Renee Gerlich is a feminist writer and activist based in New Zealand. She granted Defend Feminists Committee’s request for an interview in September 2019. Please see her writings and her October 2018 interview with Feminist Current.
NZ Green Party officials apparently drove gender-critical feminists out and once called you a ‘bigot’. Are the Greens there integrated into the liberal establishment?
Yes. Of course, the Green Party is fundamentally a liberal political party, not a leftist or activist party, as many Greens supporters like to believe. A big part of what distinguishes radicals and leftists from liberals, is a choice: will I work to hold power to account, or do I want to negotiate with power and take a piece of the pie? You can’t do both at the same time. You can’t oppose capitalism, for instance, while you bargain with it. I’m making this point because there is so much fondness out there for the Greens because their marketing suggests they represent the underdog – the environment, the poor, and even women. In truth, they stand for green capitalism, they are pro-prostitution, and they are the most vocal party in terms of this rollback of women’s rights in the name of so-called “trans rights.” It’s especially the latter that is also a strong indicator of an extremely toxic culture, and indeed, a number of women in New Zealand, including Jill Abigail, Charlie Montague, Ani O’Brien and myself, have been working to maintain a record of the New Zealand Green Party’s harassment and bullying of women.
We have heard that public officials have suggested ‘swarming’ your blog. Has there been a response?
It was Nathalie Thorburn, national coordinator for Women’s Refuge, who suggested “swarming” my blog because of my stance against prostitution and gender identity. I have approached Women’s Refuge about this, and was basically told it was not the organisation’s problem because Thorburn made these suggestions as an individual and not in her capacity as a Women’s Refuge representative. In any case, it is clear that Women’s Refuge is not a safe environment for women who believe that biological sex is real and that prostitution is wrong and are prepared to say so, and that is very alarming – not just for me.
Have you faced retaliation at work for expressing your opinions about gender? Can you talk about your experiences?
In 2016, I was subjected to an online bullying pact and banned from a community fair called the Wellington Zinefest. This is one of many, many instances of actually unprecedented censorship, smearing and blacklisting I have had to contend with. Around the same time, a colleague had left the retail store I worked at to move overseas. I took that chance to step down from my role managing the store, and so when I hired a new staff member, I hired someone I could train for the manager role, so that I could move into an assistant role. I hired a young woman, and when she took the role, she started making new very hip and cool friends who were very active in the whole liberal “scene” – pro “sex work,” pro “trans”, and involved with the various lobby groups promoting these things. They didn’t like me working in a store they liked or having a job at all, so this woman responded to the peer pressure by starting to confront me and take disciplinary action against me at work. We were such a small team, and she was so adamant – they even banned me from entering the store at all at some point, I think because they didn’t want me to be able to access the paper trail demonstrating what was going on. I explored my options with a lawyer, and then quit the job for workplace bullying, with a resignation letter that documented what had happened. After that, two transactivists were hired, and one of them used the shop name to come after me again a year later! They are really never satisfied.
Your experiences remind us of those of Thistle Pettersen and others in the U.S. What do you have to say to the other women facing similar persecution?
You know, I don’t have much to say to other women facing similar persecution to me, except that those women are my sisters. The ones I do have something to say to are the self-described feminists who think it is acceptable to let women like Thistle and myself contend with our persecution as if it is our own personal life challenge, or a test of character or “grace” or something.
I am sick of hearing from self-described feminists that those of us who took the initial waves of backlash of this millennial era of transactivism did so because of our own failings. I was told only a few days ago by one such woman that it is my fault I have been monsterised in my own country, and it is because I do not compromise my convictions enough. Solid, unwavering convictions are the engine of women’s movement. Women like Thistle and I are also regularly told that it is our fault we face persecution because of our obstinacy and our particular manner, “tone,” or character. This is also ridiculous – the idea that solidarity should be conditional on some notion of appropriate feminine behaviour!
The bottom line of activism of any kind, is that you link arms and that you form a chain, and you do not let anyone be picked out of that chain and made an example of. If you let that happen to any woman, be warned: it does not matter what your rationale is. The comfort you get out of the fact that it is her being picked off, and not you, will be short lived. They won’t stop at just one, and they won’t care how sweet you are.
You have remarked that the word ‘TERF’ marks woman as ‘fair game’ as the word ‘witch’ has done. What do you mean by this?
Just that the phrase ‘TERF’ is so meaningless and nonsensical it can only be defined by its function. I don’t think I need to explain why it is nonsense. That’s because anyone who takes a minute to break down the term into its four words – “trans exclusionary radical feminist” – and ask what each of those words means, will not actually be able to reassemble the phrase back together and use it, satisfied in its coherency. It just disintegrates upon inspection. Any honest person can see that. It’s a sad indictment of our culture that so many people will hurl a clunky phrase like that around, just because their friends are doing it. It means that a lot of people out there don’t actually care about the integrity of the language and concepts they use, and don’t care whether or not that language or those concepts are actually sound or principled. What they do care about, in this instance, is attaching a label to a person – a label that makes that person a legitimate target for abuse. That’s the only purpose that the phrase “TERF” serves; it’s a term used for blacklisting.
You see the rise of transgenderism both as a legal and a cultural problem. What are the legal aspects to the problem and what are the cultural?
I think that is a good question, because I actually believe that, whilst a lot of people see this issue as something “fringe,” or a millennial “fad” – the roots of both the legal and the cultural problem exist in patriarchy itself.
Before patriarchy, “the law” was not a series of authoritarian public institutions remote from most people’s understanding. “The law” as it existed socially was not divorced from natural law, and it was certainly not hostile to women, when every single member of any community comes from a woman. Before patriarchy, “culture” also was not what it was in today’s society – divorced from life, absent of belonging, and so rife with substitutes in the form of addiction, consumerism and objectification. Culture was about a collective grappling, celebration, and expression of what it is to be alive and human – and since human life comes from women, since women create life in our own wombs, cultures, before patriarchy, honored and celebrated that. And that, too, was law.
The rise of patriarchy, around 5,000 years ago, involved the development of punitive institutions and propagandist myths, since the system goes against human nature. One of those myths of course is the utterly bizarre religious myth of “He” who gave birth to the world and the universe. The corollary of this myth is the one about feminine evil – the association of women with everything base, earthbound, dirty, passive and backward. This formula was the original basic justification for the early common law system that emphasized the sexual regulation of women through an institution of marriage that made us into chattel.
It is really important to understand this, because it underlies what is happening today. “Womanhood” itself is seen as a concept and commodity that men perceive themselves as having a right to consume. The rise of pornography has fueled this because it has consolidated women’s status as passive sex objects, fetishized this idea of unbridled access to women and our lives and spaces, and it has been like rocket fuel for male sexual entitlement. But really, transgenderism employs some very old reversals in the service of male power and access: men can create life, can give birth; women who speak out in their own interests (in this case, “TERFs”) are evil and violent, and “transwomen” – men who appropriate womanhood – are vulnerable in the presence of “TERFs.” This is all reversal.
So, what we are seeing today is an escalation of some old school shit. It’s patriarchy on steroids. We are also seeing a backlash against women’s resistance movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, movements that gave women more rights in marriage, work, politics, sports, and so forth. We’d be naïve to think these movements would not be followed by a backlash. This backlash and escalation of male sexual entitlement is premised on the same logic of the earliest legal codes and patriarchal religions – men create life, men can give birth (like God did), therefore men should have unlimited access to women and women should smile about it. It’s not new, by any stretch. This stuff is embedded, and that is the only way it has been able to take hold. Without those historic and cultural conditions, the idea that “men could get pregnant” would be laughable. Obviously!
Lesbians in the US have been told to call themselves ‘queer’ rather than lesbian. We have heard that women have launched the Lesbian Rights Alliance Aotearoa in New Zealand. Can you talk about that effort?
The Lesbian Rights Alliance Aotearoa is a fantastic grassroots organisation that is really the frontline collective of the women’s movement in New Zealand and deserves wide support. Check out their website!
Do you see the bullying of radical and gender-critical feminists as predicting the general increased supervision or monitoring of women’s voices? Do you think that this targeting can escalate if not met with a response?
Yes. What is happening is that the threshold for acceptable “speech” among women is being set at an impossible and unprecedented low. It is not possible to satisfy the demands of people who fundamentally deny reality and tell you to honor people’s subjective and deluded identities instead – you can’t possibly meet those conditions. So the threshold is impossibly low, and women are set up to fail to reach it anyway. The more these new rules are sanctioned, the more women will find themselves silenced whatever their politics, because biological sex is simply more fundamental than that.
Men should not get too cocky about seeing this as some petty women’s catfight, too. As Marilyn French has said, “The assertion of female inferiority prepares the ground for men’s subjection, because the principle of superiority ramifies endlessly.”
This is also part of the reason we are having this farce of a “free speech debate” right now. In public discussions about free speech in New Zealand, people pretend it’s all about the rise of the far right and white nationalism. Some argument between the most repulsive factions of the far right, and the most “honorable” liberal leftists whose hearts bleed for the underdog appears to be taking place. Meanwhile underneath their noses, women are being ostracised just for saying that “women are female,” and have no recourse. And this isn’t really seen as problematic, either to the libertarians or the liberals. What a performance we are all having to endure!
You place transgenderism in the context of Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ concept of disaster capitalism, which among other things you say has commodified women and harmed indigenous peoples. Can you elaborate on this?
Well, I read Klein’s book, and though Klein is not a radical thinker, this book is a phenomenal analysis of neoliberalism, which is an important context for gender identity.
Neoliberalism is just a contemporary form of colonisation. Since the 1980s, the International Monetary Fund has forced indebted governments to accept three conditions in order to receive financial loans when they need them. They have to privatise state-owned assets like public transport, communications and public lands; cut back spending on health, education and welfare, and remove legal protections that stand in the way of corporate profits, like minimum wages. That’s neoliberalism. And it’s sold as “trickle-down” economics – we’re meant to all like it and think we all benefit, because supposedly we all get a share of wealth that is held by private sector employers.
The important thing that Klein points out is that people don’t actually simply accept this kind of steamrolling. So she discusses how disasters, natural and military, are both exploited and manufactured to create the conditions of emergency that allow governments to make these sweeping, undemocratic reforms. My argument is that women are worst affected by these changes. That’s because as disaster strikes, land is confiscated, wages drop, and public services are curtailed, prostitution flourishes. The growth of prostitution is now being legitimised as “sex work,” as part of this whole process. And of course “sex work” is “empowering,” you know, because the commodification of women’s bodies by pimps, just like the commodification of public resources and the natural environment by capitalists, is “empowering” for the individual.
The way this connects with transgenderism is that it is the disaster context. It is well known that rape culture and prostitution breed trauma, denial, and dissociation among everyone touched by these violations. That dissociation primes us to accept nonsensical slogans that deny biology, like “transwomen are women.” It’s the dissociation that allows entitled men to say, “I can purchase my way into womanhood,” by buying cosmetics and women’s clothing (most of these men do not undergo operations). And it’s the most tragic kind of dissociation that will make women so desperate to find a way out of being female that they will have their breasts surgically removed because they are “men.” That’s why transgenderism is a form of disaster capitalism. The lies can only breed in this context of widespread violation and capitalist predation.
You refer to transgenderism as a method for disorienting large groups of people. Can you explain?
Well these narratives have been absolutely excellent tool for disorienting and destabilising and imploding what used to be the political “left.” It is amazing – so many previously left-wing organisations, like anarchist or socialist groups, or peace groups against the arms trade, or unions, or what have you – now parrot the line that “transwomen are women.” And this just has an incredible effect. I was watching this BBC documentary the other day, just randomly, called Jesus Was a Buddhist Monk. In it, professor John Crossan talks about the mad story of the Christian resurrection. And it was actually just so relevant. This is what he says:
“It’s a bit like when you go into the army, the first thing they want, is to take over your body. So symbolically, they say they’re going to shave all your hair. As long as you give in on this – “We got you. We got your body, which is what we want.” In one sense… the churches… do the same. “We’re going to tell you something unbelievable, that you gotta believe.” If you believe it, then you will believe that they alone control heaven, that without them you cannot get into heaven, and then they’ve got you.”
So, that’s what is happening here too. The liberals have been trying to break the left for over a century. There was the 1940s period of McCarthyism, where leftists were purged from unions and the public service and so forth in the name of this “communist purge” – and then there was the union busting that came with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, for instance under Thatcher. But now, there is the perfect tool, because there is just this one lie that renders any leftist organisation effectively deradicalised and basically impotent: “transwomen are women.” I mean, just watch any organisation go rancid, self-destruct, and lose its credibility while it merges with the liberal establishment, once they have swallowed just that one lie.
Do you think that trans-identified people are trapped into dependencies and antagonisms that don’t serve them?
Yes – that goes back to your question about disaster capitalism, and dissociation.
Do you have any current publishing projects you’d like Defend Feminists supporters to know about?
I’m still making handmade books from home that you can find on my website, here. At the moment, I am working on a series called A Scrapbook Herstory – it is a series of illustrations and quotations that will take the reader through history, actually from the evolution of life, in four volumes. I am making them because I have done quite a lot of focused reading of feminist literature over the past four years, reading that’s given me this overview, which I want to share. So for people who are interested in these books – they’re designed as an overview of feminist analysis, history and literature. And since one thing this literature has taught me is to be a good advocate not just for women, but for myself as well, I’m going to be incredibly immodest and unfeminine and say – these books are solid. I rate them!