27 July 2021
Photo: Weiyi Zhang
Over a thousand supporters of trans rights gathered outside the Michael Fowler Centre in central Wellington on 15 July to protest a meeting by a New Zealand anti-trans organisation, Speak Up For Women (SUFW). The rally was organised by Queer Endurance/Defiance (QED), a united-front coalition consisting of queer leftists of various political tendencies in which supporters of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) have been involved since its inception.
SUFW have been holding a series of meetings across New Zealand against proposed legislation to make it easier for gender minorities to change the sex listed on their birth certificate. This legislation—the Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration (BDMRR) Bill—stalled for a number of years due to the last Labour government’s coalition with conservative New Zealand First. Now, with a decisive majority in parliament, Labour has indicated it wishes to pass the bill by the end of 2021.
QED were explicit when calling the counter-rally that the SUFW supporters would not be blocked from entering the building, and the demonstrators respected their right to safe access. The same cannot be said of the transphobes—as IBT supporter John Ashborne was addressing those assembled, one of the SUFW bullies attempted to seize the megaphone and slapped a rally marshal who tried to stop her. She was then escorted unharmed to the doors of the building by the marshal she had attacked. Aside from this incident, the demonstration was non-violent, and characterised by enthusiasm and energy from the largely young pro-trans crowd.
The BDMRR bill requires merely a self-declaration to change the sex on one’s birth certificate (as opposed to an application to the Family Court) and adds options for those identifying as non-binary who do not want to be defined as exclusively either male or female. On paper, there is nothing particularly ground-breaking about these proposals: gender self-identification is already law in a number of countries, including Argentina, Belgium, Iceland and Ireland, and even in New Zealand the simplified process already exists for updating gender on passports and drivers’ licenses.
However, for trans people in New Zealand the bill has greater meaning—allowing self-identification on birth certificates represents more acceptance by the wider society and would make it easier for trans people to live as themselves. Acting as a “tribune of the oppressed”, Marxists have a duty to support struggles, however partial, to improve the conditions of oppressed groups. We support this bill, while pointing out its flaws and the impossibility of wholly negating trans oppression, or any other special oppression, under capitalism.
For the delusional SUFW activists, the BDMRR bill constitutes an attack on women. SUFW are dominated by an ideological current within the broader anti-trans movement commonly known as trans-exclusionary radical feminism, or TERFism, which uses the framework of second-wave feminism to provide a pseudo-progressive cover for transphobic policies. TERFs advance an essentialist view of sex and gender that denies any validity to the notion of gender identity and ignores or downplays intersex characteristics, reducing all human complexity in the area of sex and gender to two immutable categories based on a person’s genitalia at birth. Their rhetoric also promotes a determinist, pessimistic conception of gender relations that paints men (a category which for TERFs includes trans women) as inherently violent and women as inherently victims.
In a submission to New Zealand First’s Tracey Martin, then Minister of Internal Affairs in the coalition government, SUFW claimed: “Our concern is not with transgender people per se. It is with the reality and prevalence of male violence against women, and the vulnerability of women and children to that violence” (“Letter to Tracey Martin”, 4 September 2018). SUFW demonise trans women by associating them with sexual violence, although trans people are disproportionately the victims of such violence (see the work of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence). The trick is to portray trans women as men seeking to use the cloak of womanhood to abuse “real” women and girls, e.g., the assertion that male sex offenders will claim trans womanhood to access women’s prisons. A particularly common variant of this argument holds that allowing trans women into female bathrooms and changing rooms puts those designated female at birth at greater risk of sexual assault. Again there is plenty of evidence that this is false (see “Transgender People, Bathrooms and Sexual Predators: What the Data Say”).
As Ashborne pointed out in his speech:
“The bill has nothing to do with bathroom access or sports, because birth certificates have nothing to do with those things either. Claiming otherwise is absurd. When was the last time anyone asked you for a birth certificate when you went to the bathroom?
“TERFs don’t want the bill passed because of what it represents—a small step towards making trans people feel more able to be themselves without fear of reprisal. TERFs want trans people to feel hated and be invisible. They want the public to fear trans people, but they also want trans people to be afraid of the public, of showing their true faces.
“TERFs want the public convinced that a tiny and very vulnerable minority represent an existential threat to women, to kids, to gays and lesbians, to gender non-conforming cis [non-trans] people, to free speech, science, democracy, everything and everyone. The more people believe that, the harder trans people will find it to live in the public sphere, the more they’ll be forced back into the closet. Which is the ultimate aim of transphobia in the words of Janice Raymond, one of the earliest TERFs: ’morally mandating [gender minorities] out of existence’.”
SUFW and other TERFs maintain there is an essential conflict between the rights of cis women and the rights of trans people, and that any increase in trans rights means a reduction in women’s rights. Ashborne pointed out that this liberal, zero-sum approach to the rights of the oppressed is a barrier to struggle, and that building solidarity between trans people and other oppressed groups can be a gateway to winning further struggles and securing new rights:
“In Argentina, where self-ID has been law since 2012, a coalition of feminists, trans rights groups, and workers’ organisations worked together throughout 2020 and 2021 to pressure the government into passing landmark abortion laws-which puts the lie to TERF claims that trans rights and women’s rights are in conflict, and demonstrates that solidarity between marginalised groups and the working class is a force that can reshape society for the better.”
Transphobia (including its radical feminist wing) provides ideological support to male supremacy and the oppression of cis women. This irony was highlighted by Kate, a QED speaker:
“They say they are the feminists, while reducing women to a collection of body parts. While they reduce womanhood to the ability to carry children. While they apply more metaphysical significance to the penis, a tube of flesh and blood, than the patriarchy ever could. While they mock trans women for their height, broad shouldered, or facial hair, as if cis-women with similar features aren’t listening. While they tell lesbians they are not lesbians for loving trans women. They say they are the feminists, while they dedicate every ounce of their political energy to misunderstanding, misrepresenting, and antagonising trans people.”
However, feminism has always had contradictions like this at its core: subjectively committed to eradicating women’s oppression, its lack of a revolutionary class struggle perspective means leaving intact the very foundation of women’s oppression (see “Marxism, Feminism & Women’s Liberation”, 1917 No.19). Unable to transcend capitalism, feminism must content itself with (sometimes supportable) reforms that only tinker around the edges. Frustration at the limitations of this strategy leads some feminists in a separatist direction. TERFism is a transphobic variant of this feminism, concerned with upholding the sanctity of single-sex spaces and limiting the rights of a tiny and highly vulnerable minority from accessing them.
A few QED supporters attended the SUFW meeting hoping to put forward a counter-perspective to the anti-trans rhetoric of the organisers. Among them was IBT supporter Adaire Hannah, who was shouted down when she was called on to speak, but later shared her prepared comments:
“If Stand Up For Women believes that defeating the current bill to allow trans people to change their sex designation on their birth certificate will protect women from violence, they are deluding themselves. The main perpetrators of violence against women are family members, and far too many trans women regularly experience physical and verbal violence. Stand Up For Women doesn’t address the real basis for the violence dished out to cis and trans women—capitalism and its institutions such as the family.”
A leader of the mid-1980s campaign for homosexual law reform in New Zealand, IBT supporter Bill Logan spoke to the QED rally on the similarities between the gay struggle in the past and the trans struggle today:
“It was an extremely similar struggle, in many, many ways. There were so many meetings of small groups of afraid people saying vile things, but occasionally also saying, ’we love you, we pity you.’ And there were, outside those meetings, gatherings like this, that represented a huge diversity of ordinary New Zealanders of every type, of every gender, of every sexuality.”
Like the campaign for gender self-identification, the campaign for homosexual law reform was about more than simply a legal reform decriminalising gay sex—it was a fight for the wider acceptance of gay men, lesbians and other sexual minorities (see “‘All Gains are Fragile’: Thirty Years of Homosexual Law Reform”, 1917 No.39). While the struggle for queer rights in New Zealand has come a long way since the law was passed in 1986, the benefits have accrued disproportionately to affluent cis gays. Many queer people—chiefly young, working class, trans and/or non-white—still face major difficulties navigating societal oppression.
Marxists have always identified the bourgeois family as a key mechanism for subjugating women to domestic and reproductive labour and as a vehicle for replicating bourgeois ideology and oppressive gender roles. Trans oppression is fundamentally rooted in the same institution. The gender norms and expectations of bourgeois society, and the mode of social reproduction and hereditary property rights that gives rise to them, punish trans people in ways that mirror and overlap with the punishment of cis women. Cis women and trans people thus have a common enemy in these bourgeois social norms. Treating their struggles as inherently opposed is not only wrong, it is poisonous to any effort to build solidarity among different sectors of the working class.
While the struggle for reforms such as reproductive rights or gender self-identification can help ameliorate some of their consequences under capitalism, it is not possible to fully realise the liberation of women and LGBTQ+ people from the confines of the nuclear family and conventional gender roles without overthrowing the capitalist system.
The fight for a Marxist revolutionary programme in the trans movement is of critical importance to ending trans oppression. As Marxists, our responsibility is to address all real expressions of oppression under capitalism and to fight for a society that ends all aspects of exploitation and oppression. The struggle for trans liberation, along with other struggles against special oppression, can only be carried out in full under the banner of a revolutionary party, waging a class struggle against the capitalist order. Ultimately, trans people, other oppressed minorities and the working class in New Zealand will only truly be free when their birth certificates read “Socialist Federation of Oceania”.
Marxism, Feminism & Women’s Liberation (1917 No.19)
‘All Gains are Fragile’: Thirty Years of Homosexual Law Reform (1917 No.39)
Love & Marriage: Capitalism, Queers & Equality (1917 No.36)