Celeb-Backed Environmental Law Firm Accused of Transphobia

The site of a proposed lithium site in Nevada. In recent months, the transphobic views of groups supporting the fight against the mine have divided the movement.

The site of a proposed lithium site in Nevada. In recent months, the transphobic views of groups supporting the fight against the mine have divided the movement.
Photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times (Getty Images)

Employees of an environmental law clinic that has gained attention and support from celebrity heavyweights like Mark Ruffalo and the Daily Show say the organization has a culture hostile to LGBTQ people, E&E News reported Thursday. Leaders of the nonprofit law organization have reportedly also maintained relationships with a radical environmental group that has a history of making disturbing transphobic comments—a rhetoric that forms a cornerstone of that group’s environmental viewpoints.

The firm, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), has been at the forefront of a movement to grant legal personhood to lakes, rivers, watersheds, and other ecosystems, known as the Rights of Nature movement. But seven of the group’s 15 staff members, which include contract attorneys, have left in recent months; three of the former employees told E&E that a toxic work culture, including a setting hostile to LGBTQ people, was one of the reasons for their departure. Staffers told E&E that they heard colleagues repeatedly misgender employees, including while speaking to them in conversations. They also say a coworker once mused over a “connection between an increase in transgender people and an increase in chemicals in the water,” a scientifically false statement.

“Current and former staff and others have accused CELDF of having a culture that espouses transphobia,” the organization said in a statement posted to its website in February, after E&E first reached out about the staffers’ allegations. “That story is false and unfounded.” (We’ve reached out to CELDF to see if the organization has any further comment on E&E’s story and will update this piece if we hear back.)

Also at issue are CELDF’s longstanding ties to Deep Green Resistance, a group of environmental activists whose leaders have a long history of transphobia. In an FAQ posted to its website, the group claims it is not “transphobic,” but the same FAQ calls trans women “men” and describes hormone treatment for trans youth as “eugenics.” E&E reports that one of CELDF’s founders, Thomas Linzey, who broke ties with the organization in 2020, has a decades-long relationship with the founder of Deep Green Resistance, Derrick Jensen, who also sat on the CELDF board of advisers. Jensen has a history of hosting conversations on his podcast with public figures who have seemingly no ties to environmental causes but do hold transphobic viewpoints.

In January, E&E broke the story that Deep Green Resistance was a core player in a coalition to fight against a proposed lithium mine in Nevada, which fell apart after the organization’s transphobic views came to light. CELDF staffers who spoke to E&E said they were not made aware of Deep Green Resistance’s affiliation with the movement to fight the mine, even as CELDF was supporting their efforts in Nevada—and as CELDF employees were working to find ways to make the organization more inclusive and distance the organization from its past ties to Jensen.

CELDF’s efforts have gotten a lot of high-profile attention over the past decade. In 2020, actor Mark Ruffalo produced and narrated a film about CELDF’s work, while the Daily Show also profiled their efforts in 2019. CELDF has also gotten funding from Patagonia and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

Almost all of the mainstream press that has covered the organization’s efforts has not noted its ties to Deep Green Resistance. In 2019, Earther was one of those outlets: We ran a piece featuring interviews with both Linzey and Will Falk, a Deep Green Resistance member. Less than a month after our story ran, Jensen and other Deep Green Resistance leaders—including Max Wilbert, who partnered with Falk on the effort against the lithium mine—authored an essay for a Canadian magazine that began with the passage “Okay, 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!’”

The idea of a left-wing environmental group holding deeply transphobic viewpoints may seem like a fringe issue that has nothing to do with the larger causes they’re fighting for. But not only is transphobia—which goes against modern science and medicine—a cornerstone of some groups’ environmental rhetoric, but this rhetoric also opens the door for conservative, anti-environmental forces to take advantage of the movement.

“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,” Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ Program Director at nonprofit watchdog Media Matters, told Earther in January.