A Left Male Critiques Transgender Ideology and Drag Shows

Selections from writings by Robert Jensen

It is rare to hear men on the Left speak out well and strongly in support of radical feminists in their many-layered critique of transgender ideology, pornography, prostitution and drag shows. Many Left women have joined with Left men in piling on to any feminist who even dares to say she believes biological sex is real and that it is immutable. This has been a rude-awakening, especially coming from the Marxist Left which claims a materialist analysis. (The term “Left” refers here to the anti-capitalist Left, not to “progressives” or liberals such as the Democratic Party.)

This betrayal has resulted in many radical feminists being rightfully angered and disgusted with the Left. Some, under attack and looking for support, have joined with the Right on these few issues. There have even been conferences on “Women Leaving the Left”, an exit to the detriment of both women and working people. Despite having struggled with much of the Left on such issues since the beginnings of the WLM, and aware that it is has been going on since there has been “a Left”, we see no other path but to keep pushing. With so much at stake in these dire times of desperate capitalism, climate crisis, and threatened nuclear war, we can’t afford to just walk away.

It has been rarer to see Left men contribute to a critique of these sex-related issues in a clarifying way. The writings of Robert Jensen often succeed in doing that, sometimes being published in places where we have not had access. We are reposting a selection of excerpts below from several of his articles to remind both radical feminists and the Left—we consider ourselves part of both—that unity is possible, desirable and increasingly necessary.

Jensen says he came to radical feminism through the writings of Andrea Dworkin, and is not very aware of the the contributions of the 1960s founders of the Women’s Liberation Movement who came before her. This is obvious to us in his use of the more ambiguous term “patriarchy” where we would use the more specific and accurate terms “male supremacy” or “sexism’. 

He started writing about transgender ideology in 2014. This was about the time MEETING GROUND began to speak out on the issue. Ten years ago in 2013 we initiated Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Criticism of “Gender”, an open statement signed by 48 radical feminists from seven countries, many of whom were active in the early WLM. We were admittedly late to this struggle, mistakenly hoping or believing—given its irrational premises—that it was a fad that would soon pass. We were wrong, of course. It has only gained strength since then, both in numbers and in the increasing support of the established institutional powers of government, foundations (here and here), academia, and media, which are collaborating in what some are calling a “new McCarthyism” which punishes those who dare question transgender assertions. 

We have interjected a few bracketed editorial comments in the text in an attempt to deepen the understanding of both history and the current lay of the land. We did not include the links in Jensen’s articles. They can be found in the original post at the site given at the end of each one. We added the graphics.

We begin with Jensens’s excellent political characterization of the transgender phenomenon. 

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“Transgenderism is a liberal, individualist, medicalized response to the problem of patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. Radical feminism is a radical, structural, politicized response. On the surface, transgenderism may seem to be a more revolutionary approach, but radical feminism offers a deeper critique of the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of patriarchy and a more promising path to liberation.”

Originally published in Dissident Voice

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From “CANCEL WAR STORIES” • January 2023

First, a small but important quibble about language. Sex is observed at birth, not assigned. The only potential uncertainty about the sex of newborns come for the small portion of the population born “intersex,” with what are now called Disorders of Sexual Development (some prefer Differences in Sexual Development). So, the term “sex assigned at birth” is inappropriate in light of the stability of the categories of male and female, evidenced by successful human reproduction over millennia.

. . .

In other words, sex is binary and biological. Male and female are marked by the kinds of gametes we produce, sperm or egg. Not every person born has the capacity to reproduce (there are anomalies) and not every person will reproduce (people make choices). But that does not change the fact that male humans can participate in reproduction only when their small gametes come together with the large gamete of a female human.

. . .

Starting in the 1970s [actually 1960s—Editors], feminists challenged patriarchal claims that men’s domination and exploitation of women are “natural” because of biology, distinguishing biological sex from cultural constructions of gender.

Only female humans bear children; that’s a biological reality. Suggesting that because they bear children, women are not competent to participate in politics is a patriarchal gender norm. Patriarchy turns biological difference into social dominance, enforced by rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms. Gender is connected to our sex differences but reflects the unequal distribution of power between men and women over the past few thousand years.

. . .

To sum up: Gender is best understood as the social meaning (captured in the terms masculinity and femininity) ascribed to biological sex differences rooted in reproduction (male and female). Sex is a function of the kind of animals that we humans are, and gender is how we human animals make sense of sex differences. Sex is biological, and gender is cultural. In patriarchal societies—which is to say, virtually all the contemporary world—gender is a weapon to control girls and women in the service of institutionalized male dominance.

. . .

This sex/gender framework is important in trying to understand why so many in the liberal/progressive/left political world—who are usually supportive of, or at least sympathetic to, feminism—have embraced transgender politics and ignored or demonized feminist critics. Why do these left-of-center folks ignore material realities in favor of an ideology that even they will admit is hard to understand?

If the gender norms that many of us want to resist are a product of patriarchy, then the obvious target for political organizing should be patriarchy, used here as a term for varied systems of male dominance in the family, economy, politics, and culture. If patriarchy forces us into rigid boxes, represses our ability to experience our full humanity, and fosters a reactionary politics, then let’s go after patriarchy, right?

The problem is that fighting patriarchy is hard. It is the oldest of the oppressive social systems, going back several thousand years in human history, compared with several hundred for white supremacy and capitalism. Patriarchal ideas and modes of behavior are so woven into the fabric of everyday life that they can be hard to identify let alone eliminate. Feminist organizing has forced some changes, such as improved laws against rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. [Plus increases in: dignity and respect, recognition that women are as capable as men, being taken seriously, men sharing housework and child rearing, equal pay, integration of the workforce, ability to obtain credit, advanced education, sports participation, the right to dress more comfortably, relaxation of appearance codes, sexual pleasure, and abortion rights—and decrease in the pressure to marry and adhere to sex roles—to name several. The defeat of the WLM as we knew it has meant a crucial lack of keeping up the pressure for winning these gains more completely. In fact, we have been losing much ground. — Editors] But striking at the core of male dominance, especially at men’s sexual exploitation of women, produces intense backlash.

I learned this working on the feminist critique of pornography. The most hostile reactions to an analysis of the sexist and racist patterns in pornography came from liberal/progressive/left folks. I found that confusing at first, until a friend made a point that now seems obvious to me: When we critique pornography, people know it’s not just a critique of movies and magazines (this was years ago, before the internet ended the market for pornographic magazines) but of men’s assumption that they should be in control, as well as the ways we learn to be sexual within a patriarchal culture. And people are nervous about surrendering control and giving up methods for finding sexual pleasure, which I know because it scared me when I first encountered the critique, and I still struggle with the enormity of it all.

Why has the trans movement made such deep inroads on the left, to the point where challenging trans ideology can get one banished from progressive spaces? My working hypothesis is that embracing transgender politics gives the appearance of challenging patriarchy without actually fighting male dominance in all its forms. Instead of confronting male power, trans activists most often embrace patriarchal gender norms, implicitly or explicitly, or refuse to challenge those in the trans movement who do so. Supporting the trans movement gives the appearance of feminist politics without facing the most vexing issues.

. . .

Radical feminists do not minimize people’s suffering because of patriarchal gender norms but rather offer an alternative for dealing with the psychological distress and social alienation experienced by people who identify as trans. Over the more than three decades I’ve been involved with feminism, some of the most courageous and dedicated people doing battle with patriarchal gender norms and male domination whom I have known have been radical feminists—the very people the trans movement seeks to marginalize. Radical feminists were non-binary before non-binary was cool, challenging social norms which demand that men and women fit into patriarchal boxes.

. . .

I believe the radical feminist critique is an example of taking intellectual risks (in this case, challenging liberal/progressive/left dogma) while protecting the dignity of all (girls and women, and those who identify as trans). Nothing in what I have written here, or anywhere else, denies anyone that dignity. And yet as I and others have experienced, articulating these views often results in efforts to silence us rather than to respond with reasoned arguments.

People who agree with my analysis of transgenderism have asked, why does this matter? Maybe trans ideology is hard to understand, but trans folks are just trying to get by. Can’t we let it slide?

No. The most obvious reason is that trans activists not only ask people to accept their identity claims but also policies that impose costs on girls and women. That comes when men who identify as women demand a right to enter single-sex spaces, from bathrooms to domestic-violence shelters to sports competitions. Some women who once identified as men, known as detransitioners, may have changed their bodies in permanent ways, such as breast removal, but later come to realize their problems were not the result of how they feel but how society treats women. The use of drugs and hormones on children raises serious ethical questions, as does the increasingly accepted surgery on children. Yet any space given to people wary of gender-affirming care is met with dismissal and accusations of collusion with right-wing ideologues.

Let’s take a simple example of how this can play out: A high-school boy decides to identify as a girl and asks to shower and change in the girl’s locker room after a physical education class. That request is based on that boy’s internal subjective experience. In the name of inclusion and tolerance, many liberals/progressives/leftists demand we accept this policy. The presence of that boy who identifies as trans causes anxiety and fear in one or more of the girls in that class, but their internal subjective experience is trivialized and discounted, in the name of inclusion and tolerance. But it’s even more disturbing because many girls have experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Such trauma comes not from a purely internal and subjective experience but a material reality they have lived through, experiences that are so common that in any high school class we should assume there are a number of such girls present. Whom do we care about if we elevate the internal subjective experience of one boy who identifies as trans over the routine abuse experienced by girls? The boy who identifies as a girl can be accommodated without imposing costs on the girls, if we care enough about the girls.

. . .

This is [one example of] why the trans debates matter so much. If freedom of thought and expression are discarded as bourgeois notions that must always be subordinated to the current understanding of social justice of a group, then it will become increasingly difficult to make some arguments, even if they are backed by evidence, proceed logically, and are made in good faith. That is not only a danger to intellectual inquiry and freedom of expression, but a threat to social justice itself. It’s difficult to imagine a society in which such limitations would consistently lead to justice.

Many of us have been told we are “on the wrong side of history,” as if that assertion negates strong arguments. Trans activists’ claim to be holding the moral high ground, based on a set of contentious and sometimes incoherent assumptions and assertions about gender identity. That is not an indication of a commitment to justice but rather an expression of self-righteousness, inconsistent with good intellectual practice.

. . .

As I have written elsewhere: “Real freedom is not found in the quest to escape limits but in deepening our understanding of our place in a world with limits,” which should lead us to “consider different ways of living within the biophysical limits of the planet.” Earth is not a machine that we built and control. Our bodies are not machines to be reconfigured.

If there is to be a decent human future, a vibrant feminist movement has to be part of the challenge to the domination/subordination dynamic that defines so much of our world. If there is to be any human future at all, we have to accept the limits that come with being part of the larger living world.

Originally published in Front Porch Republic

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Media reports about the debate over Drag Story Hour in the United States typically offer two positions to choose from: A liberal embrace of diversity or a conservative articulation of traditional values.

On the left, an endorsement of drag queens reading to children in libraries is presented as celebrating diverse sexualities and challenging the restrictive gender norms of the dominant culture. For many on the right, Drag Story Hour undermines traditional gender norms and validates homosexuality, with the more strident voices suggesting it’s an attempt to recruit children into unhealthy lifestyles. No doubt there are many people who do not have strong feelings either way and find the practice hard to understand, and so stay as far away from the question as possible.

Pick a side, right or left, or avoid the issues. Those seem to be the choices.

But what if you support challenging patriarchal gender norms and embrace lesbian and gay rights, but feel uncomfortable with men performing caricatures of women in public? What if you see drag as a not-so-subtle expression of misogyny? What if you think there are better ways of demonstrating to young people that same-sex attraction is not pathological, better ways of challenging restrictive gender norms? What if you think feminism is more empowering than drag, for both boys and girls?

. . .

Drag is a kind of hypersexualized variety show, often heavy on sexual innuendo and double entendre, featuring performances by men, typically in exaggerated costumes and makeup associated with women’s objectified status in patriarchy, which claims to be breaking down gender stereotypes by caricaturing the other sex.

Drag, in short, is one small part of a system of keeping women in their place. Not every man who performs drag intends to shore up patriarchy; people often contribute to oppressive systems without intention or even awareness of doing so. But even a working drag queen acknowledges that “the critics are right to sense a thinly veiled disdain for women among some of my fellow queens.”

In left circles, it’s apparently impolite to point out that drag is a form of objectifying women, not for immediate sexual gratification such as in pornography, but under the cover of campy fun, of playful challenge. Some defenses of drag go further, not only claiming that men have a right to this objectifying practice but that it’s part of liberation. 

. . .

Comparisons to other issues of cultural appropriation are helpful. The two most obvious practices in U.S. culture that are relevant to understanding drag are blackface and the use of Native American mascots for sports teams.

Blackface began in the 1830s, spawning the famous character Jim Crow, and reached the height of its popularity after the Civil War, with some features of the practice continuing into the 20th century. Today, it is almost universally understood as a racist mocking of black people by whites and has been almost completely eliminated from public view, though whites continue to show up in blackface at private parties. The reason for this condemnation is easy to articulate. As the National Museum of African American History and Culture puts it:

“Minstrelsy, comedic performances of “blackness” by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core.  By distorting the features and culture of African Americans—including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character—white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.”

A typical defense of drag, such as from a writer who focuses on queer culture, is that “Blackface is a lie about a minority group, and drag is an exploration of gender” and “Blackface limits us all. Drag lets us be anything we want.” The analogy of “womanface” to blackface is merely dismissed, not taken seriously despite the obvious parallels. Historian Gerald R. Butters explains that once they donned blackface, white men could “sing, dance, speak, move, and act in ways that were considered inappropriate for white men.” When men appear in drag, they can sing, dance, speak, move, and act in ways that some people still consider inappropriate for men. If we have moved past blackface, it’s hard to understand why we cannot move past drag.

Radical feminists have been pressing that argument about blackface and drag for years. The comparison to the use of Native images by sports teams also seems obvious, though I know of no serious consideration of it. For decades, Indigenous people have organized to end the use of nicknames such as the Washington Redskins, logos such as the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo, and caricatured gestures such as the tomahawk chop, in which Atlanta Braves fans raise and lower their right arms and shout a mock war chant.

. . .

But wait, drag supporters might say, since gay men are often discriminated against for violating the heterosexual norms of patriarchy, how can a gay male practice be misogynist? Being subordinated because of one part of your identity doesn’t mean you can’t participate in the subordination of others. When poor and working-class white people do the tomahawk chop, their lower status in capitalism doesn’t give them a free pass. 

Why is it so hard for people to give up cultural practices that perpetuate oppressive systems of privilege and power? This is where I think the analogies to blackface and sports teams are most important. Blackface is largely gone from public view, and Native names, mascots, and symbols are on their way out. But why did it take so long? And why do some people still resist? Precisely because the critiques are a challenge to unearned privilege and power.

. . .

I think a similar power dynamic is at the core of past and present white resistance to being told by people of color that blackface and Native symbols are off limits. African American and Indigenous people led those struggles, generally with support from people on the left side of the fence. It’s striking that similar progress has not been made when men’s assertion of dominance in patriarchy is at issue, such as with drag shows.

To be clear: Articulating a feminist critique of drag does not mean one is embracing right-wing or religious objections to the practice. Those conservative critiques are rooted in a defense of patriarchy—the belief that male dominance is appropriate, that patriarchal gender norms should be maintained, and that same-sex relationships should not be normalized. All feminists reject those beliefs, of course.

Radical feminists go further, not only challenging the overt patriarchal politics of the right but also challenging the subtler patriarchal norms on the left.

Originally published in Julie Bindel Substack

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More articles by Robert Jensen on these subjects and others can be found on his website

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