activism,  politics

deep green resistance, gender, and transgenderism

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I wrote about going to a Deep Green Resistance presentation. Then after a few days I ended up hearing about the controversy around DGR’s position on transgenderism. Basically, they argue that women are an oppressed group and for people born male to attempt to invade female-only spaces they are adding to the oppression. DGR describes it this way:

We are not “transphobic.” We do, however, have a disagreement about what gender is. Genderists think that gender is natural, a product of biology. Radical feminists think gender is social, a product of male supremacy. Genderists think gender is an identity, an internal set of feelings people might have.  Radical feminists think gender is a caste system, a set of material conditions into which one is born. Genderists think gender is a binary. Radical feminists think gender is a hierarchy, with men on top.

DGR supports the existence of women-only places, and rejects the idea that a man can claim entry into those spaces by claiming to be a woman. They deny the ability to change gender. I agree that is not transphobic, in the sense that it is not a fear, but I can understand it being called transphobic in the way of refusing to accept the transgendered person’s self-description. That leads to the question of whether one can there be philosophical disagreement with an oppressed group (transgendered people) without being a part of the oppressors. Is it oppressive to disagree with an oppressed group on the assessment of how and in what way the are oppressed?

I first heard about transgenderism as an older teenager when a friend of a friend identified that way. I disliked the idea that he, as a biologically born man, attempted to define what it meant to be a woman. He might dislike who he is and he might dislike his understanding of being man and prefer his understanding of himself as a female, but his understanding of himself as a female could not be the same as my understanding of myself as a female. He could not become pregnant. He might wish that people treated him in a more feminine manner, flirted with him as men flirt with women, or approve of plans for feminine occupations, but he could not really know what it was like to be a woman. Being female might sound to him like a benefit, a privilege, and his own unhappiness might justify his claim that he should be allowed to change things, but I resented the idea that he would claim to be able to define “woman.” I saw it not just as an attempt for him to define who he was, but for him to define who I was. I wanted to challenge the way women are treated and how they behave, not codify two genders with the possibility that those who feel strongly could claim to belong to the one not of their birth. I want women to be able to be anything they want and treated for who they are not their membership in a gender, and for men to be able to be whoever they want and be treated for who they are and not for their membership in a gender, and I can’t see how we get there by allowing some people a pass to “be the other gender” as though the other gender was anything more than what genitalia you were born with.

I am woman not because I have long hair, or I look after the kids, or because I wear skirts or women’s clothing. I am a woman not because of the way I walk, or talk, or anything like that. I am a woman because my DNA makes me so. Being a woman I have been socialized to walk, talk, dress and act certain ways but those do not define my being a woman. I can accept or reject whatever parts of those I want, without changing the fact I am a woman. Being a woman means I have the biology that makes it so that, under certain circumstances, become pregnant and breastfeed my children. Through choice or luck or illness not all women will do those things but their not doing those things does not make them any less a woman.

I took a beginner university class on feminism around the same time. I read Simone De Beauvour’s book and started to recognize the ways in which my family had, without intending to, socialized me towards subservience. I looked again with adult eyes at the ways in which my parents interacted and about the family stories they told, particularly those attempting to justify my grandfathers’ infidelity. My husband started pointing out the ways in which my family would reinforce the idea that men’s opinions are more important and that women expressing their own desires are selfish. (Note: these were very subtle things. I do not believe my dad was the head of our household or that my mom was subservient to him. Yet the message that somehow a woman must constantly work to keep her partner was reinforced in so many ways.)

When I first heard that my firstborn was going to be a boy, I cried. This isn’t any reflection on him. I love him for who he is. It was a reflection of who I was at the time, and the feeling that I as a woman didn’t want to have a boy to wait upon. I got over it, fell in love with my two little boys, and didn’t care that the doll I offered them was quickly abandoned. I rejoiced that they didn’t discover that ‘pink is a girl color’ until later in life till they were school-aged, though I never tried to push the color on them either. When I had my daughter I dressed her first in her brothers’ cast-offs, till friends insisted on giving her pink clothes which she embraced with a freakish enthusiasm. To my horror I found I speak to her differently when she’s dressed in pink. I’m more likely to comment on her appearance, or her smile, or call her endearments than when she is dressed in her brothers old clothes. There is a lot of work for me to unpack and discard my own gender conceptions. They are more subtle than any silly notion that men work and women care for the house, and thus harder to root out. I hope I can do it in time to not pass them on. The radical feminist interpretation that gender is a subtle system of oppression rings true to me.  Gender is a club we enter as newborns when our gender is announced and knowledge of it shapes others interactions with us and expectations for us.

I read somewhere that a person can’t be a radical feminist wanting to do away with gender roles while still acting out those gender roles. A radical feminist woman should dress gender-neutral, de-emphasis her breasts and hair, etc, etc. If not she’s just reinforcing the gender roles and might as well let transgender women into the “women” club.  How can a person say that a woman is oppressed and not fight to do away with the symbols of oppression? I disagree.

It’s taken me years to be comfortable wearing shorts with my unshaven legs, so I know the pressure to be feminine is quite strong and I don’t blame women for giving into it. On the other hand, I wear my hair long because I couldn’t be bothered to get it cut regularly and its easier to pin out of my face if shoulder length, not because I want to look feminine. I stay at home and homeschool because one of us have to do it, and at the time, it looked like my potential career wasn’t going to work out anyway, while my husband’s had hope. I don’t feel like I should have to hide who I am in order to reject the idea of gender roles and the gender oppression that I see happening in the way people train their daughters.

If a man takes on the feminine gender roles he can help detach them from association with what it means to be a “woman.”  But if at the time he takes on those gender roles he says it makes him a woman, then he reinforces the use of the gender roles for the defining of what it means to be a woman. If a woman takes on the gender roles of a man she challenges the definition of what ‘woman’ is a way that can help free women. Unless she says she’s no longer a woman, she’s a man.

I don’t want to make life harder for transgendered men and women. I want to see gender neutral bathrooms where they can feel safe and not have to face conflict between how they define themselves and others define them every time they need to use a public washroom. Yet I don’t necessarily think adopting the transgendered person’s understanding of gender is the right way to go. I worry about children who are pushed into gender roles too young, including those who are encouraged to see themselves as transgendered. In some ways, I think it might encourage them to see themselves as the problem or as an exceptional circumstance, rather than the problem being the way gender roles are played out in society.

I am fine with using whatever pronouns a person wants for him or her, but I don’t like the implication that the only way to be supportive is to agree completely. I am fine with transgendered people as individuals. I have trouble with the politics of it. I have anger when I hear of well meaning groups having to struggle through lawsuits because they attempted to maintain policies which recognize that the majority of their members do not agree with the transgendered perspective on gender.

While I believe that transgendered people have a right to assistance in the case of fleeing abusive relationships, I don’t think they should necessarily have the right to insist on being in a particular shelter if doing so would cause problems for the women already there. I believe that rape-crisis centres should be able to insist that their volunteer councilors be people who will not make their clients uncomfortable, even if that means excluding transgendered volunteers. I mean, it horrifies me that women would feel the need to not be around any men… that they could be hurt badly enough that the presence of men is hard for them. That should not happen! That is what we need to stop! But in the meantime, insisting that men be able to force their way into those spaces (particularly in the powered position of councilor) is not fair.

A transgendered man (woman turned man) gave birth and then used a breastfeeding supplementer to allow her to nurse her baby despite the breast reduction surgery she had experienced earlier. That’s fine, she/he can live his/her life as she/he chooses. Then the person freaks out when La Leche League Canada doesn’t allow him/her to become a leader. The LLL is a “mother to mother support group” so it makes sense that leaders be asked to identify themselves as breastfeeding mothers, not breastfeeding fathers. Apparently Trevor’s local group was really supportive of him. I wonder if they would have been as supportive if a biologically male person came and asked help in using a nursing supplement to allow his baby to nurse on his nipples. Would they have encouraged that or where they supportive because they viewed Trevor as a woman? But whatever the ethics of a man – whether cis or trans – breastfeeding, the fact is the LLL is allowed to choose their leaders. I remember a long time ago going through the process to be a LLL leader, and it isn’t a guarantee that you get to become one. They can reject a person for a whole variety of different reasons, including that they just don’t feel the person’s personality would allow the person to be a good representative of the group or because the person seems incapable of not mixing causes. No one – regardless of gender – has a right to be a LLL leader. (Also: the reason the LLL gave for rejecting Trevor’s application is that Trevor would not be able to speak as a leader about his experience breastfeeding because the milk he used was informally donated breastmilk, and the LLL recommends against informal milksharing for safety concerns.)

But what I find hardest is the question of whether one can question transgenderism without being transphobic. Is transgenderism something that only transgendered people can have any knowledge or opinion on? Should their experience be the only one listened to? Is it something that only affect them? Or does it also affect other people? Are there ways to engage in productive conversation about what gender means to people – those who identify as trans as well as those who don’t? Is having a difference of opinion inherently hateful?

I have heard that some groups reject Deep Green Resistance completely and have managed to get venues for their speaking tour cancelled because of their position on gender, and that makes me scared. Little of what I’ve read of theirs strikes me as hateful, with most respectfully disagreeing and some of it written in haste and frusturation in response to particular confrontations. If their opinion is seen as hateful, what hopes does that leave me to not equally be tarred as hateful by some group or other?

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  • Rachel Ivey

    I’m so glad you were able to come to our Sudbury presentation. Thank you for this thoughtful and intelligent analysis. Would it be okay with you if Lexy and I reposted this article on our tour blog?

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    “Deep Green Resistance, Gender, and Transgenderism” | bend it til it breaks
  • Jack

    You could try educating yourself on actual trans* politics, instead of constantly treating trans* folk as people trying to assume the guise of a different gender and misgendering every single trans* person you use as an example here. The way you write about this topics speaks leagues to your current assumption of gender and gender related issues.

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