The Environmental Movement Isn’t Ready for Transphobia

Jael Holzman got the message when she was busy planning a work trip—emailing sources, booking a rental car, reaching out to contacts. When one contact heard she was headed out to Nevada, to visit the camp at Thacker Pass at a proposed lithium mine site, they asked, was she going alone?

Holzman covers the mining industry for E&E News, an environmental news site in Washington, D.C. The controversial lithium mine is planned in an ecologically sensitive area on the site of an 1865 massacre of members of the Paiute tribe, making the land sacred to Native groups. The site is at the center of one of the biggest environmental stories of the moment, given how important lithium will be to producing electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies: Demand for lithium is projected to grow 70 times by 2040. The protest camp at Thacker Pass has attracted news coverage from around the world. Holzman told me she had no shortage of story ideas to pursue during her trip.

But unlike many other reporters who have visited the site, Holzman is trans. The source told her that Max Wilbert and Will Falk, the two activists who ran the Thacker Pass camp, were aligned with Deep Green Resistance (DGR), a radical environmentalist group whose members have a history of making disturbing transphobic statements.

“Hands up everyone who predicted that when Big Brother arrived, he’d be wearing a dress, hauling anyone who refuses to wax his ladyballs before a human rights tribunal, and bellowing ‘It’s Ma’am!’” reads the opening of an essay written by Wilbert and the two co-founders of Deep Green Resistance in 2019, published in Feminist Current, a Canadian online magazine.

In a rambling FAQ posted on their website, DGR claims that, as a group, it is not “transphobic,” and emphasizes that it “does not condone dehumanization or violence against anyone, including people who describe themselves as trans.” The FAQ goes on to assert that DGR does not allow trans women (whom they describe as “men”) “into women-only spaces,” and calls hormone treatment for trans kids “medical erasure of gay and lesbian youth” and “eugenics.”

Holzman started transitioning during the pandemic, and calls herself “privileged” to have had a relatively safe and comfortable transition thus far. Receiving this message, she said, was “intense.”

“It was the first time I had ever learned that the place I was having to go to for work was possibly going to put me in physical harm,” she said. “If I didn’t pass, if they clocked me, I was worried about what was going to happen to me.”

Holzman published her bombshell reporting on the rift DGR members’ transphobic statements have caused among previous allies at Thacker Pass late last month on E&E News. Holzman didn’t just uncover a story that dozens of cis reporters missed. There are lessons to be learned from the type of left-oriented transphobia Deep Green Resistance members promote—and a warning for the environmental movement going forward.

“No one thought that transphobia would be a wedge within the environmental movement,” Holzman said. “There is a presumption that in these spaces where you’re fighting to save the environment, you might also be fighting to save all the people in that environment. And that’s not always true.”

How Left-Oriented Transphobia Is Infiltrating Environmental Activist Spaces

The mine’s permit was approved in January 2021, after which the Protect Thacker Pass camp set up shop. Falk became an attorney for People of Red Mountain, an Indigenous group mounting a challenge to the mine, while Wilbert became a de facto media spokesperson for the larger fight against Thacker Pass, quoted in outlets such as the New York Times, InsideClimate News, The Nation, and CNN.

“As one loudmouth white man who works with the press a lot, I can say he’s good at it,” Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said of Wilbert. (Donnelly isn’t involved in the fight against Thacker Pass, but is fighting a different proposed lithium mine in Nevada and is familiar with the groups working at Thacker Pass.)

Once the People of Red Mountain learned about DGR’s views on trans people, Holzman reported, the group “severed” the relationship it had with Falk and Protect Thacker Pass. “A spokesperson for the group specifically cited Deep Green Resistance’s views on transgender people as the reason for parting ways,” Holzman wrote. A People of Red Mountain spokesperson did not confirm or deny the reason for their split with Falk to Earther, stating instead, “PRM has one mission; to stop the lithium extraction.” In a statement to Earther, Wilbert, who is not a lawyer, claimed Falk “was forced to withdraw his representation of the People of Red Mountain (PRM) due to a conflict of interest with the entire Protect Thacker Pass collective and attorney ethics regarding Rules of Professional Conduct.” He accuses PRM of making false statements and interfering with the Protect Thacker Pass campaign.

As former Earther staff reporter Yessenia Funes at Atmos reported this week, various Indigenous cultures around the world held much more varied views on gender and sexuality—including the existence of “two-spirit” people—before Western colonization. Indigenous-led climate movements have moved toward embracing two-spirit leadership in recent years, starting with providing gender-neutral bathrooms at the camp protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. (DGR’s FAQ includes a terse response to a question about the existence of two-spirit people, saying the group “refuse[s] to oversimplify the complexity of the world.”)

The Protect Thacker Pass website makes no mention of DGR, but in an interview with Holzman, Lierre Keith, one of the founders of DGR, stated that the group acts as a “fiscal umbrella” for the Protect Thacker Pass effort. Wilbert is a paid contractor for DGR, he told Earther.

Deep Green Resistance has been around since 2011, when Keith, Derrick Jensen, and Aric McBay–all long term left-wing and environmental activists–wrote a book of the same title arguing that “a serious resistance movement that can bring down the industrial economy” is necessary to save the planet. Ecofeminism, they say, is a core component of the group’s purpose.

“Gender is not natural, not a choice, and not a feeling: it is the structure of women’s oppression,” DGR’s Statement of Principles, published on its website, reads. “Attempts to create more ‘choices’ within the sex-caste system only serve to reinforce the brutal realities of male power.”

People not well-versed in how modern transphobia manifests may skip over this sentiment or misread it for committed feminism. But delving a little into DGR’s media products makes it clear that transphobia is a cornerstone of how DGR members practice environmental advocacy. The group produces a podcast, The Green Flame, co-hosted by Wilbert, that has posted several episodes in recent months featuring interviews with well-known figures who publicly expressed transphobic views.

An episode from December, for instance, hosted by Wilbert’s co-host Jennifer Murnan (sans Wilbert) featured blogger Jennifer Bilek, who, on Facebook, said she’s “often wondered why so many of the men involved in the transgender/transhumanist agenda are jewish,” positively citing a video by Keith Woods, a frequent guest on white nationalist Richard Spencer’s livestreams. (Wilbert told Earther, “Me and my friends condemn antisemitism and all antisemitic conspiracy theories in the strongest possible terms.”) Jensen had appeared on Keith Woods’ podcast in 2020. In a statement emailed to Earther, Jensen said he “had no idea of Keith Wood’s political views” prior to appearing on his podcast and that he “agrees to almost every interview request he gets.” Further, he asserted that his body of work shows he is not anti-Semitic and dismissed the notion that he is “guilty by association” to anyone who’s interviewed him.

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In Bilek’s episode of The Green Flame, she painted transitioning as a scheme by the medical industrial complex to push hormones and other forms of gender-affirming care on the public, and repeatedly misgendered Jazz Jennings, a well-known transgender teen. (This episode has been made private on DGR’s YouTube channel since our requests for comment. It was also recently scrubbed from The Green Flame website, Spotify, Apple, and Stitcher, though still cached by Google.)

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Screenshot: Google Search

Jensen hosts a separate radio show, Derrick Jensen Resistance Radio, with a similar pattern: alternating between interviews with people working on various environmental issues with figures who hold famously transphobic views. Some of his recent guests have included Graham Linehan, a former TV writer who was permanently suspended from Twitter for “hateful conduct” and has compared transgender youth medical care to Nazi experiments. (He has previously denied being “anti-trans,” despite his extensive history of anti-transgender activism.) Jensen also hosted Kara Dansky (as did The Green Flame), who recently appeared on Tucker Carlson, claiming that trans health clinics were “eugenics centers” and saying that “words like gender identity don’t have any meaning.” Dansky authored a book titled The Abolition of Sex: How the “Transgender” Agenda Harms Women and Girls and has publicly identified herself as “#TeamTERF.” Though appearing on the podcast episodes uploaded to the DGR YouTube channel, neither Linehan nor Dansky appear to have any public association with environmental causes or efforts. (We asked Jensen why they were invited on his podcast. We will update the post if he responds.)

Neither Falk nor Wilbert would comment on the record to Holzman about their views on gender, while the Protect Thacker Pass website makes no mention of ecofeminism. But what Holzman learned about the group before her trip was enough to keep her on edge as she and her photographer toured the camp with Wilbert.

“What I remember most [about visiting the camp] was that I never let go of my keys the whole time,” she said. “I remember thinking, I am not under any circumstances going to let myself be alone in a space with this person.”

There’s Nothing Radical About Transphobia

Unlike right-wing transphobia, which is closely related to well-established religious panic and homophobia, DGR members’ statements draw trans people as a new, corrupt phenomenon, bolstered by the modern world and the medical industrial complex. But panic about trans people is “nothing new under the sun,” explained Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ Program Director at nonprofit watchdog Media Matters. In the U.S., state laws prohibiting dressing contrary to your sex assigned at birth date back to the 1840s. DGR messaging’s transphobic philosophy seems to spring specifically from a form of 1970s radical feminism, which has led to the increasingly common use of the term “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” or TERF.

“I hesitate to use the word ‘radical’ to describe any sort of trans-exclusionary feminist,” Drennen said. “There’s really nothing radical about not liking trans people. The idea that your sex assigned at birth is kind of a scarlet letter that impacts the rest of your life is a deeply conservative opinion about what it means to be a person alive today.”

Deep Green Resistance has faced backlash for its viewpoints before. McBay, one of the original authors of the 2011 book, publicly left the organization in 2012 “after a trans inclusive policy was canceled by Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith,” he wrote on his website. “Many good people and good activists left the organization for that reason.” Meanwhile, Jensen, Keith, and Wilbert have complained that DGR’s views on trans people made it difficult to find a publisher for a recent book.

But the group has also managed to stay surprisingly relevant in some mainstream environmental conversations, thanks in part to the lack of a link between the environment and trans issues in most activists’ minds. Donnelly, the Center for Biological Diversity director, was himself a guest on Jensen’s podcast in 2020. A 2000 book Jensen wrote on radical environmentalism, Donnelly told me, had been “very formative” to him as a young activist. He’d agreed to go on Jensen’s podcast without doing much extra research into the author’s current views. (“There was no, that I recall, explicitly gender-related content” in Jensen’s 2000 book, Donnelly sheepishly told me.)

The veneer of front-line activism and its emphasis on marginalized groups can also provide a front for left-wing transphobia. In December, DGR hosted a fundraiser livestream billed in a trailer as an event devoted to “ecofeminism.” But during the livestream, Keith went on a diatribe about trans people, whom she called “genderists,” comparing people who get gender-affirming surgeries to people who glorify anorexia. The event also featured a performance by a folk singer who publicly believes “transactivism is misogyny.”

The host of that livestream, Cayte Bosler, was a journalist who’d previously reported on Thacker Pass for InsideClimate News. Bosler said in an email that when she was invited to host, the “event was pitched to me to be about women environmental activists,” and that she “heard the participants’ viewpoints for the first time live with the audience.” (“Beyond that event, I have had no direct involvement with the DGR women’s group and have never discussed their views on transgender people with them,” she wrote. We asked DGR if Bosler’s account is accurate, and will update this post if they respond.)

The Danger Ahead

It would be easy to say here that DGR is just an extremist eco-outlier—the organization holds some pretty out-there beliefs, including that industrial civilization as a whole needs to be dismantled. It would be a tidy rhetorical finish to say the lesson from Thacker Pass is that more representation of trans people in environmental journalism and the environmental movement at large is needed. While true, that oversimplifies the stakes.

As Funes wrote in Atmos, some Indigenous activists say that “colonial transphobic perspectives” brought in by outsiders, like Falk and Wilbert, can set back community work and healing. Holzman also emphasized that transphobia often manifests as skepticism of the existence of, and the need for, medical treatment for gender dysphoria, which has a broad scientific consensus. The environmental community at large should be already primed to push back on anti-science claims like the ones DGR is making. Allowing junk science like transphobia to exist in an environmental coalition is a slippery slope.

Tolerating transphobia in environmental spaces, in turn, opens the door for right-wing actors to take advantage of these voices—as Carlson did by having Dansky on his show, where she was portrayed as a left-wing feminist who was simply concerned about women. “Right-wing figures have been really eager to seek out these anti-trans left-wing voices to say, look, this is a mainstream issue, even when you see most people are just not that activated by it,” Drennen said.

There’s even deeper danger. As facist movements have grown in recent years across the world, the environmental movement has had plenty of heads-up about the threat of ecofascism: both the Christchurch shooter and the El Paso shooter used climate change and the environment as a partial justification for their racist killing sprees. Yet the belief that climate is firmly a left-wing issue, the purview of traditionally “liberal” activists, seems to be entrenched in the culture. Last January, a rumor briefly flew on Twitter during the Capitol insurrection that one of the rioters, famously known as the “QAnon Shaman,” was a paid actor because he’d also attended an Arizona climate march. He is, in fact, simply an ecofascist. A failure to recognize that fascist elements like racism and transphobia can and do coexist with activists who care about the environment gives those movements room to grow.

“Trans-exclusionary so-called ‘feminists’—it’s a hate movement,” Drennen said. “A common thing that hate movements do is infiltrate other spaces, with the intent to find other people to radicalize and recruit to their cause.”

Update 5:35 pm ET: Added statement from Derrick Jensen.