Friday, March 31, 2023

In defence of Billy Bragg and Trans Rights

Billy Bragg has fluctuated in my estimation over the years. When he first appeared on the scene, singing solo on electric guitar was more or less unknown and he had some great songs. I mean a double A side single of New England and St Swithins Day in 1984... few can top that.  Levi Stubbs Tears can still make me cry.

And yes he was on the right (left) side of the all the big battles like the miners strike. My main criticism of him in those days from my anarcho/ultraleft stance was that he was so close to the Labour Party. Must confess I may even have heckled him from this perspective when he played on a National Union of Students demo though he was great live (sorry Billy)! I've never been entirely convinced by his 'progressive patriotism' line of reclaiming icons of English identity from the far right, though I can see that it can sometimes be effective. 

Billy Bragg singing outside the Festival Hall, June 2007

Still he has stuck to his guns politically when others have gone quiet, not to mention later nameless indie folk singers influenced by him who must be suspected of being shy Tories given their absence of anything to say. He has played countless benefit gigs for various worthy causes.

Musically he has steered an interesting path for someone from a punk background -  I actually have a copy of his 1978 punk single with his band Riff Raff, 'I wanna be a cosmonaut', which I sometimes played as part of my Disconaut Autonomous Astronauts set. He has explored Americana through his interpretations of Woody Guthrie lyrics with Wilco, and English folk music with Imagined Village. 

I might add that my partner is from Dagenham and no word can be spoken against him in our house.

But recently my social media timelines have been flooded with accusations about Bragg accusing him of misogyny and being anti-women. The reason for this attention is that he has been an outspoken supporter of trans rights, including changing the words of songs to be trans-inclusive. He now sings his old song 'Sexuality' with the lyrics “And just because you're they,  I won't turn you away' instead of  'just because you're gay', explaining 'Times changed. Anyone born since the song was released would wonder why it’s a big deal to find common ground with a gay man. The front line now is trans rights'. Bragg has also been critical of those feminists who oppose trans rights along with their far right allies. But if Bragg is a misogynist then so presumably are the Feminist Library, Sisters Uncut, Gal-Dem etc. and many other feminist projects - not to mention most left wing/anarcho/radical folks under the age of 35.

I think Bragg is braver than most because he actually stands to lose some of his livelihood for speaking out. I hate the lazy political stereotyping of generations, but I do feel there is a generational aspect at play here. The trans exclusionary position does seem to be particularly concentrated among British lefties of a certain age.  I would estimate that the majority of people I know who were involved in radical politics in the 1980s have this as a default setting. This is precisely the constituency who are Bragg's natural fan base and it would be very easy for him to just serve them up 'what did you do in the strike?' platitudes rather than challenge their current day prejudices.

And I don't feel that prejudice is too strong a word. For me the issue does come down to the simple one of  'Some people are trans, get over it'. We can debate biology, gender and ideology until the cows come home, but it is a fact that some people really do experience gender dysphoria and that their lives can be made better by having their gender identity recognised. It seems needlessly cruel to deny this, or to portray those in this position as some terrible threat.  Of course that's a simple version of the argument and there's much more that I could say, but that has to be the starting point.

The vigil in Soho Square on 18 February 2023 for the murdered Brianna Ghey Vigil. A very moving event and I couldn't believe some of the hateful stuff some people were posting about it. You know 'how do they know it was a hate crime' like every racist says about every racist murder ever. Well it sure wasn't a love crime. 

There are some comparisons here with what happened when the Gay Liberation Front and similar groups erupted in the 1970s. Then too there were plenty of older (and some younger) leftists who found this threatening and denounced them, didn't they know that homosexuality would disappear under socialism and anyway wasn't all this a diversion from the class struggle? (see for instance this Gay Left article on the experience in the International Socialists). Let's just say that history has not been kind...

I know change and challenges to accepted ideas are uncomfortable. I would just urge people to pause and sit with this discomfort for a while rather than make knee jerk responses to something they mostly don't know much about. Read some books, listen to some trans people.  People also need to look around at the company they are keeping. Globally the anti-trans movement is being driven by the far right who are also coming for abortion rights and LGBTQ+ people generally. As someone once said 'If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction' (attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Wouldn't you rather be heading along the A13 with Billy Bragg?

Part of the big crowd that turned out at the Honor Oak Pub in South London on 25 February 2023 to oppose a far right threat to a drag storytelling event. I know it's not exactly the same issue but quite an overlap and  the anti-drag mob were a motley crew of ex-Combat 18 thugs and assorted Tommy Robinson wannabes. As somebody once sang 'which side are you on?' 

[sometimes it's a lonely and painful path when you feel so many of your friends have taken a wrong turn. Anyone for a support group for 'Boomers and Gen Xers for trans rights'?]

by Neil Transpontine, written on transgender day of visibility 2023

(had some positive responses to this post including one friend saying 'I think us boomers / gen x for trans rights ARE the majority - it’s just the usual crap about those shouting loudest')

Update 31 March 2024

Nothing much has changed, though I've noticed a few left anti-trans people nervously trying to distance themselves from the openly far right associations of some of the people they previously defended (but see Bonhoeffer quote above). A 'wait, are we the baddies?' moment can't come too soon, but I don't think it's good enough. The most sustained anti-fascist movement in London in the past 12 months was at the Honor Oak pub in South London from February to August 2023 where for six months people turned up to oppose openly far right protestors targeting a drag storytelling event. The anti-fascist effort was led by trans/queer activists - see 'South London Loves Trans People' banner below. Being an anti-fascist today means standing alongside and in solidarity with trans people.

For more on the Honor Oak movement, see my article in Datacide magazine: Defending Drag - South London is Still Anti-Fascist