Lierre Keith’s and Derrick Jensen’s transphobia is a difficult one to pin down, largely because there’s many issues going on that aren’t so carefully teased apart. I’ll try to do a favorable reading here in order to expose how even such a reading cannot allow their politics to hold up. It would probably benefit those who are confronting Keith and Jensen do so by attending more carefully to their words and less to rather formulaic rhetoric. I would think that people criticizing Keith and Jensen would like to do more than force out them and DGR, that this could be a situation that much more could come from. If so, converting the assault on these individuals into chants and slogans probably isn’t very productive, since we probably have millions of appropriate targets for those approaches.
To summarize my understanding of Keith’s and Jensen’s position:
- Keith’s and Jensen’s stance begins with the idea that gender is entirely socially constructed.
- Under patriarchy, everyone’s gendering is largely (even entirely) a product of patriarchy.
- They envision a world without patriarchy, and therefore one where patriarchy would not contribute to anyone’s gendered subject formation.
- Therefore, they envision a world where it’s likely far more (perhaps all) people would be comfortable in the bodies they were born with.
- Based on this, they therefore hope that those persons not rely on the medical-industrial complex’s pharmacology and surgeries to become comfortable.
- Their motivation is partly because they want to do away, entirely, with the medical industrial complex.
- But they are also motivated by seeing these pharmaceutical and surgical procedures to be a physical torture and mutilation in response to the psychological torture and trauma of patriarchy.
- They take a turn here, though, by taking their imagined future situation and projecting it into the present, to guide the way people can and should behave now.
- On this basis, they think that it’s wrong for people to use hormone treatments, have surgeries, and so forth, now.
I’m disregarding many other aspects of their transphobia and only attending to these. (For instance: the ridiculous idea that ftm transexuals are betraying feminism and mtf transexuals are coopting feminism.) Most of their other positions are much more problematic and even hateful, particularly Keith’s version of radical feminism that creates a paradox when squaring it with her constructivism — we’re all constructed, and yet if one is born with a penis, “he” is always a man? I’m only retaining the positions that emerge out of a particular variety of anti-civilization politics. Most of their ideas related to trans persons that are not included here aren’t worth taking very seriously, and that’s the primary reason for the exclusion.
I feel like I have an understanding of these positions as a result of ongoing attention to their work, to controversies that have emerged, and especially from direct interaction with them (more so with Jensen). I also feel like I understand these positions because I have strongly agreed with some of them, and had general agreement with most of them, even rather recently. My prior thinking on these matters was largely influenced by the anti-civilization politics I used to share more with the very general aims of (among others) Keith, Jensen, and DGR. From here, rather than doing a close reading of their texts, I will explain why I think some of these steps are problematic, mostly by explaining my more recent thoughts that have undone my past thinking on these positions.
1. Gender entirely socially constructed? That gender is a social construction is not in dispute. But I reject the idealist position that they are constructed from nothing. All of our social constructions are influenced by the material objects and their relations that fill out our experiences. I strongly agree that discrepancies in the genetic definition of sex make it impossible to establish a reliable definition of sex – much more of gender – on the basis of genes. There are what should be seen as obvious problems with anatomical definition of sex (though Keith seems to be rather paradoxically convinced of this), and using reproductive capacity as determinant of sex is even more unreliable. The same goes for the inadequacies of hormonal definitions of sex. It gets even worse if you try to say sex is determined by the aggregation of these – and other – markers, because the problems of each merely multiply one another. We end up not with two sexes, but many. Nonetheless, our identities are not purely constructed without these being factors, even very powerful ones. We haven’t unmediated and complete access to our own bodies, but they play a profound role in our gendering that is ignored by absolute versions of social constructivism. This is a point where their entire argument unravels, but we need not overdetermine the extent to which their position is undermined here. There are other problems.
2. We are completely formed as subjects by patriarchy? We are indeed products of patriarchy. Even by resisting patriarchy, it in-forms us. That doesn’t mean we should try to resist the subject formation of patriarchy by not resisting patriarchy itself. In fact, to some trans persons, their very bodies and lived reality is the negation of patriarchy. I think that’s a very compelling position. But it’s also a body and a way of life that then requires patriarchy for its (present) coherence. (Of course, these meanings of all of our bodies are dynamic and would change in different contexts. So this present coherence would take on another coherence in a radially different socio-political context.) This is absolutely not to say that being trans is shoring up patriarchy in any way. A bigger problem with this idea that we are completely formed by patriarchy is that it denies the extent to which we are the products of many other things. Patriarchy sediments most everything, but it does not fully constitute everything. The idea that there is no outside to patriarchy forecloses all liberatory potential. While there are limits to what we can be and do in the continued presence of a dominant patriarchal order, there are fissures everywhere, places where its hold is weak — particularly so in trans cultures. These are the sites of resistance. If a crack forms, it does not immediately fill with patriarchy; sometimes it’s filled with its void, and this is also true of our subject positions.
3. I won’t quarrel with the idea of imagining a world without patriarchy, and one where our identities are not formed by it. I think this is a wonderful thought experiment, even if it’s unthinkable in its fullness. This unthinkability is the point where basing a utopian politics on it becomes problematic. As we act, new conditions emerge, and so too should our visions adapt and morph. Our envisioning work we do today can help us deal with our present reality, but probably should not be the basis of a long-term strategy. This is a major departure from Keith and Jensen.
4. I especially follow the thought experiment of the world without patriarchy to the end of imagining a world where gender is dynamic, fluid, and open, but one where this would not necessarily require extensive chemical or physical modification of the body. In such a world, experimentation would likely be more not less common. [I don’t intend to insinuate that I believe being trans is an experiment, but that I would like it to be more of one.] This may be even more troubling for some trans persons, if only because some of their modifications might be so invasive to the chemical and physical structure of the body that they are quasi-permanent. I’m not suggesting that a rather stable gender identity is not ever personally or politically preferred, but that I imagine in my thought experiment – the world without patriarchy – that gender and sex identities would be both more radically plural, and much less fixed in appearance. But that’s just my imaginary world, and one that presents some inherent philosophical and political challenges to many anti-trans positions and even some of trans culture. But I need to emphasize the extent to which this is only a thought experiment and not reality — this is precisely where Kieth and Jensen overextend their argument far beyond what is useful. Their position verges on utopian and this very sharply collides with position 5, 8 and 9, which I’ll come to below.
5, 8 & 9. Stop gender transformation, now? There’s a fundamental problem with Keith’s and Jensen’s political vision in that they routinely get prefiguration wrong. They correctly recognize that simple lifestyle changes (shorter showers, driving a hybird) will accomplish little or nothing. They overemphasize the importance of immediate and direct assaults on the industrial infrastructure, and place little value in transition — clear it away now, they say (a position I directly debated with Jensen). They are interested in building cultures of resistance. If you look at their writing and their less public communications, they have little visions for building communities in the here and now — the cultures of resistance they will build offer little to how they would prefigure new communities. In fact, they occasionally lump this demand together with taking shorter showers — a position I routinely tested in online discussions with Jensen. “Never mind prefiguration, smash civilization today, before it’s too late!” and, “build relationships with salmon, not people” is not too violent a reduction of the positions at work here. I think the problem with their position on opposing medical transformation is rooted very much in their approach to political change and failing to understand that we begin from where we are. We are not in our imagined future, and there are many steps to getting from here. We have to cope with and live in the world that is here and now. And merely clearing away everything that stands between the here and now with our utopian vision is dangerous. So too is demanding that trans persons not recognize and live in the situations they are now in. While trans people’s (and all of our) gender identities would likely be very different in the total absence of patriarchy, denying them (and all of us) their capacities and methods of expressing and living with their subject position now is much like saying “fuck the village that is built in the dry river bed, I’m going to blow this dam and flood the fuckers out — it’s for the salmon!” And both are decisions they readily act upon. I think this is the source of the justified anger of many trans persons toward Keith, Jensen, and DGR.
6. Get rid of the medical-industrial complex that enables medical gender transformation? I’m not a trans person. I don’t know what it would be like to want to have my sex reassigned and not have those technologies available. I was rather favorable and even deeply engaged with anti-civilization thought and politics when my daughter was born at our home. Within hours, she was taken by plane to a hospital and hooked up to millions of dollars worth of medical equipment. She was in a morphine induced coma, her body cooled by about 10 degrees, and her heart and lung functions were essentially shut down while a machine replaced them for over a week. Neither then nor now would I very readily approve of the industrial and economic processes that these machinery and techniques rely upon to exist. I love my daughter, but the world in which I think humans must live likely wouldn’t include the tools and techniques that saved her life. That doesn’t mean that I pulled the plug, nor would I. It also doesn’t mean that I would blow up the hospital she was in. This is the move the Keith and Jensen make. I don’t know how related these issues are, but they draw me into a situation that I wasn’t involved in before: I’m now forced to consider technologies that wouldn’t exist if my political vision were manifested, technologies my daughter depended upon to be alive today. I would have readily traded my life for hers in the absence of these technologies, if such a decision would have saved her. Still, it’s not the same situation, but I think the point is clear. I would be willing to accept some rather significant future trade-offs in order to live in a world I think would be better. In the future I think is most possible and most free for all, my daughter would likely not have survived, and trans persons would likely not have access to surgical and pharmaceutical technologies and techniques to reassign their sex.
7. I’m not going to address this, partly because I don’t have resolute thoughts on the matter. I can appreciate many sides on this perspective. I think Keith has had one or two good things to say on the matter. It’s rather difficult to discuss these issues once they’re surrounded by transphobic hatred. I’d be interested to hear or read about some queer and trans people’s systematic and serious thoughts on the issues of the invasiveness and violence of gender reassignment. I’m not interested in entertaining such a position from someone who clearly hates trans people.
This issue is much bigger than what I’ve dealt with. In some ways I’m contrasting two positions that are in tension. On Jensen’s and Keith’s side there is a muddled utopianism that causes all sorts of ethical, political, and practical problems when they turn toward the moment and try to find synergy. Opposed to this is not a side articulated by any people, but one that I’ve created to challenge Jensen and Keith: the position is rooted in prefiguration and living in a patriarchal society. It would seem that many people who have criticized Keith, Jensen, and DGR are coming from a position that they are more oriented in their lived realities of today, and feel that their lives, their strategies, their bodies are under assault by Keith’s and Jensen’s utopian politics. I think this position is neither inaccurate or overstated. I think this is a routine problem for Keith’s and Jensen’s politics, too. They have a vision that is generally commendable. Most everything else is wanting.
[Note: I don’t have anything to gain in posting this and a lot to lose. This situation since the Law & Disorder fiasco is a minefield, full of a lot of problematic thinking on both sides, and much worse behavior. This is particularly exemplified by the fact that there are two clear sides to begin with, and more so by the online behavior by those who have taken sides, behavior which is frequently vitriolic and unproductive. There are certainly exceptions, but they are exceptions. Also, Derrick and I have a history, and one that is also not particularly friendly (mostly on his side).]