Why discuss gender as the world burns?

This talk was delivered on October 29, 2023, at a Deep Green Resistance gathering in Germany. If you like this talk, please consider donating to my PayPal using the address renee.gerlich@gmail.com — I am currently fundraising to purchase a flight home. You can also buy my Brief Complete Herstory e-book here. Thank you!


When I wrote the description of this talk, I said I would talk briefly about the analytical reasons why gender is connected to climate change and militarism, but then plunge into a deeper response to the question. Then I said I would discuss what gender has to do with love, what love has to do with social change, and why addressing the problem of gender is necessary, personally and culturally, if we are to face the biggest challenges of our time.

After Boris sent that description out, I re-read it and went, my god that sounds pretentious.

Rest assured I am not here to wax lyrical or teach anyone to suck eggs about love or what love is or why you should be mobilised by it. I am not qualified for that. Mainly, I want to share what I have learned from two incredible historic figures: Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and Dutch-Jewish diarist Etty Hillesum, who lived under Nazi occupation in 1940s Amsterdam, until she was murdered at Auschwitz at the age of 29. These two people are guiding stars for me and I want to share something about why that is.

Gender, the theme of this talk, is of course another word for sex roles: the notion of male dominance and female subordination that sustains institutions and industries from prostitution and porn to the beauty industry, marriage and surrogacy – industries that grant men status as possessors of female sex objects, a notion that is culturally embedded.

First, the analytical answer to the question of why it’s appropriate to talk about gender as the world burns. This is the analysis presented in my book, Out of the Fog, published by Spinifex Press: in this day and age, we are facing many urgent problems: from climate change to war, policy brutality, gun violence, the rape epidemic exposed, again, by the #metoo movement, these problems share a common denominator: men’s violence. This violence is inextricable from the gender norm that is masculinity, and from the widespread pornography that teaches the fetishisation of domination and violation.

My book draws on the work of both Kathleen Barry, and Barry Sanders: Kathleen talks about how masculinity is crucial to enabling men to numb themselves sufficiently to kill in war, with no personal motivation or grievance. Sanders’ book, on the environmental impact of war, points out that the United States military’s contribution to global fossil fuel emissions is such that,

even if every person, every automobile, and every factory suddenly emitted zero emissions, the Earth would still be headed first and at full speed toward total disaster for one major reason. The military – that voracious vampire – produces enough greenhouse gases, by itself, to place the entire globe, with all its inhabitants large and small, in the most imminent danger of extinction.

If it is masculinity that enables men to participate in this destruction, then clearly gender is not a matter if mere identity politics, and important to discuss not just as the world burns but because it burns.

There is another answer to the question though I want to offer it by way of the biographies Thich Nhat Hanh and Etty Hillesum. A warning that my talk is going to sound more chaste and pious than I mean it to be, but by the end I hope the message about gender is clear.


Buddhist teacher and activist Thich Nhat Hanh is known for his opposition to the Vietnam War, lifelong commitment to nonviolence and for coining the term ‘socially engaged Buddhism’.

In his lesser-known book, Cultivating the Mind of Love, Nhat Hanh shares an experience he had when he was 24, and giving a course on Basic Buddhism at a temple in the highlands of Vietnam – in 1950 or ‘51. “More than anything else, I wanted to renew Buddhism in my country, to make it relevant to the needs of the young people.”

While at the Temple, Nhat Hanh fell in love. He writes, “Monks do not usually share stories like this but I think it is important to do so.” Nhat Hanh uses the story as a teaching.

He met a young nun he says was “as peaceful as the Buddha sitting on the grass … The moment I saw her, I recognised in her everything I cherished.” Initially, Nhat Hanh could not fathom the disturbance inside him after meeting this woman: he couldn’t concentrate, and hardly slept.

The two shared dinner, and Nhat Hanh read her some of his poetry – “inside I understood. I knew that I loved her. I only wanted to be with her – to sit near her and contemplate her.”

As they continued to meet and talk, they found they “shared the same ideals,” and Nhat Hanh began helping the young nun – who was 20 – with studies and translation work. Nhat Hanh writes that he “never even had the idea to hold her hands in mine or to kiss her on the forehead.” He wrote:

For our lives to continue, I could not be less than a monk nor she less than a nun … it was impossible for me to open my door, walk to her room, and knock at her door. That would have destroyed everything.

Finally, another nun finds out about the feelings the two Buddhists share, and tells the woman to leave Nhat Hanh’s company for Hanoi. She obliges – not out of obedience, but for the sake of those ideals. Nhat Hanh was “overwhelmed by sadness,” and remembers the moment they parted:

She stood up, came close to me, took my head in her arms, and drew me close to her in a very natural way. I allowed myself to be embraced. That was the first and last time we had any physical contact. Then we bowed and separated.

Who knows what this connection sparked inside Nhat Hanh, and how it sustained him in the years to follow, as he developed the practice of ‘socially engaged Buddhism’ and lived in exile. In those initial months when the pain of separation eased,

we were able to grow, to see things differently, and our love became more mature. The element of attachment … lessened, allowing compassion and loving kindness to flower. Separation did not destroy our love. It strengthened it …

… Over time, my love for her did not diminish, but it was no longer confined to one person. I was supporting hundreds of monks and nuns, and since that time we have become thousands, yet that love is still here, stronger and larger.

The word ‘love’ is often understood to be a virtue, a strong preference for one person over another, or a mysterious state that some mystics are blessed to achieve, but Nhat Hanh’s story reveals love as a life energy that can be sparked and liberated. For Nhat Hanh, the refusal to engage in a relationship that would be either transactional or possessive, the refusal of gender, was key to enabling him to liberate this force and meet the challenges of his time.


Etty Hillesum was a Dutch-Jewish diarist whose journals are published in An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43. Etty’s diaries begin when she was 27 and living under Nazi occupation in Amsterdam. The last entry occurs a year before she was murdered at Auschwitz, whilst she was going between Amsterdam and a labour camp in the Dutch east called Westerbork.

We first read about the conditions in Amsterdam: yellow stars and ghettoes, some days the sound of “planes, ack-ack fire, shooting, bombs”; Jews forbidden to buy in stores frequented by non-Jews. Etty suffers sore and blistered feet because of having to walk all over the city, since Jews are not allowed on the trams, and only on designated streets. In June, 1941, she records:

More arrests, more terror, concentration camps, the arbitrary dragging off of fathers, sisters, brothers. We seek the meaning of life, wondering whether any meaning can be left. But that is something each of us must settle with himself and with God.

By February 1942, Etty had to visit the Gestapo hall, where an officer was shouting at Jews to take their hands out of their pockets, and other paranoid things, and Etty merely found him pitiable. Noticing the expression on her face, the officer yelled at her to “get the hell out of here.” She wrote:

I am not easily frightened. Not because I am brave, but because I know I am dealing with human beings and that I must try as hard as I can to understand everything that anyone ever does. And that was the real import of this morning: not that a disgruntled young Gestapo officer yelled at me, but that I felt no indignation, rather a real compassion, and would have liked to ask, ‘Did you have a very unhappy childhood, has your girlfriend let you down?’ Yes, he looked harassed and driven, sullen and weak. I should have liked to start treating him there and then, for I know that pitiful young men like that are dangerous as soon as they are let loose on mankind. But all the blame must be put on a system that uses such people. What needs eradicating is the evil in man, not man himself.

Etty often asks herself – and is asked by others – if her introspective inclination is not “escapist,” at a time of genocide. But her diaries record stark confrontation with the prospect of annihilation, as much as they do discoveries about herself, God, and her inner resources:

There are few illusions left to us. Life is going to be very hard. We shall be torn apart, all who are dear to one another. I don’t think the time is very far off now.

A few pages on:

I see no other solution, I really see no other solution than to turn inward and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves. And that seems to me to be the only lesson to be learnt from this war. That we must look into ourselves and nowhere else.

Etty’s inner transformation is catalysed by her relationship with Julius Spier, a Jungian analyst and palm reader Etty meets at the outset of her diary (the first entry is dated March 1941). Spier becomes Etty’s therapist, and then her friend and lover. In fact, Etty’s journal entries are possibly more preoccupied with her inner life, love of Rilke, and her relationship with God and with Spier than the intensification of Nazi persecution around her.

A feminist reader may find it difficult to feel kindly toward Spier – not only because of his breach of professional boundaries and his rather tactile treatment methods, but because of the three-decade age gap between the two. By the end of the text, however, it would take a hardened heart indeed to deny the extraordinary bond of love and respect between them. In early April, 1942, Etty writes:

With every new phase of our relationship I look back and say to myself, ‘The bond between us has never been as deep and strong as it is now.’ With every fresh step the relationship seems to gain in intensity and all that went before seems to pale in comparison, so much more many-sided and colourful and eloquent and inward does our relationship become all the time.

Etty is determined not to succumb to feelings that she “wanted to ‘own’ him … wanted him to be part of me.” Early in her journal, she reflects on her conditioning to feminine dependency. She writes how:

All my life I had had the feeling that, for all my apparent self-reliance, if someone came along, took me by the hand, and bothered about me, I would be only too willing and eager to deliver myself up to his care.

She admits: “My immediate reaction when meeting a man is invariable to gauge his sexual possibilities. I recognise this as a bad habit that must be stamped out.”

As she commits to this process, which takes the form of constant, gentle, self-observation and inquiry, she slowly discovers that by resisting the temptation to attach her love desperately to “one man … one paltry man,” an energy begins to swell inside her, to enhance her “human warmth,” and to become the very force that enables her to meet her “destiny.” She observes: “Something in me is growing, and every time I look inside, something fresh has appeared and all I have to do is accept it, to take it upon myself, to bear it forward, and to let it flourish.” Etty gradually discovers within herself an,

exultation that all kinds of human beings should feel free to open themselves to me, that no human being is alien to me any longer, that I can find the way to people of every sort … joyful love for all the many kinds of people, and happiness because I shall always be able to find my way to each one of them.

At a time when, as the world burns, and we are so good at preaching love and kindness left, right and centre, while we are saturated with sex – from the mass consumption and glorification of porn and prostitution, to making Pride flags for every conceivable and inconceivable sexual orientation, to dating on Tinder as though it’s a form of online shopping, to the usual Hollywood preoccupation with romance – Etty shows us that love is not just an entitlement or nice feeling or attitude, but a force we can work to free. “We could fight war and all its excrescences by releasing, each day, the love that is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live.”

And Etty and Spier’s inner lives complement in a way that facilitates Etty’s growth, and affirms her commitment to her inner life. By April 1942, Etty describes many moments where she is “certain that no matter where I was in the world I would always find stars and be able to flop down on a bed, or on a floor, or anywhere else, and feel absolutely at home.” Whilst she suspects that her ‘privilege’ relative to other Jews may make it easier for her to entertain such ideas, she writes with starkness and conviction:

I am not really frightened of anything, I feel so strong; it matters little whether you have to sleep on a hard floor, or whether you are only allowed to walk through certain specified streets, and so on – these are all minor vexations, so insignificant compared with the infinite riches and possibilities we carry within us. We must guard these and remain true to them and keep faith with them.

Etty’s seriousness, clarity and courage are increasingly apparent, and she understands the risk of using God as an escape. In July 1942, she writes, “We try to save so much in life with a vague sort of mysticism. Mysticism must rest on crystal-clear honesty, can only come after things have been stripped down to their naked reality.”

That same month, to her own dismay, out of need for income, Etty accepts a job at the Jewish Council, which Eva Hoffman explains in the book’s Preface,

was formed at the instigation of the Germans to mediate between the Nazis and the mass of Jews. The Nazis gave orders to the Council and then let it decide how to implement them. The Council was under the illusion that by negotiation it could save the Jews from the worst.[14]

Etty finds it dismal to work there:

My letter of application to the Jewish Council on Jaap’s urgent advice has upset my cheerful yet deadly serious equilibrium. As if I had done something underhand. Like crowding onto a small piece of wood adrift on an endless ocean after a shipwreck and then saving oneself by pushing others into the water and watching them drown. It is all so ugly. And I don’t think much of this particular crowd, either. I would much rather join those who prefer to float on their backs for a while, drifting on the ocean with their eyes turned towards heaven, and who then go down with a prayer.

As she begins work, a street round-up of Jews takes place in Amsterdam: the Jews were taken to Westerbork, close to Germany in the Dutch east. Westerbork was a transit camp – a transit between life in Holland, and Auschwitz. Amazingly, Etty notes that the call-up notice for deportation informed recipients that “the journey is free, oh yes free, and they are not allowed to take any pets with them.”

Etty’s understanding of her ‘destiny’ grows more radical. In one passage, she reflects, “If we have to share a prison cell with several others, isn’t it our duty to keep our bodies and souls clean and fresh?” as she begins to understand that “God is not accountable to us for the senseless harm we cause one another. We are accountable to Him!” It is dawning on her that she wants to go to Westerbork voluntarily. Despite her friends telling her this means “that I have given up,” she begins preparing:

Have I really made so much progress that I can say with complete honesty, I hope they will send me to a labour camp so that I can do something for the sixteen-year-old girls who will also be going?…

When I tell others, Fleeing or hiding is pointless, there is no escape, so let’s just do what we can for others, it sounds too much like defeatism, like something I don’t mean at all. I cannot find the right words either for that radiant feeling inside me, which encompasses but is untouched by all the suffering and all the violence.

Etty goes. For a time, special permits from the Jewish Council allow her to travel between the camp and Amsterdam. She brings letters and messages and medicines, and is sometimes prevented from returning to Westerbork because of illness. But her commitment is palpable. She writes:

I so wish I could put it all into words. Those two months behind barbed wire have been the two richest and most intense months of my life, in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed. I have learned to love Westerbork.

Her grappling with God seems to resolve itself as she commits to becoming the “thinking heart of the barracks,” and doing all she could to safeguard God within herself (““they may succeed in breaking me physically, but no more than that”), she comforts the Jews at Westerbork, eases their suffering, and volunteers in the hospital. She wrote,

I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God.

The last words in Etty’s diary read, “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”

Inevitably, her ability to gain passes to travel back to Amsterdam came to a halt – and she was under no illusions about this. In September 1943, she was sent to Auschwitz, and to reassure her friends, she wrote a postcard from the train and threw it out the window. The postcard was discovered by a farmer and delivered to the address. It read,

I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning. On sudden special order from The Hague. We left the camp singing …

Consider that Etty Hillesum did not know that her diaries would be published. Before going to Westerbork for the last time, she had given them to a friend, presumably for that purpose – but when Etty sat in that freight car, and wrote those words, she was not thinking about posterity or what legacy she would leave. There may not have been one. Etty was entirely motivated by the desire to confront reality and forego illusions while safekeeping God within herself, in the company of those most in need of human warmth.


Hillesum’s story is extraordinary, including in their ordinariness. Her diaries are relatable, recording the observations of a 20-something woman, observing the world outside and within, committed to shedding her conditioned habits. Hillesum’s power comes from a very accessible process: a gradual resolution of the habit of feminine dependency she saw in herself. Just as Thich Nhat Hanh declined to behave in any way consistent with the masculine norms of sexual conquest and possession, Hillesum resisted dependency on “one paltry man”. As a result, she saw, “What energies I possess have been set free inside me.”[24] Echoing Nhat Hanh, she marvelled: “once the love of [hu]mankind has germinated within you, it will grow without measure.”[25] These two stories are reflected in a short passage from the Upanishads:

Those who use their days for sexual pleasure
Consume prana, the very stuff of life;
But mastered, sex becomes a spiritual force.

To many, the implications of these stories may seem painfully chaste, in a culture where sexual conquest is required proof of masculine prowess, while as Janice Raymond writes, “[w]omen are assimilated by the hetero-relational ideology that men are a woman’s greatest adventure.”

But Etty states: “So many couples rush off to be married at the last moment, in haste and desperation. I would rather be alone and there for everyone.”

The point of relaying Hillesum and Nhat Hanh’s experiences is not to advocate for chastity or any particular strategy in relationships or in responding to war, oppression or other collective emergency. The point is that these two people teach us that love is not just an idea or a pleasant feeling. Love is a force, an energy that cannot both be contorted by gender, and available for us to face the world with. Hillesum and Nhat Hanh show that love can be liberated to help us meet the challenges of our time in the way we see fit. As Etty asks, “Why not turn the love that cannot be bestowed on another, or on the other sex, into a force that benefits the whole community and that might still be love?”

I still don’t know what this means for me, but because of her I ask myself the question every day.

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