In the recent controversy over proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, there’s been a lot of claims made about how each “side” of the argument should be understood. Helen Steel, one of the most well-respected and high-profile figures to have come out against allowing people to self-identify their gender, recently made a post – the original is no longer available, but copies have been publicly circulated since – that, in my view, mixes some accurate observations with some completely unjustifiable conclusions. Examining her claims seems like a good starting point to evaluate the political forces at work here.
Much of this post will be a re-statement of arguments I first made about six months ago, but it seems worth engaging specifically with such a clearly stated counter-argument, especially as it comes from virtually the only person associated with the campaign to have any credibility in anti-capitalist/anti-state circles.
Steel takes aim at the recent corporate-sponsored LGBT awards, asking “What genuine activist fighting oppression would think it appropriate to have an award sponsored by MI5 for the category which “celebrates influencers, activists, campaigners or trailblazers in the LGBT+ community, who have made an impact either on a grass roots level……..”. How were they in contact with MI5 in the first place?”
Thus far, I agree with her, the awards ceremony in question seems like a sick joke. The point where we part ways is with her invitation to “think about whether this agenda is driven by the most oppressed people on the planet or whether it’s actually driven and funded by those with power and money” – that is to say, her belief that the awards ceremony should be taken as representative of “trans advocacy” as a whole, rather than a recuperation of the least radical elements of a diverse and contradictory movement. The piece does also contain numerous other inaccuracies, such as the claim that “This movement upholds rather than destroys sexism and sexist stereotypes” – I’d love to know what particular sexist stereotypes non-binary and genderqueer people are meant to be upholding, but that’s a whole other issue.
To start off with, there’s a logical problem in leaping from “the LGBT awards” to “trans ideology” – the awards are clearly not a trans-specific thing, so if they’re taken as defining the movements and ideas that they leech off, then the problem must be with everyone who supports greater acceptance of LGBT people in general, and not anything to do with trans people in particular. A case could be made that there was a connection between corporate/state sponsorship and “trans ideology” if these things had started to appear at the same time, but “pinkwashing” has been an issue for far longer than the recent high-profile disputes about trans acceptance. For instance, Miller Lite started to sponsor the New York Pride parade in 1996, so, to use Steel’s logic, LGBT activism must have been “driven and funded by those with power and money – by predominantly rich, very privileged white men, who despite their position still want more” for at least the last two decades.
But to make the jump from “there are some people who are prepared to cozy up to businesses and the state” to “this movement/ideology as a whole is characterised by a willingness to accept corporate/state backing”, you need to show that everyone else is on board with, or at least unwilling to confront, the increasing involvement of corporate and state actors. Looking at controversies over pinkwashing, we can see that that’s simply untrue – I wrote a bit about these issues back in 2012, well before any of the recent high-profile rows over trans inclusion, and that piece was informed by a much longer history of radical queer contestation of corporate LGBT events.
Far from the picture Steel paints of “trans advocacy sponsored by MI5 and bankers”, if we examine a few high-profile recent events to disrupt corporate/state involvement in LGBT events, the pattern is actually of trans/genderqueer/non-binary people and their allies being among those who’re prepared to step up and take on the state. So accepting as correct Steel’s starting point – that the likes of MI5, NatWest and the cops are our enemies, and should be treated as such – then the logical endpoint is total solidarity with the likes of No Justice No Pride, the Black Pride 4, the Clydeside Pride defendants/Anticapitalist Queers, and so on.
But that conclusion, which should seem simple enough to anyone with an anti-capitalist/anti-state perspective, is certainly controversial among some of Steel’s allies on the anti-self-identification side of the debate. One website, which is nasty enough that I won’t link to directly but is easy enough to find by searching “anticapitalist queers”, ridicules them precisely for “protesting against police protection” – that is to say that, at the same time as Steel criticises trans people and their allies for supposedly being directed by the state, others associated with the anti-self-ID campaign are attacking them for being too hostile to the state!
So much for the idea that “trans advocacy” can be simply equated with corporate/state collaboration. But what about the other side? As I’ve mentioned before, the MayDay4Women/Women’s Place/Fair Play for Women side of the debate have a fair few connections that are easily as dodgy as anything associated with the LGBT awards – the meeting hosted with David Davies, the Sun articles, the Daily Mail interviews, the interview with Ian Miles Cheong at Tucker Carlson’s alt-lite site – an interview that was then approvingly picked up by the Daily Stormer under the title “Tranny Freak Squad Attacks Feminist Demonstrators” – and so on. But, and this is an important distinction, I’ve yet to see anyone on that side of the argument publicly challenging, or disassociating themselves from, the tory/tabloid-linked types.
Just to be clear, in contrast to Steel’s equation of “trans advocacy” with bankers and MI5, on closer inspection it turns out to be the case that there are some people on what I would consider to be the libertarian/anti-authoritarian side of the argument, the one wanting to reduce the amount of state and medical bureaucracy associated with gender transition, who have dodgy business or state connections, and others on that side of the argument who’re willing to actively challenge them on it; and then, on the side of the argument that maintains the current level of bureaucracy should be continued or increased, there are people with direct political links to Tory MPs, Tucker Carlson and the Sun… and seemingly no-one on that side willing to take them up on it.
Of course, to point out that it’s possible to talk about an independent working-class/anti-capitalist pole among trans/queer/genderqueer types, but not among their opponents, is not the end of the story by any means. Even if there was an organised political current that rejected working with tory MPs, the Daily Caller, the Sun and the Mail, but opposed self-identification, I’d still disagree with them, but it’d be a lot easier to see how they could claim to reconcile their ideas with a commitment to radical anti-capitalist politics. But since I’ve yet to see anyone on their side of the argument even criticise the choice made by those who’ve decided to work with David Davies MP… well, as someone once said, “the rich & powerful are always happy to use others as cannon fodder to fight their wars”.