My feud with Cathy Brennan

I sent an influential anti-trans blogger a heartfelt letter. It didn’t go well.

If you’re one of my regular readers (either of them) you might have noticed that I haven’t written in a while. Why? Because I’d become too obsessed with hateful people, to the extent that I was feeling hateful myself. I needed to detox.

The people, if you’re new to my blog, are a strange subgroup of radical feminists known by their critics as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs. TERFS believe transgender people are just cross-dressing fetishists who threaten women’s physical safety and support the patriarchy. One of the most notorious TERFs, a Baltimore lawyer named Cathy Brennan, has a reputation for outing and endangering transgender youth, advocating against legal protections for the transgender community and generally being nasty online.

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Brennan

It took an interaction with Brennan for me to realize my obsession with TERFs had become unhealthy.

The last thing the world needs is yet another article about Brennan. But I’d like to process my interaction with her, because it’s been bugging me – and because it says something about the difficult task of remaining a good person online.

Brennan hates and is hated. That isn’t criticism – it’s a description of her media strategy. She’s a social media junky, sending over 80 Twitter messages in an average day, many of them hostile. A website that assesses Twitter users’ personalities based on the content of their tweets rates Brennan as “very high” on the anger scale. A typical massage: “You’re still a man. Sorry about your dick. And I laugh because you will never be happy.” She said that to an 18-year-old transgender woman.

Of course, Brennan doesn’t start all of these exchanges. People go out of their way to send her unsolicited, hateful messages. For some people – especially transgender youth – standing up to Brennan might be a way of proving they can handle transmisogyny. But by sending aggressive messages they wind up giving Brennan justification for her own hateful rhetoric.

A typical cycle begins when someone sends Brennan an angry message. Brennan replies, and a hostile exchange ensues. Brennan posts the other person’s comments  (and sometimes their personal identifying information) as evidence that transgender people and trans advocates are out to get her. Then somebody else, outraged that Brennan would post someone’s information in this way, sends her an angry message. Wash, rinse, repeat – Brennan has turned herself into a perpetual-hatred machine.

I’ve given in to the temptation. My first interaction with Brennan began when I sent a tweet insulting insultingly comparing her to the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This led to a brief, hostile exchange that I’m not proud of.

A couple of weeks ago I had an insane idea: What if there was a way to break this cycle of hate? It started when I was reading Brennan’s blog (hate-reading TERF blogs had become a hobby of mine) and came across a post about a young woman who was raped and murdered by men. Reading the post made me feel angry, sick and powerless. Then it occurred to me – Brennan and I probably had similar feelings about this atrocity.

Did she know there are men who feel that way? Did she know there are men who hate rape and male violence? I decided to find out. I decided to send Brennan a letter.

I put careful thought into the letter. I didn’t want to mention the woman from the article by name but I wrote about how her death made me feel – sick, angry, impotent. I wrote about women I knew who had been raped by men. “Please remember that all men have mothers,” I wrote. “If most women have been affected by sexual assault then most men have been affected by sexual assault too – and we’re not OK with it the way you think we are.”

Why the hell would I share all this? I admit there was part of me that wanted to shock Brennan with kindness. I thought, “This TERF thinks men are awful? Let’s see what she makes of this!” But I also thought there was an outside chance she’d recognize my experiences and feelings as being vaguely similar to her own. And then what? Embrace transgender people? Lighten up a bit? I don’t really know what I expected.

I sent the email anonymously from my SocialWorked account (socialworkedmail@gmail.com), not really expecting a response. But Brennan did reply – and she went all out. She looked up my Twitter account and sent me a message: “Do not ever contact me @Social_Worked. I am not interested in communicating with you. There is something wrong w you.” She also posted a screencap of the letter on my Facebook page, accompanied by a similar comment.

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Bizarrely, Brennan was able to track down my real name and personal Facebook account, even though I contacted her anonymously. I’ve since Googled my real name together with my SocialWorked email address and nothing came up. Maybe she pays for online background checks?

True to reputation, Brennan doxed me by posting the letter (which was meant to be private) alongside my personal Facebook information, including my real name and photo. That sucks for me because I’ve been using this blog and associated social media accounts to share deeply personal feelings and experiences under the cover of anonymity. Thanks to Brennan I need to be more careful.

I can understand Brennan being put off by the letter – it was an unsolicited email sent to her work address. It would have been understandable if she ignored it or asked me not to write again. But her reaction seemed disproportionate. Did the kind tone of my letter threaten her hate-based worldview?

Whatever the reason for her hostility, the whole interaction left me with a bad taste in my mouth. What was I doing, obsessing over TERFs and getting into Twitter feuds with people like Brennan?

That’s what I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of weeks. I have some thoughts.

The most noble explanation for my TERF obsession is that I wanted to defend transgender people. I think there’s some truth to that. But if that’s the case why wasn’t I getting into it with other kinds of transphobes, like religious fundamentalists? Clearly my reasons weren’t all noble.

I’m ashamed to admit that much of my beef with TERFs, and with Brennan, stems from my sense of white male fragility. Despite my privileged place in society, I felt threatened when TERFs demonized men. After all, as a social worker I’m eager to be part of the solution – radical feminists don’t seem to give men that opportunity.

I’m going through some hard times, and part of my baggage is the aftermath of some toxic romantic relationships. I’ve been hit by a woman I was with. So when radical feminists seem to insist that men hit women but never the other way around – and the idea that all men are violent towards women seems to be part of their orthodoxy – it felt like they were denying my experience.

Does that mean I was wrong? Certainly not about transgender equality. I have as much right to an opinion on this issue as a cis  man as TERFs do as cis women. Unfortunately, I think I used transgender people as pawns in the service of my ego – I owe transgender people an apology.

I think I owe women an apology, too. Even radical feminists. We live in a patriarchal society where women are routinely victimized, and I benefit from that. What right do I have to naysay a philosophy that helps women deal?

If I was going to say something to TERFs, it would be this: I don’t feel powerful enough to be oppressive. I’m scared too. I hurt too. I’m too tired to fight.

I think that explains some of my hangups. I’ve learned that despite having literally all the privilege I can be pretty sensitive. If there’s a lesson for others in this I’d say it’s know thyself – get to the root of why you respond to things the way you do. Especially if, like me, you’ve found yourself sending nasty messages.

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So much for my hangups. I can’t really explain Brennan’s, except to note that hate seems to be working well for her – she’s often referred to as a women’s “advocate” (what does she advocate for?) and speaks at radical feminist conferences. But I wonder if she’s happy. After looking at her social media timeliness, her late-night message board flame wars, I don’t have the sense she is. I know this: I tried hate and it became too toxic for me. Maybe it’s one of those things where you have to fully commit or give it up entirely.

I know this too: I’m done talking to her and writing about her. I’d suggest everyone else ignore her too. She’d stop being an “advocate” if she ran out of people to hate. Deprived of enemies, she’d be revealed as being what she’s been all along: an adult woman who gets into social media feuds with children. And that makes her fundamentally sad.

One thought on “My feud with Cathy Brennan

  1. I’ve found that this particular type of radical feminist is very insular. They aren’t open to discussion (at least, reasonable discussion) with anyone other than other radical feminists (and even then, there’s no consensus on what constitutes a radical feminist).

    Liked by 1 person

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