Mary Daly: Can I Love the Luddite and Deplore the Transphobe? by Dirk von der Horst


David’s Loves, Jonathan’s Laments by Dirk von der Horst

Mary Daly was one of the most prescient voices of her time with regard to environmental disaster.

Daly was also an explicitly transphobic thinker.

These two facts are deeply related.

What links these two directions in her thought is a radically anti-interventionist ethic.  Daly repeatedly shows how the patriarchal impulse to control everything in the world not only destroys womens’ lives but is destroying the living, natural world.  She describes boundary violation as one of the key elements of control, and her concern for the ability of nature to be on its own terms extends to such unconscious phenomena as comets.  In Quintessence: Realizing the Archaic Future, she laments scientists “harpooning a comet, just to see what’s inside,” revealing the extent of her respect for the integrity of natural processes. (3)

In contrast to the technological use of science to bend nature to human purposes, Daly advocates participation in Be-ing.  Be-ing is a natural process of unconstrained movement, in which various Selves and Elemental forces unfold.  In an unalienated state of participation in Be-ing, connection is genuine and unforced, and the relations that emerge in this process further spur the development and creativity of a natural unfolding process.  Among the many words Daly reclaims and plays with, her use of “Wild” describes women’s participation in Be-ing, and it especially brings out a sense of uncontrolled creativity.

Among the many benefits of Daly’s advocacy of participation in Be-ing is the sense of sheer aliveness it offers.  To write this piece, I re-read her Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy to help me think about the conundrum I named in the opening sentences.  I had originally read it in my first years of college, and experienced it as a shock, but also as a way of thinking that was more than compelling – it was alluring, enticing, exciting.  Over the years, I’d referred back to bits and pieces of the book, but when I sat down to read it from beginning to end again after twenty-some years, I was struck again by how alive it made me feel, how it deepened my own awareness of our profound connection with the natural, living world around us.

Of course, the importance of Daly’s work is not simply in her advocacy of harmony with nature, but in her keen naming of destructive forces apparent on many levels.  In Pure Lust, she states,  “Within the sadostate women are ontologically undermined, for the sado-intent is the conversion of female participation in Be-ing into mere being, that is, the conversion of women into things, and into complicity with thinghood.” (59)  Since 1984, when Daly published these words, the scientific rush to convert life into thinghood has accelerated.  For example, one group of Japanese scientists looked at the threat of bee collapse, and came up with the idea of using robot bees to pollinate plants.  While other scientists quickly showed that robot pollination would not be a feasible alternative to bees, the impulse to replace nature with machines that the premise revealed is growing more and more common.

The depth to which this impulse is present in contemporary society is apparent in the rise of various transhumanist movements, many of which  advocate complete “liberation” from biological restraints, or what we generally call embodiment.  Some manifestations of these desires can be seen in cryogenics, the notion of uploading brains to computers, Ray Kurzweil’s feverish pursuit of the Singularity, or Nick Bostrom’s philosophical musings on whether we are living in a computer simulation, all of which are chronicled in Mark O’Connor’s important and highly readable account, To Be a Machine.  O’Connor offers a skeptical view of the transhumanist subculture, and he notes how male-dominated it is.  He furthermore explores how the more men seek to avoid death through technology, the more they hurtle the world toward a total death.  Daly brings these various strands together in her comment,

Since the Virgin Mother mythically represents all matter to the sublimers/sublimators, the myth of “the Incarnation” symbolically legitimates the rape of all matter as well as all women – a project which has been speeded up immeasurably in the age of computerized technology.  Nuclearism, chemical contamination of the earth, planned famine, torture of political prisoners, torture of laboratory animals, obscene medical experimentation  – all are discharges of male instinctual energy through activities that are socially approved by males. (Pure Lust, 75)

Daly’s diagnosis of patriarchy’s central impulse to convert that which IS into mere thinghood needs to be heeded today more than ever.

Unfortunately, Daly explicitly tied her critique of technological violation of nature to her negative verdict on transsexuals.  In Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, she states, “the Frankenstein phenomenon is omnipresent not only in religious myth, but in its offspring, phallocratic technology.  The insane desire for power, the madness of boundary violation, is the mark of necrophiliacs who sense the lack of soul/spirit/life-loving principle with themselves and therefore try to invade and kill off all spirit, substituting conglomerates of corpses.  This necrophilic invasion/elimination takes a variety of forms.  Transsexualism is an example of male surgical siring which invades the female world with substitutes.” (70-71) Here, Daly positions transgender experience not simply as an extension of patriarchal encroachment on women’s creativity, but as a manifestation of the same forces that reduce the vibrancy of the living world to a dead counterfeit.

The importance of Daly’s position in transphobic discourse can also be seen in her friendship and collaboration with Janice Raymond, a vehement critic of transsexualism.  Transgender people have compared Raymond’s book The Transsexual Empire to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an early twentieth-century example of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda.  Raymond relied on Daly’s thought in her book The Transsexual Empire, and Daly approvingly cited it in Pure Lust.

It took me a long time for me to register how offensive Daly’s takes on transgender people are. The shock Daly delivered in Pure Lust was a crucial factor in my coming out as a gay man.  Yet for many years, I gave mere lip service to the “T” in LGBT.  I identified unreservedly with the LGB part of the community, I knew that attempts to exclude transgender people were morally wrong, but I was guilty of relegating trans people to an afterthought.  Although I had ample opportunity to interact with transgender people, it has only been in the last few years that friendships with trans people have transformed my perspective from a passionless affirmation of an abstract principle of fairness and inclusion to embracing the full humanity of transgender people.  In my initial reading of Daly, I neither affirmed nor balked at her descriptions of trans experience -–I simply didn’t consider it important enough to form an opinion about.  I don’t think it is true that Daly slowed my acceptance of transgender people – but she certainly did not help.

So, I’m left with the question – if Daly gives us unparalleled tools to resist the mechanization of the world, and her dehumanization of transgender people is explicitly and deeply informed by those very tools, can I love the Luddite and deplore the transphobe?  On one level, the answer is obvious – I can and I do.  Every great thinker has blind spots, exhibits limitations of historical moment, social location, and personality. I am not one for throwing out the baby with the bathwater (which is also why, despite Daly, I still enjoy the Bible).  But because I also see that these are not just two aspects of her thought, but two clearly interlocking aspects of her thought, I’m still left with a sense that I have to wrestle harder with this contradiction, that there is a deeper reckoning with my unease that lies ahead.

Dirk von der Horst is an adjunct lecturer of Religious Studies at Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Claremont Graduate University and his revised dissertation was published with Wipf and Stock as Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference.  He juggles a spiritual commitment to life with despair over ecological disaster and a world of injustice on a daily basis. 

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Categories: Academy, Feminism and Religion, LGBTQ

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13 replies

  1. I am so tired of the transphobic accusations! If womyn dare to defend womyn or we want womyn born womyn only events we are transphobic.This is just the patriarchy doing what they do best being misogynistic! This is just another way to keep womyn from gathering.I wonder could a womyn go to all male events and demand to be included?Womyn’s events are being cancelled over not accepting womyn without vaginias.This is being done in the name of progress.This isn’t progress it’s patriarchy.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “Daly repeatedly shows how the patriarchal impulse to control everything in the world not only destroys womens’ lives but is destroying the living, natural world.”

    She doesn’t seem to bother much about men,

    Unlike you and many others I found Daly’s language hard on my mind and senses although I agreed with many of her ideas especially the one I quoted above.

    Transgender folks are people too – just like the rest of us, and her take on this issue turns me off – She may have been a genius in her own right, but she was also a flawed human being.

    I personally have difficulty with her resurrection as some kind of untouchable “god/goddess” who is in touch with truths the rest of us lack.

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  3. Daly is not alone in her disdain for trans people. If one’s feminist frame of reference is to rigidly hold onto the blaming of men, the trans movement is a threat. It is reminiscent of that posed by the “Lavender Menace” in second-wave feminism, who were terribly homophobic. Women who only know trans folks via online arguments with extremists who do indeed use the male privilege they enjoyed prior to transitioning to claim female status, are missing a lot. The trans movement as a whole is where the gay rights movement was in the 70s. It will take time to counter the considerable myths abounding at present.

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  4. The APA, as of 2012, no longer includes being transgender in the DSM manual. That “lovetruthcourage” states other wise, gives one the thought that the alt-right has entered the room. How unfortunate and unworthy a comment for these pages. .

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    • Thank you, Rev. Terry de Grace-Morris for your comment. We are actively moderating comments that do not meet our Comment Policy and have already emailed the author of the comment you reference inviting them to particiate in a more constructive way. It is FAR’s intention to help create a space that furthers constructive dialogue. Thank you for your part in this!

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    • 1st, I never referenced the APA. 2nd, I have likely been a feminist longer than you’ve been alive, and have zip to do with “the alt-right.” Many feminists have hit peak trans. Perhaps you should educate yourself as to why, instead of making tired assumptions. No, diversity of opinion should NOT be censored on this site.

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  5. As a senior/elder, I must say that we have an opportunity to learn and grow from the youth, their breaking loose the binaries of Western Thought and practices, which feminism began.

    I grew up seeing (as opposed to not seeing, which was the majority of folks around me) transgender people. I admit that in my youth, I found myself fascinated by this, wondered about their isolation and probable loneliness, and realized that, if this is how I would want to be, i could not. I was not that courageous.

    Most of my life, as a queer, m.o.c. black woman, I have observed the (mostly white) queer and straight feminist define how others should be. Being black, and understanding that defining, naming the other, was something that I would not allow for myself, and I would defend others from it when possible.

    I admit that I found myself at odds over the last few decades, during the rise of transgender people. Some of it was confusing because, despite my denouncement of it, I retained some notions of binary thinking.

    Being an activist, I attend meetings both secular and religious, where everyone states their name, organization, and preferred pronoun. I’m still awash with the latter, because the subject evoked a deeper look into myself, the imaginative and creative bits of “me” who writes and sometimes alters pronouns to suit the narrator and/or protagonist. Current fiction, videos, graphic novels depict a fluid gender identity. These invade my dreams, create turmoil, and I awake more confused. Until now. I begin to see the value/s of being thus. Of being fluid. Of allowing these identities to change, merge, or become lost. I do not know if I can personally hold all of this movement, but I am more tolerant, more approving, more grateful for this opportunity to push myself into what is a piece of the future.

    As for Mary Daly, she did not have the opportunity to witness the testosterone or estrogen injections’ changes of another’s body. Nor see or experience a constructed vagina (these have been available for decades and are becoming more sophisticated with time. I worked in the medical field and had many MTF patients …). I wonder if, had she the opportunity to see, speak with, be with in meetings, come to appreciate and love their contributions to further breaking down difference, would not have had a sweeter song to sing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your beautifully reflective comments. And great to “see” you again!!!

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    • I appreciate so much how you’ve shared the ways in which your views have evolved over time! I’m just old enough to have to start to grapple with what it feels like to have the social norms I grew up with begin to change, and I’ve been looking for models of how to integrate these changes into my own viewpoint. You have provided a rich and nuanced perspective that is very informative.

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  6. Thank you, Dirk for your post. You do a good job of complicating Daly’s work in light of her important feminist legacy, all while couching the discussion in your own vulnerability. You raise a really important question: what does it mean to use/love/need/be inspired by theory that is tied to another disposition or ideology that one finds reprehensible? A hard question– and one I have been asking myself about some other texts lately. Thank you for this rich reflection.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Maybe the most troubling possibility is that Mary Daly was consistent and completely correct in her analyses of both patriarchy and transgender ideology.

    Maybe it’s worth restating the difference between sexism and feminism. Simply, biological differences between the sexes exist. Human sexual dimorphism is a factual, objective, material reality; humans, broadly, are either male or female. Sexism maintains that these biological differences somehow prove that all females, by nature, are physically inferior and therefore subservient to all males.

    By contrast, feminism maintains that biological differences have little to do with personality traits, talents, tastes, and temperaments. Feminism opposes the restriction of opportunity, employment, education, health care, housing, political participation, and autonomy of female people based on sexist assumptions that females naturally are (or should be) inferior and subservient to males. It’s NOT the position of feminism that biological differences don’t exist or don’t matter.

    Feminism posits that sexism is expressed in society through a system of gender roles and expectations — assumptions that males are supposed to look, act, and feel one way, while females are supposed look, act, and feel another way. Men are presumed to be bold leaders; women are presumed to be supportive caregivers, etc. Gender enshrines and enforces beliefs that one’s appearance and behavior must conform to a certain set of expectations in order for one to be a “real man” or a “real woman.” For example: Boys do not like to kiss other boys; therefore, boys who like to kiss other boys must be girls. (Why this trans-affirming assertion is not shouted down as noxious homophobia by the LGB, I don’t know.)

    Daly understood gender to be the practical application of sexism. She was a gender abolitionist. It’s disingenuous to dismiss her opposition to gender ideology as “transphobia.” Transgenderism posits that MORE gender will somehow erase the reality of human sexual dimorphism and resolve the problem of sexism by re-defining the words male and female out of existence, with the help of a growing medical/pharmaceutical industry that stands to profit. It’s not bigotry to cast a critical eye on this, and to analyze it from a feminist perspective.

    It’s not bigotry to grieve rather than applaud when women opt for double mastectomies, testosterone injections, and painful genital surgeries because ALL OF THAT would be far less painful than living in a body that others recognize as female. It’s not bigotry to question whether this is a sign of women’s liberation, or whether it’s symptomatic of women’s oppression.

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  8. I’ve found the January 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine extremely helpful to understand the “gender revolution” happening today.

    http://press.nationalgeographic.com/files/2016/12/January-2017-Highlights-copy.pdf

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