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.

The secret history of mandated treatment

Mandated treatment is about society’s needs, not the mentally ills’.

On the evening of January 3, 1999 Kendra Webdale stepped onto the platform of the uptown R train at the West 23rd St station in Manhattan. She was 32, blonde and had a reputation for being kind to a fault, so it must have been typical for her to exchange words with the man beside her.

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Kendra Webdale

Then the man pushed her in front of an oncoming train, decapitating Webdale.

The man, Andrew Goldstein, had a history of hospitalizations for schizophrenia. When asked why he killed Webdale he later said he “just had the urge to push her.”

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Andrew Goldstein

In response to what he did that evening state lawmakers would pass Kendra’s Law, far-reaching legislation that lets judges mandate mental health treatment. But like any ambitious mental health program Kendra’s Law says as much about society’s fears as it does the needs of the mentally ill.

To understand what mandated treatment is really about, we need to understand those fears.

Kendra’s Law is a marketing tool designed to assure affluent white people that the problem of dangerous, crazed loners is under control.

Kendra’s Law is sweeping. It lets judges require people to submit to mandated treatment for up to a year at a time if they’re judged not to be safe without supervision and establishes teams of workers to provide services and monitor compliance. Though often justified with the rhetoric of public safety, a person doesn’t need to have a history of violence to be mandated under the law.

The law was used more than 8,700 times by mid-2007, with more then 5,600 of those people seeing their mandated services extended. Most people affected by the law (70%) are in New York City; many upstate counties don’t use the law at all.

That’s the law. Understanding the law’s purpose requires knowing a bit about New York – and Kendra Webdale herself.

Webdale was in many ways the prototypical New Yorker. An aspiring screenwriter from Fredonia, NY, she was drawn to the city by its parks and museums.

She wasn’t the first person to die on the subway tracks. Subway crime was down in 1999, but according to the New York Post, “even in safe times, a common fear haunt[ed] riders standing on a crowded platform. It’s of being shoved in front of a speeding train by a crazed attacker.” People remembered Renee Katz, who lost a hand in a similar attack, and several other people not named in the article (a 63-year-old grandmother, a Staten Island chemist, a 20-year-old mother described as having “cheap costume jewelry”).

Why did Webdale’s death merit a response from then-mayor Rudy Giuliani and eventually lead to a landmark state law while these other victims have been forgotten?

The numbers tell the story – a story of race, money and politics.

In the 1970s New York City was in trouble. Plagued by crime and a bad economy, white people and families fled in record numbers, to the point where whites were nearly a minority group. In the 1980s the population started to rebound, but the increase was driven by immigrants, who made up for a continuing exodus of white people. Crime was still rampant, and
the city’s image was reflected in the unstable loner Travis Bickle, Robert Dinero’s character in Taxi Driver. It wasn’t until the 1990s, the decade that Webdale moved to New York, that the city’s population really began to take off, growing by nearly 1%. By now the bleak image painted by Taxi Driver was being supplanted by Seinfeld and Friends – images of a kinder, more liveable city.

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I love New York!

However, crime still scared both current and potential New Yorkers. And even then a quarter of the city lived in poverty, up from previous years.

When a white woman who moved to the city in pursuit of her dreams was murdered by an unstable New Yorker, then, it must have been the worst publicity imaginable for city leaders.

They sprang into action.

After Webdale’s death Elliot Spitzer, then state attorney general and a city native, proposed legislation requiring mandated treatment, and the New York Times editorialized that such a law would be good for both people with mental illness and the city as a whole. Powerful New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represented a Manhattan district, introduced the bill that would become known as Kendra’s Law. Silver was clear that “the specific incident that inspired ‘Kendra’s Law’ accurately depicts this as a public safety issue” while noting that his bill would also benefit those with mental illness.

Kendra’s Law passed. But like other public safety initiatives it wasn’t applied evenly.

In 2005 New York Lawyers for the Public Interest condemned Kendra’s Law, stating that only 15% of people mandated to treatment under its provisions had a history of violence. NYLPI accused those implementing the law of bias – citing figures from the New York State government, they said black people were nearly five times more likely than whites to be subjected to Kendra’s Law orders (others would say this is because black people are less likely to receive appropriate treatment). They also noted a regional bias, stating New York City accounted for 76% of orders despite having only 42% of the state’s population – exactly what one would expect if the law was created to make the city seem safer.

The marketing seems to have worked. By 2007 the number of people moving to New York City from other parts of the country surpassed the number leaving, a “new pattern,” and immigrants from within the United States went from representing half of the inflow at the turn of the millenium to two-thirds by 2011. Incomes rose too, with the median household income going from $31,591 in 1990 to $54,310 in 2014 when adjusted for inflation.

New York City became wealthier, whiter and more appealing to people from other states after Kendra’s Law passed. The law wasn’t solely responsible, of course, but it was one of the policies that made the New York success story possible.

What does this all mean? Many conclusions can be drawn. Here’s mine: Kendra’s Law is a marketing tool designed to assure affluent white people – inside and outside of the city – that the problem of dangerous, crazed loners is under control. When a mentally ill man murdered an attractive white woman from the suburbs city leaders feared Taxi Driver New York was killing Friends New York. They sprang into action, successfully lobbying for a law that’s used almost exclusively against poor black city residents.

None of this is to deny that Kendra’s Law has been effective. Studies by Duke University and the New York State Office of Mental Health have found the law reduces hospitalizations as well as suicide attempts, homelessness and other problems associated with untreated mental illness. Supporters of the law say it’s helping people who are mandated to services and saving the city money by reducing the need for inpatient care.

Mandated treatment is clearly a complicated issue that defies easy answers. But when we debate its wisdom we should consider all of its pros and cons, including some that are often overlooked by its supporters.

For example, any discussion of Kendra’s Law should consider:

The increased burden on mental health clinics that are required to treat mandated clients;

The impact of stringent rules clinics impose to manage mandated clients, such as policies to drop clients if they miss appointments;

The waiting lists clinics create to accommodate increases in demand;

The potential clients who give up on counseling because they’ve been placed on waiting lists;

The stress experienced by therapists and social workers who must work with mandated clients;

The impact this stress has on their work;

The good things providers could be doing with voluntary clients but aren’t because they’re working with mandated clients instead;

The things that could be done with money currently spent on mandated clients;

The pain clients experience after losing autonomy.

I’ve worked in agencies that serve mandated clients and I can truly say their being mandated changes everything. They stop being clients at all; instead they are treated like difficult, ungrateful children. When a clinician constantly assumes an unwilling client won’t show up or won’t be interested in material, it’s hard to overestimate the damage that causes to the therapeutic relationship. In a 2009 study of Kendra’s Law, case managers rated 54% of participants as not being “positively engaged” a full year after services began.

The above points demonstrate an odd fact: while Kendra’s Law has made treatment more available for mandated clients, the result has been that treatment has become more scarce for voluntary clients – the ones who are most likely to benefit from treatment. Every time a client is mandated waiting lists grow longer, clinicians become less available and clinic policies become more rigid. NYLPI says that this “right to treatment” for mandated clients even leads some people who want treatment to intentionally become mandated so they can get the help they need.

A stunning 41% of New Yorkers with severe mental illnesses report they needed help in the past year but weren’t able to get it. Does that mean we should have more mandated treatment? Maybe – but this treatment gap makes me question the wisdom of forcing scarce mental health resources on those who don’t want it.

I don’t know whether Kendra’s Law should be changed or repealed. But let’s be real about our reasons for mandating treatment. Let’s own the harm and benefits of it – all considerable and all very real.

In other words, let’s honor Kendra Webdale, Andrew Goldstein and the 20 year old mother in costume jewelry the New York Post didn’t bother to name.

A cis guy explains trans, women’s rights

I’ve been thinking about this topic to the point of obsession: the subgroup of the women’s rights movement called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) and what seems like their strange hatred for transgender people. Maybe it’s because, the more I think about it, the more trans equality seems like the civil rights issue of our time. Maybe it’s because TERFs keep calling me a men’s rights activist.

Maybe it has less to do with the TERFs than it does with me – but I’ll get to that.

First, I’ve had a hell of a time trying to figure out who the TERFs are, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned.

TERFS ARE as radical as their name implies, and their membership includes some of feminism’s leading figures. Germaine Greer, author of The Female Unich, has described trans women (those born male) as “men who mutilate themselves and are given passage as statutory female.” Janice Raymond and Cathy Brennan – who has allegedly outed trans youth – are other prominent TERFs. A notorious YouTube video that went viral before being banned from social media platforms is fairly representative of TERF rhetoric – with ominous background music it displays a series of what it says are “violent and predatory men” who have abused women while dressed in women’s clothing; one website that hosts the video offers to explain “why those who identify as transwomen and transvestites get a sexual thrill from wearing women’s clothes.”

To be fair, transgender people and their allies have lashed out at feminists and women. The film Tangerine was criticized by both women and mainstream critics for a bizarre scene where a trans woman beats a cis woman, seemingly for laughs (full disclosure: I haven’t seen it). There’s a TERF cottage industry of websites that curate aggressive tweets and other messages from the trans community (I’m not linking to those here). It’s like Isreal and Palestine; there are both cis and trans people insisting the other side fired the first shot, each insisting the other side apologize first. (By the way, TERFs are said to hate being called TERFs – I use the term reluctantly for lack of a better alternative).

Luckily, calmer heads seem to prevail in both camps. NOW has embraced transgender women as women, stating, “equality is equality.” Gloria Steinem has publicly embraced the trans community. And women are more supportive of trans rights than men are, according to yearsworth of polls. One group of feminists circulated an online petition calling for the Southern Poverty Law Center to monitor Brennan’s organization Gender Identity Watch as a hate group; the petition accused Brennan of outing transgender people and critics by publishing their personal information online and received 9,000 signatures before being closed.

That doesn’t stop TERFs, though. At their most galling, they seem to be in denial about how hard it is to be trans in America. “Young biological females are the most oppressed class of human beings,” one cis woman told me on Twitter. That’s a hard claim to accept – by modest estimates 66% of trans people are sexually abused during their lives, putting them at statistically greater risk than cis women. Homicides against members of the LGBTQ community have been declining for years – except they’ve been rising to record highs for the trans community, with black transgender people at greatest risk. And transgender people are at high risk for depression, intense shame and suicide.

​”I was ashamed of myself, my identity, my desires, my inner person. They crucify people like me. It would have been nice to know that I wasn’t a freak and that there were others like me. But when they asked me what was my problem in school they always assumed I was just a bad kid. Little did they realize I couldn’t stand myself. And hated what I was. I felt I needed to be bad to be respected and left alone.”-Unnamed, Reported to Protect FORGE

It goes on. TERFs often role their eyes at these statistics – as if trans people use them as a get out of jail free card – or twist them to fit their ideology. It’s frustrating – and it made me want prove the TERFs wrong.

THE CRUELEST TERF line might be the “bathroom myth” – the claim that transgender women (TW) will go on a spree of rape and sexual assault if allowed to use women’s bathrooms. In this TERFs agree with the Republican party – strange bedfellows. The trouble is, claims that TW are already assaulting cis women in bathrooms are completely false: 18 states and 200 municipalities already allow transgender people in the restroom of their choice, without a single reported incident. Remember that YouTube video of alleged TW attacking women? The person whose face made the rounds online is Canadian and didn’t exploit any American laws.
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Some women talk about a need to maintain “safe spaces,” and I’m actually sympathetic to that idea. However, it ultimately rests on the assumption that TW are strange “others” and not people who can be embraced. TERF rhetoric on this issue is also blind to how important restroom equality is to the trans community. Imagine being a TW – your choices may come down to being mocked in the men’s room or yelled at in the women’s room. More fundamentally, exclusionary policies send a message to transgender people that society not only considers them a threat but rejects their gender identity. It’s no wonder that banning transgender people from the right bathroom has been linked to higher suicide rates among trans teenagers. Most trans adults say they’ve experienced serious problems like dehydration because they weren’t comfortable using a bathroom; a quarter have had problems at work related to bathroom access that in some cases cost them their jobs (It’s hard for me to imagine how humiliating it would be to have to argue with my boss about going to the bathroom).

So restroom equality hasn’t hurt a single cis woman, but it’s literally killing teenagers. At the moment 44 anti-trans bills are up for debate in states across the country, making 2016 the most politically hostle year for trans peiple in history.

One particularly regressive set of bills just introduced in Kansas makes it clear that transgender students are a threat:

Allowing students to use restrooms, locker rooms and showers that are reserved for students of a different sex will create potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury to students.

The bills, like others across the country, state that being male or female is determined at birth, based on chromosomes – effectively excluding trans people. The bills also impose a “bounty” on transgender students caught in the wrong restroom by allowing cis students to sue the institution operating the bathroom for up to $2,500.

THINK FOR A MOMENT about some of the rhetoric we’ve seen so far – bills assuming mere exposure to a transgender person will cause psychological harm; the description of trans women as “violent and predatory men.”

Imagine if politicians and members of the public were saturating social media, the news and daily conversation with this rhetoric – and they were talking about black people. Now imagine there was a wave of black people being murdered and beaten across the country. Well that actually happened, and it played a role in the creation of America’s hate crime laws, as well as its cultural prohibitions against bigoted language.

Now imagine the exact same thing is happening to some Americans now. Despite the small size of the trans community its members are victims of 17% of hate crimes befalling LGBTQ people; even worse, 50% of LGBTQ people killed in hate crimes are transgender. The majority of LGBTQ hate crime victims are trans people of color.

Think again about the ugliness of some of the TERF rhetoric and consider this: a recent landmark study by Project FORGE found an “anomaly” in which 29% of transgender sexual assault survivors were attacked by women, a shockingly high rate considering women are thought to be responsible for only about one percent of sexual assaults in the general community.

A few notes on this: The FORGE data says that women were involved in 29% of assaults, not that 29% of assailants were women – a key difference, as women were sometimes reported to be part of group attacks. And some recent studies put the sexual assault rate for women much higher. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to verify FORGE’s number as very few studies specifically break down assault rates by assailant gender (if there’s any reliable data on transgender people assaulting women, by the way, I haven’t seen it – please send it my way).

Still, if a significant number of women are attacking transgender people, shouldn’t that give TERFs pause before calling them “rapists”? Since a significant number of people are attacking transgender people, shouldn’t that give all of us pause?

IF YOU’RE STILL WITH ME I’m almost ready to draw some conclusions and put away a bit of my anger towards TERFs. I just want to quickly cover a few more dynamics in the TERF/ transgender dynamic. They’re subtle and draw heavily on both feminist theory and female experience, so it might seem obnoxious for a cis guy to write about them. I can only say I’m interested, because this stuff helps me understand what’s happening to the trans community as well as – corny as this might sound – the human experience.

Issue: Who Took My Body? Who Took My Everything?

Just read and see if you can make sense of this TERF logic:

However, when it comes to transgender males, men who wish to call themselves women – or more to the point want us to call them women – the story is very different. If we say no to the appropriation of our name, our bodies, our struggle, it is we women who are shamed. We’re being re-named: TERF, cis, transphobe. We’re being re-named by men who wish to try on the costume ‘woman’; they think it doesn’t fit us any more, us no-sayers are not the pliable girls of their dreams, and we must share.

“The appropriation of our name, our bodies, our struggle” – transgender people are body snatchers, apparently.

I can’t help but think of the debate over gay marriage – all those conservatives who shouted that if gay people could marry it would undermine their traditional families. There’s no logic to it – it’s the prioritization of abstract values over living, breathing humans. Is there any clear way to imagine transgender people making this woman less free?

Issue: They’re Taking Our Power

Hillary Clinton, to the surprise of many, has failed to capture the support of young women – and in that regard she might have something in common with TERFs.

Like Clinton, the leading TERFs tend to be older women who have been influential for years, if not decades. So the following observation about young voters, made by a Democratic pollster, might hold significance for feminists as well: Millenial women are “the most tolerant cohort we’ve ever had in our country, by far… Their change agenda is really around things like gay or transgender candidates.” Young women, it’s being suggested, are less interested in the traditional goals of feminism and more interested in equality for transgender people – could this be upsetting TERFs?

I also wonder whether transgender people are seen as a threat by some powerful feminist leaders. After all, if women become men they’re no longer women; to TERFs they’re longer part of the feminist movement. Perhaps TERF intolerance is partially due to a desire among older figures – Germaine Greene, Janice Raymond – to retain influence.

Issue: They’re Taking Our Women

Google “cotton ceiling” and you’ll get page after page of TERFs sharing their finest, angriest screeds. What is this horrible concept? The cotton ceiling is a term coined to describe “the experiences queer trans women have with simultaneous social inclusion and sexual exclusion within the broader queer women’s communities.”

In other words, some female transgender people (born with male equipment but female by gender) feel that lesbians (who they would theoretically date or hook up with) talk a good game socially but aren’t actually interested in romance. Fair enough, right?

But TERFs are terrified of the cotton ceiling.

“We must say yes to men,” one TERF writes of the demands she feels transgender people place on her [note: TERFs misgender transgender people and refer to transgender women as men]. “Lesbians say yes to men in your beds.” Their reaction is so extreme that when Planned Parenthood – that woman-hating organization – held a workshop on the cotton ceiling, a petition went out saying female transgender participants “will discuss and strategize ways to ‘overcome’ women’s objections to these participants sexual advances.” (What did participants really discuss?: “Would it really surprise you to know that what they talked about was body image and shame?”)

Now I feel uncomfortable going here, but many TERFs are lesbians. Is it possible they’re worried trans women are stealing eligible partners? It would help explain Greer’s strangely specific language about trans women’s anatomies (specifically that they don’t know what it’s like to be real women because they don’t have “big, hairy, smelly vaginas”: factually incorrect).

More than enough said on that.

Continue reading “A cis guy explains trans, women’s rights”