06
Jul
13

A Response to Lierre Kieth and Derrick Jensen of Deep Green Resistance

Note: This was originally written as a response to a series of articles in Counter-Punch that repeated some tediously damaging radfem ideas. They never got back to me.

Content Warning – Transphobia, radfem obsession with genitals

Bigots are the first to complain about their freedom of speech being infringed. The rallying cry of “why won’t you tolerate our intolerance?” once a joke, has been taken up in earnest by everyone whose particular brand of politics would see groups they disapprove of silenced. There is a reason why progressive groups have no-platform policies, and it is because they recognise that to give space to organisations that espouse reactionary and oppressive ideas is to legitimise these ideas, even if they are robustly refuted, and indicate that allowing hate speech by oppressive groups is a more important ideological principle than listening to marginalised ones. Such is the substance of radical feminism’s demand for “tolerance” in the face of their profoundly intolerant rhetoric and practice. Whether or not a reactionary is actively engaged in hate speech at the time is irrelevant – the presence of oppressive groups or individuals makes a space fundamentally unsafe for marginalised ones and it is the responsibility of progressives not to facilitate this process.

Deep Green Resistance and its figureheads, Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen have been making great play of their transphobia in recent weeks, holding up acts of resistance to their oppressive speech as examples of oppression and assault. This renarrativisation of their activities is insidiously plausible, especially since they are well-experienced in co-opting the language of progressivism to push their profoundly reactionary ideas. I will attempt to refute some of the most glaringly false statements they have made in their recent article. Most blatant is their tendentious account of an incident at the Law and Disorder Conference in Portland in May in which several women expressed their opposition to DGR’s stated and explicit transphobia. In order to recast this incident with themselves as the victims, they utilise that same transphobia, misgendering several protesters. In order to understand why DGR and radical feminist thinking generally is so hostile to trans people, it is necessary to pick apart their own analysis of gender politics.

Female socialization is a process of psychologically constraining and breaking girls—otherwise known as “grooming”—to create a class of compliant victims. Femininity is a set of behaviors that are, in essence, ritualized submission.”

You would be hard-pressed to find a woman, much less a feminist that would not find this definition deeply insulting, but it is taken as canon in radical feminist rhetoric. Women are made, not born, they parrot, but only people born as women can be made women. The circular nature of this argument allows no room for discussion – only people assigned a female gender at birth based on an assessment of the appearance of their external genitals can be socialised as female, and only people socialised as female can lay claim to the category of woman. By basing not just an experience of womanhood, but the very identity of woman in the experience of oppression, radical feminist rhetoric simultaneously excludes differing female experiences and negates the possibility for a positive model of femininity.

It is worth deconstructing this notion of “socialisation” because it underpins the circular logic of radical feminist claims to the absolute inescapability of one’s assigned gender at birth. Children assigned a male gender at birth are socialised as men, while ones assigned female are socialised as women, the argument goes, and this dichotomy is the basis for all patriarchal oppression. Few would argue that the social construction of binary gender is a powerful and destructive means of oppression, but the model espoused by radical feminists allows no room to interrogate individual experiences of that mechanism. In this model, anyone “socialised male” receives all the perks, privileges and benefits of a patriarchal society for life, regardless of how they identify, while anyone socialised female is broken equally on the same wheel. But trans people do not experience this process in the same way as cis people. It is fundamentally impossible for a trans person to receive this training in the same way as a cis person because the gendered nature of this socialisation is always apparent to them. There can be no false consciousness that these gendered roles are “natural” and “normal” because every attempt at socialisation into one of these binary genders highlights how unnatural and artificial they are. Cis people notice the artificiality of the social construction of gender only when it is particularly galling or overt – for example when they are denied the right to certain activities or clothes reserved for the “opposite” gender. The hollow explanations then given for these social boundaries are ones that trans people hear every second of every day, usually inside their own heads, since even asking questions about them is considered “weird”, “gay” or absurd. To say that a trans woman has been “socialised” male is as absurd as saying that a gay child has been “socialised” straight because they weren’t treated as gay until they came out. Trans women may well have once been treated as if they were men, but their experience of that treatment is not the same as the less complicated and oppositional experience of a cis man who has never questioned his gender, and the results are similarly not the same.

Absurd as well is the radical feminist insistence that this process of socialisation is total, complete and instantaneous – since our understanding of trans issues now allows some boys and girls to present as their actual gender far earlier than was once the case, there are many trans people now who have been treated as the gender they were assigned at birth for less and less time – yet radical feminists will insist that these people are still “really” that assigned gender and have not been “socialised” as their actual gender. This lays bare the biological essentialism at the heart of radical feminist thinking – for all their talk about socialisation, ultimately gender rests on the that which you were assigned at birth based on an external inspection of your genitals, and nothing can change that, however logically absurd this position becomes under examination. This attitude reveals itself in the throwaway line: “And if female is “passé,” well, there goes life on earth.” For all their talk of female being a social category, it is clear that female = woman and woman = womb. Being “biologically female” is held up as the standard which both defines and constrains women. One can only shudder at what role Jensen and Keith envisage for women in the post-collapse society they champion, given their expressed callous disregard for the millions of poor, disabled or otherwise useless members of society that they imagine dying off in that collapse.

The “female brain” concept of trans people is another myth, one which some trans people do indeed believe, but they are a minority to the extent that this objection is a strawman argument. Like the “gay gene” hypothesis, it is a damaging and ultimately nonsensical idea. Since trans people have often had to fight entrenched medical ideas in order to access treatment, it is not surprising that they have often latched onto ideas that appear to grant medical legitimacy in terms that establishment will accept, regardless of other consequences.

And it’s the genderists who conform. For all their talk of gender-bending, their goal is cosmetics, costumes, and surgery to match their bodies to gender caricatures.”

Despite accusing their opponents of focusing negatively on appearances, as Keith and Jensen do here (“The insults usually reference bad haircuts and fashion—because how women look is vastly more important than what they might try to do”), radical feminists are never shy of insulting trans women based on a tired misogynistic idea of what they think they look like. The stereotype of trans people excessively conforming to gender norms is a particularly prevalent one, usually expressed in misogynistic terms of “hyper-feminine” trans women, both because it is easier to evoke disgust at expressions of femininity in a patriarchal culture, but also because expressions of masculinity are valourised in the radical feminist community.

Trans women of course display a full range of gendered behaviour, just like cis women, but they are particularly scrutinised and place in a double bind – when they express gendered behaviour that is read as “feminine” they are accused of “faking” or “mocking” femininity. When they express behaviour read as “masculine” it is seen as “proof” that they are not “really” women. Since in a binary-gendered society almost all behaviour is gendered, this places trans women in particular in an impossible position. The stereotype itself is perhaps prominent because trans women have historically been more visible than trans men, in part because “feminine” behaviour in people perceived as men draws more attention and opprobrium than “masculine” behaviour in people perceived as women. There is also the fact that historically (and still, sadly, today) access to treatment for gender dysphoria is largely based on outdated perceptions of a “failure” to conform to one’s assigned birth gender, and the greater the gap between one’s gendered behaviour and assigned birth gender, the greater the chance of successfully convincing the medical establishment of the need for treatment, a dynamic trans people are all too aware of and are forced to conform to for their own survival.

The idea that children are being subjected to genital surgery is a hugely damaging myth but one that seems unwilling to go away. Surgical interventions are never carried out on trans children (with the exception, ironically of intersex children, who are operated on without their consent in order to make them conform to a largely arbitrary assignation of gender at birth – the terrified haste with which doctors rush parents into approving this “treatment” on new-born babies speaks volumes about the medical establishment’s attitude to gender, and it is exactly the opposite of the attitude radical feminists think it is). The only medical treatment available to children who identify as other than their birth gender is hormone treatment to delay the harmful and distressing effects of going through puberty as a gender with which they do not identify – treatment that is safe, proven and entirely reversible. And trans status is not, as the reductio ad absurdum has it, “liking things traditionally preferred by another gender”. It is a deep and abiding lack of identification with the gendered characteristics of one’s body. Cis people do not experience this, so is understandable that they would attempt to translate it into terms that they are familiar with, and we have all, trans and cis, experience the mild dissatisfaction of being denied something that “belongs” to another gender. But this trivialises and misrepresents the nature of being trans.

An equally durable fantasy is the one about “trans regret” where cis people are forced or tricked by a proselytising trans-dominated medical establishment into transitioning against their will, with horrific lifelong effects. This is simply not the case. Trans people have to fight very hard, often for years or even decades to obtain treatment, and cases of trans regret are vanishingly small. Of the less than 12% of trans people who express regrets about their transition, almost all of these were in regards to surgical outcomes – in other words, they do not regret transitioning, simply that it was not as effective as they had hoped. The tragic but tiny number of non-representative cases of genuine regret are endlessly recycled as evidence of a vast conspiracy of forcing people to transition against their will, something that not only flies in the face of the evidence, but is also profoundly insulting to those trans people who have or are currently battling tooth and nail with the medical establishment for basic recognition of their rights.

It is not intolerant or oppressive to refuse a platform with people who are intolerant or oppressive, but some groups on the left seem to be increasingly taking the view that it is their role to be neutral providers of space for “debate” between oppressive, intolerant views and the people they target. This is the equivalent of allowing a fascist to debate at a conference on socialism. Attendance may well rise as good progressives flock to refute their ideas and their speech – but at the cost of both actual progress and the absence of those threatened by their presence. DGR is currently haemorrhaging members and chapters fast as the bigotry of its leaders becomes more and more apparent and I wish those people luck in building a more inclusive environmental resistance movement. Several progressive outlets have made it clear that they will be providing no platform for DGR’s oppressive ideas, even under the camouflage of “debate” something I can only hope CounterPunch will also consider. (note: obviously not, but I was trying to be polite)

Gender is still a hugely important issue, and while it is understandable that those who see it as an oppressive category would be attracted to the idea of its abolition, it is dangerous to see any identity category in such stark terms. Few would argue that race is not used to oppress people, yet if you were to suggest that racism would be solved, not by getting rid of racists, but by eliminating all racial differences, you would be rightly derided. Gender is undoubtedly deployed oppressively, as a means of social control, but the problem is not gender, it is the rigidity and hierarchical nature of the gender binary. DGR’s confused stance on gender is not just theoretically illogical, it is actively oppressive in practice, and flies in the face of the evidence of a decades-long history of trans resistance to gender oppression. In regards to the oppressive nature of the gender binary, trans activists (as well as non-binary, genderqueer and intersex activists) were and have always been the vanguard of its destruction, not its handmaidens.

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