My approach to Cathy Brennan has long mirrored my approach to Ann Coulter; I generally refuse to dignify their deliberate attempts to cruelly incite. Rising to meet their hate, which is deliberately designed to provoke outrage, feels like a vindication of their strategy; what they desire most is attention, and giving it to them hardly feels like a victory for those on the side of the angels. However, after seeing a relatively sympathetic article about Brennan in the online magazine Bustle– which apparently misgenders a trans woman and which some of my friends have fairly derided as a “puff piece”– I felt there are some matters which merit clarification.
During the interview she clearly set aside the instruments of her usual rhetoric and put on her most reasonable mien. Unsurprisingly, nothing she says justifies her behaviour, and much of what she does say is premised on assumptions that have no basis in our shared reality as women.
It is that latter point that Brennan struggles with and the primary reason that reconciliation between those like her and the rest of the feminist movement is likely impossible; she simply refuses to believe that trans women are women, and structures everything she believes around that misapprehension. This keystone holds up everything she and her fellow travellers believe about trans politics. I have no illusions about convincing Brennan, but for the sake of anyone who might have been persuaded that Brennan’s contribution to this debate arises from something other than a particularly heartless form of prejudice I would submit the following in response to some of her points in this interview.
Notes on an Avant-Garde Definition of “Conservative”
First and foremost is this particular argument which lies at the heart of much “feminist” transphobia:
“The laws also codify the idea of innate gender identity, Brennan said. In pushing the idea that whatever gender a person identifies as overrides their biological sex, it “enshrines into law the idea that gender is innate.” This is an essentially conservative idea, and “it’s not advancing the cause of women’s liberation, which is what I’m interested in as a feminist. This ideology — I understand that it’s rooted in equality, but it has the effect of marginalizing women.””
This is breathtaking. It is especially gobsmacking for a feminist to argue something so painfully opposed to most feminist understandings of patriarchy and biological essentialism.
Let us be clear about what is being argued here: Brennan’s suggestion is that if one is assigned a sex at birth, forcibly, by doctors and parents on the basis of nothing more than a cursory glance at a biological fact, and then one is forcibly raised to live up to that role, backed by the full faith and violent credit of patriarchy, it is essentially conservative to then reach a point of consciousness that says “no, I am not a prisoner of my birth biology,” and identify differently from a gender that everyone around you says is “innate,” “biological,” “ordained by God,” et cetera. This courageous act is what she deems conservative, not the chorus of voices in patriarchal institutions that have long tried to pathologise and marginalise us for our asseverations of self.
Indeed, this is what transphobic feminism never seems to grapple with: how do they theorise patriarchy’s long, abiding legacy of discrimination against trans people? How do they reconcile their assertions with the fact that trans women are victims of the same types of harassment, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, street violence, exploitation, and objectification that cisgender women are? How is it that after being condemned by conservative, patriarchal religion, (lest we forget, the erstwhile Pope Benedict once likened us to climate change), the patriarchal nuclear family, and patriarchy on the street, does one come to the conclusion that what trans women are is “essentially conservative”?
Far from being “innate,” most trans people argue that gender is the very opposite, with our lives and our numbers as empirical proof of the same. Whether one likes it or not, we defied our assigned sex at birth, and we exist. Rather insistently, at that. It is certainly true that some trans people redound to reductive arguments about innate brain sex or genetics, but I and many others have argued that this should not be the basis for our claims to rights and justice.
We should not be held hostage to what some of us say when trying to win some measure of reprieve from a violent system: sometimes mouthing the words “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” or “I have a woman’s brain in a man’s body” is what one needs to access healthcare, a place to live, or the support of parents who would otherwise turn you out of your home. When every other door is slammed in your face, what would you do? We as feminists have ample analysis to understand this; why is that analysis always shut off when trans women enter the frame, and why do a minority of cisgender feminists suddenly and naively take what they see at face value, in a manner redolent of the crypto-misogynist who says that women make less money because we choose to spend more time with our children?
I must confess, I have never been able to follow the logic of those who argue that trans people are inherently conservative or biologically essentialist in our essence. Consider Brennan who argues:
“Our whole lives we are raised very much aware of our vulnerability as women, so I don’t understand why when a man says he’s a woman, all of a sudden the penis is no longer (an issue) … Men rape women and girls in bathrooms all the time, so it’s not like women’s concerns about that aren’t reasonable. And these laws are broadly enough written to justify the entry of anyone into a (women-only) space.
If they’re excluding you because you’re male, well, I’m sorry, but you are male. Deal with your reality. We didn’t create that reality, that reality exists.”
In other words, if you have a penis at birth and it leads to you being assigned “M,” then there is no way to escape that; you are a man for life, irrespective of any number of possible social interventions, with one’s penis being the all determining truth of the matter. (The reverse being true for those assigned “F,” presumably). Is this the grand argument against biological essentialism? How is this view, that one’s physiology at birth is the all determining truth, the full “reality” of one’s gender, not what is inherently conservative?
Our Lives, Our Truth, Our Womanhood
What is “reality” is the brutality of patriarchy for many women—for when it comes to that fist in women’s faces, patriarchy makes no distinction between cis and trans women. The other key fact ignored by Brennan in the foregoing is that trans women are raped too.
Theoretical debates about trans women prevail in some spaces, but the reality of our existence prevails in the real world of the street, the late night bus, the dark alley, the bedroom. No amount of Brennan’s averring that we are men would have spared CeCe MacDonald, Islan Nettles, Erycka Morgan, and countless other women who have suffered or died at the hands of men. It does not spare trans women of colour from being stopped and frisked by police officers who use condoms as “evidence” of prostitution. It does not spare those same trans women from being raped by cisgender men in holding cells and prisons. It does not spare trans women from being murdered by boyfriends who demonstrate the same entitlement they would over the life and body of a cisgender woman—taking it to an especially vicious extreme because transgender women are, in too many cases, even more disposable. It does not spare us from being the target of internet harassment campaigns designed to silence women—much of my own work has centered around this, and the recent hate campaigns directed at Carloyn Petit and Laura Kate Dale remind us that feminist trans women incur just as much hate for speaking out as cisgender feminists do. I myself was run off of moderating a community forum because of stalking, misogynist threats, and the odd rape threat.
Patriarchy makes no mistakes about us, even if our individual tormentors may deride us as “men” or fixate luridly upon our anatomy by calling us “chicks with dicks” (merely repeating the objectifying gestures extended to all women), they will unequivocally treat us as women.
Thus, asking us to use men’s accommodations is the equivalent of saying that it is acceptable for us to go somewhere we’ll be beaten up, sexually harassed, and possibly raped. Whatever inconvenience this poses to Brennan’s ideology, trans women are not treated as men by patriarchy.
That reality exists.
It is, in a sense, degrading that I must even write this– an article that lays bare scars, bruises, bodies, and wounded hearts– is this lurid pornography of the spirit what it takes for someone like this to accept, however grudgingly, that in spite of her hailstorm of arrows we are inexorably sisters in this struggle? Why must I even be placed in the position of proving our womanhood by proving that patriarchy has hurt us through delineating how it has? It is beyond lamentable that this has become necessary.
Finally, a brief word must spared for Brennan’s suggestion that her lawsuits and stalking are reserved only for those who go out of their way to harass her. As her recent suit against Jacobin magazine makes abundantly clear, Ms. Brennan will use legal instruments to attack anyone who merely disagrees with her. Jacobin’s crime was to publish a critical article by transfeminist Samantha Leigh Allen which picked apart the fundamentals of Brennan’s beliefs as I have done here. Like me, she did not attack Brennan but criticised her ideas and, yes, labelled them “transphobic.” This, apparently, counts as slander.
Meanwhile, a cis friend of my partner and myself is being hauled to court for mildly criticising Brennan on Twitter. Another friend, whose work centres around bringing gender equity to the internet, has been attacked by Brennan and her allies for being a trans woman.
Furthermore, as I write this, radical feminist journalist Laurie Penny has had to put an article about Brennan’s politics on ice because of a possible lawsuit, after a day of enduring her attempts to get her fired.
This is scary and intimidating. Brennan is now sending threatening emails to my employers. I could do with some support here.—
Laurie Penny (@PennyRed) October 20, 2013
The legal threats I received from Brennan over the piece I hadn't yet written mean I can't now write it. And that is how silencing works.—
Laurie Penny (@PennyRed) October 21, 2013
I want to make myself absolutely, unequivocally clear: no one, whether trans or cis, woman or allied with women, should harass those whose transphobically harass us. There is no place for threats or hateful words directed at Brennan or any of her fellow travellers. I do not condone such behaviour. We accomplish nothing by merely summoning more cruelty and indignity into the world, whatever power differences may prevail amongst the participants.
But I am speaking up now against Ms. Brennan’s ideas because her work seems to chiefly consist in stopping other feminists from doing theirs. She is harassing our community and trying her hardest to silence women—every person in my professional circle that has faced some sort of action from Brennan is a woman, whether cis or trans, and we can now add one of our most prominent young feminist writers to that list, apparently. Every single one of these people, myself included, has important feminist projects that we are working on and constitute our life’s work—any criticism of Brennan is incidental. But it would appear that she makes it her full time job to harass us and anyone who might speak on our behalf against her, which invariably means that most of her work involves attacking and silencing women and girls, most of whom are feminists.
The culture of fear thus created where nearly everyone I know who puts pen to paper is afraid of even mentioning Brennan’s name is anathema to any ethical democratic discourse, and given the disproportionate silencing of women at work here it is a culture that is misogynist in its dimensions. This is not debate, this is not evenhanded or balanced; this is a brutal campaign that is making the life of people I love harder, and is, in some cases, putting trans people in serious danger.
How else could I describe her very public and (in the true sense of this word) slanderous campaign against an innocent trans girl being led by the right wing “Pacific Justice Institute”? Without a shred of evidence, she is attempting to gin up a national campaign to harass and exclude a young girl, going so far as outing her, for no reason other than her gender and the fact that Brennan does not approve of every place she exists as that gender. For her to ally with powerful, monied forces in the harassment of a child, is without excuse and it is persecution.
That is reality. And this must stop. As feminists we have enough to deal with without constantly dodging this decidedly unfriendly fire, especially when it targets our young.