Billy Bragg, I wish, I wish, I wish you cared
... enough to actually listen.
After getting involved in a twitter spat over revising the lyrics to “Sexuality” and finding himself trending both as hero and villain simultaneously, Billy Bragg published the following piece on November 15th 2021:
Before responding I am going to nail my colours to the mast at the outset:
I am a member of the Labour party who opposed Brexit, grew up under Thatcher and will never, ever, ever vote Tory.
I think that Billy Bragg has in his time written some of the cleverest and funniest pop songs this side of The Smiths.
To Have And To Have Not is one of the few songs I can convincingly sing and play at the same time on guitar.
I think Tank Park Salute is the saddest song ever written, and sometimes just thinking about it makes me cry.
I gained about a third of my twitter following off the back of one reply to Billy Bragg on twitter in 2020.
I am a supporter of the LGB Alliance, and attended their conference this October.
I am well aware that many feminist campaigners have written off whole swathes of left-wing men who have betrayed them, and I find it hard to disagree. Whatever anyone else thinks, and the ease with which they dismiss Billy Bragg, I personally find it extremely conflicting to be on the opposing side of an issue of left-wing politics to someone who was so omnipresent in my youth.
So, with all of this in mind, I am going to respond to some of the claims Billy has made and plead for him to take a less binary view of this issue.
Thirty years later, however, encouraging your audience to find common ground with the gay community is no longer such a challenging statement.
Yet from where I sit it is exactly this solidarity that is missing. Some lesbian, gay and bisexual people are telling you that they are same-sex attracted, and that their language is being erased. Stonewall has erased it, starting around 2015, updating terms of sexual orientation in their glossary to be directed towards “gender” instead. Under Stonewall’s guidance the BBC’s style guide has followed suit, affecting all of their programming output. This rewriting of sexuality is in trans-inclusionary toolkits for schools. Institutions have been trained from the top down to consider same-sex attraction something unspeakable, and to reframe sexual orientation in gender terms.
Most people didn’t quite grasp the importance of this at the time, as sex and gender have been uncontroversial synonyms for the vast, vast majority of people.
What we are currently facing is the twofold insistence that:
Sex and gender are two distinct things
Every time we referred to sex in the past, we really meant gender
And some LGB people, who maintain they are same-sex attracted, not same-gender attracted, are saying no - and being attacked for it.
Because if you are same-sex attracted, it doesn’t matter one bit what someone’s identity is. A heterosexual man who identifies as a woman can never be a lesbian. It is wrong to demand that other lesbians pretend they might be attracted to him, and wrong to demand they conceal that the reason they are not attracted to him is because he is the wrong sex.
Such plain language is frowned upon because to correctly sex someone might be to misgender them - and misgendering them is to “invalidate their identity”. From a liberal, individualist, identitarian worldview, this is the worst crime there is, the absolute destruction of an individual’s true self. Why would someone so cruelly invalidate a vulnerable minority, if they were not motivated by hate and bigotry?
But to simply state that - no matter what identity they claim - someone is not the sex you are oriented towards is not bigotry, it is sexuality.
So by choosing to rewrite a song about sexuality to actually remove reference to sexuality and replace it with identity, Billy has made a strong declaration of solidarity not with same-sex-attracted people, but with those who seek to render same-sex attraction unsayable.
And this is emblematic of the way the left has become divided over materialist structural analysis, vs identitarian handwaving. There is a kind of unsettling moral surety to doing this, as if the group Billy is acting on behalf of is so marginalised and so vulnerable that actions done in their support don’t have to be questioned at all. The impact of this change on anyone else doesn’t even merit consideration, and anyone noticing any conflict or expressing reservations is instantly suspected of lacking moral clarity.
We’ve come a long way since then. Equal rights legislation has given gays and lesbians the same benefits and protections as everybody else.
Yes. And trans people too. In this country, sex and sexual orientation are both protected, and trans people gain protection on the basis of gender reassignment. This includes from the point of “proposing to transition” so you cannot simply be sacked for declaring your intent, and rightly so.
This is why phrases like “trans rights” are so vacuous - unless you enumerate exactly what you’re talking about, you’re just spouting slogans, and are no better than those chanting “brexit means brexit”.
Every night on tour, I frame “Sexuality” with a plea of support for Stonewall, the UK’s premier defender of LGBTQ rights, which is currently under attack from powerful anti-trans elements within the government and the media.
Our political class has spoken with one voice on this issue for years. Every single major party, Conservatives included, were in agreement with Stonewall’s agenda. Male sex offenders appearing in female crime statistics and ending up in female prisons has all happened under the Tories. Attempts to change the census to undermine the sex question happened under this government. Sweeping gender recognition reform to legalise self-identification (that Stonewall had already de-facto implemented across swathes of the public and private sector) proposed and consulted under the Tories, and would have already passed by now had it not been for grassroots women’s organisations like Fair Play For Women. This is in spite of interventions from giants like Google - so instead of showing solidarity with the women giving up their time and energy at great cost to preserve everybody’s rights, Billy aligns with corporate interests.
Of course, that is a deliberately lazy comparison - I don’t really believe a long-time left-wing campaigner like Billy is intentionally “aligning with corporate interests” - but pretending this is all about “powerful forces in the government and media” is an equally shallow take.
In truth, socialist women’s groups are no more aligned with the hard right than Billy Bragg is an agent of technocapitalism. When you reduce positions to simple binaries, goodies vs baddies, left vs right, this is where you end up. For example, Billy here joins Owen Jones in lumping together their critics on the sex/gender debate with antivaxxers, a comparison I personally find laughably offensive.
But it is seductively easy to do this, because it means you don’t have to do any actual thinking. So with that in mind:
To better understand where the gender-critical movement sits on the left/right spectrum through which we Late Boomers persist in seeing the world, it helps to look to the US.
No. Just no. There is absolutely nothing to be learned about UK politics by looking to the US, other than to see what is coming for us if we allow nuance to die.
There is also scant regard for the safety of trans women in this argument. The Washington Post reported on 10 November that 2021 has so far been the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the US
There have been 0 murders of transwomen in the UK in the last 3 years, and I will take no lessons on civil rights from the US where women’s rights are in a woeful state, where there is no statutory paid maternity leave, where at-will employment is widespread and where legalised abortion sits on a knife-edge.
The rights landscape in this country is a world away from the US.
If you have arguments to make about rights in this country, be specific, and stop talking about the US.
I’ve found the argument inevitably boils down to the question of which is more important: biology or human rights.
For the love of god Billy, will you please read this. It is one of the best distillations of the philosophical conflict on the left that I have read, and lays out exactly where the issue lies.
A woman always knows a child is hers, but a man cannot know a child is his without total social control over the woman’s reproductive capacity. From this simple biological understanding, spins out the majority of what we understand as gender. None of this is inevitable, but unless we can properly understand it, we cannot address it. The exploitation of female reproductive labour is foundational to capitalism, so what an absolutely astonishing coincidence that a hyper-capitalist, neoliberal, individualist society like the US could produce an ideology that completely masks sex as an axis of exploitation and oppression.
The conflict is not between “biology and human rights” - it is a conflict between to what extent in life, language and law an externally verifiable material property (sex) should be replaced with an internally held belief about the self (gender identity), and consequentially how that impacts the existing framework of rights that are all based upon the former.
Women’s rights are human rights. The right for a man to be protected as a women because he says he is impacts on a woman’s right to be protected as a women through virtue of having a female body.
The Gender recognition act changes your legal sex. Reforms to allow self-id mean self-identification of sex.
Self-id of legal sex turns sex from a material property that the state must be forced to recognise and account for into a fiction that state power imposes, that male power exploits, and that no longer maps usefully to an axis of material oppression.
This is a hole that cannot be plugged with slogans and utopianism and vague appeals to intersectionality. And this is why the left is divided - because those of us who recognise this analysis think that those of you who don’t have completely lost your minds in your bid to “be nice”.
Such measures are hard to sustain when the anti-trans movement in the UK is led by the LGB Alliance, the very name of which seeks to erase the trans community from its place in the LGBTQ rainbow.
I support the LGB Alliance not because they are “anti-trans”, but because they are standing up for their sexuality in the face of a tsunami of abuse. There is no hate in organising to advocate the rights and visibility of those who are same-sex attracted. Was Stonewall hateful in 2013 when it was an LGB organisation? Why can’t an LGB organisation exist? Why do trans-specific organisations like Mermaids or Scottish Trans Alliance get a free pass?
We know why. It is because saying that homosexuals are same-sex attracted is deemed “anti-trans”. The very insistence that it is sexed bodies they are oriented towards is what “invalidates trans identities”.
The demand is that lesbian and gay people accept members of the opposite sex as part of their sexual orientation, and LGB Alliance are saying no.
And this is why the change of lyrics is such a disappointment. At the very moment that some LGB people say they are facing erasure from claims like “lesbians are non-men attracted to non-men” and that “pansexuality is the only morally defensible orientation”, Billy Bragg erases them from a song about sexuality, to refer to pronouns - which are nothing to do with sexuality at all.
The truth is that I have read pieces like Billy’s dozens of times. It was by-the-numbers and devoid of any real understanding of what it is he is arguing against. An exercise in talking past each other that so typifies this issue. I and others have listened to these points, and understood them and responded clearly, point-by-point, respectfully countless times, but it is clear that people like Billy are never actually listening to those responses and affording those the same respect because here we are yet again - back at square one being lumped together with "trumpists” and “evangelical christians”.
So Billy, if you ever read this, I would ask you to watch this video of a session from the LGB Alliance conference:
I ask you to listen to Az Hakeem explain the pathologising of homosexuality and the institutional homophobia in GIDS, about straight parents castrating their gay sons.
I ask you to listen to Helen Joyce talk about the sterilisation of gay kids.
I ask you most of all to listen to Sinead Watson say that she’s fucking angry.
I ask you to hear all this and question your moral certainty about what’s at stake here, who is being erased, abused, whose stories are being covered up, who is vulnerable and at risk.
Because either all of these people are wrong or liars and your moral crusade is a righteous one, or just maybe there’s more to it and you’re cheerleading a medical scandal perpetrated on LGB youth the likes of which the world has never known.
These aren’t reactionaries demanding gender conformity. This is not “section 28” or “AIDS” or “bathroom panic” or “paedo scaremongering”. This is nothing like the struggle for gay rights. This is LGB campaigners who lived through all that fighting tooth and nail to tell you what it is that you’re not getting right now.
The least you could do is actually listen.