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.

Why MRAs, radical feminists and Christian fundamentalists agree with each other about transgender rights

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.

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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.

Ze’s going to need all the allies ze can find.

An anti-trans group cites a source

A miracle has happened: Youth Trans Critical Professionals, a sham organization opposed to trans rights, has cited a source! Let the clowds part and the angels sing; Hallelujah!

Oh, except that “source” is a tweet:

Children taught in schools to either adhere to strict gender stereotypes or view themselves as the opposite sex’ @cwknews

Still, progress? It’s better than making page after page of untrue statements like the following without anything to back them up:

Even though there is no evidence that gender identity is innate, in the UK wherever we look, politicians, policy makes and practitioners are indoctrinating the public with this view.

No evidence? Indoctrination is happening? Back it up.

If this sounds harsh, consider this: YTCP claims to be a collection of doctors, social workers and other professionals; yet they refuse to share the name or identity of a single member. And they directly address parents of transgender children in their posts – they’re lying to scared, confused parents, with the stated goal of helping parents opposed to “the trans cult” trust that decision instead of their child or medical professionals.

YTCP claims they “are keen to extend [their] contact with other youth trans critical professionals,” yet they don’t provide instructions for professionals who wish to make contact. Keen, indeed – I’m calling bull.

This group is being cited as a medical authority online: please keep an eye out and call bull when you see it.

See my earlier story, ACP Isn’t the Only Anti-Trans Front Group , for more.

If you have feedback – especially if you’re part of YTCP or have interacted with them – let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to include your feedback in a future post.