Audio of the Interview is here.
Michelle Meow: It’s Swirl Radio, your A through Z covering the LGBTLMNOP and everyone in between show. I’m Michelle Meow, your host.
Our next guest is a supporter of trans-critical radical feminism. What does that mean? Well, let’s have her tell us. Let’s welcome Cathy Brennan to Swirl. Cathy, welcome to Swirl.
Cathy Brennan: Thank you for having me.
MM: So, trans-critical radical feminism: what exactly is that?
CB: So, trans-critical radical feminism is a bit of a misdirect, it’s actually just radical feminism. And radical feminism is a political theory or framework for understanding how women are oppressed in society. So one of the ways that women are oppressed in society is through gender, and of course your listeners will know as gender non-conforming people, we buck stereotypes all the time of what a man is supposed to be and what a woman is supposed to be. And the fact that we have to buck those stereotypes is because of gender. Because there’s this idea out there that there are certain ways of being if you’re a girl or a boy. The trans-critical part of it comes from the fact that transgender activists have been very effective over the last 20 years in pushing their viewpoint and saying that in fact you know, transgender is something separate from gender. So those of us who are radical feminists or come from a radical feminist perspective, we’re all skeptical of that, so we critique it and talk about that because you know, you can’t have transgender without gender, and that’s where the trans-critical aspect comes from.
MM: You’re very famous for a letter that you co-authored to the United Nations that basically says, you know, gender identity should not be legally recognised and protected. Can you talk about that letter?
CB: Yeah, and that’s actually not at all what it says so thank you for asking me. I’ll tell you, that letter is probably the most widely read letter that’s never actually been read, it’s only been discussed. The point of that letter was to highlight the fact that the current legislation to ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation that’s pushed by the National Gay Alliance and Lesbian Task Force and other organisations has a very nebulous definition of gender identity. Essentially ,what these bills do and I mean California has this, San Francisco has a local bill, I live in Baltimore county in Maryland and we have a local bill, all of these bills have a variation of the following: gender identity means a gender related identity regardless of your sex at birth, so you see that definition, you’re like, well what does that mean? Gender identity means a gender related identity. I could also say a circle means it’s circular. It doesn’t say anything and it’s not reference to an objective fact. This is a problem, because if you’re going to have such a vague category anyone can claim it. So anyone could assert ‘my gender identity says I identify this way, I identify that way, and therefore you have to accommodate me’. If you read the letter, which I encourage folks to do, we put forth a definition of gender identity that is objective and protects transgender people who are under the care of a doctor to transition. But the definition that we put forth says nothing about surgery it simply says you are seeking medical treatment. And, I don’t know about you, but all the transgender people I know need medical intervention in order to transition. So, they need to take hormones, at the very least. So I really have to say I’m always baffled and confused when I’m accused of being Adolf Hitler for putting forth this idea.
MM: Yeah. That was my next question; in the LGBTQ activist community they do not like you! And, in fact, they call you ‘transphobic’, and is that true, are you transphobic?
CB: This, to me, speaks more to the fact that the GLBT community as a whole has gone down a path that I quite frankly don’t support. They’ve gone down a path of identifying anyone with views that don’t fall in line with them as being hateful, bigoted, harmful. And I think that’s dangerous, and here’s why: you have to have radical thought in order to push conversations along. And just because something makes you feel bad and hurts your feelings doesn’t make it hateful and it doesn’t make it bigoted. Now, upon further analysis, it may in fact turn out to be hateful and bigoted, but there is this knee-jerk reaction and as a gay activist, I was a gay activist for many, many years before finally I have disavowed the gay community. They have no, there is no thoughtfulness or nuance to anything they do, it’s very like ‘you’re with us or you’re against us’. But you know, I was also very well trained in ‘this is how you do the activism’. You’re a bigot, you know, if you think homosexuality is a sin you’re a bigot. Now, I personally, I’m a homosexual. I don’t think homosexuality’s a sin. Do I think all religious people who worship in churches that preach that homosexuality is a sin, do I think they’re bigots? No. I don’t. I think they’re religious. You know?
MM: Yeah, well there are a few that.. it’s a fine line.
CB: Yeah, and there are certainly some folks who are bigoted like, so for example Fred Phelps who is another a**hole that I’m regularly compared to, he’s a clear bigot and a lunatic. But do I think that the average person who goes to church and is living their life is a bigot? No, probably not. They have their opinions, but the GLBT movement has made it impossible to have a divergent opinion. And no other issue has this been more, this idea of ‘you’re with us or against us’ has been realised, is the trans issue. I had specifically exited gay politics in 2002 when we passed the state-wide sexual orientation bill in Maryland because of this trans issue. Because people get so upset if you question the idea that saying ‘I’m a woman’ makes you a woman. Yet as a lesbian, that’s a very important question, because I’m a homosexual. I desire relationships with other women and I define women as female. And there’s been a huge shift over the last 10 years, it used to be that transwomen I know and transwomen who transitioned early, like in the 90s, they don’t think they’re female. They know that they’re male and they live as women. And they’re extremely respectful and most of them were socialised in the gay community so we have kind of like a commonality of like ‘hey we’re all queer, whatever’. Now, there are trans advocates who actually believe that they’re female and that was a stunning realisation for me.
MM: Obviously, you do not take transwomen as women.
CB: I used to. This is the funny kicker thing. When I re-entered the trans politics arena I helped try to pass a bill in Maryland to ban discrimination in employment and housing. Because, you know, I don’t think that transpeople should be fired from jobs, I don’t think they should be evicted from housing, I think they should have the right to live in society as any other person. The place where this comes up is in the issue of public accommodation. In Maryland we had tried to pass a bill in 2011 that didn’t have public accommodation. And that was a bill I supported and that was a bill many trans-activists opposed because they were like how can you not pass the bill that didn’t have public accommodation. The reason they introduced that obviously is that the legislature here was cowardly and they wanted to duck the issue, the hard issue, of what do you do in sex-segregated spaces? Many transwomen have no desire or plans to transition. Which means that they enter sex-segregated space and they have a penis. And they have done a very good job of convincing people in the GLBT community and the liberal community as a whole that women are bigots for not wanting to be in a sex-segregated space with someone with a penis. I frankly don’t think that women are bigots for that. I think women have every right to not want to be in a space with a penis if they expect to be in a penis-free space.
MM: Well, like I said, it’s an inclusive space here on Swirl so, you know, I can also see that.
Michelle Meow with Swirl, we’re speaking with radical feminist attorney Cathy Brennan and we’re talking about transgender community, transwomen. Your last statement is a great segue for us to discuss AB 1266 the new law that Governor Jerry Brown has signed into place for transgender students to access the bathroom that they best identify with, and so with this new law the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative organisation, now you’re back in the media with the Pacific Justice Institute and this story that they had talked about with a student in Colorado, a transgender student, female, was supposedly harassing girls in the bathroom. Now, how do you feel about AB 1266?
CB: I am of two minds of it. The problem with the legislation is once again it has that over-broad definition of gender identity. Everything comes back to that language. If advocates would fix that language I would never talk about this ever again. I think that people really need to critically look at that and need to decide if they actually believe that there is this innate gender identity that all people have and that it may correspond with your genitals or not. I think that’s a silly idea. I can’t think of a single characteristic besides like, reproductive function that goes along with the fact that I was born with a vagina. My vagina certainly doesn’t make me more sensitive. I mean, if you Google my name you will find out I’m an aggressive ***hole. So I don’t understand why folks don’t stop and say ‘hey, what are we doing?’. They are so caught up in this idea of Equality! Equality! That they have checked their brains. They’ve just checked them and put them away. And any deeper inquiry is greeted with this ‘you’re a bigot’ ‘you’re a transphobe’ blah blah blah blah blah…. So, that’s the problem I have with that legislation. The impact of the legislation with regards to the bathrooms, that’s something that is always brought up by right-wing organisations because they’re homophobic. You know, they’re playing up the you know, the pervert in the bathroom meme. The other side of that however is once again, I do believe that women have every right, and girls have every right, to have space that is for girls and for women. So these are important policy questions that I think shouldn’t be left to advocacy groups that shame everyone for objecting. So, if I lived in California would I sign that petition? No. I wouldn’t sign it. Would I vote against it? Probably. Yeah, I probably would, because I think the way that it’s drafted is poor public policy.
MM: So how do we protect transgender children? Because you know, obviously the bathroom situation as you said is a sensitive topic, right-wing organisations bring it up all the time. But they do need to go to, you know, they need to be treated equally…
CB: Absolutely. So I fully support efforts to protect all kids. That includes the transgender child, but that also includes all the other girls. It’s always left out of the conversation, that the accommodation to the transgender girl means that all the girls have to now have the person with a penis in their space. No one ever goes to those girls and says ‘hey, do you have a problem with that?’ Like, it’s never a consideration and I find that stunning and offensive. That said, I think this is the kind of issue that can be dealt with in ways that are humane for everyone involved. And I certainly don’t think that the transgender girl needs to be and should be in the boys room. But I also don’t think that it’s fair to demand that girls accommodate the transgender girl. So, do I have the answer to this? Gender neutral bathrooms. I’m all in favour of them, I think that’s a great idea. I think it should be an option. But there..
MM: Actually me myself, as a butch lesbian I think that gender neutral bathrooms are great. Every time I find one I’m always so excited.
CB: Well I’m with you, like, you know I am read as butch all the time. I get, you know ‘sir’-ed in the bathroom all the time by women and then I’m like ‘I’m a woman, it’s cool’. But I also think when women do that, I don’t have a problem with women checking me, like I know why they’re doing it and you know, I respect that. The one thing I did want to say about AB 1266 is that the original legislation was drafted to create equality and opportunity for girls, so I do think it’s kind of ironic and a little bit messed up that that’s the piece of, you know, the law that they amended to basically undo, because it’s not only the facilities, but it’s also like, the girls sports team, you know. And I do think there needs to be more careful thought to that because I don’t think it’s fair to allow, like say for example you have the Fallon Fox situation, I don’t think that’s fair at all, I think it’s ridiculous.
MM: Fallon Fox being the MMA fighter, the transgender MMA fighter who’s fighting, you know, who’s female, yeah.
CB: Yeah, so there are implications beyond the bathroom that no one ever thinks about because everyone, you know, on the right you have the pervert meme, in the gay community you have your bigot, like, there’s no room for an adult to be like ‘hey guys, can we just figure this out? Like you both should shut up’. That’s how I feel about both of them.
MM: Last question for you. You know, for years, I mean especially since LGBT equality movement has erupted, you know we’ve really been grouped as L-G-B-T, it makes it seem like we’re one big happy family. How do you feel about that? Do you think we should just be separated and each community has their own?
CB: I think that’s a really great question, and I don’t think it’s an all or nothing. I think there’s obviously great political power to be had in uniting as an umbrella community but I also think for lesbians in particular there’s incredible value in organising not only as lesbians but just organising with women, because often the interests of lesbians because we’re women are different than the interests of gay men or transgender women who are both biologically male. And we might have different perspectives and so, for example, one of the fallouts from the transgender inclusion movement has been to demonise women who want to have women-only space. This is what’s happened at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which is an amazing event that Lisa Vogel has put on for many, many years, tirelessly. She’s done remarkable work to highlight women artists, she’s been branded as a bigot and a hater for preserving the policy of this festival, and the intention of this festival as for women, defined as female only. I find that offensive. Deeply, deeply offensive. In an era where violence against transwomen is perpetrated predominantly by men, the focus – the hyper-focus – seems to be on getting into women-only spaces and to getting all of us to back the idea that gender is innate. I don’t understand it, I reject it, I think it’s offensive, and I’m happy to fight against it.