamphlet, Marxism and Transgender Liberation: Confronting Transphobia in the British Left, makes short work of the biological, anthropological and historical underpinnings of such errors.
When all the arguments fail, however, muddle can be relied on to come to the rescue. People who lend such ideas credence will find a boost to their muddle, finally, by searching out the tiny number of transgender people who even partially endorse some subset of the above arguments, either as a part of an elaborate grift or due to their own muddles. This tactic, the basest option available to an oppressor, shows a truly desperate desire to hold on to prejudice.
Unfortunately for those who adhere to such a strategy, it ignores that transgender anti-trans voices confer as much validity to attacks against trans people as Candace Owens does to the ‘controversies’ of Black rights in the US. Or, for that matter, as Owens does to transphobia, as such far-right personalities always seem to show the true nature of anti-trans belief by situating it alongside all the other fascist bugbears.
Healthcare for trans people is woefully inadequate in the UK, involving unacceptable waiting lists and a postcode lottery of whether or not a person's GP will refuse to provide treatment—something that, for those already undergoing medication they are unable to quickly and safely stop, can make moving house endangering. If there are trans issues, medical neglect would seem to be the most obvious example.
Indeed, there is reason to believe that trans people suffer disproportionately high rates of abuse, under- and unemployment, work-based discrimination, and therefore unsurprisingly, mental health problems. Even the alarmingly transphobic BBC has reported police statistics that in 2018 hate crimes against trans people went up 81%. This almost certainly reflects increasing hostility leveraged by the far-right culture war, one championed by a racist, homophobic, and transphobic Tory government.
Statistics do poor justice to the realities they usefully condense. So when you read the Youth Chances 2014 survey’s findings, keep in mind the young trans women, trans men, and nonbinary people whose deaths and pain is reduced to data. They found that 83 per cent of trans young people have experienced verbal abuse, 60 per cent threats and intimidation; 35 per cent physical assault; 27 per cent have attempted suicide; 89 per cent suffer from suicidal ideation and 72 per cent have self-harmed at least once. These are lives, eroded by a culture of intimidation, abetted by indifference.
It is hard to know how many trans people live in the UK today. Numbers are undoubtedly distorted by the need many feel to be closeted, fearful they too will be targets of a hatred endorsed by all quarters. Trans people have every reason to be fearful of exposure even in the best of times, but in a period of creeping fascism, when a target of fascist agitation, they have even more reason for caution. Transphobia (like transgender people themselves) is not a new development. Trans people represent some of fascism’s first victims. As Marxism and Transgender Liberation explains:
In interwar Germany, there was a thriving ‘transsexual’ community, and the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Science) was formed to research and advocate for sexual minorities. It pioneered gender confirmation surgery and hormone replacement therapy, and also housed a large archive of LGBTI+ history. Upon taking power in 1933, one of the first things the Nazis did was ransack and destroy the Institut, burning the entirety of its archive. The Nazis created new policies that led to the incarceration, castration, and eventual extermination of LGBTI people. In 1979, the ‘original TERF’ Janice Raymond referred to trans men as the 'final solution of women'; rhetoric that continues to be repeated by TERFs, and which cynically erases and trivialises the Nazis’ targeting of trans people and the destruction of pro-LGBTI+ knowledge as part of the Holocaust. Extreme anti-LGBT attitudes never disappeared, and trans people are the canary in the coal mine. In October 2019, a Telegraph column argued ‘it’s time trans people carried ID cards’.
With such a legacy, transphobes today go to the likes of Keira Bell to justify the unjustifiable. Detrans cases are rare (less than 1%), they are not always regretful, and most report that the primary reason is transphobia and unsatisfactory surgeries, with at least some retransitioning. To repeat, Bell’s story should make anyone empathise. That she suffered grievously from an adult choice she came to regret is tragic, and it is wrong if she was not given the support she needed. Detrans people should be supported (a necessity if anyone is to be allowed to safely question their gender). Paramount, however, the existence of detrans people does not justify bigotry against trans people.
The irony is that Bell wishes to force her tragedy on young trans people, that of growing into a body that contradicts their identities. However much sympathy Bell’s case warrants, her role in a far-right project merits condemnation. Her lawyer, Paul Conrathe, is known for targeting women’s reproductive rights under the same absurd justifications of ‘consent’ he used to restrict access to puberty blockers. And if Bell’s motives are doubted, after winning the case she pushed for conversion therapy for trans people, a practice rightly abhorred when applied to LGB people. ‘I would like to personally call on professionals and clinicians to create better mental health services and models to help those dealing with gender dysphoria to reconcile with their sex.’
Ties between anti-trans organisations and fascist groups are so transparent it is alarming how little notice such links receive. Such is the nature of the collective muddle within which transphobia festers, the far-right hardly feels a need to hide its plans to defeat the LGBTQIA+ community by splitting off the T. The homophobic, misogynistic, racist and transphobic organisation the Family Research Council (closely linked to the Trump regime) has explicitly talked of a divide and rule strategy targeting gender identity.
Two far-right organisations with ties to ‘progressive’ anti-trans groups (an oxymoron) are the publication Spiked (famous for its pseudo-Marxist roots and shift to reactionary politics) and the theocratic Heritage Foundation. Anti-trans journalists Julie Burchill and Jo Bartosch have written for the former, while prominent TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) Kellie-Jay 'Posie Parker' Keen-Minshull and Julia Long have given speeches for the latter. Parker was also invited to speak to Women’s Place UK,* and even involved in a counter-demo against BLM. The hate group LGB Alliance has been shown to engage in numerous other prejudices than transphobia and counts neo-Nazis amongst followers. Moreover, it has been revealed that LGBA’s following is significantly less concerned with LGB rights than exclusively targeting trans people.
As Paulo Freire wrote during the 70s in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, ‘oppressors try to present themselves as saviours of the women and men they dehumanise and divide. This messianism, however, cannot conceal their true intention, to save themselves.’ No matter how few trans people there are in this country, the transphobic fascist wedge should be a serious concern for any socialist. It should remain a truism on the left that a threat to one is a threat to all.
For that reason, the mainstreaming of transphobia ought to be troubling. There are too many recent examples of this to cover, there will be more when this essay comes out. A prominent recent instance is Amol Rajan granting the Russell Prize to a transphobic essay penned by J. K. Rowling, on the behalf of the BBC. (The very BBC which has already been reprimanded by Ofcom for a declared policy of ‘balancing’ trans people’s media appearances with anti-trans activists.) Bertrand Russell (a friend of the gay E. M. Forster) supported the Homosexual Law Reform Society. He opposed dogma and bigotry. To invoke him for a transphobe and her mediocre essay, which includes such stylistic travesties as 'woke cookies', is repulsive.
Finally, in her capacity as Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss recently made a series of perplexing comments to launch a new government approach to her brief. She declared war on the philosophy of Michel Foucault, on identity politics, on woke orthodoxy (that word again), on protected characteristics and lived experience. (The platitudes and vagaries this government opposes are, of course, matched by vagaries and platitudes it supports: right thinking, individualism, fairness.)
This is an attempt to attack fractures on the left (where postmodernism and Marxism, identity and universality, class and oppression are hotly, if not always intelligently, debated). And that this is a part of the Tory’s squalid culture war has, indeed, been noticed. (More plausible than a Tory minister with serious opinions on continental philosophy!) It is perhaps predictable, then, that one fracture being targeted is transphobia. Truss’s accompanying speech, which has all the weight of the British state, was extraordinarily transphobic. She compares ‘failing to defend single sex-spaces’ (a dog whistle) with antisemitism and paedophile grooming.
That the British media is transphobic is scarcely arguable. That transphobia is rife online is well established too. That the British website Mumsnet has become for internet transphobia what 4Chan was for Donald Trump’s alt-right is made clear by multiple investigations. And that the world looks on us as a swamp of such bigotry should be a cause for shame. But we are not fated to this muddle.
We are all susceptible to the muddle instilled by cultural hegemonies. Just as in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, prejudices and vices do not always appear as such. When I met the woman I love, I was taken to a crass class reductionism. I considered myself a consistent anti-racist, but failed to perceive how class and oppression needed carefully delineating. Listening to her experiences as a Black woman helped me through this error, but it also required soul-searching. Similarly, when I first heard of nonbinary genders, I was initially dismissive. Now, I wonder if my relationship to gender does not fall under that umbrella. People can overcome prejudice, but when the principle of solidarity is abandoned in favour of short-cuts to mainstream respectability, it becomes all but necessary to throw those who once were our natural allies under the bus of fascist rhetoric.
We are not fated to join those countries (such as Poland and Hungry) that make the persecution of trans people a priority (any more than they are fated to remain in such a state). As the rise of fascist groups in the 70s was fought, as LGBTQIA+ people turned the tide on homophobia after the 80s, we can change the world for the better. In coming to the defence of trans humanity, we save ourselves. We save ourselves from a muddle-headedness that is not destiny, but a historical wound inflicted on our humanity by the particular fault lines of a class society. The struggles of workers and the oppressed continue to show us the way, we can heed them.
* It was originally alleged Posie Parker was a co-founder of WPUK, but in fact was only invited to speak at an event, which was later retracted. Their trans exclusionary position is in line with those criticised in this piece.
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Rowan is a member of the Anti*Capitalist Resistance and a London-based activist.