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:

  1. Keith’s and Jensen’s stance begins with the idea that gender is entirely socially constructed.
  2. Under patriarchy, everyone’s gendering is largely (even entirely) a product of patriarchy.
  3. They envision a world without patriarchy, and therefore one where patriarchy would not contribute to anyone’s gendered subject formation.
  4. Therefore, they envision a world where it’s likely far more (perhaps all) people would be comfortable in the bodies they were born with.
  5. Based on this, they therefore hope that those persons not rely on the medical-industrial complex’s pharmacology and surgeries to become comfortable.
  6. Their motivation is partly because they want to do away, entirely, with the medical industrial complex.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. On this basis, they think that it’s wrong for people to use hormone treatments, have surgeries, and so forth, now.


11 Responses to “On Derrick Jensen’s and Lierre Keith’s Transphobia”

  1. Peter

    Thank you for actually discussing the points. Can you please give more backing on your first point; that gender is not completely socially constructed. I’m still trying to understand people’s different positions. Are you saying gender is rooted in biology as well? Is there evidence for this?

    “But I reject the idealist position that they are constructed from nothing.” In my understanding of what the radical feminists think, they agree that gender doesn’t come out of nowhere. They say that it is constructed from the power relations of patriarchy that take material form in our society. They also would agree that it in-forms us, but if that is true, what basis is there for gender formation without patriarchy first existing? I would definitely like to know what would generate gender if patriarchy didn’t exist because it does seem to be an expression of a person’s position in a hierarchy. Another point of agreement radical feminists would probably have with you is that bodies are sites of resistance; the personal is political. The radical feminists would want the “cracks” to be filled with a void, or non-gendered personality traits that do not reify what patriarchy considers to be a “man” or “woman”. That’s a major strategy of radical feminists.

    As of right now, I don’t think you have substantiated your point. Feminists are convincing when they say that gender is a social construct by patriarchy to perpetuate itself. Even if biology does play a role in gender, it’s pretty clear that feminists have it at least 90% correct, probably more like 98%. I wouldn’t say you have successfully undermined their position or “unravelled” their argument.

  2. Ben Brucato

    Very briefly, our social constructions mobilize symbolic and material resources, including our bodies. They depend on the biological materials available. Gender and even sex are heterogeneous, and if we consider the range of biological materials only (which we shouldn’t, though we should account for these in addition to many others) — i.e. genes, anatomy, hormones, reproductive capacities, etc. — then we are more inclined to have a better understanding of gender and sex than if we confront them as mere illusions, social fantasies, myths, etc. They are all of these things and more. But one thing the biological materials definitely tell us is that we are making some rather violent reductions by assigning the categories of male OR female, period, and requiring these labels be permanently fixed to each body.

    I could imagine a community where gender were almost irrelevant. However, being animals who do not spontaneously reproduce, reproduction will always pose some sort of challenge that could potentially be innocuously dealt with through liberatory, democratic, exuberant and life-affirming practices, and potentially with this not being deeply meaningful, but tacit. But this would need to be somehow resolved, and this is one way in which the biological will perennially present some sort of challenge. To reduce all gender formation down to patriarchy does not leave us with much to work with to build into our communities intelligent and healthy ways of addressing these challenges.

    I’m not addressing “feminists” at large, or even “radical feminists.” I am addressing how two people have mobilized a particular reading of one variety of radical feminism. Theirs is very opportunistic and messy with is radical vacillations between extreme constructivism and essentialism. The ideas are both philosophically and practically shallow, and lead to this kind of mess.

  3. Rafter Sass Ferguson

    Hey Ben – I’m grateful for this article. Thanks for identifying and addressing these questions so thoughtfully. I stumbled into this debate a week ago, and was horrified to realize that the anti-trans feminism of the 1970s was alive (and unwell). I’ve since been trying to get up to speed.

    It seems that one of the tricky things about the RadFem (and thus DGR) position, that sometimes seems contradictory, is their contrasting approaches to sex and gender. While they hold, as you note, that gender is entirely a product of patriarchy, they regard biological sex as a universal and essential binary. Though it seems that it’s often about penises as the biological marker of maleness, when pressed they will fall back on the Y chromosome.

    Biological sex, in this view, exerts an overwhelmingly determining power over behavior. The violence and (literal) rapaciousness of men – as well as the intelligence and and pro-sociality of women – are driven at a fundamental level by our bodies. Gender is then ‘merely’ the set of norms and explanations that patriarchy puts forth to justify the subjugation of the class of XX-bearing humans by the class of XY-bearing humans – as well as, of course, to perpetuate it.

    I’m still just developing an understanding of the theory here, and I may well be mangling it. But that’s what I got so far. 😉

    But it starts to make sense of the seemingly contradictory combination of essentialism and social constructionism that marks the RadFem brand of transphobia – insisting that transwomen (in particular) are really men AND that the whole trans/queer milieu is misogynist for reinforcing gender categories.

    Like you, I have trouble with the idea that gender is entirely constituted by patriarchy, or even entirely socially constructed. My reasons have to with a rejection of monolithic drivers generally, and the social/natural binary in particular. But ultimately it’s a moot point – the question is unanswerable, since we don’t have access to a culture absent patriarchy, and we will never experience our bodies absent a social context. The only reason to forcefully declare an answer to this question – rather than, say, propose heuristics and ethics for exploration – is for the sake of ideology.

    I start to see a glimmer of just how the alliance of RadFem and DGR came about – in the totalizing imposition of absolute categories on messy, multifaceted questions, and the fetishized polarity between nature/body and society/civilization. It’s starting to make sense, but it’s not getting any more appealing.

  4. gail dropping knowledge

    […] real (and ridiculous) reason jensen and keith say have issues with the transgendered. (please go here for an interesting analysis on why derrick and lierre believe the way they […]

  5. Jasper Wilcox

    if our sex is determined by patriarchal society can’t the same be said for transgender people?

  6. Nina

    I read a great book that goes into why gender is not all socially constructed and its “arguments” are ones I have never seen anywhere else. It is called “Earth Muse” by Carol Bigwood. It is not very well known but should be. I can’t begin to paraphrase except so say as much as we live in a social setting with its demands that construct us, we also live in bodies with their demands. Our identity is embodied and she goes into this deeply. I don’t remember if she spoke about trans-bodies except to say in the introduction, which she wrote after the book was finished, that she would make it much more queer oriented in the future. I can’t see anyway to extend her arguments to be anti-trans but only pro-trans since their embodied experience is one of discomfort. But pah-lease do not let my terrible paraphrasing misguide anyone. Her work is beautiful, philosophical and deconstructs so thoroughly that it weaves together very disparate subjects. Earth Muse by Carol Bigwood!

  7. Nina

    I was wondering; you see I was at a time very familiar with Jensen’s work and thought. I haven’t been so much since Lierre Keith showed up on the scene. To be fair, I haven’t read her work yet. I don’t remember Jensen being “transphobic” at all. I take issue with his thinking in so many ways and he himself as person but I’m wondering if these are direct quotes from him and Lierre or taken abstractly from other beliefs of his. It also seems to me that with the physical attack on Lierre herself (the pie throwing assault) and what I hear happened at this other venue that this violence against others with ideas is not enough condemned by you or others.

  8. Ben Brucato

    When the pie-throwing incident happened, I was one of very few people in any way associated with anarchism who criticized those in attendance. I criticized them for not responding to aid Lierre, and considered her calling the police something that was brought on not by her but by an unsupportive anarchist community. Those present should have handled the issue themselves. She was very clearly left on her own in that situation, with no one to turn to, and that says something far more about the people in attendance than her calling the cops does about her. At the time, I was in regular contact with Jensen, and suggested the development of a security network to provide (sometimes armed) security for Jensen, Lierre, and people affiliated with the anti-civ community. It was a suggestion that at least in the short-term was taken up.

    These quotes aren’t taken out of context. Even a little research on this topic will show that no twisting of their words is in order to paint them as transphobic.

  9. Nina

    Hi Ben, you are right. I wrote this before I did my research and I have since done a lot of research. I actually have been reading and thinking non stop for the last few days. It is quite ugly. I guess I just couldn’t believe that someone so intelligent and seemingly mostly rational would be so out of touch, cynical, angry, and hateful. I am appalled at the shit I am seeing. This has propelled me to really dig into to problems facing the transgender community. I am empathizing in a new way and growing a lot. I hope I am not the only one turning such negative crap into something positive. I don’t know Keith, but wrote a note of support after the pie assault incident. However, now I am reading about the violent history of her hero Sheila Jeffreys and wondering … well I guess I am understanding now the disgust and anger people feel toward this group. Thank you for writing.

  10. Risa Bear

    Hi, I’m Risa Bear, I transitioned in 2006. Thanks for this article, it’s a help.

    I would never throw pie, or anything else, at anyone, especially an eco-warrior (we need all of those we can get). I would have, had I been in the right place at the right time (with sufficient presence of mind), taken the hit for Lierre. That said, likely I would not have been there, as I don’t feel safe with essentialists. People like me have been murdered by such.

    It is sad that apparently unbridgeable chasms exist among some of those resisting NTE, and I hope there will be growth in humane philosophical positions, whatever else transpires. It is a beautiful planet.

  11. willa

    The reason Lierre is so transphobic is due to his own self-denial of gender identity. He is actually a transgender man that doesn’t realize it. It is sad that he doesn’t understand himself well enough to reach this conclusion.

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