On The Guardian's Transphobic Centrism

The Guardian's sly, transphobic editorial rightly caused outrage but should also help clarify strategies for future trans politics

Many British trans people have declared their shock and outrage at an 18th October editorial by the Guardian. Here I will work through this rather sly text, exposing the transphobic framing pushed by its attempt at political centrism, and then confront the question of what is to be done with the rag itself.

The Guardian editorial ends on what it clearly intends as a moderating note: ‘Social media have unhelpfully amplified the voices at both extremes of this argument. The current divisions are troubling.’ Despite this, the editorial as a whole draws primarily on the framing and talking-points presented by the anti-transgender extreme, with several activists for A Woman’s Place celebrating the piece’s publication, and describing it as a summary of their own position. This group had to distance itself from one member who had proposed mandatory sterilisation of trans men, and made anti-Muslim remarks. These specific details of the ‘toxic’ condition of the debate around trans issues are not mentioned by the editorial, obscuring the hate campaign that British trans people have faced over the past year. Another single issue anti-trans group, Fair Play For Women used their official Twitter to publically fantasise about trans people dying from ‘a thousand cancers’. After this attracted controversy, the hate group promptly wiped its tweets.

If these comments seem shocking for British feminist groups, an explanation may be provided in the influence of the religious right. A group founded by Christian evangelicals to unite right and left-wing transphobia called ‘Hands Across The Aisle’ has been involved in supporting some of these new transphobic organisations, to an unclear degree. This follows the stated agenda of the Christian far-right in splitting ‘LGB’ from ‘T’ groups, in order to make both more easily defeated. Rather than investigating this murky and newsworthy business, the Guardian has opted to uncritically reproduce the key claim of this secular/religious anti-trans alliance: that the debate around transgender recognition is a case ‘where rights collide’ (as the title has it), with trans women and cis women pitted directly against each other.

The editorial is littered with underhand insinuations and false distinctions. For instance, the following passage attempts to distinguish between mere matters of ‘personal identity’, and ‘legal rights and protections’ (when of course the Gender Recognition Act reforms are, for trans people, fully related to both):

Important questions of personal identity are at stake, but also legal rights and protections. (The rights of trans men are far less controversial because they do not, while transitioning, gain access to spaces designed to protect a disadvantaged group.)

This effort to set trans men aside both matches the tactics of hate campaigners (who isolate trans women as the target of fire, rarely mentioning other trans people), and also serves as an underhand means of ensuring trans men are silenced. In reality, whether ‘controversial’ or not, trans men at present are expected to go through the same elaborate bureaucratic process as any other trans person, including hiring a lawyer to submit their case to a committee of cisgender ‘experts’ for evaluation. Trans men are, as such, among the main beneficiaries of any reform, but the Guardian would prefer its readers not to consider their voices.

The Guardian’s efforts to draw false distinctions appears most clearly where the authors attempt to be at their bluntest:

Transphobia must be opposed. But misogyny too must be challenged.

At this point, the Guardian shows itself to be oblivious to the term ‘transmisogyny’, which describes the particular prejudice trans women in particular tend to experience. This is surprising, as several of their hired columnists, including Shon Faye, have spent a considerable amount of energy articulating this concept. In the eleven years since the publication of Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, this term has become central to much trans theory, and activism. In attempting to neatly separate the two, the Guardian reveals how shallow and fleeting its engagement with trans people’s analysis of our conditions must truly have been.

As such, the ‘opposition’ to transphobia they propose is an underinformed one: it comes from a place of near total non-engagement with the many trans people who have dedicated a considerable amount of time to understanding and combating transphobia as it exists in the 21st century.

Gender identity does not cancel out sex. Women’s oppression by men has a physical basis, and to deny the relevance of biology when considering sexual inequality is a mistake.

Here an unnecessary confusion appears, as the Guardian introduces the term ‘sex’, seeming to assume that the British legal system accepts a distinction between sex/gender. This is largely not the case. For instance passports are marked ‘male/female’, in direct continuation of children being expected to be declared the same on birth certificates. (Leaving no space for intersex infants or children). Segregated boy’s and girls’ schools use this same documentation to control their intake. Those wishing to change their passport must acquire legal documentation of gender dysphoria. In other words, it is already the British legal system’s view that sex and gender are largely conflated. For this to be changed would require a much more radical overhaul of the British legal system than is currently proposed by the GRA amendment.

When the editorial later moves to claim that a shift is occurring from ‘single-gender’ to ‘single-sex’, the same confusion prevails, with the editors sloppily seeming to imply that transgender Girl Guides might pose a safeguarding risk to other girls.

The notion that trans activists deny any biological or physical distinction is plainly absurd. In recent years, much of trans activism has come to focus on correcting the UK’s dire healthcare provision, with groups like ‘Action for Trans Health’ focusing on improving access to Hormone Replacement Therapy (which in the UK often has waiting lists lasting years).

The passage which most plainly draws on the talking points of transphobic feminists is the following:

Women’s concerns about sharing dormitories or changing rooms with “male-bodied” people must be taken seriously. These are not just questions of safety but of dignity and fairness.

The cowardly quotation marks around male-bodied make it unclear whether the authors are merely reporting on the prejudices of others, or stating their own. In either case, it’s quite shocking that a publication which printed an entire series entitled A Transgender Journey, would make such an assumption. In those articles the author, Juliet Jacques, outlines the physical changes (through surgical, hormonal, and laser procedures) she undergoes as part of her transition, describing both the logistical process and her emotional responses in considerable detail. Tellingly, while keen to set a high standard for appropriate gendered embodiment, the Guardian has nothing on the waiting times for the many trans people pursuing hormones and surgery via the NHS, who are currently forced to wait for years at a time for access to potentially lifesaving treatment. The Guardian’s editors wants to insist that transitions occur on a physical level, while being unwilling to do any agitation to ensure that the austerity-wrecked, gatekeeping healthcare system provides the means.

In addition to the transphobia, this passage is seemingly completely oblivious to intersex people. This is despite us being included in the proposed GRA reform, and (again) despite the Guardian having reported on our plight repeatedly in recent years. The failure of the media to include intersex voices has been a striking feature of the debate so far, with a lone exception I’m aware of being a piece I wrote for VICE’s “Recognise Me” series. It’s easy to imagine how the public discussion over the past year could have gone quite differently, had the media opted for something more inclusive than innumerable staged ‘transsexuals vs. feminists’ pitched battles.

There are a wide range of developmental variations (commonly known as intersex conditions) which can cause someone legally and inwardly belonging to one gender to have physical traits stereotypically associated with another. For instance, it’s quite common for an intersex women to grow facial hair, to have a relatively large frame, not to develop breasts, or to have facial features read as ‘masculine’. An atmosphere of suspicion and second-guessing in women-only spaces is, as such, directly opposed to our interests (and likely at a time when we are most in need of support and affirmation: for instance when accessing a rape crisis centre, or domestic abuse shelter).

Given that intersex variations are estimated to occur in 1.7% of the population the Guardian’s proposed case for basing ‘dignity and fairness’ on lowest common denominator prejudices threatens to cause harm well beyond their intended target.

Throughout, the Guardian slips between including trans women alongside ‘other women’, before tacitly excluding them from the category altogether:

Where changes have been introduced or are proposed, including in prisons, [cis?] women should be consulted.

The Guardian Media Group, of course, has past form with giving a ‘fair hearing’ to noxious views. In 2013, the the Guardian’s sister newspaper the Observer published a ferocious rant by Julie Burchill that climaxed with several transphobic slurs. Protests outside their offices in King’s Cross (which I attended) saw the article removed, with the editor apologising. Clearly quite a shallow transformation followed.

At this point it’s well past time for trans people, and our supporters, to consider soberly whether we wish to have any further dealings with the Guardian Media Group. This seems especially pressing at a time its publications are apparently desperate for support, with the site festooned with brightly coloured mastheads imploring: ‘Support the Guardian’s fearless, independent journalism. Make a contribution now’

Against the idea of refusing to participate is that the Guardian still offers a range of investigative functions that we’re unlikely to see replaced by further left press. For instance its dedicated project The Counted, which tracks Americans killed by the police in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s nationwide mobilisation against racist law enforcement. A database compiling work largely done by left-wing activists brought the issue of UK undercover cops entering into deceptive relationships with women to broader attention. Any boycott campaign would have to bear this in mind, and identify clear, achievable demands.

But we should be quite honest that a large part of the appeal of working with this organisation is the veneer of respectability afforded by association with such an established, and widely distributed, publication. Given their low pay for guest contributors, it’s surely this establishment mystique that draws many into the Guardian Media Group’s orbit.

However, it should be understood that the very respectability of these stances indicts the existing order of things. And, for as long as it remains a liberal publication, the Guardian will continue to ‘turn with the breeze’, and to endorse movements of the state. A small number of determined middle-class ideologues will always be able to exert an outsized sway on this newspaper. Before turning themselves towards transphobia, the radical feminist group Object deployed the Guardian as a vehicle for their various campaigns against sex workers. This ultimately resulted in anti-queer parliamentary legislation that classified the filming of fisting or face-sitting as ‘extreme pornography’.

There has never been a revolutionary change at the publication since its support of the Iraq War in the early ‘00s, and certainly little core change in its editorial line since the laughably one-sided bias displayed against Jeremy Corbyn during his 2015 run.

Even if the editors of the Guardian can somehow be persuaded away from the likes of A Woman’s Place, it seems less likely that they will turn against ‘humanitarian interventionism’, liberal Zionism, and state racism against Muslims. This is hinted at in the editorial this piece focuses on, and by the underlying assumption in the paper noting that the UK imprisons 20 times as many people as Ireland. Their implied conclusion is that prisons should be more transphobic, not that they should be imprisoning fewer people. By contrast, trans politics has increasingly come to focus on anti-carceral approaches to justice, and a broader criticism of the role policing and prolonged incarceration plays in reproducing class and racial divisions. It’s no surprise that the Guardian finds affinity with those strains of feminism which have refused to engaged with the anti-prison movement, and continue to treat the police, the judiciary, and Her Majesty’s Prison System as simply givens, which any imagined society must surely include.

That this liberal publication has been won around to a position advanced by a small but determined band of bigots should be clarifying to trans politics. Those who wish trans politics to operate in a fashion formally alike to lobbying groups like Object (with a tiny number of well educated, talking point sprouting activists attempting to win around journalists belonging to a similar class station), clearly should accept winning around the Guardian Media Group as a main concern. But there is another road open for those intent on achieving trans liberation.

At present, British trans politics is blossoming in two divergent directions: those who work through Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), and revolutionary trans feminism.

Those minded to work through lobbying groups were greatly bolstered by the 2015 decision of the previously LGB charity Stonewall to expand their remit to include transgender issues, allowing for growing number of semi-professionalised trans activists to occupy themselves with the day-in-day-out slog of outreach. (While transphobic feminists are keen to cast all trans people as ‘trans activists’, and all trans activists as wild-eyed extremists, in reality those willing to work with Stonewall were largely relatively mild in their political convictions, given the conciliatory stance expected from them by their chosen employer.) For those committed to this course of trans liberation via social reform, pre-prepared material, the outside chance of securing a regular wage, advancing trans rights as human rights, and a network of like-minded contacts was made newly available. In the three years that followed, a growing number of activists have occupied themselves with this opportunity for incremental institutional wins, and the well-supported community building allowed for by this alliance. This tendency within trans politics is globally minded: quick to appeal to equality legislation, and to draw unfavourable comparisons between the situation in the UK and that of trans people living elsewhere. For instance, in the US, healthcare is provided largely on the basis of ‘informed consent’, rather than through Gender Identity Clinics. (So far the NGO-approach activists have largely been unable to explain why exactly it is that Britain seems to have proven so much more fertile a breeding ground for transphobia than other imperialist nations.)

Those minded towards lobbying have enjoyed many victories. In recent years a string of institutions have become explicitly more trans inclusive, perhaps most easily traced through 100 organisations who backed a statement promoting trans rights. It’s in light of this trend of amassing successes that the Guardian’s decision to platform the transphobic strain of feminism seems so galling. But in reality there are many, perhaps more significant places the ‘NGO wing’ of trans feminism have already run aground. For instance, a change in NHS policy and legislation which mandated GPs to distribute hormones to those still waiting for Gender Identity Clinic appointments has largely been ignored on a local level, with many GPs refusing to oversee ‘informed consent’ given their non-specialist status. There seems no apparent means of correcting this tension between reformed national policy and a more prejudiced local level of delivery, and it certainly will not be addressed by a reformed Gender Recognition Act. The end goal of this faction of trans politics is peaceful co-existence, achieved through trans people securing sufficient state recognition to minimise the attention paid to, and discussion of, our condition. This requires the isolation of vocal transphobes from civic life, which follows the (incomplete) way this was achieved with homophobia: those who express these views are cast in normative terms as old-fashioned, unworldly, spiteful, and narrow-minded. While the short-term aim is to equip activists with talking-points and connections, the longer term one is to close down transgender rights as a legitimate topic of discussion altogether. As a popular set of Stonewall stickers had it: ‘Some people are trans, get over it!’

But at the same time, an increasing number of trans people are drawing revolutionary conclusions from our social conditions. For instance the Edinburgh Action for Trans Health group’s manifesto offers a far more unflinching vision for the future of trans politics than any that could be endorsed by an NGO. This is a mode of political action which seeks to work outside ‘the limits of trans liberalism’. Trans revolutionaries usually stress transphobia and transmisogyny as pervasive and structuring aspects of society, as well as emphasising interconnections with the political order more generally (state racism, border regimes, medicalisation, the aftermath of colonialism, and the division of labour). From this view, trans liberation is not so much a struggle to win particular rights, but one part of a broader movement overturning inter-locking, oppressive systems. At present, there is no functional revolutionary party in the UK within which these activists might organise; as a consequence, most trans feminists have developed this mode of thinking largely autonomously. (We could compare this state of affairs to disability rights, where longstanding failings by the established left to include disabled people in what they consider to be proper ‘activism’ has lead to groups such as Disabled People Against the Cuts developing independently of longstanding left organisations). The loosely-arranged networks that make up what we might call this trans revolutionary tendency include both local organisations and international social media circles, which are characterised both by a cultural fertility (with memes, in-jokes, and arcane schisms developing rapidly on a daily basis), and a certain political intransigence. Together, this leaves participants somewhat outside the more general drift of the British left towards the state-conciliatory, electorally-minded focus inaugurated by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory in 2015 (in which the ideal Britain is conceived of as an island with a well-funded NHS, and closed borders, and both policing and the welfare state are promised more resources.) In this way, the far-left of British trans politics at once points towards an uncertain future, and harks back to the earlier 2010s, when it was more widely assumed that meaningful political action would occur outside of the interests of the Labour Party.

To sum up the distinction between the ‘NGO approach’ and the revolutionaries: the former consider the Guardian piece as a major set-back in their project of delegitimising transphobic perspectives as a feature of public life, whereas the revolutionaries tend to view it as ‘more of the same’. One road, then, has progressive reflexes, the other pessimistic.

While not necessarily at direct odds, these approaches offer different directions towards trans liberation, and appeal to broad constituencies who are only united at present because pervasive transphobia ensures that a hefty majority of trans people are denied steady access to the professions. Facetious editorials notwithstanding, this is likely to diminish somewhat in coming years as transition is normalised (even as dispossession by parents and other relatives continues to result in trans people conveying wealth across generations much less tidily than their cisgender peers). We should prepare for trans politics becoming a considerably more contradictory entity, as this unfolds. Although also growing in general, as more and more trans people enter public life.

At present, in the face of widespread and normalised public expressions of contempt toward us, many involved in trans politics are left vacillating between these approaches and worldviews. Ironically, given the publication’s stated agenda of promoting global liberalism, the Guardian’s reproduction of trans hatred makes it plain that linear progress cannot be expected here.

The necessary regroupment that will follow the traumatic debate around the Gender Recognition Act consultation must include two things: firstly a focus on the type of work that state bureaucrats are never going to even attempt to do, and which transphobic activists make no effort to ever try to understand. Transgender lives are not made possible by any one piece of legislation, and instead are allowed for by the winding road Marxist feminists have come to term ‘life-making’, or social reproduction.

In contexts where our upbringings and GPs are failing to provide us with the tools we need to make it through each day, new networks and affinity groups are arising constantly to collectively provide us with the necessary knowledge, connections, and spaces to realise ourselves. Seen in this light, the Gender Recognition Act is something of a sideshow — or rather its reforms are a responsive move by the state to the pre-existing lived reality of thousands of British people. Recognition by the state follows on the heels of trans lives,as objective reality.

Secondly, we should reflect on what it would mean to forgive those who have spoken from a place of deep ignorance this year, as across time many of them (though perhaps not the editors of the Guardian) will come to see the error of their ways. The conduct of the British press has made it very easy for half-baked prejudices, the ‘Yer Dad’ of bigotry, to be sustained. I don’t think it’s overly optimistic to predict that much of this will dissolve when these casual, mild transphobes come into contact with any number of actual trans people. While the public discussions that have prevailed this year have been exhausting to many activists on a personal level, they are not something that will ever define the collective social activity that propels and enables gender transition as a mass phenomenon.

Rather than dwell, we must move on.

The deadline for completing the government’s consultation on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act has been extended until tomorrow (October 22nd). We would encourage all comrades who haven’t already contributed to do so. There are valuable resources to help with contributions from Dr Ruth Pearce, NUS, Mermaids and for Northern Ireland from Transgender NI


Jules Joanne Gleeson (@socialrepro)

Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and historian. She has published essays in outlets including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal and VICE, and performed internationally at a wide range of communist and queer cultural events. She is the editor with Elle O’Rourke of Transgender Marxism.