a social working grappling with everything his job title stirs up. i love my job / i hate my job
I have to admit that when I started this blog I wanted to be an inspiration- someone with mental illness who could still hold a job.
Well, let me give you an update. I was employed on January 23 when I checked myself into a mental hospital, where I stayed for nearly a month. Now I go to an intensive outpatient program and rely on my parents for support. I don’t work and I think I’m months, if not years, away from being employable.
So I’m just a consumer now- someone who takes his meds, takes government support and just tries to get by.
Am I still a social worker? I’m licensed. But no, I don’t think I am.
I checked myself in to the inpatient psych unit of a major NYC hospital on January 23, where I would stay for nearly a month. I’m still sorting out what my next steps should be, but I thought people might be interested in some of the things I noticed.
The care I received was excellent and the staff were very courteous and professional. I would recommend hospitalization to anyone who is in crisis, especially if outpatient care isn’t working.
I received electroshock therapy and it worked like magic. There’s too much stigma surrounding this low-risk treatment that helps countless people live decent lives.
Hospital food sucks, as per its reputation. For some reason they put me on the Hasidic menu and never corrected it (I’m not Jewish). Then again, I never complained, largely because I developed a taste for gefilte.
Hospital life is hard. You’re not allowed to have pens or shoelaces. Somebody opens your door every 15 minutes to make sure you’re still alive. My roommate spoke in tongues and once tried to exorcise me. It was all worth it.
Nearly all the patients there were people of color– which makes me think our system is failing. Too many POC don’t benefit from decent outpatient treatment and are forced to rely on hospitalization, the most extreme treatment option. At least that’s my interpretation.
Have you ever been hospitalized? Does this shed any light on the treatment system? Let me know in the comments.
This is a change of pace, but I’ve taken to writing short stories. I hope you enjoy this – and I’d love constructive criticism. This story includes strong language.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— WB Yeates
FRIDAY IN BROOKLYN
He remembers when New York was perfect – clean, vibrant, joyous. That was when his father was alive – a burly, sure man on the gym floor, spot checking machines and joking with customers. Those were the years of Christmas Eves at Rockefeller Center and days at the skating rink. When the snow stayed white even on the ground.
Dan wakes up early today. Unlike his father, God rest his soul, Dan cleans every machine thoroughly, starting from the top and working his way methodically down across the weights, the pads, the springs. He mops the floor and re-mops it. Because there’s time left he goes into the locker rooms and patiently cleans each locker, using an old toothbrush and a cleaning solution in a spray bottle.
Then he sits at the front counter, waiting for customers. Dan is used to waiting. Nobody comes in today.
At 5:00 pm Dan goes into a locker room, showers and puts on a shirt and tie. He meticulously polishes his glasses with special solution and returns the solution to its storage place. Then he turns off all the lights in the gym. He locks the front door and walks to Jerry’s.
Jerry’s is the opposite of Dan’s memory of New York, yet also a cornerstone, because it exists exactly as it was when his father was alive (In fact, it’s where his father gave him his first beer, a rite of passage). It’s among a dying breed of New York bars, those with dusty windows and Budweiser on ice. Christmas lights and shamrocks strewn across the back of the bar in the least festive way. The first twenty dollar bill taped to the cash register and covered in dust. A sign reading, “No tabs.” It’s the kind of bar that would be ruined by thorough cleaning. Dan starts adjusting a stack of Miller Light coasters so they’re perfectly aligned, a tower with straight edges.
“You’re driving me nuts with that,” says the aging, yellow-haired bartender, whose name is Sharlene.
“Sorry. I want things to be perfect. I’m meeting a date.”
Dan orders a Budweiser. Why did he tell his date to meet him at Jerry’s? He hadn’t thought about it. Maybe he wanted her to know something about where he comes from. Still, he decides he’d better plan something more impressive than straightening coasters. He takes out his phone, thinking he’ll check the Village Voice to see if there are any events today. Instead, he finds himself at the website where he met the his date today. No new messages. Dan feels deflated.
“Oh, this motherfucker don’t got my number saved… It’s Tiffany, but how come you don’t got my number saved?”
The young woman at the other end of the bar is with a friend but talking to someone on the phone.
“Hon, take that outside,” Sharlene says.
“You wouldn’t say that to a white person.”
“I treat everyone the same as long as they pay their tab.”
“Whatever.” The young woman pays her tab and leaves.
It’s true, Dan thought – Sharlene wouldn’t say that to a white woman. She’s pissed, though. She only calls people hon if she dislikes them. Sharlene takes a pack of Marlboro Lights from inside the cash register and begins to pack it against the palm of her hand, one, two, three, four taps against her wedding band.
Dan suddenly feels as though he’s covered in hot, dirty, sweaty rags. “Excuse me,” he says to Sharlene (Sharlene doesn’t respond), and he walks to the men’s room, where he checks to make sure his fly is aligned with his tie and shirt buttons. He splashes cold water on his face and combs his hair again. When he returns to his place at the bar he feels like he’s seeing and hearing the world through a layer of water.
This date is going to be a nightmare, Dan thinks.
Television: “Grant… consistent improvement in the off-season… twisted ankle last March. He could really… most valuable free agents out there… you can’t top Grant for… Stay with us. Coming up: my top 10 free agents…”
“Another fucking commercial,” Sharlene muttered, removing the unlit cigarette from her lips. “Just tell me if my Giants won.”
Dan offers to look up the game on his phone and Sharlene threatens to cut him off. “Hearing it from the sportscaster is part of the experience. Looking it up on your damned gadget, that’s no experience.” She recovers the cigarette. “I’m going for a smoke.”
Television: “…get lean and fit the easy way with AbCruncher. Join millions of…”
“Can you turn that thing off please?” Dan says. “Machines like that are why people have stopped coming to my gym.”
“I’ll change it,” Sharlene says. “…authorities say he was a lone wolf acting without the support of a terrorist organization…” “…ran a populist campaign where he energized his supporters with a constant stream of Twitter updates…” “…latest update from a blogger…” “Give me a vowel, Alex.” “There,” Sharlene says. Then she leaves.
“Just missed the bartender,” Dan says to a man who walks into the bar and sits down next to him. “Sorry.” For some reason he feels genuinely at fault. Why is that?
“No pasa nada,” the man replies. “It’s OK.” He takes a pouch from the pocket of his loose flannel shirt and begins rolling what Dan hopes are cigarettes.
“Are you just getting off work?” Dan asks with effort.
“I make my own hours.” The man drives for Uber, does landscaping and makes furniture. He has big rough hands and a bushy mustache; he is a man.
“I’d hate to have to do so much.”
“It’s better that way. If I had to stay in one place all week I’d go crazy. Unfortunately, business isn’t good these days.”
“Everything was better in the past.”
The man with many jobs believes nostalgia, like religion, is a crutch for the weak. That just as there is no God, things were not really better in the past. However, he does not know how to put this into words so he only shrugs. “No pasa nada,” he says again.
Sharlene comes back and gives the man a Corona. Dan finds himself straightening the stack of Miller Light coasters again. Sharlene picks the coasters up and moves them to the opposite end of the bar.
“I remember my first date with Jerry,” she says, resting a hand and dish rag on her hip. “My girlfriend Molly set us up. She tells me, ‘‘There’s this fella from the neighborhood who’s seen you around and wants to meet you. I think he’s an asshole. Real player.’ He’d just gotten back from Vietnam; I figured he’s entitled to be an asshole. Still, I thought I’d better be careful, not go to any unfamiliar places with him, just use common sense. But the moment I see him he says, ‘Come with me. Just come with me. Trust me.’ He’s wearing a suit and tie and he’s got this big dopey smile. It turns out he set up a big Italian meal on the rooftop of his building with candles and paper plates on a card table. I knew in that moment that I’d marry this man.”
Something about the story strikes Dan as beautiful. Two people meeting and falling for each other; two souls in a complicated world. He asks for another Budweiser.
It’s 9 o’clock. Dan says he doesn’t think his date is showing up. He’s relieved but also disappointed, and anxious as he anticipates more online messages and more first dates.
Sharlene gives him the beer on the house. “Plenty of fish,” she says.
Landlord Barry Hers seems to use a variety of aliases to stay in business and continue profiting off of vulnerable families.
I’m about to tell you a complex, tangled story. It’s about a Brooklyn landlord whose history seems to include bankrupting an Israeli village, assaulting his own daughter, threatening tenants and leaving his buildings in deplorable conditions.
As his story unfolds, one thing becomes increasingly baffling: New York City’s homeless department seems to have either been indifferent to his heinous record or didn’t know about it when it entrusted hundreds of vulnerable families to his care.
This is the case against a man with many names. One of them is Barry Hers.
I first became aware of Barry Hers in August 2005 when the New York Times printed a front-page story on a shelter he ran in my neighborhood. The article described the 83-unit building, which housed both shelter and rent-paying tenents, as dire:
Beyond the unlocked front doors of 60 Clarkson Avenue in Brooklyn, the lobby is a half-lit cavern, its ornate plaster moldings and patterned floor smeared with dirt. The windows gape onto a courtyard dense with weeds and trash. On the days when it comes at all, the elevator smells of urine.
According to the story, the building had 213 housing code violations in 2013. Hers told the paper there used to be more but he worked hard with the city to correct them. Hers had reportedly cut security guard services despite receiving city funding for a guard, and a detective told the Times the building was notorious at the precinct house.
The Times reported that Hers also goes by Barry Hersko and Barry Hershko. Remember those names.
Hers created his own nonprofit, We Always Care, to provide casework services to residents, flouting city rules requiring DHS to find an independent organization. Hers claimed DHS underpaid We Always Care for rent and services, making it hard for him to maintain conditions at 60 Clarkson.
The city acknowledged that 60 Clarkson was a problem and made plans to stop using it as a shelter. Unfortunately, this made life even harder for residents, who received multiple notices giving them only 24 or 48 hours to pack their belongings in preparation for removal. Residents said at least one of these notices was on Department of Homeless Services letterhead. Each notice was withdrawn after a burst of protest and media scrutiny.
60 Clarkson stopped serving as a shelter in October 2015, according to Gothamist. Things didn’t improve for rent-paying tenants after the homeless families left. Residents reported their gas and electricity was mysteriously cut off after some of them entered into a lawsuit with Hers. New York State’s Tenant Protection Unit is currently investigating Hers for allegations that include harassing tenents and skimping on maintenance.
Meanwhile, the city acknowledges that it still has hundreds of families in Hers-owned properties but says it plans to relocate them by the end of June. Hopefully the media will continue its scrutiny and follow up on whether the city keeps this promise. I have little hope that the press will look into whether families’ lives improve as a result of the relocations or if they’re simply shuffled to equally dilapidated corners of the shelter system.
The tangle of names becomes confusing at this point: Gothamist reported that the nonprofit managing Hers’ property, We Always Care, was founded by one Isaac Hersko; and that residents of 60 Clarkson, their lawyers and housing organizers believed Hers and Hersko are the same person. Gothamist noted that Hers did not refute the claim that he uses this alias when asked about it. However, Gothamist later issued a correction saying state investigators think people identified in the story as Barry Hers and Isaac Hersko are two different people who are somehow related. An investigator also told Gothamist the state believed Barry Hers also goes by Barry Hersko and Barry Herskowitz. Further confusing things, the Times stated as fact that Hers, Hersko and Hershko are the same person according to records; the Times reporter clearly had extensive access to Hers and he didn’t refute this. A collection of stories about 60 Clarkson collected by the Legal Aid Society has people referring to him as Barry Hers, Isaac “Barry” Hersko and Barry Hershko.
If all of this is giving you a headache, don’t worry. The point is that all of these names revolve around a single entity who identifies himself with either “Barry” or “Isaac” and a last name beginning with “Hers.” Since multiple sources say this person uses aliases, I’m going with the simplest explanation – that all of these names belong to the same person.
And he has a nasty history.
Even though Hers and 60 Clarkson have been the subject of multiple news reports, nobody seems to have connected the dots in regards to his past. A few simple Google searches reveal a pattern of violence, lies, and scams that seem to have been committed by Hers under one of his aliases or names that are similar to them. The problem might be that it’s hard to prove these cases are connected – the fact that they involve similar circumstances and men with similar-sounding names is only circumstantial evidence. But if Hers is using aliases he’s presumably counting on reporters being deterred by precisely that problem.
We can’t let him get away with that. So I’ll simply present what I’ve found and let you decide for yourself.
• In 2010 a developer in Cedarhurst, Long Island named Itzhak Hershko, also known as Isaac Hershko, was sentenced to a month in jail and fined for building code violations. The judgements were dismissed by a higher court on 2012. However, the judge and lawyers in the original case noted that residents had been threatened, that Hershko had failed to pay fines and debts, and that he had created a blight. “The last few years have been hell,” one neighbor told the judge. Cedarhurst is near Brooklyn.
• According to the same article, Hershko faces an arrest warrant in Israel related to his 2008 conviction for involvement in a real estate deal that bankrupted an entire village.
• The article also says Hershko was arrested in 2007 for assaulting his own daughter.
• Fast forward to 2014 in Nyack, New York: Employees at a high-end restaurant show up to work but find the doors locked, a stack of unsigned, worthless paychecks inside. The owner’s name was Isaac Hershko, and the article used records to link him to the Cedarhurst charges. One employee who is an immigrant said he gave Hershko $25,000 as an investment but that when he asked about payments Hershko threatened to call immigration. Follow the link to watch a man identified as Hershko yell at a news cameraman and physically push him out of the restaurant.
• In May 2016 a tenents’ rights group called Stabilizing NYC released a list of some of New York City’s worst property owners. Among the 10 worst slumlords, according to the group: one Isaac Herskovitz. (Recall that investigators think Barry Herskowitz is a Hers alias).
• Isaac Herskovitz, identified as a Brooklyn property owner, bought five buildings in Manhattan’s up and coming Hamilton Heights neighborhood for $31 million. If this is Hers he seems to be expanding into new territory – look out, Manhattan. Herskovitz was reported to own two dozen properties in Brooklyn and the Bronx, according to records.
Like innumerable reporters before me, I’ve tried to find ways to contact Hers. A quick online people search turns up one Isaac Meleh Hershko, 58, in Hewlett, New York. Hewlett is only two miles from Cedarhurst. There are two Isaac Herskos in New York, both in Brooklyn.
Another directory lists a Barry Hers in Brooklyn with the phone number (917) 335-1537. The same number appears on a Legal Aid Society list of New York shelter contacts; the list says the number is for someone named Barry. The list shows this person is responsible for more than a dozen properties providing family shelter services in Brooklyn, including 60 Clarkson.
I have no doubt there’s more information out there – and more stories of human suffering.
It’s easy to demonize Hers – and we’re justified in doing so – but he’s successful because of a regulatory environment that doesn’t care about homeless people. Despite his abuses, New York City only took action about the horrible conditions at 60 Clarkson after sustained media coverage.
And Hers is only part of the problem. Approximately 3,000 families live in cluster site shelters, buildings like 60 Clarkson where the city pays landlords far above market rents to house homeless people in conditions that are often inexcusable. A city investigation in March found these types of shelters provide “nonexistent” security, minimal social services and poor conditions and are inferior to more traditional arrangements where the city owns and runs the shelter directly. This fits my experience as a social worker perfectly – if space permitted I’d share stories about incompetent, condescending caseworkers at cluster site shelters; unaddressed mold growing across walls and exacerbating children’s asthma; broken kids’ beds that don’t get replaced – all in apartments for which landlords collect more than they would if the city simply gave homeless people rent checks. It was in a cluster site building that I was assaulted while trying to prevent a sexual assault (the security guard hadn’t shown up for work yet).
Two additional things bother me here, and they both come down to the apparent carelessness with which DHS monitors abusive landlords. First, I can’t so much as take a leak without giving someone my social security number – was that not a prerequisite before Hers could start any of his projects? There’s a left hand right hand thing happening if Barry Hers and Isaac Herskovitz are the same person and he’s gotten permits under both names in New York City. It makes me think there should be a national database of landlords that all jurisdictions participate in.
Here’s my second concern: It took me 30 minutes to find all of this information and all of Hers’ aliases, using nothing more than Google searches. It’s upsetting that the city Department of Homeless Services wouldn’t invest half an hour on the Internet before entrusting the safety and wellbeing of hundreds of homeless people to a developer. Besides being immoral, it’s inefficient. Think how many hundreds of hours city employees have spent dealing with Hers’ crap – social workers for residents, housing court judges and lawyers, and other municipal employees are playing damage control because nobody did a simple Google search when Hers’ application to run the shelter was being considered. It was lazy, immoral and incompetent management on DHS’s part.
I can’t help but think that if we were talking about white middle class families in Park Slope the city would work harder to ensure their safety. Remember when I said the state Tenant Protection Unit is investigating Hers for abuses at 60 Clarkson? Well, that’s happening now that the homeless families have moved out and all the residents are fine upstanding rent payers. The unit was created in 2012, but they apparently couldn’t be bothered to investigate when it was homeless families who were suffering.
The fact that Hers is still in business proves we, as a society, are just as indifferent to those families’ plight.
Appendix: For anyone who wants to look into Hers further, here are all of the associated names and companies I’ve been able to find.
Barry R. Hersko
Barry Hers Clark
We Always Care
We All Care
You’d better be suicidal if you don’t want to wait for months.
I don’t mean vague-plan-and-means suicidal – that won’t cut it. I know. I’m vague-plan-and-means suicidal and I’ve been waiting for a month and a half for my first appointment at a large, well-known clinic that serves New Yorkers with and without insurance.
No, you need intent. You need to want to die. I know because whenever I call the intern who’s handling my case at the clinic to plead for an appointment he asks me about intent. At the time of the call I don’t want to die, so I say no. So he tells me I’ll have to wait, because it’s a walk-in clinic and there needs to be room for everyone. There are mornings, though, when I wake up hours after I meant to and my life feels outside of my control, when I look at my pill bottles and…
So a word to the wise: if you need help ham it up. Come in off the street with pills in your belly or self-inflicted cuts on your arms. Tear your clothes and shave your head. Make all the gestures, give all the cries for help I don’t give for fear of scaring the people who care about me.
Ham it up. And when you get help, tell me what it’s like.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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.
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.
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.
All three groups hate transgender people for the same reason – and that has important implications for trans activists .
Note: This article uses gender-appropriate language, so a transgender person who’s born male and identifies as a woman is referred to with “her” and “she.” A cis person is anybody who identifies with their sex at birth (the vast majority of people).
Take the Quiz: Can you tell the difference between a Radical Feminist, a Conservative Christian and a Men’s Rights Advocate?
I was both pleased and disappointed to read a recent article in State’s Outward section describing fundamentalist Christian opposition to transgender rights. Pleased because unpacking the motives of transphobes is necessary, if distasteful, work. Disappointed because the article overlooked some key players in the anti-trans backlash and, as a result, didn’t get to the root cause of transphobia.
Conservative Christians have become the go-to bogeyman for LGBTQ activists, and for good reason. There’s no doubt that in churches and “conversion clinics” across the country religious doctrine is used to justify transphobia. But let’s be clear: religion never made anyone do anything. From the Crusades to 9/11, zealots have done whatever they wanted – looted, killed, lashed out in fear – and used religion as an excuse, not an inspiration. God doesn’t tell Christians to hate transgender people any more than Allah told bin Laden to destroy the Twin Towers. There are transphobic atheists and trans-inclusive Christians.
What really drives conservative Christian opposition to transgender rights? The answer becomes clear once you realize what Christian fundamentalists, radical feminists and sexist men have in common.
By rejecting the gender that society assigns to them at birth, transgender people are also rejecting the social norms that oppress women.
So-called Men’s Rights Activists, abetted by the Internet and driven by the ever-burning engine of male insecurity, have become known for their hatred of feminism; but they also tend to be antipathical to transgender people. When Facebook started allowing users to identify themselves as transgender, genderqueer and other non-binary genders, MRAs pitched a fit, surmising that the “retards” at Facebook had caved to feminist and transgender pressure.
Writer Stephen Marche has done a fantastic job of showing that MRA antipathy towards women and feminists is rooted in fear and insecurity. Now with Facebook’s change they fretted about which of the new gender categories “are safe to approach” (note to MRAs: none of them bite). They lashed out with the frustration of boys who didn’t know the answers to a test they thought they were prepared for. “Have we been invaded by aliens trying to confused the fuck out of us?” [sic] one wondered.
In their confusion and anger MRAs, ironically, joined a longstanding and odd subgroup of radical feminists, known by their critics as TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). TERFs have opposed trans rights ever since transgender women started trying to join the feminist movement, cloaking their hatred in the language of gender theory but essentially saying, “Ew gross, get away from me.” Soon after transgender women began trying to join events for “womyn-born-womyn only,” such as Michfest, founded in 1976, radical feminist Janice Raymond wrote 1979’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Today notable TERFs include Cathy Brennan, founder of a group called Gender Identity Watch, who has outed transgender people online, including at least one adolescent.
TERFs assert that transgender women are “men in dresses” who suffer from “autogynephelia,” a discredited, made-up disorder in which men derive sexual pleasure from viewing themselves as women. They believe these “men in dresses” are attempting to insert themselves into everything feminine – including the feminist movement and feminists themselves – and to make women’s issues “all about men.” When TERFs see a transgender woman complaining about abuse they see an entitled man playing the victim card, pretending he’s endured something that only happens to cis women.
As with MRAs, a strong subcurrent of fear runs through TERF writings – TERFs believe cis men support the trans agenda because, by blurring the line between women and men, the existence of transgender people hides the facts that cis men oppress and abuse cis women. They don’t explain why the cis men who oppose transgender rights tend to be the same guys who deny sexism exists and seek to roll back women’s rights, whereas cis men who support trans rights are more likely to condemn sexism.
Like MRAs, TERFs have come to view transgender people themselves as threats. With the ongoing debate about transgender people’s access to public bathrooms TERFs have circulated horror stories about “men in dresses” assaulting cis women in bathrooms. Google “cotton ceiling” and you’ll see TERFs believe transgender women are hell-bent on sleeping with lesbian women, using force or trickery when needed. One TERF describes her understanding of transgender people’s motives in this way:
Dammit you cis-sexist lesbians, if you are going to sleep with twanzmenz, then you had better sleep with cismenz too. Oh, and because you now have to sleep with cismenz, I have a cock too, so how about sleeping with twanzwomenz while you are at it?!… Dammit you stoopid lesbians, I will get you to like cock one way or another!” [Emphasis added]
I would have thought that men who want to get laid would have easier ways of doing it than permanently joining the most reviled and attacked gender minority on the planet.
The great irony is that TERFs and MRAs are not only obsessed with each other but blame each other for the trans rights movement. TERFs believe “all this cis-business” is “men’s rights rhetoric packaged up in a pretty pink bow.” MRAs feel that “this [transgender] shit is all very feministic.”
Transgender people – unlike other oppressed groups such as women and people of color – challenge the social structure simply by saying who they are.
This is where religion comes back in. Question: What do Christian fundamentalists, Men’s Rights Activists and radical feminists all have in common?
Answer: They all have a vested interest in existing gender roles – roles they fear transgender people are undermining.
MRAs like to view themselves as “macho” men skilled in picking up women. An MRA discussion is as likely to center around tips for getting a date as the supposed feminist conspiracy. Ever since The Crying Game they’ve been afraid of the female sexual conquest who’s secretly a “man.”
Conservative Christians also tend to believe that “men should be men” and “women should be women,” a tradition that goes back to church founder and noted misogynist St. Paul, who wrote, “I suffer not a woman to teach, or have authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12) – a passage often used to justify sexism.
And radical feminists base their entire worldview on gender, which they see as being more relevant to a person’s success in the world than their race, sexual preference or country of birth. They claim to be opposed to gender roles; but the truth is that if gender disappeared overnight they’d lose their entire map of the world, as well as the moral high ground and their go-to excuse for their personal failures and shortcomings. The world would simply stop making sense.
Some caveats to all this: I enjoy the luxury of analyzing this debate from a position of power – I agree with radical feminists on that. I’m a white man. I identify as bi but I prefer women. I suppose I could be genderqueer but the truth is I’m pretty comfortable with my male identity.
The other caveat is that in order to depict the views I’m discussing clearly I plumbed subreddits and barely-read Tumblr blogs for quotes – hardly traditional sources. But I believe these slimy pearls from the depths of the Internet represent ideas that have filtered into the collective unconscious. Just as Christians can be sexist without citing Paul, I believe men like researcher Ray Blanchard parroted MRA views when describing “autogynephelia” as much as feminist leaders like Germaine Greere voiced TERF views when she said a transgender man undergoing sex reassignment surgery is “horrid” being who “inflicts a horrific act of violence on himself.”
From my privileged, white man’s perch I have to say radical feminists like Greere seem more deluded than other parties in this debate. MRAs have an obvious incentive to defend gender roles – they’re men and they want power over women. The picture is less clear with Christians, since there are Christian women (and even feminists!), but the pattern of Christian men enjoying dominance over women is as clear as Joseph Smith’s fondness for polygamy.
But women don’t get any benefits from gender roles, except for the privileges granted to the oppressed – a common enemy and the moral high ground. It seems like a bad deal for them. And most women agree – despite TERF claims women are more likely than men to support transgender people’s right to use the bathroom of their choice, and NOW has stated that it advocates for “equality for all women,” including transgender women.
I hope radical feminists come to recognize transgender people as allies in the struggle against oppressive gender roles, instead of as threats. In fact, by rejecting the gender that society assigns to them at birth, transgender people are also rejecting the social norms that oppress women.
And that gets to the heart of why cis people hate transgender people. By rejecting their birth sex transgender people – unlike other oppressed groups such as women and people of color – challenge the social structure simply by saying who they are. In America minorities and women are tolerated as long as they “know their place.” Gay people become combatants in the culture wars when they have sex or get married. But transgender people become combatants simply by existing, by putting on pants or a skirt in the morning.
It took America decades to accept gay marriage, a relatively small change in the social fabric. For a person who’s genderqueer it will be even harder.