Word has quickly spread on the web in the last week or so that Rachel Ivey, a member of the Deep Green Resistance environmentalist movement that holds openly transphobic views as “core” principles, is putting together a speaking tour consisting of a few relatively high profile events in June and July. This speaking tour supposedly includes events at City College of NYC as well as the University of Toronto.
Of course, in their own words, Deep Green Resistance (DGR) is not transphobic, they are merely “Critic[al] of the politics raised by the transgender movement.” They like to couch this ‘criticism,’ for example, in terms of simple-minded race-gender analogies that are not only non-sensical but probably a bit racist.
You can see the webpage for Rachel Ivey’s online fundraiser for her speaking tour here. Up until recently, several planned dates and speaking venues appeared on the page, including two events scheduled for NYC and a July 4 engagement at the University of Toronto. However, the list of dates and venues were recently removed from the page, apparently because some of those venues have been persuaded to cancel Ms. Ivey’s appearance (such as NYC’s Bluestockings Bookstore).
As a trans woman with strong ties to Toronto, it disturbs me to consider who or what organization might be so misguided as to invite this woman to speak at the University of Toronto. I’m also guessing that it’s no coincidence that the July 4 event occurs right before the radical feminist RadFem Rise Up conference, which is scheduled for Toronto on July 5-7. My guess is that Ms. Ivey will be be speaking at the conference as well (and indeed, her fundraiser page had until recently stated that further events would be announced in Ontario).
It’s worth pointing out that while ‘trans politics’ (i.e. the existence of trans people) will almost certainly be questioned at RadFem Rise Up, all trans people are banned from attendance. Indeed, Ms. Ivey has stated herself that she’s “…not presenting this topic for debate. Not in the slightest.”
From my own perspective as a trans woman, however, I will say that I don’t necessarily think that calling for these events to be canceled is the best course of action. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not calling for meaningless ‘dialogue’ with someone who quite openly (and proudly) expresses transphobia as some ‘radical’ principle, but what I am talking about is what is the most effective response. And I tend to consider that question not only from a trans perspective but also as a feminist. It could be that attending the event (for those allowed to attend, of course) and challenging the speaker’s views in front of an audience would be a better way to go.
In that scenario, it’s not about changing the speaker’s mind, but about providing a counterpoint for those that might be undecided in the audience.
If anyone has the time or patience to listen, there is a video that DGR produced in which Rachel Ivey details her sentiments that she rejects trans people’s identities, that she rejects trans people’s struggles against coercive gender norms, and that she refuses to acknowledge that cis privilege exists. She states that she is unwilling to listen to contrary views on these issues (that much of what she says is believable). The arguments that she makes in the video are based on standard anti-trans strains of radical feminist ideology. The statements she makes are not that sophisticated, and while all of these issues around gender contain subtleties, I think someone who is reasonably educated on trans issues could hear her out and easily challenge her during a Q&A session.
For example, she claims that cis privilege does not exist on the basis that, as she was assigned female at birth, she has faced gendered oppression as a woman her entire life. Of course, that’s true that she has faced gendered oppression her entire life living as a woman in a patriarchal society, it’s just that acknowledging cis privilege is largely a separate issue from the start.
Obviously, for me as a white trans woman to acknowledge that I have white privilege does nothing to obscure the oppression that I have faced as a woman, such as street harassment, or the oppressions that I have faced specifically as a trans woman (e.g. street harassment taking the form of an outright death threat). And, after all, trans women are a tiny fraction of the overall population who are extremely vulnerable to gendered and sexual violence.
Further, acknowledging that gendered oppression takes on specific dynamics for trans women does not erase the gendered oppression that cis women face. More generally, acknowledging that patriarchy’s assigned binary gender roles are coercive and damaging to many trans people does nothing to erase the fact that one of those gender roles is widely privileged over the other.
As mentioned previously, Ms. Ivey also makes a lot of bizarre-sounding analogies between race and gender, and she also quotes her DGR colleague Lierre Keith making similar statements. Of course such analogies are useful in certain circumstances, but when taken too far they tend to quickly get stuck in problematic terrain.
Around the 13:35 min mark in her video, Ms. Ivey claims “I do want to be really clear here that I don’t really care how somebody dresses. I don’t really care how they cut their hair or whether they wear make-up. Personally, I don’t really… it doesn’t really affect me, I don’t really think it’s political.” (She goes on to say she has a problem when such is postulated as an act of political resistance, which in all fairness is a bit over-done sometimes).
However, she later reads a quote from Lierre Keith as follows:
“…how about this. I am really Native American. How do I know? I’ve always felt a special connection to animals, and started building tee pees in the backyard as soon as I was old enough. I insisted on wearing moccasins to school even though the other kids made fun of me and my parents punished me for it. I read everything I could on native people, started going to pow wows and sweat lodges as soon as I was old enough, and I knew that was the real me. And if you bio-Indians don’t accept us trans-Indians, then you are just as genocidal and oppressive as the Europeans.”
Ms. Ivey proceeds to supplement this with similar analogies, claiming that being a trans woman has equal validity as being “trans black,” stating that one would then supposedly wear clothing associated with African American cultures.
Okay, first of all it must be acknowledged that the sentiment expressed in these comments clearly contradicts the previous statement that Ms. Ivey doesn’t care what somebody wears. If a white person with no meaningful connection to Native American culture wearing moccasins (clearly inappropriate) is analogous to someone born with a penis wearing woman-typical clothing, then that clearly insinuates that that behavior should be considered inappropriate. So I think Ms. Ivey is being at best a bit disingenuous here.
Of course the reality is that these things are not analogous because cultural specificities have to do with a group of people forming, over time, a local context and traditions. There is innumerable evidence that undermining such cultural specificities (through colonization, globalization, etc.) leads to mass-scale human suffering, and is in fact virtually always a component of genocide.
Neither woman-typical nor man-typical clothing resides in the same realm as such local cultural specificities. A person with a penis wearing woman-typical clothing does nothing to undermine “woman culture” nor vice-versa. For example, when women began wearing trousers more commonly in the latter half of the 20th century, they did not do so as a result of male cultural coercion or colonization. Instead they did it out of a component of liberation: it’s called, given your local context, wear whatever the hell you want. Likewise, if men in North America began wearing skirts en masse in the near future, this would not represent a colonization of “woman culture.” In fact, it’s difficult to believe that such a shift would even be all that important.
In fact, if we carry it to completion, we find that the analogy is actually not even consistent with the internal logic of the anti-trans elements of radfem ideology. Because the argument that is virtually always given is that for someone born with a penis to wear a skirt is problematic because it supposedly reifies patriarchal gender norms. (This claim is not true, but we’ll get back to that point in just a moment.)
However, if some ignorant white person were to go around wearing a traditional Native headdress, no one (not even transphobic radfems… at least, one hopes…) would condemn their actions on the basis that by dressing in such a manner they were supposedly “reifying problematic cultural norms.” Such a claim would probably be just as offensive and degrading as the original cultural appropriation itself.
Regarding the claim itself (that trans people wearing clothes they feel most comfortable with supposedly reifies patriarchal gender norms), I would simply ask that the people who profess this idea please offer some concrete, non-ideological verification of this claim. Seriously, what does this even mean? Do these particular radical feminists believe, for example, that when an ordinance is passed providing people with social and legal protections based on gender identity and gender expression, that young girls in the affected area are more likely to be coerced into traditional female social roles as a result of this? When trans people are accepted in society, does it become suddenly more difficult to step outside the boundaries of the traditional gender binary roles?
I’ve heard this claim about reifying patriarchy over and over ad nauseum in various articles from a radical feminist perspective, but I’ve never once heard even a single example of how accepting trans people’s identities supposedly resulted in narrower gender roles for others.
It’s when I hear these claims repeated over and over without any evidence that I suspect that many of these arguments, when it comes down to it, have less to do with the professed ideology, and more to do with the fact that trans lives and trans identities simply offend that individual’s sensibilities.
Moving on, around the 29:13 mark, Ms. Ivey states her belief that trans women who might have some form of male privilege earlier in life, carry that privilege with them no matter what for the rest of their lives. This is a point where Ms. Ivey’s statements cross from ideological nonsense into deeply offensive and damaging. Now I do not deny for a moment that I myself did in many ways have access to male privilege growing up; I was encouraged in school particularly and that probably played a role in my endeavors in science.
However, these days when I’m walking home at night and I get abuse and sexual innuendo hurled at me by strange men, having it ring in my ears that I supposedly have access to male privilege to just snap my fingers and escape that moment is cruelly ironic. I don’t have access to male privilege on the streets. I don’t have access to male privilege in the workplace, where I have previously faced harassment. I do have a history of male privilege and I would never deny that, but attempting to erase my very real present from that picture does nothing to benefit any of us involved in this conversation.
I think this gets at one of the main problems that this type of ideology feeds: somehow anti-trans radical feminists seem to be incapable of acknowledging the violence and discrimination that trans people, and particularly trans women of color, face on a constant basis. I think it’s very difficult to have a productive discussion on those terms, because honestly it feels like my humanity is being questioned when simply acknowledging my very real history of oppression is somehow equated with solidifying patriarchy’s grasp. (At one particularly disconcerting moment in Ms. Ivey’s comments on this issue, she implies that trans women are lucky because the court system supposedly considers us fully human; for some examples of how ‘human’ the court system views trans women, consider the systematic victim-blaming that occurred in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Gwen Araujo or the prosecution of CeCe McDonald for fighting back against the white supremacist trans-misogynists who attacked her.)
And you know, in a patriarchal world, the fact that it is most certainly trans women who face much of the blunt oppression in the trans community is not exactly a random coincidence. Rather than denying trans women’s struggles, one would think the fact that cis and trans woman are both victimized most heavily by gendered oppression would be a point for us to come together and push back against the oppression facing all women.
However, transphobic strains of radical feminism provide a counterpoint to solidarity by instead insisting that patriarchal socialization (for everyone, no matter birth genitalia) is like having a permanent magnet in someone’s brain that can never be undone— short, perhaps, of unquestionably adopting those tenants of radical feminism. Ms. Ivey herself encapsulates this idea when she states regarding trans women that “I’m not afraid of your penis, but I’m terrified of your socialization.”
Although Ms. Ivey doesn’t say much about this directly, this comment speaks to the wider narrative commonly pushed in these types of ideologies: that trans women are actually just men who have been programmed by patriarchy to invade women’s spaces; that deep down the true goal of a trans woman who may likely experience social isolation, discrimination, loss of employment, rejection by family members when they come out, and many of whom will experience permanent body changes and possibly painful, irreversible surgery, is really just to gain access to the women’s washroom or locker room and try to sneak a peek of a cis woman while she’s changing clothes.
At a certain a point, its almost like transphobic radical feminists view trans women as little more than walking gender zombies; those of us who are attracted to men transitioned to escape being seen as gay males, those of us who are attracted to women did it to enter the women’s bathroom, more generally, trans women supposedly transitioned because male socialization prevented us from expressing our emotions when we were viewed as boys, and the only way to escape being seen as a ‘weak, emotional man was’ of course to become a woman. None of us could have possibly transitioned out of a genuine sense of our own personhood.
And I can’t help but notice these tired narratives resonate with the endless radical feminist obsessions against sex-positivity and sex work, in which they have gone so far in speaking over the voices of actual sex workers as to propose dehumanizing ideas such as ‘false consciousness,’ which basically states that if a sex working woman says that she enjoys her work then she doesn’t actually mean what she’s saying; deep down she’s actually miserable and she’s only expressing a contrary view because she’s been brainwashed by the patriarchy into believing she could be happy in her occupation.
So here’s the reality: attempting to create a world in which every single gendered behavior someone might exhibit is interpreted as a reflection of an irreversible pathological socialization does nothing to reduce patriarchy’s influence on society; on the contrary, viewing human beings as fundamentally incapable of making decisions about their own bodies and their own lives would only and could only act as an affirmation of patriarchy.
However, to make a blunt statement, at a certain point I have to think that Ivey’s claim that she and her colleagues are working to eliminate gender from society entirely is not all that serious in the first place. After all, despite the fact that she repeatedly dismisses Judith Butler’s gender theories as “liberal feminism,” I can’t help but notice that she herself perfectly well fits within Butler’s concept of gender performativity: Rachel Ivey is immediately recognizable as a woman according to her gender presentation and mannerisms. She wears a skirt, she refers to herself using a woman-typical gendered name, and her colleagues consistently refer to her with female gender pronouns.
And what exactly are Ivey and the rest of DGR doing to supposedly eliminate gender from society? As I mentioned, these individuals use gendered pronouns pretty much in the manner that the rest of society does. The use of gendered pronouns of course plays a role in socialization from the earliest stages of human development. If Ms. Ivey and the rest of DGR really seek to dismantle the concept of gender entirely (or at least lessen its imprint on society), why don’t they at least take the simplest imaginable step by eliminating gender pronouns in their own language?
Of course, I doubt DGR would ever take such a simple step, because it’s always much easier selectively criticizing the gender expressions of a tiny portion of the population, just as much of patriarchal society already does.
One is almost tempted to question if they even authentically believe their own ideology.
Savannah is a queer trans woman and physicist originally from the great state of Carolina (that alone should tell you which one). She also writes on trans feminism and other social justice issues on her blog leftytgirl, preferably while listening to metal. Savannah presently lives in Tokyo where her principle hobbies include singing at karaoke clubs and getting lost on the subway.