This article is a critique of a presentation given by a member of Deep Green Resistance on their official gender politics. Deep Green Resistance (or DGR) is a US radical environmental organization founded by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Aric McBay (who is no longer associated with DGR) that advocates, among other things, the forcible dismantling of industrial civilization. Recently, a controversy at a conference in Portland involving several DGR members has brought increased focus on DGR’s trans-exclusive brand of gender politics, as exemplified by Lierre Keith.
First thing’s first: Trigger Warning. The contents of this article may be triggering or otherwise disturbing. I have attempted to minimize this as best I can. I only wish that discussing the content of DGR’s gender politics wasn’t so unavoidably taxing.
Transphobia (or cis-sexism) is the oppression and marginalization of transgender people, genderqueer people, and others who don’t conform to traditional gender norms. The harmful effects of transphobia can be seen in higher rates of homelessness, sexual assault, drug addiction, unemployment, murder, and incarceration of trans folks, to say nothing of being seen by many as “freaks.” It is a crucial part of building an inclusive revolutionary movement to take a firm principled stand against transphobic bigotry, never more so than within supposedly radical organizations and movements. DGR’s transphobic politics are a dangerous and harmful insertion of bigotry into a radical activist scene that claims to fight for equality and justice. It is important for revolutionaries to stand against all transphobia. And while DGR’s transphobic politics are both wrong and harmful, it is important to realize that many have joined the ranks of DGR for unrelated reasons such as caring deeply about radical ecological struggle. Therefore it is important not to just dismiss these wrongheaded ideas, but to confront them and disprove them for all to see. That is the task of this article.
Second, I’m a cis-gendered, straight, white, working-class male. The style of this debate is frank and direct, I am sure that as a result of these two things some will see this critique as belittling the views of the DGR Presenter (a woman) or of radical feminists in general. I would say, in answer to that, my candor trusts that anyone of any gender who claims to be a revolutionary should be able to handle frank rational critique. And if they can’t, they should get out of revolutionary politics.
Third, in this article I will not attempt to critique DGR’s primitivist or anti-civilization politics. To do this would simply take too long.
Liberalism as an Easy Target:
The entire presentation is basically a strawman argument. It presents only two possible kinds of feminism: their position vs. liberal/academic/postmodern feminism. This would seem like a simple oversight, except for the fact that the video is specifically introduced as being (at least in part) for the purpose of responding to the many criticisms made of DGR’s transphobia “by the wider activist community.” So far as I can tell, these critiques are being made largely by anarchists, socialist/communist revolutionaries, and other radical organizations like Earth First! Liberals, as far as i know, have been pretty silent on this. One can only conclude from this that the “DGR vs. Liberalism” setup is an attempt to paint revolutionary transfeminist arguments as liberal and to paint DGR as the only radical answer. This an historically common smear tactic of highly authoritarian organizations.
On that note, the presenter makes sure to state that before she begins that she’s “not presenting this topic for debate. Not in the slightest…. This represents DGR’s policy.” This is another tell-tale symptom of authoritarianism. If the membership is forbidden to debate (much less change) organizational policy, you’re in an authoritarian organization. Who sets policy? How can it be revised? As far as I can tell as an outsider, this policy has been decreed and maintained by Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen. The Presenter even says that there have been DGR members who’ve attempted to change their gender policy. The Presenter says they were unsuccessful and are no longer in DGR. Whether because of expulsion or social pressure to resign, the inability to tolerate internal dissent is yet another marker of authoritarianism. It also seems, from some recently leaked internal emails, that Jensen and Keith constitute a so-far permanent leadership body with the power to order members about (and berate their work) on a whim.
Definition 1: “Liberal” Feminism
It must be said that there is an abundance of things to criticize about liberal feminism as embodied by Women’s Studies academia and the corresponding publishing industry. Not the least of these are idealism, post-modernism, hyper-abstraction, impossible jargon, and a near-total inability to confront class politics. However the DGR Presenter, far from making such pertinent critiques, makes many of the same mistakes as the liberals do: failure to think about the material class reality of gender struggle, convenient confusion based on semantics, and over-reliance on abstract metaphor.
The Presenter confuses the concept of ‘gender identity’ with one’s position in relation to gender struggle. The phrase “innate gender identity” is a contradiction in terms. Identity, by definition, is as fluid and moveable (or as inflexible and rigid) as the person whose identity it is.
The Presenter says that the liberal definition treats both sex (biology) and gender (social behavior) as “apolitical.” This might be an accurate representation of some actual liberal feminists (I’m not a liberal feminist), but it certainly does not represent the position of revolutionary transfeminists (or, for that matter, the truth). Of course masculinity and femininity have differing political content; masculinity is constructed around dominance and violence, femininity is constructed around submission to masculinity. The arrangement of any person’s gender and sex has political implications, but acknowledging this doesn’t automatically prove any particular political conclusion – it’s just part of the complex reality of the fucked up world we all live in.
The Presenter says liberals believe that, “Sex and gender are not necessarily connected.” While not strictly incorrect, this is such a vast oversimplification that it leaves usefulness and common sense behind. It’s true that Sex alone does not determine Gender, but to imply that they have no connection at all is just stupid. Again, this is a misrepresentation intended to make transfeminist arguments sound stupid.
The characterization of trans and genderqueer identities as turning the binary into a spectrum is misleading. While sometimes the metaphor of a gender spectrum may be useful for explaining non-traditional gender, the ultimate aim of revolutionary transfeminism is not to turn the rigid binary into a gentler spectrum between the binary poles – it is to totally deconstruct and disassemble the very notion of gender until there is nothing left but an infinitely diverse array of human character.
Definition 2: “Radical” Feminism
It must be said, in fairness, that most of what is said in this section is more or less correct, so far as it goes, in pointing out the forced subordination and exploitation of women by men. What is objectionable here is that the presentation turns on sophistry and semantic misdirection.
The Presenter says that, unlike liberals (and anyone who disagrees with DGR), radicals reject that gender is either “natural” or “voluntary.” This is put forward as a major point of contention, when in fact it’s just verbal trickery. Setting up these ideas of “natural” or “voluntary” as points of debate is false. “Natural” is false because there can be no denying that what genitalia one is born with (plumbing, as my mother would say) is the result of one’s genes. Nothing beyond that can be said to be entirely “natural,” though one’s biology may well factor into various things. As for “voluntary,” we have to understand that in an unfree world, the world voluntary is always relative. Of course people’s choices and behavior (including gender performance) are influenced by the socially and psychologically coercive elements of society. So in an absolute sense, gender isn’t voluntary, but then neither is anything else (from one’s moral beliefs to one’s choice of breakfast cereal). The point is that Gender can be as voluntary as any other behavioral choice that people can make, under the present circumstances.
As an aside, many femmes would strongly object to the Presenter’s characterization of femininity as reducible to “ritualized displays of submission to males.”
It must also be said that this second perspective is itself highly reformist because it treats gender as a separate system of power from others. For instance, it is inaccurate to simply say that women are oppressed by men. It is certainly true that men are privileged above women and are all too often the casual enforcers of day-to-day patriarchy. But one cannot hope to solve that problem without first examining where the power behind this arrangement comes from and who the administrators of patriarchy are. Where it comes from is the same place that the power for all oppression comes from: the ruling class state and its institutions. The struggle of “women” against “men” without confronting the state that is run by particular rich white men can, at best, result in some nice reforms. The evil soul of patriarchy lives in the ruling state and must be destroyed there if it is to be destroyed anywhere.
The point made by the Presenter that lifestylism (including gender non-conformity) isn’t, in itself, a significant form of struggle is absolutely correct and any revolutionary would agree. Having said that, individuals may find it personally empowering, and that’s not nothing. And we shouldn’t scoff at that unless it’s meant to be a substitute for struggle.
The Presenter has a big applause line arguing that gender isn’t voluntary because no one would choose the brutal subordination that comes with being a woman. This is just dumb. Of course no one would choose that, but she confuses identity with socialization. No one chooses to be socialized as either male or female, and to equate that with identity is both wrong and insulting.
The idea that the existence of trans or genderqueer implies that cis-women are by contrast “capitulating” or “taking the easy way out” is again inaccurate and even more insulting. I have yet to meet a trans or genderqueer person who has seen cis-women this way. Their yardstick has always been (in every instance I’ve known of) whether or not those cis-women (and cis-men) are willing to stand as principled allies in the struggle against transphobia and capitalist patriarchy. This is the barometer for actual struggle, rather than simple denunciation-fodder.
The Presenter reads a Lierre Keith quote: “Gender is not a binary. It is a hierarchy.” It is both. And anyone who can’t fit that into their head should retire from revolutionary politics.
The Presenter’s comparison that we wouldn’t accept someone who claimed to be trans-black, trans-rich, or trans-indigenous illustrates how incredibly bankrupt the ideological development of DGR is. This comparison misses the most basic of distinctions. The Presenter says that if we accept gender as a “class condition” rather than an individual one, then the analogy holds. But the basis for calling anything a “class condition” is a materialist analysis of reality.
Even the most cursory glance at this analogy using a materialist analysis tells us that the analogy doesn’t hold at all; gender functions differently from race or class or colonization. White Supremacy is a hierarchical system based on skin color and other phenotypical markers. These things are innate. You can’t very well change your racial categorization at will. Gender isn’t like that; it’s a highly nuanced pattern of social behavior and presentation. It is thus a more malleable category. Economic class is primarily determined by one’s relationship to the means of production. This is alterable, but not very easily – and certainly not just by changing one’s outward behavior and presentation. Colonization is based on the forced dispossession of one’s people, land, and history by an invading settler state. The idea that this is comparable to gender is patently ridiculous.
Gender is not only based on social presentation: gender is social presentation. Ergo transgression against gender norms isn’t only subverting the basis for gender, it’s the subversion of gender itself.
Transgender People Aren’t Real:
The Presenter tells the story of a transwoman who once told her, “I don’t have the male privilege that I was raised with anymore.” Of course this is a problematic thing to say. The Presenter points to psychological gender conditioning of children as the basis for privilege/oppression, and that this cannot be transcended and thus gender cannot be transcended. But this argument is also problematic. Gendered upbringing is one of the bases for gender privilege/oppression, but there are others as well. For example, if you present as female you run a higher risk of harassment of all kinds regardless of your upbringing (because harassers don’t much care about your childhood). And should one present in a way that does not “pass,” marking you as gender non-conforming in some way, you run even higher risks of harassment. So it would’ve been more accurate of the person quoted to have said, “I don’t have all of the male privilege I was raised with anymore.”
DGR has also been known to make the inverse argument that transwomen are just men trying to somehow encroach on women’s spaces and struggles. This argument is baffling. First off, being a cis-dude comes with some pretty great perks that women don’t have (this part I do know first-hand). Why anyone would instead opt for not only all the bullshit that women have to put up with, but also with all the bullshit that trans folks have to put up with is frankly fucking beyond me. What would be the point? Getting to go to the women’s caucus at radical gatherings? Anybody who thinks that that would be worth frivolously subjecting oneself to all the oppression of being a transwoman has probably spent too much time at radical gatherings and should go outside and make some new friends.
The Presenter tells a moving story about a person who was born/assigned female and experienced a gluttony of patriarchal horrors (sex trafficking, etc) and who came out as transmale while in a care program. The Presenter tells how he drew images of female and male versions of himself with the female image associated with fear and pain and the male image associated with confidence and happiness. The Presenter tells us that this project contained the sentence “If I wasn’t a girl, I wouldn’t have been raped.” While this story is certainly a deeply stirring one, it presents a number of problems. First, the story is anecdotal. DGR and other “radical” feminists are fond of the argument that transmen are just women trying to escape their oppression or assimilate into the privileges of patriarchy. This may well be a factor for some trans folks, for many it may not be. The point is: it’s none of our fucking business!
There are likely as many reasons for being trans or genderqueer as there are trans and genderqueer people in the world, ranging from the biological to the abstract. Given that, there are two choices: either gender identity is determined for people by some outside authority (the state, parents, schools, the DGR cabal) or it is determined by people for themselves. And it is not up to trans and genderqueer folks to justify themselves and who they are to the world. No one ever expects cis men and women to justify why we are our gender. What does it cost, really, to not be a disrespectful douchebag to folks who are already catching hell? It’s not at all difficult.
The Presenter’s use of this story also reveals the callousness of DGR’s policy. If this young person was able to find some solace from the horrible ravages of patriarchal trauma by identifying as male, then who the fuck is anybody to tell him he can’t? You’d think that so-called “radical” feminists would be the last to add gender policing on top of the trauma of a trafficking survivor trying to live their life. The hubris here is fucking staggering.
At this point, a wide variety of radicals have weighed in on DGR’s transphobia. Whether it’s Earth First refusing to reprint their material, radical spaces refusing to host their events, DGR members defecting from the organization, or the vocal disavowal of DGR’s transphobia by Aric McBay, one of its 3 major founders; Deep Green Resistance has inadvertently called the question on trans-inclusion in the US radical activist scene. And for all the problems of the US radical activist scene, it is to our credit that DGR seems to stand alone in their transphobia. We still have a long way to go, but the recent controversy in Portland has (at least for the moment) united the US radical left in opposition to bigotry in our midst. And, oddly enough, maybe we should thank DGR for that.
Note: This article was originally posted using a banner image from the blog A Radical TransFeminist. The image was found on a google image search and used without the knowledge of the blogger. It has since been removed at her request. As an aside, I would encourage anyone interested to check out some of the blog’s truly insightful articles.