‘Rights of nature’ law clinic faces transphobia allegations

By Jael Holzman, Jennifer Yachnin | 04/14/2022 01:37 PM EDT

Three people who’ve quit the nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund say the group resisted efforts to make it more inclusive for LGBTQ people.

Transgender pride flag.

Three people who have quit the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund say the group resisted efforts to make it more inclusive for LGBTQ people. In a statement, the organization denied the accusations. Pictured is a transgender pride flag. Alvaro Moreno Perez/iStock

Accusations of transphobia are roiling a law clinic that spearheads campaigns to establish legal rights for lakes and rivers.

Since last summer, seven of the 15 staffers or contract attorneys have left the nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which gained some renown in recent years as a leader of the “rights of nature” movement to win civil rights for parts of the environment. Three of those who quit told E&E News the organization was divided by a toxic work culture that resisted efforts to make it more inclusive, including for LGBTQ people.

Kira Kelley, a former contract attorney, said a current CELDF staffer repeatedly misgendered transgender and nonbinary people when referring to them in conversations. Kelley and another former staffer also said a different co-worker made comments about chemicals in water turning people transgender.


“I should’ve quit long before I did,” said Kelley, who did legal work for CELDF before leaving the organization in November. Kelley uses both they/them and she/her pronouns and identifies as agender, meaning they do not think of themselves as having a gender.

In an interview, Stacey Schmader, the group’s executive director, acknowledged hearing a staff member not using people’s appropriate pronouns on staff calls, which she described as “not respecting other people.”

But in a statement CELDF posted to its website in February after E&E News inquired about the workplace complaints, the group denied the accusations of a hostile environment: “Current and former staff and others have accused CELDF of having a culture that espouses transphobia. That story is false and unfounded.”

In that statement, the group also addressed its public support of a campaign in Nevada backed by Deep Green Resistance, a loose collection of environmental activists, against a project that if it moves forward will be the largest U.S. lithium mine.

Deep Green Resistance, a self-described “radical feminist” group, advocates for an end to industrial civilization — and opposes rights for transgender people.

As reported by E&E News in January, some environmental and Indigenous groups campaigning against the lithium mine in Nevada known as Thacker Pass have tried to separate themselves from Deep Green Resistance’s involvement in the protest, saying the group’s positions on transgender people are antithetical to their values (Greenwire, Jan. 27).

After that article, and after reporters contacted CELDF leaders, the group posted its statement saying CELDF’s work at Thacker Pass was “unanimously supported” inside of the organization. The statement also criticized complaints about the group’s efforts to address internal work issues.

“This misguided, misinformed campaign does real harm to advancing the rights of transgender and all people, as well as the ecosystems of Thacker Pass, and everywhere,” the statement read.

‘Rights of nature’

CELDF, which listed 15 staff members and contract attorneys on its website as of last June and now shows eight people, was founded in Pennsylvania in 1995.

The group uses local ordinances and ballot initiatives — at times defending its efforts in court — to try to cement the “rights of nature” into law to oppose pipelines, mining and other industrial projects around the world. It gained media attention during the Obama administration by helping fight fracking projects and drinking water contamination in the Midwest (Greenwire, March 31, 2014).

CELDF initially focused its work in Pennsylvania before spreading to other states and internationally. The group claims Ecuador’s 2008 adoption of a new constitution including the “rights of nature” as one of its major successes. In Toledo, Ohio, the group in 2019 helped push through the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights,” one of nearly 200 communities to adopt a “community bill of rights” it helped draft.

Over the years, the organization — deploying both community organizers and attorneys in its campaigns — has punched above its weight, attracting big-name donors like Patagonia and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, as well as the Annenberg Foundation and the Georgia-based Taitanchi Foundation.

The “Daily Show” in 2019 aired a segment about the clinic’s work in Toledo, while actor Mark Ruffalo produced and narrated a 2020 feature-length documentary, “Invisible Hand,” that looked at CELDF’s work to block an injection well for hydraulic fracturing waste in western Pennsylvania’s Grant Township.

But lasting success has also been a struggle.

In Toledo, a federal judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio struck down the Lake Erie rights law in 2020 (E&E News PM, Feb. 28, 2020).

Grant Township, too, has remained locked in legal battles against the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Pennsylvania General Energy Company LLC.

And recent years at the clinic grew tumultuous. Thomas Linzey, one of the founders, acrimoniously broke ties with the group in a split that included a lawsuit filed against him by Schmader and other staffers in late 2019 that wasn’t resolved for almost a year, when it was settled in a sealed agreement in October 2020.

Before leaving the organization, Linzey often served as the organization’s public face, regularly speaking at college campuses, conferences and other events — a role he had first staked out in 1994 while in his final year at Widener University’s Commonwealth Law School.

At the time, six months before he would incorporate CELDF, Linzey touted the group to The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., while he was running a long-shot, write-in campaign to be Pennsylvania’s governor. A decade later, Linzey would compare his work to create rights for rivers and lakes to the work of “abolitionists, the suffragists, the populists, [who] sought to drive themselves and rights for themselves into the Constitution.”

“The last 40 years of the environmental movement has been running from place to place, spot fire to spot fire, trying to put out projects that erupt on the scene,” Linzey explained at a 2005 event in Seattle. “People’s movements in this country, however, have been much different.”

Linzey was also the group’s connection to Deep Green Resistance. DGR co-founder Derrick Jensen sat on the CELDF board of advisers for many years and is Linzey’s longtime associate.

“We’ve known each other for almost 30 years now,” Jensen said in a radio interview with Linzey in 2018.

Jensen, an author of environmental books and activist, left CELDF around the same time as Linzey in 2020, said Schmader. Jensen is now on the advisory board for Linzey’s new group, the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, according to its website.

Linzey did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Jensen and DGR identify as “radical feminist,” a worldview that believes in the abolition of gender as a social construct. This also means DGR essentially denies the existence of transgender people, referring on its website to transgender women as “people born male and socialized into masculinity.” Practically speaking, the group opposes letting transgender women have access to “women-only” spaces like bathrooms.

Jensen did not respond to requests for comment, but in a 2016 interview he addressed accusations about his organization’s stance on transgender people.

“I know the trans allies are going to get mad when I say, ‘Women should be able to gather alone’ because they will then ask, ‘Who are women? Aren’t trans who identify as women, in fact women?’ My definition of woman is human female, and my definition of female is based on biology,” Jensen said.

This is at odds with how the medical community believes society should treat transgender people, who often suffer from distress from their gender identity — an internal sense of one’s gender — being different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Groups like the American Medical Association recommend giving people with this discomfort, known as gender dysphoria, the option to change their gender identity through social avenues, like using new names and pronouns.

DGR’s positions on transgender people have in the past resulted in protests when Jensen and other group leaders spoke at events.

In an interview, Schmader, who helped found CELDF, detailed how the leadership shakeup and split with Linzey led to a concerted effort within the clinic to “work on” issues like gender and race, in order to improve relationships with historically marginalized communities.

However, Schmader said a decision made after the breakup to put leadership decisions to a vote among staff wound up actually making it more difficult to maintain an inclusive environment, as have the staff departures.

While acknowledging employees had left the organization, Schmader declined to directly address why some had quit.

Schmader, who spoke to E&E News before the group released its February statement, said the staff member who she recalled not using appropriate pronouns for others is still at the group. She declined to identify the person.

“When it comes to us having conversations about hiring and firing, I mean, who does that stuff when you don’t have the regular structure in place?” said Schmader, who is also head of the organization’s human resources program.

Pronouns and chemicals

A third former employee, who was granted anonymity to speak because of fears of reprisals, said that some on staff set out to “reckon with the legacy of transphobia” inside the culture at the group that allowed affiliations with Jensen and Deep Green Resistance.

“We felt addressing transphobia — and what comes with it — with CELDF was a worthy use of our energy,” the former employee said.

But the efforts “at times felt like pulling teeth,” and some staffers “appeared to only give lip service” to those seeking changes.

When the group got involved in the lithium mine protest, the former employee recalled, “staff not involved with the Thacker Pass campaign were never told that DGR would in any way be associated with the efforts.”

Schmader said “at some point” Deep Green Resistance’s involvement in the fight against the mine was “brought up” internally, but she didn’t “make the connection” that anybody else at CELDF could perceive the partnership as testing the organization’s commitments to inclusivity.

“To be honest, saying it from my perspective, I didn’t make the connection,” she said. “That’s my own fault for not doing that.”

Kelley, an attorney who worked for the group for almost three years before quitting last November, attempted to address the problems they saw while preparing to leave the clinic. They sent an all-staff email blast claiming transphobia was “deeply entrenched” within the organization, writing that some staff “pointedly and derisively misgender people.”

In an interview, Kelley said they heard Ben Price, CELDF’s Pennsylvania organizer, misgender others. They also shared an email exchange with him, in which Price questioned the use of “they/them” pronouns. The email was sent unprompted, Kelley said, after they got upset at other comments Price made during a staff call “equating testosterone to gender.”

“I think I’d rather use a person’s name than call an individual ‘them,’ or ‘they.’ It’s a plural pronoun and adds more confusion than clarity,” Price wrote. “It could be argued that we should use the pronoun people prefer. Being a grammar Nazi isn’t an attractive look, and it’s clear the whole language needs to be revamped.”

Price was a key figure in CELDF’s rise to prominence, helping oversee “rights of nature” campaigns geared toward opposing fracking in Pennsylvania.

In a later email, Price apologized to Kelley, saying he said those things “without saying plainly that I have a great deal to learn and a lot I don’t understand.”

However, in Kelley’s view nothing changed in Price’s behavior following the apology.

“Ben is one of the people inside the organization who see these issues as divisive, essentially,” they said, adding “that the real work is ‘environmental,’ and anything else is distracting from that.”

Kelley also described being shocked and offended by another staffer’s comment suggesting chemicals in drinking water are turning people transgender.

Both Kelley and another former employee said Tish O’Dell, CELDF’s Ohio organizer, made those comments to them.

“She was making the connection between an increase in transgender people and an increase in chemicals in the water,” said the former employee, who was granted anonymity for fear of reprisals from former co-workers.

O’Dell did not respond to multiple requests for comment, while Price responded to a series of questions with CELDF’s recent statement and did not respond to subsequent interview requests.

In the statement, the group listed steps it has taken to address internal issues, such as hiring a consultant to help resolve conflicts through “restorative justice” and posting a statement supporting diversity.

“Are there issues and conflicts within CELDF needing to be addressed? Absolutely, as there are in any other organization,” the group said. “However, those real issues cannot be worked through if attempts to address them are consistently sabotaged and an alternative narrative is substituted for the truth.”