Trigger Warning: Trans*phobia, transmisogyny, cissexism, rape, assault, violence, harassment
On Sunday, October 27th, Cathy Brennan was a guest star on Roseanne Barr and Kathleen Wells’ talk show. This was of course in regards to Brennan’s stance on trans* rights, especially trans women. I decided to take a listen and see what this show was going to be all about, a “know thy enemy” type of deal. I do want to mention that this is my own personal review, feelings, and analysis of the show. I will try to go in chronological order of events as they happen in the show, with commentary woven throughout. I will mention some things out of order as they may tie into the current discussion. This is because Brennan’s thinking is very circular and repetitive due to her simplistic understanding of gender and trans* people.
The show is opened with Barr saying she was away for a meeting with a friend. This meeting was for a conspiracy theory involving the US government using mind control on its citizens as well as enslaving people as spies. Good way to open a show with a guest star who is obsessed with the conspiracy that trans women are forcing lesbians to have sex with them, among other ridiculous claims, but more on that later. I’ll be honest, I did not pay attention much to this section as it was of no interest to the reason I was listening to the show.
After they introduce Brennan, they talk about her history involving her activism with LGBT rights. She includes trans* people in this because at the time the “trans* community was very small” (this was early 2000s) and they were not pushing much for rights. She goes on about how she was active in even passing legislation for trans* non-discrimination policies. This was because she believes that gender and gender stereotypes are damaging and inherently oppressive. Brennan wants for the abolition of gender in its entirety since it is a system of oppression, specifically aimed at women (mainly cis women). Brennan mentions how damaging stereotypes are, yet is a person who holds trans women to gender and sexual stereotypes. Brennan believes that trans women uphold gender stereotypes by simply existing since according to her, all trans women embody female stereotypes and are hyper feminine beings.
This is a point she brings up again later on in the interview. Gender is what makes women subordinate and lesser than men. Gender is the problem. The problem is not biological essentialism that believes women’s bodies are vagina only and that women are naturally mothers, caretakers, weak, emotional, and frail. Gender is the problem, not the stereotypes that demand men be dominating over women and that women be subordinate and take it from men. Gender is the problem, not the rigid gender roles and binary system that dictates people fit into neat little categories. Gender is the problem, not the stereotypes associated with femininity and how it is inferior, artificial, and fake when compared to the much more natural masculinity. To Brennan, the problem does not lie with how society forces people to fit into boxes and binaries, but the entire gender spectrum and gender identity.
My major problem with this view is that it views gender as an entirely social construct and forces the idea that biological sex triumphs over all. This argument ignores the fact that biological sex is used to oppress and stereotype people, specifically women. It also ignores the much deeper fact that nothing is entirely a social construct nor is everything biological. Black and white thinking has always been damaging when it comes to movements since everything is not as simple as it seems. Gender is a biopsychosocial (biological/psychological/social) phenomenon that cannot be removed from all its parts. This means that gender cannot be simply boiled down to what is psychological, biological, and social/cultural since everything is blended together so finely. This type of simplistic thinking is damaging and inherently oppressive, thus, counterproductive. Biological essentialism and biological determinism go against the very fundamentals of feminism as well. They have no place in feminism which is meant to show that biology does not define a person.
Moving on, Brennan left activism to start a family and have her own personal life for about ten years. She came back into activism because a trans guy friend of hers asked her to help with the fact he was fired from his job for being trans*. This is Brennan’s token she uses several times throughout this interview. Not just this trans man, but all trans men. She uses them as tokens to show how she isn’t really trans*phobic. Her disassociation with trans* people began when they started causing drama inside the gay rights movement for their own rights (cause forbid trans* people find issues with pushing for cis, white, gay men rights only).
She accuses trans* people of tearing apart the queer community for pushing for gender identity and expression to be included in bills and laws. She emphasizes how gender identity is defined in a very broad way to include everyone, both cis and trans* people. I fail to see the problem here. No one should be fired for how they identify or present themselves, including cis people. Gender identity and expression non-discrimination laws are for cis and trans* people alike. However, this is something that is a running trend with Brennan, that trans* people actively attack other queer people for excluding them. Later on in the interview, Barr mentions how she does not understand how trans* people do not come together and make a major movement or push. She mentions this in the context of the splintering of the queer community due to trans* issues and disagreement.
This statement shows ignorance of the very trans*phobia and cissexism that runs rampant in the queer community, the very reason Cathy Brennan is on the show. Trans* people have splintered off from the mainstream queer movement for many reasons. Even among the queer rights movement, not everyone can agree. Many people are pushing for marriage equality while a large number do not agree with this cis, white, gay male orientated push. Other issues are more important, such as homeless youth, ENDA, and the like. Barr wishes for homogenous support and movement, which is neigh impossible, even among people who think similarly when it comes to the importance of certain issues. It also ignores the fact that the question of trans* people even being included in the queer movement is often brought up.
At one point, Brennan states that radical feminists and lesbians (since these two groups are clearly homogenous and she speaks for both) do not believe in discriminating against trans* people in housing, jobs, or anywhere of that nature. However, Brennan and ilk actively campaign for trans women to be removed from women’s homeless shelters, crisis centers, rape centers, or other gender segregated places. They believe that trans women do not belong in these places due to their trans* identity and history. Never do they complain about trans men in these places, or in men’s spaces.
This is a double standard that I want to address. Many people say radical feminists and TERFs are trans*phobic when in reality, most of their problem rests with trans women. These people are inherently transmisogynistic. Their problem does not encompass trans men. They believe that penises are inherently oppressive and that people need to be socialized as a gender in order to actually be that gender. They are biological essentialists while also calling for the abolition of stereotypes, patriarchy, and other institutions that rely on the very biological essentialism they believe in. Their concern resides in trans women and almost exclusively trans women. For example, Brennan and others like her believe that trans women bring oppressive energy into bathrooms, locker rooms, and other places that are labeled as women’s spaces. Brennan’s wording is that trans women and trans* activists target these specific places. She makes sure to use words such as targeting, harassing, attacking, and other aggressive loaded words to show how trans women are truly men. Her concern is for the women in these spaces and the possible harassment trans women bring through their existence in these spaces.
Her main concern is rape, she is extremely focused on this issue. She believes the existence of trans women rapes cis women. Her definition of rape is extremely broad. She sees trans women who have bottom surgery as raping women. The very presence of a trans woman in a women’s space is rape to Brennan. However, the rape of trans women and trans men is never seen as an issue. Brennan never discusses the possibility of rape for trans men who enter men’s bathrooms, locker rooms, and other spaces. Never does she address the possibility of trans women who are forced into these spaces by exclusionary practices. Never is the concern pushed towards trans women who face high levels of harassment, assault, rape, physical and emotional harm for being forced into men’s spaces due to these ‘protective’ ideas. Brennan and co.’s concern is with cis women only. They are worried about trans women and their presence in women’s only spaces when the very nature of excluding trans women perpetuates the very real rape of women who just happen to be trans*. Their exclusionary practices enable, enforce, and strengthen one of the very things they are trying to fight against. Never is her concern for trans men who willingly enter men’s spaces. They are never concerned with the inherent oppression that penises bring when a trans man enters men’s spaces. Nor are they concerned that trans men are tainted by these ‘oppressive energies’ and welcome them with open arms back into women’s spaces. Trans men are not scrutinized and are allowed to move between these spaces freely and without question while trans women are scrutinized, questioned, harassed, and doxxed. TERFs, radical feminists, and others like them, are not trans*phobic per say as much as they are transmisogynistic, cissexist, and biological essentialists.
Back onto the interview. Brennan asserts that sex discrimination laws are enough for protecting trans* people. While several cases have been successful on this front, not all have. This is also ignorant of the numbers of trans* people who face homelessness, unemployment, and other issues due to being visibly trans* or outed as being trans*. On the other hand, maybe Brennan knows entirely well the law is spotty when it comes to trans* people. She knows of the danger she puts trans* people in, more specifically trans women, when she outs them to their employers, schools, doctors, and other people. She knows of the association she makes when she lists them on sites along side of murders and rapists. It is quite possible Brennan does not want laws to extend to trans* people via gender identity and expression protections because as a lawyer, she knows in her heart that she would have no case and no protection for the harassment she perpetuates and enables on a daily basis.
“Don’t tell me lesbians are dissing transgender people”. According to Brennan, lesbians (like herself) never speak ill of trans* people, my bad, trans women, since as I said before, Brennan and other TERFs focus is also trans women exclusive. Brennan talks a lot about the “cotton ceiling” which is how trans women are apparently forcing lesbians to have sex with them and demanding that if they don’t, they are trans*phobic. I’m curious as to how this logic applies to lesbians who are not attracted to trans men. There is never a conversation about how trans men are forcing lesbians to have sex with them, i.e. men, only trans women. This plays into the earlier discussion about the belief that penises are inherently oppressive and to lesbians, quite disgusting. Brennan has mentioned before that lesbians who have sex with trans* and cis women are bisexual and not truly lesbians. This leads Brennan into talking about how trans* people are actually in charge of the LGBT/queer movement with their own agenda. Trans* people fighting for their right to survive have an agenda, but don’t you dare call the gay rights movement an agenda. This is the very reason the queer community is so split, especially along the lines of trans* and cis people. Trans* people are seen as a hindrance to the movement when asked to be included and not ignored. They are accused of having an agenda and having targets, while cis gay people are not.
Brennan refuses to adopt trans* terminology. She refuses to say cis, especially since her belief is that no lesbian is cis because of how lesbians inherently defy the gender system. Apparently there are no high femme lesbians, according to Brennan. No lesbian upholds female stereotypes since the biggest stereotype of them all is that women are only attracted to men (but, gender is the problem entirely, not stereotypes). This brings me to the next thing covered in the interview, the word “female”. According to Brennan, the existence of trans women has forced cis women to be boiled down to their anatomy (i.e. vaginas) and the distinction must be made between woman and female. The problem with using woman is that it includes all women, including trans women. Female, according to Brennan, is those who were assigned female according to how they were viewed at birth. Brennan has a clear problem with the belief that trans women are women. Barr asked her if she believed trans women were women and Brenan responded no so fast it would make her own head spin (as if it doesn’t already). However, she paused and gave this tidbit of information mentioned above. The only true women to Brennan are those with vaginas (however, they have to be in born vaginas).
However, if someone was karotyped and later found out to be chromosomally XY, they are not removed from women’s only spaces that Brennan is trying to protect. How would Brennan react to trans children then? These kids are socialized at the gender they identify with, many from a young age such as Coy Mathis and Jazz. Both of these children have been raised and socialized as the young women they are. Would they be treated the same way as an intersex person, accepted with open arms due to the sexism they have faced their whole lives? Or is the fact these children are trans* enough to trump their lived experiences as women? The same is true for adult trans women as well. These women experience sexism and misogyny, and other forms of discrimination, especially if they are visibly or openly trans* (like transmisogyny). However, their experiences with these oppressions are suddenly overridden due to their history.
This brings Brennan back to trans men and how she believes that they should have access to birth control, abortions, and other such facilities due to their organs (that they may or may not have). While a nice thought, this once again is proof of how Brennan is more transmisogynistic and cissexist than anything (like pure trans*phobia for all). Trans men should have access to women’s facilities and organizations, yet trans women should not. As previously mentioned, Brennan has actively fought against trans women being afforded the same access that she wishes to grant to trans men, despite trans men being men. This is based in the fact that Brennan sees trans men as actually women (or as female) and trans women as actually men (and as male).
At this point in the show, Wells and Barr take a call from someone from an outside source. This call is simply someone asking for Brennan’s definition of what she means by radical feminist. The call is not from a trans women refuting Brennan’s points. While Barr often critiques Brennan’s stances throughout the interview, they almost always have her support for Brennan. Barr also has a history of trans*phobia, cissexism, and transmisogyny through her most recent tirade on twitter. All of Barr’s critiques were followed by, “I don’t agree, but I respect you. I support some of your statements, but not all”, and so on. Barr never flatly disagreed with Brennan and stuck by her stance.
At the end of the show though, Barr calls out Brennan for policing the relationships of lesbians. Brennan has mentioned the “cotton ceiling” several times at this point and how trans women are forcing lesbians to have sex with them. Barr brings up how Brennan cannot yank down the pants of all those who are sleeping with each other and test their legitimacy of their lesbian identities. Of course, never is the problem lesbians sleeping with trans men, only lesbians who sleep with trans women. This point shows, once again, how Brennan views trans* people. Trans men are actually women and trans women are actually men. She never policies the relationships of lesbians who sleep with me (albeit trans men) or of those who use strap-ons. Her only issue is with trans women. Barr mentions how many of the problems that lesbians and even straight women face deal with the policing of female sexuality. Brennan defends her points by saying she just wants to protect women from having to deal with trans women in women’s spaces. She is just trying to protect women. However, Brennan is only protecting cis women, and trans men, and how she wants to protect women’s boundaries. These boundaries, however, are defined by Brennan only and not other women since Brennan’s word trumps all.
I must commend Brennan for being so well-spoken. However, her words are used to be intentionally vague and to seem appealing. Her words are meant to be used as temptation and allure in order to make people think she is a reasonable person. She is a lawyer who knows her public image is most important, especially since her enemy is trans women who are trampled on by society, day in and day out. She uses her position of power to harass and to harm. While well-spoken, her words are hidden blades that are used to dissemble and demolish the very core fundamentals of feminism; equality for all women and all people, regardless of gender identity, gender expression, and birth status.
3 thoughts on “A Review of Transmisogyny Embodied: Cathy Brennan”
There’s plenty to disagree with the mainstream gay movement’s centralizing of the marriage issue, but to call it gay male orientated ignores the many lesbians in the movement and the fact that the majority of married same-sex couples are female. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/26/how-many-same-sex-marriages-in-the-u-s-at-least-71165-probably-more/
The mainstream gay rights movement is headed by white, cis, gay men. It is often criticized for being focused mostly on the white cis, gay male ideas. Just because lesbians make up for the majority of those married, does not mean they make up the majority of those in charge, power, the forefront, etc. I’m not saying there are no lesbians in the movement, far from it, I am saying the movement is dominated and headed by white, gay, cis men and their ideas and ideals.