TRANS activism is a growing phenomenon and is to be welcomed and embraced by those of us who are socialist feminists.
Like all new social change it raises issues that have previously not been considered, gives us new perspectives on longstanding challenges and may lead to a reorientation of our political demands. This is called progress.
The insights of trans activists on the inhuman nature of the straitjackets of gender conformity are important and pertinent for all who wish to challenge sexism and the persistence of misogyny.
The promotion and imposition of rigid and fixed gender roles have long been identified by socialist feminists as a key form of our oppression at home, at work and in our communities.
There has been a doubling of the number of women in the workplace in Britain in recent times.
This has changed the organisation of domestic work in many families but assumptions about women as the primary carers for children, older relatives and other dependents are deeply ingrained and statistics show this.
At work we find that one of the main ways that the gender pay gap is reinforced is by gender segregation in the labour market.
And the casual sexism in the media to women in sport, politics and cultural life (and the vilification of those deemed to be “too much”) is often based on their deviations from gender norms.
Dialogue with our trans comrades on their perspectives help us understand the roots of the gender conformity expected of us, and promoted ideologically in personal and public life.
We are all brought up in a deeply sexist culture and it is necessary to look at things from all angles to be conscious of what is unquestioned within ourselves about what it is to be a woman.
Our response to the increased visibility of trans activism must be positive for several interrelated reasons.
First, we should support the rights of trans people to both live in their chosen gender (gender recognition) and to resist the binary nature of gender definition (gender fluidity).
Within trans activism both of these strands are present and they can lead to differing emphases on social and political demands.
Working through the legal changes necessary and the policy programme to promote these will be a developing process, as it has been for other marginalised and oppressed groups.
Second, we should listen to the experiences of trans and non-gender binary people. As a socialist, feminist and lesbian I think that the experience of trans women (and trans men) and those who identify as non-gender binary has a lot to tell me about the society we live in and the prejudices that we face as women.
Third, I believe that working alongside trans activists helps us to identify what our policy priorities are and how we should make alliances and campaign to create a more equal and liberated society.
But some people do not see the involvement of trans women or non-gender binary people in feminist campaigning, or indeed in the women’s movement, as appropriate.
They seek an exclusive classification of “women” using a biological/social distinction. This distinction is however a truism that does not shed any light on the matters at hand.
To maintain there is a material basis for women’s oppression does not mean we can locate this in any “essential” characteristic of women’s existence or experience.
Indeed to do so is contradictory for women’s experiences of even the most personal aspects of their lives, from their own gynaecology, to their experience of abuse and violence, to their experience of sex and sexuality, are diverse and different.
A socialist feminist view must surely start from an understanding of how gender is socially constructed in a class-based society.
A social constructivist (and hence non-essentialist) view of gender does not mean we have to buy into any particular bourgeois non-materialist versions of gender theory, any more than we should buy into bourgeois economic orthodoxy because we reject Malthusian determinism.
It just means we recognise the social dynamics that arise from within class society as key to our understandings of our own identities.
Closely connected to a rejection of essentialist feminism is the explicit recognition of our diversity that often needs to be asserted in our racist, homophobic, biphobic and ablist society.
We are black and white, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual, disabled and able-bodied, trans and non-trans.
This is not just an argument for (fashionable) “intersectionality” as the be-all and end-all.
It is instead an acceptance of the fact that we all have multiple identities. This does not dissolve the importance of sexism as an oppressive force, rather it illuminates how it works in the different cultural and historical circumstances women find themselves in.
Finally we need to challenge the idea that trans women are “individually accommodating” to sexism and hence are not part of a broader women’s movement that would challenge sexist oppression or a labour movement that challenges capitalism.
Our experience of the involvement of trans activists as LGBT trade unionists is that there is no difference in commitment and solidarity. We are all comrades.
The increased visibility of trans activists and their developing organisation and demands appear to make some labour movement activists uncomfortable.
It is time to be very clear that trans activists are part of our movement and that the insights of trans activists do and can contribute to our socialist feminist political agenda of challenging the rigid gender stereotypes that divide working-class people and undermine our unity.
At this year’s TUC LGBT conference there is a special session on trans workers’ rights. The conference takes place on June 23 and 24 at Congress House in London.
Maria Exall is a member of the CWU and chair of the TUC LGBT committee.