19 April 2023
Wellington’s Civic Square was expected to play host to a gathering of anti-trans feminists, far-right activists and fascists on Sunday 26 March. Instead, the square was filled by thousands of trans and women’s rights supporters—the largest such demonstration in New Zealand history. The rally was organised by a united-front coalition including the IBT, the Internationalist Socialist Organisation and others under the name of Queer Endurance/Defiance (QED). It drew the support of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions and many of its affiliates, several abortion rights groups and all major queer organisations in the city. IBT speakers at the demonstration wore their credentials as communists on their sleeve, and received enthusiastic support from the crowd for this and for their emphasis on the right to strike and the need for militant trade-union struggle for queer and women’s rights (audio of the IBT speeches).
The rally was initially called as a counter protest against an event headlined by Kellie-Jay Keen, aka Posie Parker, a reactionary British transphobe masquerading as an advocate for women. While many such charlatans, commonly known as TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), try to cloak their promotion of trans oppression under the “progressive” cover of bourgeois ideologies like feminism, liberalism or social democracy, opposition to trans rights has also been increasingly assimilated into the conspiratorial grab bag of populist and far-right agitation.
Keen herself seems comfortable working with outright fascists. She has praised the British fascist Tommy Robinson, been interviewed by Québécois fascist Jean-François Gariépy as well as “Soldiers of Christ Online” and posed for a smiling selfie with Norwegian neo-Nazi Jørgen Lysglimt Johansen. At a rally in Newcastle-upon-Tyne earlier this year, one of Keen’s co-speakers quoted approvingly from Mein Kampf. Her tour through Australia was funded by the anti-abortion Conservative Political Action Conference, and she appeared alongside the “pro-life” Islamophobe Kirralie Smith. The Australian tour culminated in a major confrontation in Melbourne, where the neo-Nazi National Socialist Network marched in force metres away from Keen, who did nothing to distance herself from them. IBT supporter Vera Ashborne noted this in the opening speech at the Wellington rally:
“The banner those Nazis held was simply a more honest expression of the TERF programme: smearing trans people, particularly trans women, as dangerous perverts who must be exterminated. TERFs stand with fascists, the greatest enemies of women on Earth, because they share a common goal in driving trans people out of public life. Women who oppose them, though, get beaten by cops or rammed with motorbikes, to applause from Keen's crowd.”
Keen never made it to Wellington. Her tour was cut short after she faced determined opposition from a crowd of thousands in Auckland’s Albert Park the day before, where her opponents used noise, tomato juice and other non-violent means to express their disgust at those who would deny their existence. It is a well-established strategy of the far right to portray those whom they target for elimination as a violent threat, and this is also a common theme in anti-trans propaganda. Keen played to this angle, claiming to “fear for her life” at the hands of the counter protesters, but video footage shows she met with no serious threat of injury. She hurriedly left the country (claiming it was “the worst place for women” she had ever been!), not because she was scared but because she had suffered a political defeat, and knew she would suffer another if she stayed.
It is increasingly common within radical queer circles to encounter the claim that all TERFs are fascists. While it is true that some have gravitated towards co-operation and alliance with traditional far-right groups and figures, applying the “fascist” label to all transphobes is not accurate. The TERF movement, like feminism in general, is heterogeneous, with a right wing represented by those like Keen through to those who take pains to distance themselves from fascist “support” and those who have been misled into believing the lie that trans rights somehow conflict with women’s rights. These contradictions can be exploited, and Keen’s tour offered an opportunity to weaken the TERF movement and build ties with genuine advocates of women’s rights. A statement from QED noted the falsity of Keen’s claim to be working to protect women and girls:
“KJK [Keen] has ‘said the quiet part out loud’. While most TERFs hide behind a facade of concern about cis women, KJK has realised she can pepper her speeches with anti-abortion and anti-contraception rhetoric without her audience batting an eye. KJK illustrates the fact that transphobia is just the thin end of a wedge that ends with the oppression of all women and gender minorities.”
IBT supporter Adaire Hannah spoke at the rally about her long experience in the working-class women’s movement and the parallels with the present fight for trans rights:
“Back in 1970, women’s liberation was not concerned with claiming exclusive spaces. We were concerned with breaking into exclusive spaces.… In those days, the issue was to get women in the jobs that many men had monopolised. Our battle was not for exclusive spaces but for abortion rights, childcare, equal pay.… Kelly-Jay Keen and her followers here spread prejudice and bigotry, which are the tools of oppression and exploitation. And they are dangerous.”
Marxists often engage in united-front actions with feminists, fighting for concrete advances in women’s rights while aiming to win individuals away from feminism to a consistent programme for women’s liberation through international revolution under the leadership of an integrated workers’ party (see “Marxism, Feminism and #MeToo”, 1917 No.41). Feminism is a cross-class ideology that in its “radical” variety emphasises the role of individual men in perpetuating women’s oppression and advocates separatism as a response to misogyny. The call from TERFs to defend “women’s spaces” is the latest representation of that strand of feminism, which, particularly from the 1970s to the 1990s, joined with conservative forces to demand increased state repression of pornography and sex work, some even suggesting that marriage or hetrosexual sex is equivalent to rape. This reactionary programme can only intensify the oppression of women and sexual minorities (see “Pornography, Capitalism & Censorship”, 1917 No.13).
Across the world, the TERF movement has become a source of division in social-democratic circles, and New Zealand is no exception. On the Daily Blog, a voice of the economist “left wing” of the labour bureaucracy, Chris Trotter spins the events of 26 March: “Keen-Minshull’s rally was over before it had even begun—victim of the Thug’s Veto. Her right to free expression had been illegally and violently curtailed.” On the same site, Martyn Bradbury worked himself into a lather: “All [that] those being triumphant over assaulting Posie Parker are telling the rest of NZ is that you are prepared to use violence and intimidation anytime you disagree.” The Democracy Project’s academic sometimes-leftist Bryce Edwards called for “healthier debate and engagement” between trans people struggling for their basic existence and those mobilising state and mob violence against them.
Of course, “free expression”, “debate and engagement” and other democratic norms are vital to the labour movement. We demand them as a necessity to defend ourselves and to fight for workers’ power. Keen is not an outright fascist and we don’t advocate that she be no-platformed, but she draws fascists, encourages them and helps them grow. When political mobilisation against her programme succeeds so overwhelmingly as to disrupt her capacity to proceed with speaking events that attract fascists, no friend of the working class and oppressed will shed tears over her “democratic freedoms”.
After the events of Keen’s tour, it was notable how few organised transphobes showed any concern that they had ended up on the same side of the protests as open fascists. The tour made it clear that fascism is increasingly adopting anti-trans “defence of women” as its current cause célèbre, in the same manner that it has used “the great replacement” or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Fascism’s useful idiots and willing tools on the hard right remain eager to whip up a moral panic, as ever centred on children, whom we are told are being “groomed” into being trans.
Fascism does not seek to oppress groups at random. It latches on to any panic or backlash against the oppressed to build support among the petty bourgeoisie and backward strata of workers for a programme of abolishing all independent working-class political life. When groups within the workers’ movement oppose the struggle of the oppressed against rising right-wing populism and fascism, they oppose the struggle of their own class against its enemies.
As we recently noted in “Capitalist Necrosis & Right-Wing Populism (1917 No.46):
“The most effective way to prevent fascists from assembling, marching or spewing their poisonous filth is to ruthlessly crush them through the mass mobilization of their intended victims (workers and the oppressed). Dealing with right-wing populists, however, requires a more nuanced approach that recognizes the reasons working people are often attracted to these movements while providing a class-struggle alternative to much of what motivates proletarian elements suckered in by the far right (e.g., housing, health care, employment, cost of living). A strategy that treats Trumpites, TERFs and anti-vaxxers as indistinguishable from fascists, on the other hand, will tend to push vacillating forces away from the workers’ movement.
“In those situations where populists and fragments of the fascist right converge, like the Freedom Convoy or storming of the US Capitol, the fascists involved must be identified if possible, isolated, physically confronted and driven from the streets, while politically neutralizing the much larger populist component. This can best be done through united-front actions of the workers’ movement, including trade unions, organizations of the oppressed and other potential victims of the fascists—not by calls on the armed fist of the capitalist state backed by draconian legislation as seen in Canada. Each situation should be judged on the balance of forces between fascists and populists and the immediate danger posed to workers and the oppressed. When the fascists mobilize en masse alongside hard-right populists in order to carry out violent attacks, as in Chemnitz, a class-struggle leadership would aim to shut down the entire action.”
The Wellington counter-protest had not intended to prevent Keen herself from speaking, but we were prepared to identify open fascists, “welcoming” them in an appropriate manner.
Bryce Edwards also presents an argument (democracyproject.nz, 27 March 2023), also heard around the world, that the “culture war” over trans politics is a distraction from something of greater political substance: the “bread and butter” politics that is the domain of the serious parties:
“the left is divided over culture wars. The ‘cultural left’ side tends to be connected with more elite, educated, and middle class activists. The more traditional, or working class orientated ‘old left’, is still focused on economic inequality and improving the lot of those economically disadvantaged as a whole, with a focus on universalism and civil rights.”
Edwards positions himself closer to this imagined “old left”, fretting that “the public is going into an election campaign in which there will be less debate and focus on addressing the cost of living crisis”.
According to this argument, the working class are only interested in the cost of living and other “economic” issues, as we presumably don’t experience any oppression on the grounds of gender, sexuality, race or other socially constructed categories. This view shares the same premise as the identitarian liberalism pundits that Edwards derides: both base themselves on intellectual disdain for the working class, simply choosing different sides of a false class/“identity” divide to emphasise “real” oppression. Counterposing “bread and butter” issues to special oppression is a very good indication of being out of touch with the felt needs of the working class as it actually exists.
Support for reforms that improve the lives of trans people does of course extend outside the workers’ movement, but bourgeois politics can never provide real solutions. Marama Davidson, co-leader of the liberal capitalist Green Party spoke at the Auckland demonstration on 25 March, after which she was hit by a motorcycle driven by a right-wing supporter of Brian Tamaki. In the aftermath of the attack, Davidson recited radical-sounding assertions that violence in the world is caused by “white cis men”, not by trans people, and was in turn met with racist and sexist epithets. We defend her against these attacks from the right while firmly opposing her petty-bourgeois sectoral approach. The root of racial and gender oppression is in the system of class exploitation that divides and stratifies the working class, and the Greens, for all their “left” posturing, promote capitalist “solutions” that will do nothing to fundamentally change this.
A stark illustration of the Green Party’s fundamental ties to capitalism and the capitalist state can be seen in the backward role they played in calling for Keen to be prevented from entering New Zealand and her rallies banned. Appealing to the state to preserve bourgeois “law and order” through border controls and censorship is calling for a precedent that will be used with full force against immigrants, the left and the workers’ movement. This naive and dangerous strategy will strengthen the repressive apparatus of the state and weaken the independent mobilisation of the working class and oppressed.
Workers must defend trans rights because these rights are intimately bound up with the fate of the workers’ movement. Trans people are a significant minority of the population, globally and in New Zealand. Numbers are hard to pin down, but surveys suggest that around 1 in 100 people in New Zealand are trans, and many more know trans people as family, friends and co-workers, interpenetrated in all layers of society. The struggle for trans rights is often centred on the workplace—attempting to prevent trans workers from being misnamed, denigrated or fired on the basis of their gender and fighting against a pay gap that the US-based Social Science Research Network estimates at around 30 to 40 percent.
Not only are trans workers subjected to an intensified form of class exploitation and oppression, all trans people are specially oppressed in their own right. They are perceived as an existential threat to the bourgeois family, inherently perverse or criminal, and they are subject to the fantastical suppositions and accusations of what is now an international movement of transphobes with the ear of legislators around the world. In the US, over 400 anti-trans and anti-queer bills have been proposed in just the last three months, while in Britain the Conservatives have vetoed Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill and have recently embarked on a project to strip legal protection against discrimination from trans people under the guise of “clarifying” the Equality Act—in both cases with the open support of Keir Starmer and the Labour Party.
“Working-class politics” must be grounded in the strategic interests of workers as an international class, and it is necessary for revolutionaries to act as tribunes of all oppressed people. We fight for reforms that improve the lives of trans people, such as self-ID and healthcare and will stand up for the rights of trans children to choose their own future, through an informed consent model for prescribing safe and reversible puberty blockers, and protect them against the mob that would deny them this right, or worse.
In the face of a global trans panic, we advocate united-front actions to expose transphobes and defend the oppressed. We call for trained defence guards based in the unions, able to defend trans people and to defeat fascism in the streets through the decisive no-platforming of fascist speakers, and shutting down of fascist meetings.
But the most effective weapon the working class has is its capacity to shut down the economy. As Ashborne put it at the Wellington rally:
“Workers of Aotearoa, demand the right to strike, so that in ten years’ time when the government tries to ban trans kids in our schools, you can shut down the education system until they give in. So that if fascists try to seize control you can shut down the entire economy to stop them. It can be done, it has been done before.”
Elements of the “progressive” bourgeoisie or reformist workers’ parties can at times be convinced of the need to support trans rights to attract votes and media attention, but these reforms are reversible under capitalism. Trans liberation is another matter—genuine freedom for trans people from the threat of reaction and eradication can only be achieved through overturning the existing state by a mass workers’ movement led by a revolutionary party.
Capitalist Necrosis & Right-Wing Populism (1917 No.46)
State-Sponsored Transphobia: Reactionary rampage in America (1917 No.46)
Trans Equality & the Working Class (1917 No.46)
Women in the Trade Unions (1917 No.46)
Marxism, Feminism and #MeToo (1917 No.41)
Pornography, Capitalism & Censorship (1917 No.13)