This isn't my first time joining a "cult."

In 2015 I joined an animal rights group called Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). I was a member, and later an organizer, for DxE for about two years. We rescued animals, led massive protests through the streets of Philadelphia, and held vigils outside slaughterhouses.

Now, DxE has been labeled a "cult" by many leading members of the animal rights community.

The most prominent "cult" criticism came from beloved feminist vegan theologian Carol J. Adams. Adams' work has been very important to me personally in developing my vegan-feminist ethic. However, Adams' criticism of DxE lacks an understanding of effective movement building and rather than focus her criticism on the (very real) abuses of power in DxE leadership, Adams veers off into critique of the tactics of the organization itself.

Participating in a DxE march in San Francisco, 2016

Especially ironic is that Adams made a pledge that she would not speak at any event platforming a speaker from DxE - a direct mirror to DxE's "Liberation Pledge", where members refuse to sit where people are eating animals. She heavily criticizes the Liberation Pledge in her article.

To be fair, there are reasons why DxE was called a cult. Members are trained into more and more extreme activism, a single leader was widely regarded and had ultimate authority, and DxE encourage activists to live together in "activist houses" where they could support each other and provide a home to rescued animals. But these superficial similarities don't hold up when we consider what actually makes a cult.

My experience with DxE (and eventually leaving DxE), taught me something about the meaning of the word "cult" - any group can be a cult if you feel threatened by it.

What is a cult?

In 1978, Bruce Campbell proposed a typology of cults. They included:

"a mystically-oriented illumination type; an instrumental type, in which inner experience is sought for its effects; and a service-oriented type, which is focused on aiding others."

DxE most closely resembles a service-oriented cult, since its goal is animal liberation. "This type tends to take on characteristics of the church," Campbell writes, "This is also seen in the spirit of inclusiveness and the drive to expand, and in the training of the young." These characteristics could be found in DxE, which focused on training young activists, movement growth, and inclusiveness. At times, DxE events also mirrored the structure of church events.

However, cults are also defined by a religious, divine, or spiritual component. This thread is common across all definitions of a cult. Campbell stated that cults are defined as, "non-traditional religious groups that are based on a belief in a divine element within the individual."

Merriam-Webster defines a cult first as, "a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious (also: its body of adherents)."

Spurious means false, deceitful, or illegitimate.

A common thread in the labeling of groups as "cults" is that they differ from the mainstream orthodoxy, specifically a mainstream religion. The Christian anti-cult movement popped up in the 1940s with the goal of resisting new religions that were considered a threat to Christianity. What religions are considered "spurious" is largely controlled by those with power.

It's no surprise, then, that DxE - which aimed to topple one of the most important American orthodoxies, speciesism, was eventually labeled a cult largely because of its successful movement-building tactics. This criticism initially came from former members who were personally hurt by the group, and later spread to non-vegans who were able to weaponize the claim against the entire animal rights movement.

It's also no surprise, then, that another counter-orthodoxy movement has recently been labeled a cult: gender critical feminism.

What is gender critical feminism?

Gender critical feminism is a branch of feminism which, as the name suggests, is opposed to socially-imposed gender roles. This used to be a primary tenant of mainstream feminism. From the first wave, feminists have resisted the idea that their sex is linked to intrinsic characteristics and abilities beyond the biological differences between men and women.

The suffrage movement, the fight for workplace equality, the push for equal educational opportunities, and the fight to end sexual exploitation and abuse are all gender critical initiatives - they resist socially-enforced gender roles which held women back.

Video from a feminist "cult" meeting (WPUK, 2020)

The third-wave of feminism, however, abandoned the roots of the feminism movement in favor of a new idea: if sex can't define your gender role, maybe your gender role should define your sex.

This idea is commonly called "transgenderism". It is the belief that a person who attempts to fulfill the social expectations (gender roles) of the opposite sex may actually become the opposite sex.

Gender critical feminists resist this idea as well. Rather than abolishing gender roles, transgenderism is just a remix of the same old oppressive gender roles which feminists have long resisted. Now, gender critical feminists have found themselves considered heretical by mainstream.

Is gender critical feminism a cult?

While gender critical (GC) feminism and transgenderism are both ideologies, transgenderism displays remarkable similarities to religion that GC feminism does not.

Transgenderism relies on the idea that one can be "born into the wrong body." This concept requires the existence of an extra-corporeal spirit or soul which is somehow placed into the physical body.

In addition, modern trans activism has adopted the practice of "shunning", a common form of psychological abuse and manipulation. Anyone who dissents from the mainstream party line of transgenderism is immediately "canceled", ideological adherents are encouraged to help get the heretic fired from their job, silenced from speaking or writing, or even physically attacked (all of these have happened to me, personally).

Trans activists are also heavily focused on recruiting the young, especially children, while GC feminists tend to be older (not always).

Gender critical feminists may display mob mentality online at times, like any other political ideology, but there is absolutely no comparison to a cult, especially in comparison to the group from which this criticism has been lobbed. Not only is there no religious aspect, but GC feminism is an ideology, containing many different groups, and various perceived "leaders" and spread across the globe.

Unlike DxE, GC feminists are not living together in activist houses, following a single venerated leader, using church-like tactics to bring in new members, or preying on young people.

And still, DxE was not actually a cult. But it was much closer.

Gender critical feminists do not match any of Campbell's types of cults. Like DxE, it would be a "service-oriented" type, if anything, however the primary markers of church-like inclusion and growth programs are simply not present. A typical GC feminist event is a panel of women speaking about their personal experiences. No song-singing, not pledge-taking, no Excel spreadsheets tracing your social interactions with the goal of increasing your connections to the group (yes, that's real).

Having actually participated in a group where there is reasonable critique of cult-like practices, the same label being applied to GC feminism is laughable.

The changing meaning of words

A core concept of transgenderism is that words can be changed to mean whatever you want. The word "woman" can actually mean "man" and vice versa; the word "bigot" can mean "lesbian"; and the word "Nazi" can mean "feminist".

Likewise, the meaning of the word "cult" is being expanded to mean "any unorthodox group I disagree with." All the more so if the group commits the ultimate sin, as Joanna Russ puts it, effectiveness.

If any political ideology with passionate adherents can be a cult, then transgenderism is certainly a cult, too. As is the alt-right, the extreme left, liberal feminism, the environmental movement, Black Lives Matter, and Antifa. Some of these groups may be toxic, abusive, and even dangerous. But that doesn't make them cults.

The fact that Gender Critical feminism is being labeled a cult by transgenderist propaganda engines like Pink News says more about their fear of the unorthodox heretics than it does about us.

Cover photo: Author (left) with alleged cult members, Vaishnavi Sundar (middle) and Nina Paley (right). Doing culty things, probably.