An Epilogue updating this post appears at the end.
Back in college one of the organizations on campus was the Revolutionary Student Brigade (RSB), a short-lived youth group aligned the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Being a socialist and gay, I inquired about their position on gay rights. I can’t recall what they said exactly, but it was something along the lines that homosexuality is the product of bourgeois decadence under capitalism. It’s a physical and psychological “perversion” that simply doesn’t exist under communism. Clearly that’s hogwash and I chose not to associate myself with them.
I joined the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), a youth group aligned with the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The SWP doesn’t have a website, per se, but the Militant newsweekly reports their perspectives and activities. I never joined the SWP, but since college I’ve been involved with the party at different times in various capacities. Unlike my conversation with the Maoists, I’ve found the SWP welcoming and supportive of gays rights.
In the early days there wasn’t much discussion of transgender people. The “LGBT” acronym didn’t begin to take hold in the U.S. until the early 1990s. The focus was mostly on gays and lesbians, on “gay liberation.” Until just a year ago I assumed that the SWP and its periphery of past members, supporters and others embraced the “T” along with “LGB.” Starting last summer I’ve gotten a rude awakening during some unpleasant Facebook discussions. I’ve been stunned at a degree visceral opposition to transgender people I never expected. I say “visceral” because discussions have gone beyond causal debate. People have come across as having a strong animosity. (I go into this more in my Statement that launched this whole category of posts on the blog.)
Now the SWP itself has piled on with an article in the newest issue of the Militant.
Before going further… I wish to emphasize that my criticisms here are limited strictly to the question of LGBT rights generally and transgender rights specifically. I remain supportive and in agreement with the SWP on most or all other issues. No other serious concerns come to mind. Despite my deep objections here regarding LGBT rights, and the personal pain all this has evoked, I believe the SWP has the only program that otherwise correctly addresses the many critical issues and challenges facing working people. It would be a grave error to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. There’s too much at stake. Positions can change. I hope that in time the SWP and the people around it will amend their thinking.
“What’s at stake is women’s rights, not transphobia.”
The current issue of the Militant contains an article entitled “Women’s rights at stake in fight over men in female spa area,” referring to an incident at the Wi Spa in Los Angeles that purportedly took place last month. A woman posted a video gone viral in which she complained to spa staff that a pre-operative transgender woman disrobed in the women’s dressing area exposing male genitalia. It’s not clear whether this incident actually occurred and whether it was witnessed by others beyond the woman who complained. News reports indicate the police think it’s possibly a hoax. Regardless, it has nonetheless become a rallying point for anti-transgender forces on the right and left. There have been two weeks of protests outside the spa leading to violence, injuries and arrests.
The primary thrust of the current Militant article is summarized in this paragraph:
“What’s at stake is women’s rights, not transphobia,” Dennis Richter, Socialist Workers Party candidate for governor in California’s upcoming special election, told the press. “Women have fought to close the pay gap, including the right to access a range of nontraditional jobs, from coal mining to the railroad. They have joined labor battles, defended abortion clinics, and fought rightist assaults aimed at shutting them down. These are the kinds of fights we need today.
I fail to see how extending rights to transgender women in any way threatens these advances in women’s rights. Is the problem more competition for the jobs described? That’s probably not the basis for their position, but if it was then the issue moves to providing jobs for all and the SWP’s platform addresses this:
MILLIONS NEED JOBS TODAY! Our unions need to fight for a federal government-financed public works program to put millions to work at union-scale wages building hospitals, schools, housing, mass transportation and much more that workers need. Fight for a sliding scale of hours and wages to stop layoffs and the effects of runaway prices. Cut the workweek with no cut in pay! For cost-of-living clauses in every contract that raise pay and retirement benefits to offset every rise in prices!
Demand immediate national government unemployment benefits at union scale for all those thrown out of work as long as they need it.
An editorial last year in the Militant, “A working-class road to expand rights for all the oppressed,” goes into detail about victories the working class has won in extending the rights to women and Blacks in industry and other workplaces:
That is the kind of working-class action needed to defeat arbitrary and discriminatory hiring, firing or promotion practices of any kind by private or government employers. Changing attitudes about countless forms of discrimination and bigotry are not the product of either legislation or court rulings but of unity forged in struggle by working people, the oppressed, and our class organizations.
Notice especially, “Changing attitudes about countless forms of discrimination and bigotry are […] unity forged in struggle by working people, the oppressed, and our class organizations.” So why not also the discrimination and bigotry against transgender people?
I am still investigating this claimed conflict between transgender and women’s rights as I’ve said in recent posts. I’ll have more to say later, but it’s going to take some convincing for me to accept that transgender people must be forever condemned to a marginalized existence, that their rights and women’s rights are inherently mutually exclusive.
Gender Identity & Science
I think the real issue underlying the whole objection to transgender rights is a denial that transgender people exist at all. They may exist to the extent that some people claim they’re transgender — anyone can claim anything — but such claims are discounted as scientifically impossible. Those born with external male anatomy and XY chromosomes are male. Those born with external female anatomy and XX chromosomes are female. It can be no other way. Dennis Richter, SWP candidate for California governor, continued,
“But the [California] state law, adopted under the guise of opposing transgender discrimination, demands that women and girls surrender their right to privacy. It denies the facts of biology and has nothing to do with advancing rights.” [Emphasis added.]
I’ll address the privacy issue later below. As to biology, the Militant editorial last year focused on the Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County decision that ruled the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination based on sex. The Militant editors took issue with the ruling:
[T]he ruling laid the basis for further eroding hard-fought gains conquered by the working class and our allies — including those won over centuries of struggle for women’s equality — by consciously muddying the fundamental difference between an individual’s biological sex and matters of “gender identity” or “sexual orientation…”
The court’s contorted ruling as to what constitutes discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” is a blow to working people and the oppressed. It lends credence to the utterly anti-scientific notion promoted by many who consider themselves enlightened, progressive, that human beings (unlike almost all other animal species) are not born as either female or male…
Those holding this unscientific view demand that “gender” — solely a grammatical term until only several decades ago — instead be left open at birth, to be “chosen” by the individual sometime later in life from literally dozens of possible options. Anyone can supposedly be a woman or a man, or virtually any variant in between, merely by declaring themselves so.
This last paragraph distorts and oversimplifies the issue, and is ridiculous in its assertion that people choose “from literally dozens of possible options.” I’d like to see those 24 or 36 or more options delineated.
The editorial pointed out that the working class is the defender of science — as it should be! It then it veered off into anti-science, or perhaps more accurately, science as frozen in time. The SWP and everyone I’ve debated insist on denying or dismissing any new scientific investigation or conclusions that don’t hold rigidly to old established beliefs.
Last year Scientific American published an article, “Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia.” Simón(e) Sun, a PhD candidate at the Center for Neural Science, NYU Neuroscience Institute Tsien Lab, challenged the old and limited conceptions commonly held about gender identity and claimed as “science.” She briefly outlined the complex array of factors involved, stating that “the science is clear and conclusive: sex is not binary, transgender people are real. It is time that we acknowledge this. Defining a person’s sex identity using decontextualized ‘facts’ is unscientific and dehumanizing.”
Nature has reported that “The largest study involving transgender people is providing long-sought insights about their health.” Led by endocrinologist Guy T’Sjoen, the European Network for the Investigation of Gender Incongruence (ENIGI) is the largest study of transgender people in the world. There are 2,600 participants across 4 clinics in Europe. This study is focusing particularly on different treatment regimens in transgender transition and their impact on the health of transgender people. Through this work much is also being learned about why a person is transgender in the first place. Nature reports,
The ENIGI researchers hope that the emerging results will help to tease apart some ‘nature versus nurture’ controversies about the differences among genders. People who transition early in life, for instance, might have different brain characteristics from those who transition later, owing to the way their brains are shaped by societal gender roles or biological factors, such as hormones during puberty…
Researchers debate what kind of differences — if any — exist between male and female brains, and many such studies have been poorly interpreted. But scientists who study gender issues think that the confusion could be partly the result of a simplistic view of sex and gender identity.
The science of epigenetics is also looking at factors connected to fetal development and gender identity:
An epigenetic change is influenced by many factors, including, lifestyle, environment, health factors, age, culture, experiences, thoughts and actions. Epigenetic markers on genes are transmitted throughout a bloodline, giving rise to epigenetic coding for future generations. These external influences give pause to the Nature vs. Nurture debate. No longer can either philosophy be argued as an independent cause for human development.
This is hardly an exhaustive review of the science looking at gender identity. I’ve not even scratched the surface. My point here is simply that science is a process that evolves over time. Gender studies are relatively new and so a lot of questions remain unanswered. But discoveries are being made. There’s at least one thing certain from what I’ve read thus far — there is compelling evidence that gender is not black & white, not open & shut. To treat science as absolute and settled for all time when justifying opposition to the rights of a class of people, and not even acknowledging that new research is in progress, is an abuse of science.
In the future I will write further in this blog about the science of gender identity. I’m still learning.
Women’s and Girls’ Right to Privacy
SWP candidate Dennis Richter made one point in a quote above about women and girls being compelled to surrender their right to privacy by laws that protect trans women from discrimination. I think it’s an important point, and the whole Wi Spa uproar flows from this concern.
Here I may displease some in the LGBT community, but I think it behooves the transgender community to use a certain discretion in when and how to exercise one’s rights. Just because something is permitted and even protected doesn’t necessarily mean one should do it. I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy when women object to a trans woman using a bathroom where any exposure occurs in the privacy of a stall, but an open locker room or changing room is a little more difficult. Every situation is different and the options for discretion vary, but where possible I’d recommend that a preoperative trans woman try to avoid being seen.
Our goal is to gain as much support as possible. The Wi Spa situation is extreme and possibly never even happened, but it still illustrates that strategically small compromises are sometimes prudent for longer-term benefit.
Broader Implications for LGBT Rights
SWP candidate Dennis Richter said,
“I oppose discrimination in housing and jobs based on sexual preference or how one identifies. Earlier struggles for women’s rights helped advance the fight for the rights of gays and lesbians,” Richter said. “But efforts today to dissolve sex into gender, and the idea that your sex can be ‘chosen,’ deal blows to women. They open the door to new attacks on women’s rights and set back the fight against discrimination against gays.”
I’ve addressed the question of women’s rights above. As for gays, I think Richter has it exactly backwards. It’s the fight against transgender rights that sets back protections for gays. The rightest forces coming out against transgender people often lump us all together. Marjorie Taylor Greene, admittedly on the fringe of the fringe, nonetheless lumps transgender people and gays together as child abusers. She uses the same “scientific” arguments about gender that the SWP and its supporters do.
Donald Trump and his acolytes probably represent the mainstream of the Republican Party these days. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has listed 34 actions and initiatives undertaken during the Trump presidency against the LGBT community. Some were targeted specifically against the transgender community but many were broadly anti-LGBT. We all end up in the same pot.
I described in my Statement about how transgender debates on Facebook broadened out to attack or dismiss the LGBT community at large. That’s the danger. It’s a small step from opposing one segment of people to generalizing about them all. When socialists and the left converge with the right, as I see happening here, I get very worried.
The various sides come from different starting points with different reasons or motives, but they end up in the same place. Whether hostile fire or friendly, it’s still deadly.
As I said at the opening here, I hope that the SWP and the people in its periphery will eventually come to support transgender people — fully support.
April 20, 2022 — My feelings and opinions have shifted back and forth since I wrote the above article in July 2021. A few months later I published a piece in October entitled Burying the Hatchet (now deleted). I said that despite my strong objection to the positions and attitudes of socialist friends, the SWP and its supporters concerning gender identity and the transgender community, I regarded the urgency of overthrowing capitalism as paramount. Essentially I laid the dispute aside.
That lasted six months. Since then I’ve made the mistake of jumping into subsequent discussions a few times. I should know better. It’s pointless and too upsetting.
I think two clarifications are needed here:
- I recognize that supporters of the SWP are separate from the party itself. They don’t speak for the SWP. The party expresses itself through its newspaper, the Militant, which overall I consider an excellent resource and a must-read for working people. However, the SWP and its supporters are essentially in sync in their positions on gender identity and the transgender community. The difference is mainly that the Militant speaks with reasoned decorum too often lacking in social media.
- Despite our differences, the Militant and the socialists on social media make points that warrant serious consideration. They make me stop and think. I’ve considered input from them and others, and over time I’ve modified and refined my position on gender identity — and I’m sure not always to the liking of trans people1Examples:  The challenge posed to women’s sports (or threat, depending on your perspective),  Trends that seem to be “erasing” women, and  The problem/dangers of irreversible surgeries performed on minors — all of which I address in my post To Be Transgender is to Be Human (link below).
I just wish I could see similar flexibility from the socialists. Too many come across as cold and rigid with barely a glimmer of empathy for the real-life challenges trans people face in their lives, particularly trans youth. While I continue to evaluate the issue, their minds seem locked shut.
A debate on Facebook this past weekend was the proverbial last straw. A few people were characteristically strident and aggressively combative, even attacking one person who supported their position but failed to express himself in just the correct way. One person insisted “there really is no middle ground between sanity and insanity here” then went on to say but “Of course people who identify as trans are human and should be accepted and treated well.” If I was transgender I’d say thanks, but keep your “acceptance.”
The most disturbing aspect of these debates for me is a subtle yet distinct anti-gay, anti-LGB sentiment that creeps in. Or maybe it’s an ambivalence. So much is summarily dismissed as “woke,” a term I’ve come to detest. It’s too easy and too lazy a slander. Around a year ago one of the socialists disputed a Gallup poll showing that nationally the number of gay people coming out openly had increased about 1% since 2017, and about 2% since 2012. Those of us in the LGBT community see this as a victory, as evidence of our progress politically and socially. It reflects a growing acceptance in society that enables more of us to feel safe in being ourselves openly. Not so, this person claimed. They’re all just woke heterosexual kids getting off on playing victim. There comes a point where ambivalence and cynicism equate to prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious.
The socialists in these debates say they support LGBT rights, including those of transgender people. I believe they’re sincere, in the abstract. But I see this support as ’superficial’ for lack of a better word. It feels too weak and too confined by qualifications. They applaud the historic achievements of the gay rights movement yet attack transgender people — revealing they actually know very little of LGBT history. The Stonewall riots and the victories that following only happened because transgender people took the lead and fought. They were battling the police years before Stonewall, including the Compton Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco in 1966.
The socialists “support” us, but don’t really understand us — and I see little interest or effort to do so. I also see little recognition or concern about the current wave of attacks against the LGBT community nationally.
In this latest Facebook debate I included a link to my blog post from November, To Be Transgender is to Be Human. Interestingly it got just 3 views in 48 hours. Two of these views, I believe, were by people who appeared more open during the debate. Those adamantly opposed couldn’t be bothered — yet they lectured me about needing to consider all sides. Ironically, the whole debate started in the first place after I commented on a very long and impassioned essay opposed to hormone therapy and other gender-affirming treatments for minors. I had read the entire essay.
Meanwhile, when I suggested I might interview doctors I know personally in this field and present their input, this was condemned as “confirmation bias” — pointing out that my approach is “the same method Putin and his sycophants are using in the monstrous invasion of Ukraine.” Wow. So now I’m modeling Putin…
That was my limit, the proverbial straw.
Last week, after 45 years, I severed my last official connection to the Socialist Workers Party. Most recently I was a monthly financial contributor, but this is now terminated. It was a very difficult and painful step. Though I’ve never been a formal member, I’ve been associated with the party in different ways since 1976. I still regard myself as a socialist and I still agree with the SWP on most issues — notably the current Ukraine War. But being gay with LGBT issues so close and personal, I’ve come to feel alienated by the positions of the party and the attitudes of some people close to it. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and I defend this right. This doesn’t mean, however, that I have to subject myself to attacks that feel too personal. For this reason I am no longer comfortable being formally connected to or affiliated with the SWP.
There is wave of right-wing legislative attacks underway across the country today — the most concentrated ever in history. It’s using fear and prejudice against transgender people as a wedge to attack all LGBT people. I can’t help but feel that the SWP and its supporters are feeding into this attack. They don’t agree with this assessment, I’m certain, and I know that’s not their intention. But there’s too much of an echo from the right in what they’re saying.
Going forward, I will support the party on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis including two fund drives held each year. My primary focus politically will be on LGBT rights with a special emphasis on transgender rights. This is where our enemies, and even supposed friends, have chosen to attack us. This is the front line we need to defend.
Title image is the transgender flag, blurred, by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash. Overlay is by Dmitry Abramov from Pixabay.
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One thought on “Bone of Contention: Socialists & the LGBT Community”
I’m always surprised to hear that some of your left-leaning friends have been transphobic. This is drastically different from Democratic Socialists of America’s seemingly trans-positive stance and my experience in the Cleveland DSA chapter. Here’s a recent article from DSA’s small quarterly publication, Democratic Left, titled “Why Are All My Trans Friends Socialists?”: https://democraticleft.dsausa.org/issues/summer-2021/transgender-socialism/ . I also recommend looking up gender and sexuality as it exists in all cultures, past and present, starting with the umbrella term, two-spirit: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-spirit