Identity Crisis: Radical Gender Theory and the Left

As a trans person, I’ve really been struggling with the idealism of trans activism as it pertains to identity. They seem to say that however you identify your gender is who you are. So if you say you’re a woman, you’re a woman, and if you say you’re non-binary, then you are. But isn’t this the core of idealism, to put identity in the determinant position? 

—comment on Reddit’s r/communism forum

In his latest series of documentaries Can’t Get You Out of My Head (reviewed by Guy Rundle in Arena no. 6), sociologist and film-maker Adam Curtis focuses on a number of individuals who sit at the uneasy intersection of modern individualism, an increasingly technologised vision of the human mind and human behaviour, and a liberatory politics denuded of grand historical narratives. Key portraits in this gallery include the US rapper Tupac Shakur, who attempts to recreate in music something of the political radicalism of his mother (the Black Panther Afeni Shakur) but finds himself trapped by celebrity culture, and the countercultural author Kerry Thornley, who sought to satirise conspiracy thinking, only to succumb to it in later life. But perhaps the most interesting figure of all, in terms of the ideological positioning of the contemporary ‘mainstream’ radical Left, is the transgender activist Julia Grant, whose story Curtis glosses in an article for the Guardian

Julia Grant grows up near Blackpool in the 1970s. She comes to London—and realises that she wants to live as a woman. She is part of a shift that will sweep through modern society that says that true freedom doesn’t come any longer from changing the world—but changing yourself—to become who you know inside you really are. At the start of the 1980s, Julia sets out to take on the medical establishment. An anonymous psychologist behind the camera in the TV documentary A Change of Sex wants to stop her. Julia has extraordinary courage—and decides she will stand up to him and what he represents about an old uncaring society in Britain.

Here, as in the documentary itself, Curtis’s admiration for Grant is more than tinged with reservation. For while Grant does indeed show plenty of courage in her clashes with her (assigned) psychiatrist, who is callously unsympathetic to her desire for gender reassignment surgery, she is also a paradigmatic case of the individualisation of politics that is one of Curtis’s principal themes. The question, for the Left no less than for Curtis, is whether this ambivalence necessarily implies a demotion of Grant’s struggle for recognition. If Julia’s claim to womanhood is bound up with a more general malaise, what do we make of the claim itself?  

I find it surprising that this question has barely arisen in the responses to Curtis’s documentary. As one of the first ‘transsexuals’ to share their story with a mainstream audience, Grant would have cut an exotic figure when she first came to prominence in the 1980s. But in recent years transgender issues have entered mainstream culture and politics with remarkable rapidity and force, such that we now have an entirely new language in which to talk about sex, gender and the relationship between the two. For some, this new language contains a recognition that the old one could not fully register, or even perhaps begin to register, the rich complexity of sex and gender, while for others it represents an attempt to rewrite the rules of nature itself. Indeed, and whatever else they denote, words and phrases such as ‘gender fluidity’, ‘non-binary’, ‘cisgender’ and ‘heteronormativity’ are ideological Rorschach prints that will strike the culture warrior as either the conceptual architecture of a new and hopeful gender politics or the modish cant of ‘cultural Marxists’ bent on revolution by stealth. Grist to the outrage-media’s mill, the status and rights of transgender people—i.e. people whose gender identity is at odds with their birth sex—is an issue in which the underlying themes of our political era coalesce. Identity, safety, rights, language, expertise and techno-science are all in the discursive mix. 

For a section of the contemporary Right, the issue of transgender activism is now an ideological twofer that allows it to hold its conservative/reactionary and liberal/libertarian troops together for the sake of a few raids into progressive territory. On the one hand, it can take the claims of transgender activists as an opportunity to press its case for traditional notions of sexuality and gender, and on the other it can present the style of that activism (not always erroneously, it should be said) as an attack on classical liberal verities such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. No doubt it is significant that the conservative psychologist Jordan Peterson came to prominence on the back of a controversy about an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act, which, he argued, would compel Canadians to modify their use of gendered pronouns when addressing transgender and non-binary people—a stance that it suited him to present as a liberal defence of open debate but was also, clearly, an antechamber to his views on the ‘crisis of masculinity’ that had come about as a consequence of postmodernism and identity politics. Similarly, the Safe Schools anti-bullying program was characterised as both a postmodern assault on long-established beliefs and behaviours and as an example of intellectual policing, all the more sinister for being aimed at kids whose sexuality and critical faculties were both in the early stages of development. (Again, this characterisation was not entirely erroneous. The materials for the Safe Schools program do appear to channel a view of the body as a ‘blank slate’ onto which culture projects gender, while the decision to introduce such subject matter in the form of an anti-bullying program, instead of as part of the syllabus, may appear from a certain angle to be an attempt to get one’s retaliation in first.) 

In broadly progressive circles, by contrast, support for transgender and non-binary causes is acquiring the quality of a shibboleth. Clearly, much of this support is based on simple solidarity with a marginalised group subject to prejudice and violence, and on a deep (and deeply liberal) conviction that it is wrong to require someone to live in a way that feels untrue to their ‘real’ self. But there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that radical gender theory has left its mark on progressive politics as well, even if only superficially. The sudden prominence of the word ‘cisgender’ to describe those whose gender identity correlates with their birth sex, the incorporation of pronoun preferences into social media profiles and the like, the passing of laws that make it permissible to change the sex on one’s birth certificate without assessment or reassignment, and a succession of highly mediatised controversies around allegedly ‘transphobic’ statements on the part of celebrities and journalists, suggest not only broad acceptance (or unthinking assimilation) of the core tenets of radical gender theory but also a desire to put that acceptance in the shop window of progressive politics. The recent statement by Duncan Maskell, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, that academic freedom does not extend to comments that cause ‘harm’ to transgender people, will strike many on the Left as overreach, and some of us as ludicrous (not because we are in favour of harm, but because we see how the extension of the harm principle is eroding what’s left of the public sphere). But it is the symptom of a more general feeling that the question of transgender selfhood is settled, and that statements to the contrary are politically toxic. 

TERF wars

In some progressive circles, however, the idea that one’s gender identity can be neatly separated from one’s physical being, or that one’s physical being is itself ‘gendered’ in a way that makes any talk of its reality necessarily ideological, is proving deeply controversial. For an older generation of feminists, in particular, the prominence of transgender issues can often seem like a challenge to, and even a rejection of, some very different shibboleths to the ones on offer from GLAAD and its analogues. Often characterised (not always unfairly) as ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ (TERFs), these activists and commentators may make the point that some of the men who identify as women (and vice versa) are apt to reproduce the stereotypes that underpin patriarchal attitudes. More basically, their objections stem from a feeling that transgender politics downplay or deny the centrality of the body to female lived experience. It was this issue that got J. K. Rowling into hot water when she objected to the phrase ‘people who menstruate’ in an article on menstrual health in the global South. Or here is the journalist Suzanne Moore, in the article that got her sacked from the Guardian:

The radical insight of feminism is that gender is a social construct—that girls and women are not fated to be feminine, that boys and men don’t have to be masculine. But we have gone through the looking-glass and are being told that sex is a construct… Female oppression is innately connected to our ability to reproduce. Women have made progress by talking about biology, menstruation, childbirth and menopause. We won’t now have our bodies or voices written out of the script. 

In an article in The Sociological Review, a number of British academics characterised these comments, and others like them, as inseparable from a reactionary campaign against transgender and non-binary rights, and it is true that the doctrine of ‘my enemy’s enemy’ will mean that any criticism of queer/radical gender theory will be taken up and weaponised by those whose opposition to ‘transgenderism’ is fuelled by simple prejudice. But to assume that criticisms such as Moore’s are therefore channelling such prejudice is obviously a non sequitur that serves to stifle genuine debate, precisely in the way that the Right often claims. Moreover, it stifles debate about precisely the thing we need to be debating as we move deeper into the techno-scientific era—namely, the ontological status of the human being/animal in a society that invites us to regard ourselves as in some sense above, or remote from, nature. Reading the criticisms of Moore and Rowling, and many other commentators besides, one has the sense that biological sex (or, more usually, ‘biological sex’) is regarded as, at best, a red herring, and, at worst, a Trojan horse from which, when night falls, the forces of reaction will emerge and set about their bloody business. But of course for certain traditions within feminism, and also for the wider material Left into which those feminist traditions were marbled, the issue of whether there is a physical ‘nature’ that is prior to and influential on cultural meanings or ‘scripts’ is one of foundational importance.

As Arena’s Simon Cooper has noted, in a piece on the fallout from Germaine Greer’s comments on the status of transgender women, ‘it’s one thing to distinguish between sex and gender; it’s quite another thing to say embodiment and biology float free of history and culture, subject to the needs of identity’. Greer has suggested, with characteristic indelicacy, that she doesn’t ‘believe a woman is a man without a cock’ and that ‘If you didn’t find your pants full of blood when you were 13, there’s something important about being a woman you don’t know’—comments that have earned her a severe dressing-down in some sections of the mainstream press. Nevertheless, and as Cooper suggests, we should look past Greer’s off-colour flourishes to her invocation of those ‘markers of embodiment’ that are, for her, inseparable from the experience of being a woman. As he puts it:

Greer’s listing of some of the features and biological processes of the female body—ovaries and uterus, menstruation and menopause—is not simply biological essentialism but indicates how these things are integral to gendered identity. They are physical processes subject to culture and to forms of social integration and understanding, and they are experienced over time. Their meanings can/should be challenged as part of a political project, but they cannot be dismissed by an act of will.

That such meanings, derived in part from biology, are ‘dismissed by an act of will’ is evident from some of the reactions to the Greer controversy, and to others, in progressive circles. In an essay in Meanjin, for example, Eleanor Robertson referred to Greer’s ‘biological essentialism’ and accused her of ‘policing a line of demarcation she perceives as the enabling force of collective struggle’ and of attacking ‘nascent forms of solidarity she doesn’t understand’. Engaging in a bit of ‘policing’ of her own, Robertson describes as ‘morally and organisationally bankrupt’ the idea that there may be a biological basis for female solidarity, though why such a basis must always lead back to the ‘class interests of men’ she doesn’t say. Similarly, the revelation in 2015 that a US anti-racism activist had been ‘passing’ as Black caused many progressives to tie themselves in knots in response to (often mischievous) comparisons between the activist in question, Rachel Dolezal, and the transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner. What should have been an opportunity to think through a few important distinctions, and to consider the ways in which gender and race are socially and psychically constructed on the basis of biological differences that may or may not shape experience in ways prior to those psychosocial constructions, descended into a brawl in which any comparison between Dolezal and Jenner was treated in progressive circles as axiomatically transphobic and racist. The (Black) professor Adolph Reed, a tireless critic of identity politics, was happy to point out what he and others regarded as a double standard: ‘The transrace/transgender comparison makes clear the conceptual emptiness of the essentializing discourses, and the opportunist politics, that undergird identitarian ideologies. There is no coherent, principled defense of the stance that transgender identity is legitimate but transracial is not, at least not one that would satisfy basic rules of argument’.

It is not, then, transgender people as such but the informing assumptions of radical gender theory that need to be debated and challenged. The idea that there is no significant relationship between sex and gender carries with it an assumption about human beings that should strike those on the material Left as a challenge to an idea of freedom without which ‘the Left’ as a political entity would never have come into being at all—the idea that human beings can only flourish if certain material needs are met, and that these needs derive from our status as creatures that are bound by and are a part of nature. Indeed it is precisely the materiality of freedom that separates the Left from the (liberal) Right. While the right-libertarians of the Institute of Public Affairs regard freedom as reducible to negative rights such as freedom of speech or the freedom to own property, socialists are supposed to know that freedom entails enabling conditions that are ultimately based in our creatural needs—that arise, so to speak, from embodiment

Indeed, radical gender theory presents the Left with an ‘identity crisis’ of its own, in a way that goes beyond the usual (and often legitimate) gripes about how the politics of identity has taken contemporary progressives away from issues of class or material distribution. That crisis does not begin with radical gender theory. Nor, rest assured, will it end with it. But it is very important to understand exactly what is at stake in this debate, and the very different visions of the future that necessarily emerge from it. 

New subjectivities

As Guy Rundle demonstrates in his article, ‘How radical gender theory hijacked Marxism and why we need to get it back’, published in Crikey in 2016 in the midst of the Safe Schools controversy, the route from revolutionary socialism to radical gender/queer theory is based on two problematic aspects, or perceived aspects, of Marx’s thought. The first is the idea that the economic ‘base’ dictates the cultural and institutional arrangements that constitute the ‘superstructure’, up to and including the family unit; and the second is the idea that human liberation entails a transcendence of our biological condition—an idea based, in my opinion, on a highly tendentious reading of Marx. (For a thorough critique of this idea, see Norman Geras’s Marx and Human Nature.) In the 1960s, as the limitations of the base-superstructure model became apparent, some on the Left looked to deepen the idea that social and cultural meanings were ‘constructed’ by turning, first, to structuralism—an idea from anthropology that stressed how societies create meaning and hierarchy by constructing oppositions (e.g. male/female) that effectively define each other—and then to the ‘post-structuralist’ idea that social meanings are entirely constructed. When this notion of the arbitrariness of social meaning combined with the notion that liberation necessitates a radical break with nature, many radicals moved decisively beyond the philosophical materialism that had defined revolutionary socialism and adopted the idealism (as I take it to be) of post-structuralism. Fleshed out in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), the new ‘queer theory’ asked us to consider ‘the duality of sex’ as itself a construction. ‘[W]hat is “sex” anyway?’ Butler asked; ‘Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such facts for us?’ But as important as these questions were, the underlying notion that social meanings are entirely constructed—that they are ideological ‘all the way down’—has militated against any clarifying answers. For a large section of the radical Left, it has simply become enough to say that there is no relationship between sex and gender. 

As Rundle notes in his article, such beliefs are connected in a deep way to a particular form of being in the world. The post-industrial economy in countries such as Australia is one in which a newly expanded class of ‘knowledge’ or information workers deals principally in data, texts, images, statistics and the like. It is a world not of old-style manual labour but of representations of the world, and it is within such a cultural and intellectual ecology that something like queer theory (in its hard and soft versions) is able to take hold and flourish. Indeed, it is significant that queer theory was nourished in the academic fields of criticism and cultural studies before being re-exported to the social sciences—a history to which the many references to ‘tropes’ and ‘scripts’ and ‘performances’ attest. ‘There’s a lot of identities, selves, and self-shaping in the literature of Safe Schools’, writes Rundle; ‘there’s a decided absence of actual bodies and sex, the viscous, vicious, unequal, powerful and chaos-bringing embodiment of sex, which is pretty uppermost in adolescents’ lives’. Queer theory offers a dematerialised activism for increasingly dematerialised thought-worlds. 

The sudden prominence of radical gender theory, then, is consistent with a form of life in which identities do indeed appear to float free of embodied being. But of course it is precisely this ‘freedom’ that capitalism in its current phase finds it so rewarding to cultivate, not least through new technologies in which it is not only possible but necessary to perpetually construct one’s identity—technologies to which performance is central. As grounded social life recedes in the face of neoliberalism, our relations with others become increasingly mediated, as well as increasingly ephemeral and fraught; and the more we are remade as individuals who must continually remake ourselves, the more we turn to the marketplace. This is not to adopt a crude base-superstructure-ideology model, or to suggest that queer theorists are neoliberalism’s useful idiots, but to stress the way in which new subjectivities are folded into both techno-scientific capitalism and certain kinds of activism. In a time of ‘liquid modernity’ (Bauman), ‘fluidity’ is celebrated, albeit often in the contradictory form of a great proliferation of new fixed sexual/gender identities. 

The focus on the psychic ‘safety’ of transgender and other minority groups is central to this picture. For the Right, the progressive emphasis on safe spaces, trigger warnings, no-platforming and so forth is evidence of a ‘snowflake’ generation; but this is to misunderstand entirely the cultural shift that is taking place. For while accusations of offence and bullying are often tiresome and politically expedient, they are also clearly related to the cultural and technological developments described above. Subject to constant curation and monitoring, and scattered across a range of media, identities need to be shielded from injury lest they break apart entirely. The endless expansion of the ‘harm principle’ is a necessary bulwark against psychological crack-up—a supplement to the new armouring competencies of mindfulness, resilience and empathy. That queer theory was introduced to mainstream Australia through an anti-bullying program is in this sense perfectly explicable. 

Radical gender theory, then, is difficult to separate from the wider shifts that are taking place as capitalism steers us ever deeper into the techno-scientific era—an era that even now offers ways to change or transcend our given embodiment, through implants, brain–computer interfaces and (perhaps most important in the long run) CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology. At the moment, many of these technologies are subject to rigorous ethical constraints, though the medical imperative to ‘do no harm’ is as likely, in my view, to permit new interventions as it is to hold them back. But as we become habituated to such technologies as are already extant, and as the market continues to heroicise the sovereign, wired-up individual, they are sure to become less marginal. What this will mean for gender and sexuality in the long term is impossible to say, but surely it is significant that the sector that is often held up as exemplary in its attitude to LGBTQ issues is the one charged with innovating such transformative tech. Indeed my sense is that radical gender theory makes for a pretty tidy fit with the body-as-hardware/mind-as-software view of human beings favoured by many in Silicon Valley and its analogues. Though worlds apart in many ways, the informing assumptions of radical gender theory share a common base with the technological ‘transhumanism’ that seeks to dramatically extend human life and even replicate human consciousness in a way that ‘liberates’ us from our bodies entirely. 

Such an ambition remains in the realms of fantasy. But the view of human life that fuels it is sure to sanction—will continue to sanction—interventions that radically recast the relationship between human beings and the ‘natural world’, up to and including the human body. In such circumstances, one would want to see a Left that could think critically about the subjectivities that allow such promethean dreams to flourish, and demand not only common ownership of such technologies as are already with us (as per the ‘fully automated luxury communists’) but also an urgent moratorium on a developmental ethos that is itself inseparable from techno-scientific capitalism. My fear is that radical gender theory, and the ways of seeing to which it is related, make that difficult, if not impossible. 

A Promethean synthesis?

It seems to me that many progressives are desperate to avoid the questions thrown up by radical gender theory, not least because its most strenuous advocates have mounted guard over the rights and safety of transgender and non-binary people with passion and single-mindedness. For these progressives, the idea that ‘all claims to liberation from an inherited conservative order are valid’ (Rundle) is the fundamental political value. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that many of them would accept the full implications of radical gender theory in its Butlerite form, and it is here that the progressive attitude to science and/or expertise is likely to play an important role. As the expert-managers of the knowledge economy, rightly appalled by the Right’s stupidity and nihilism in respect of climate change and vaccination, many ‘soft’ progressives now evince a more or less reflexive regard for scientific or credentialled opinion. Positions are asserted (often correctly) on the basis of ‘the science’ alone, rather than any worked-out position, and my sense is that, in the case of trans issues, this reflexive reverence has now combined with a spirit of solidarity and compassion in a way that effectively removes the topic of gender theory from the sphere of contention. Dan Andrews’ comments in March 2016 on proposed government changes to the Safe Schools program, which set the experts against the ‘bigots’, were in this sense representative of a more general progressive stance. Similarly, the ABC’s documentary on the paediatrician Michelle Telfer, who has been subject to a vicious campaign from The Australian, stressed both her compassion and her professional rigour, but had little to say about the science and psychology informing the process of gender reassignment it is her role to facilitate.

My point is not that the small minority of transgender people who want to transition shouldn’t be allowed to do so. Such transitions may indeed be what some people need in order to be/feel free. My point is about the way an issue of identity and recognition has quickly become a taken-for-granted good, and medicalised under certain pressures. No longer able to think outside the social and economic conditions in which they play a central role, progressives have shifted the burden of decision to social actors they trust as ‘theirs’: the activist charity, the medical practitioner, the academic with a feel for how conventional notions of x or y are replete with bias and bigotry, and, of course, the experience and choices of those who would live differently, outside the mores of mainstream society. If this process can occur with an issue as central to human culture as sex and gender, it can occur with almost anything.  

For all the (very real) threats we now face from the new reactionary Right, the most momentous development of our era has been the continued subordination of nature by techno-scientific capitalism—a socioeconomic ensemble to which a certain idea of liberation is central. It follows that a radical left-materialism must begin by acknowledging our groundedness in nature, reflect on the cultural and intellectual conditions that have permitted a contrary world-picture to flourish, and identify, as aspects of the same delusion, the idea that we can endlessly manipulate the environment, and the idea that we can manipulate ourselves to better fit the cultural reality that has grown up in the shadow of that promethean project. Today techno-scientific capitalism presses in on us at every turn. A socialism that has nothing to say about that, and about the kinds of creatures we are, is a socialism that will reproduce its radically antihuman assumptions and facilitate its assault on ‘all that is solid’.

About the author

Richard King

Richard King is a writer based in Fremantle. His new book, Here Be Monsters: Is Technology Reducing Our Humanity?(Monash University Publishing), was published in 2023.

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What a brilliant essay! I recall reading J.K. Rowling’s comments and feeling uneasy in my own interrogation of identity politics – now, I perceive it as having not comprehended the politicised distinction that has been/is being made between mind and body. Your delineation of ’embodiment’ as central to the politicisation of this issue made for a fascinating dissection of the concerns in melding the Left with radical gender theory. Because of this, I now perceive what sat uncomfortably with me when initially reading Rowling: the female body/sex constitutes so much of lived experience and cannot be dismissed despite an advancing agenda to dissect the two, whereby you drew an incredibly incisive parallel to ‘technological transhumanism’, and an ironic subversion of the very constituents of the ‘material Left’.
Much of our internal world is informed by the externalties we are cultured in – such that men may be cultured to view women as sexual objects, which is in turn linked to the experience of girlhood and menstruation in a tradtionally patriarchal society. What I glean from this essay, then, is that we cannot discard the historical roots of the gender/sex binary, and how this has defined identity and the struggle for female liberation in the past.
I am very impressed and thank the author for advancing my thoughts on this subject.

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